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Darryl Pinckney’s new book is a dishy tale of literary Manhattan

In ‘Come Back in September’ Pinckney shares anecdotes about his mentor Elizabeth Hardwick and their circle of friends in the ’70s and ’80s

Darryl Pinckney with Susan Sontag in Berlin in 1990. From “Come Back in September.” (Annie Leibovitz)

Francis Bacon famously said that “some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” He’ll get no argument from me, but the great philosopher and essayist did leave out a fourth category: Some books we simply gobble up, unable to stop reading.

Normally, these are novels — particularly fast-moving fiction, thrillers and mysteries — but not always. Witness “Come Back in September,” by Darryl Pinckney, subtitled “A Literary Education on West Sixty-Seventh Street, Manhattan.” That address belonged to the brilliant Elizabeth Hardwick — she is pictured on the book’s cover — who, back in the 1970s, guided the 20-something Pinckney through the upper echelons of Manhattan literary and intellectual life. This memoir of that apprenticeship — by one of our most distinguished writers on African American culture, literature and history — provides a “you are there” account of those thrilling years.

Born in 1916, Hardwick fled Lexington, Ky., for New York, where she contributed essays to the almost legendary Partisan Review, wrote novels, stories and criticism, and for 20 years was married to the poet Robert Lowell. When Pinckney enrolled in Hardwick’s writing class at Barnard, she was recently divorced from Lowell but still very much a contributor to the magazine they had both helped found, the New York Review of Books.

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Because Pinckney, now in his late 60s, kept detailed journals in his younger days, he has been able to re-create conversations with “Lizzie,” as she was known to intimates, while also providing incisive vignettes of the Review’s co-editors, Robert B. Silvers and Barbara Epstein, as well as anecdotes about the era’s superstar critic, Susan Sontag. Smaller but scene-stealing walk-on parts go to woman of letters Mary McCarthy, philosopher Hannah Arendt, journalist Murray Kempton, poets June Jordan and Sterling Brown, composer Virgil Thomson, and novelists James Baldwin and Norman Mailer.

At first, the structure of “Come Back in September” may seem a bit confusing. Like James Joyce, Pinckney introduces speech with a dash instead of using quotation marks. He also employs brackets to set off his present-day comments or relevant observations by his longtime partner, the English poet James Fenton (also a NYRB regular). Moreover, even though this is largely a joyful book, Pinckney faithfully notes, in a touching gesture of memorialization, the many friends from the 1970s who died of AIDS.

After all, Hardwick’s mentee wasn’t just hanging out on West 67th Street. He was also clubbing, drinking in downtown and uptown bars, listening to the B-52s and other cutting-edge bands, taking drugs, and living the whirlwind, adrenalin-charged life of the artistic young. His closest friend was the essayist Lucy Sante (in those days Luc Sante), and their cenacle included a moody painter called Samo, better known today as Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Pinckney was working in a secondhand bookstore to pay the bills and devouring Colette’s “The Pure and the Impure,” everything he could find about Bloomsbury, the diaries of the ultra-cosmopolitan Count Kessler, Melville’s “Billy Budd” (“the saddest thing I’d ever read”), Rimbaud’s poetry, the novels of Henry James and the work of numerous Black writers. Everywhere he went, Pinckney recalls, “I carried books, emblems of my guild.”

For a long while, he hid his homosexuality from his parents, pillars of the Indiana chapter of the NAACP. Admirable and successful, they expected much from their bookish son. Once, it looked as if Pinckney might not complete his BA, which led his mother to remonstrate that he would then be “the first person in the family since slavery not to have a college degree.”

Following the unexpected heart attack that killed Robert Lowell at age 60 in 1977, Hardwick was plunged into shock and grief. By then, she had more or less forgiven Lowell for the hurt caused by his use of her private letters in the poems of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Dolphin.” It even looked as if the couple might reunite, but instead Pinckney was enlisted for the sad task of cataloguing and organizing the late poet’s files and papers.

Even before that, though, he had begun writing essay-reviews about Black subjects for the Review. Thinking back, he almost shudders at the intensity of Silvers’s textual editing: “He was so thoroughly prepared when he talked to you, that he seemed to know as much about your subject as you did.” Still, Pinckney found reassurance when told that “Susan Sontag freaked out at the sight of her marked-up manuscripts.” While Sontag’s ideas were always brilliant, “she just had no ear, Elizabeth said.” And getting sentences right deeply mattered to Hardwick: “It’s immoral to be indifferent to what you put on the page.”

An intimate look at the scandal that tore apart a literary power couple

Certainly, no reader will be indifferent to the gossipy stories in “Come Back in September.” Once, the critic George Steiner and the pianist Charles Rosen, who was also a scholar of art, music history and literature, both wrote pieces about the German-Jewish literary theorist Walter Benjamin. “Steiner sat annoyed throughout a dinner because Rosen was not acknowledging his recent essay on Benjamin. At the end of the dinner, he called him on it. Rosen said he hadn’t mentioned it because it was terrible.”

Hardwick gleefully comments, “I am joyfully in awe of Charles Rosen.”

Another time, Pinckney recalls that “the actor Suzanne Fletcher told me that when she studied literature at Reid Hall” — Columbia’s summer school in Paris — “her tutorial with Helene Cixous consisted of the two of them silently weeping in her office for an hour every week.” At a dinner honoring Alice B. Toklas, the writer Katherine Anne Porter whispered to Hardwick: “Honey, if I looked like that, I’d kill myself.” Silvers and Epstein often behaved like a married couple in an Edward Albee play: “They flung galleys, they slammed books, but nothing was printed unless they had both agreed to it in the end.” Because he was spending so much time with the radically chic, Pinckney worried that “contemporary Black literature was moving on the barge downriver while I waved from the plantation jetty.”

Bored with a book, I set off for New York, where I ... bought more books

That’s a good example of the memoir’s wry humor. Elsewhere Pinckney tells us that Lizzie “was so full of praise for my parents that I sometimes worried she was on the verge of calling them credits to the Race.” Yet Hardwick could be funny, too: Addressing an idolatrous audience, she remarked that “people often start by announcing that what they are about to read comes from a larger work. Well, I’m telling you this is from a much smaller work.”

That work was “Sleepless Nights,” a loosely autobiographical novel with which she struggles during the first third of Pinckney’s memoir. Published in 1979, it was widely reviewed and rapturously praised, though one young reviewer in the Chronicle of Higher Education described it as less a novel than “a series of poetic vignettes” and “a cameo delicately worked.” I think I’d be less flowery today.

Hardwick, who died in 2007, always maintained that she owed everything in her life to reading. So, when Pinckney speculates about Lizzie’s audience and why she wrote her books and essays, her friend Barbara Epstein is able to answer him precisely: “Elizabeth Hardwick wrote to honor the literature she cared for.” So does Darryl Pinckney.

Come Back in September

A Literary Education on West Sixty-Seventh Street, Manhattan

By Darryl Pinckney

Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 432 pp. $32

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