Review: Darryl Pinckney’s memoir “Come Back in September”

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On the bookshelf

Come Back in September: A Literary Education on West Sixty-Seventh Street, Manhattan

By Darryl Pinckney
FSG: 432 pages, $32

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When I was young and still working in book publishing, a rare and generous boss noticed me. “If you want to write,” he said, “you must read Elizabeth Hardwick. “Seduction and betrayal”. After work, I went straight to my local bookstore and picked up a copy of these iconic books. critical essays on women artists, with an introduction by Jeanne Didion.

I was 24 years old; I was living in New York. I went to parties and Joan Didion was upright the; I answered the phone and it was Bill Styron call. I read more than I have ever read in my life. It was more than an education; That was it.

The writer Darryl Pinckney first knew Hardwick in her creative writing class at Barnard in the early 1970s. He applied late but impressed her by being “a black man from Columbia [University] Across the Street” who could “tork out some poems from Sylvia Plath’s middle period when she asked me what I was reading”. Soon after, Pinckney made his way to Hardwick’s apartment, where he continued his studies by listening to his book recommendations and incredible lines.

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Reproduced in Pinckney’s New Memoirs, “Come back in September: A Literary Education on West Sixty-Seventh Street, Manhattan,” these insights, which belong to a literary hall of fame of sorts, include:

“My first drafts always read like they were written by a chicken.”
“Sex is comic and love is tragic. Queers know that.
When asked at a conference who her favorite American novelist was, she replied “Henry James” and no one laughed.
“Robert Lowell never married a bad writer.”

Hardwick was never a mysterious figure to the people of the book, but the uninitiated might not know that she was married to Lowell, the notoriously troubled 20th century poet. Thanks to Review of New York Classic Books series, “Seduction and Betrayal” and his novel “Sleepless Nights” – considered by many to be his masterpiece – remained in print.

In 2019, writer Saskia Hamilton published “The Dolphin Letters,” which chronicles the pain Lowell inflicted when he used Hardwick’s letters about the breakdown of their marriage in his “The Dolphin” collection. And last November, Cathy Curtis published a new biography of Hardwick, “A Splendid Intelligence.” Interest in his personal life persists through Pinckney’s book, although he is determined to show Hardwick the writer and the genius. As she herself told Pinckney, “Elizabeth Lowell never wrote anything.”

black and white photo of a handsome man

Darryl Pinckney pictured at the Pomander Walk apartment complex in New York City.

(via Dominique Nabokov)

Like James Boswell”Johnson’s life,” Pinckney’s portrayal is exhaustive and exhausting. Even the most passionate book junkies on all sorts of subjects – the New York Review of Books; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Susan Sontag; Barbara Epstein; gay life in New York in the 70s and 80s; the delights and burns of the relationship between mentor and mentee – will be worn away by the detail and display of Pinckney’s memories.

That’s not to say there’s no fun – only that there’s too much of it, and an editor might have done better to guard against the literary hangover feeling. As Pinckney wrote one morning: “Daybreak. Mercer Street was refreshing. I felt nothing in my legs and was unable to hear.

Pinckney is a sly writer, with the impressionistic brush of a poet but the dedication of a historian. There are also his own stand-ins. It is a memoir of his own life, his development as a writer, and coming of age as a black, gay man.

His friendship with Hardwick is troubling to some, including black writer Sterling A. Brown, who told him, “Man, you’re so influenced by these white intellectuals. You have to get away from them and be with n—. At the ballet with Hardwick, Pinckney overhears an editor wondering what she’s doing on a date with a young black man. He thinks it’s funny and tells the story to Hardwick. She is outraged and vows to “make threatening phone calls to the editor in question”.

black and white photo of an older woman looking down and resting her cheek on her fist

Hardwick was a legendary writer and editor. For Pinckney, she was a source of recommendations, guidelines, advice and wisdom.

(© Estate of Evelyn Hofer)

Their friendship also disappoints Pinckney’s parents, who would have preferred to see him under the wing of James Baldwin Where Ralph Ellison. But part of Hardwick’s appeal is that she’s not like him. In the magnificent memoirs of Mathieu Lindon on his friendship with Michel Foucault, “Learning what love is,” he wrote, “I loved the fact that my father was my father, as well as the fact that Michel was not.” With Hardwick, Pinckney is not a black son, he is a young reader.

It is also a tension between them. “You think every white woman is me,” she told him. “No, it wasn’t that,” Pinckney writes. “I was pretty sure there was no other writer like her.”

Much of this book is about the pain and hard work of writing, but also about the pleasure of reading and being read, and recognizing that flickering web between reader and author. After a performance of Benjamin Britten’s opera “Billy Boudd“, Pinckney feels like calling Hardwick, but it’s too late at night. “I wanted to tell someone that ‘Billy Budd’ was the saddest thing I’ve ever read.

A black man wearing a white shirt and floral tie

Pinckney’s memoir also chronicles the great literary institutions and gay nightlife of late 20th century New York City.

(Dominique Nabokov)

Hardwick died in 2007 at the age of 91. Pinckney may not be able to call her after the opera again, but she’s alive and well — more than fine, really, she’s absolutely on fire — in these pages. “That’s the problem with writing books,” she told Pinckney; “You have become a subject.” It says so much about Hardwick’s brilliance that even after reading almost 500 pages about her, I wanted more. I walked to my library and picked up the same copy of “Seduction and Betrayal” and turned to his essay on Plath.

“She has the rarity of never being, in her work at least, a ‘nice person,'” Harwick writes. “There is nothing of the mystical and schizophrenic vagueness in her. No loss of dreamy connection, no manic slackness, impatience and poetic lack of judgment. Instead, she’s all strength, ego, drive, stamina — and yet somehow wildly focused, bewildered.

This is what Hardwick learns from Plath, even as she hones her unrivaled talent for criticism. And that’s what Pinckney learns from Hardwick, an education that transcends the classroom, the opera house, the Upper West Side apartment. Pinckney wants to praise Hardwick’s editing skills when he tells her she’s like “the Nadia Baker of American literature. “Oh. That’s so scolded,” Hardwick shudders. All the air is sucked out of the room. “I’m not a teacher,” Hardwick spits, “I’m a writer.” become teachers for all of us, whether they like it or not.

Ferri’s most recent book is “Silent Cities: New York.”

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