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Fall 2013

The Ethics of Admiration:
Arendt, McCarthy, Hardwick, Sontag

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Darryl Pinckney

I’ve always been sorry that I did not recognize Hannah Arendt at the memorial service for W. H. Auden at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in October of 1973, but then I could not have, because at the time I still had not heard of her. In 1971, I’d read James Baldwin’s “Open Letter to My Sister, Angela Davis,” in the New York Review of Books. His conclusion, “For if they come for you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night,” had for me the romance of “Since there is no help, come let us kiss and part,” even though Baldwin was talking about the death chamber in California, not an Elizabethan love given up. I didn’t hold another issue of the New York Review of Books until the autumn of 1973, when I was a student in Elizabeth Hardwick’s creative writing class at Barnard College, along with Mona Simpson, Tama Janowitz, and Daphne Merkin.

I once came to class with a vodka gimlet in a Styrofoam coffee cup. Somehow Lizzie—it would be years before I called her that—needed a sip of something restorative. To accept a cup from a student, she must have been desperate. Her eyes blazed. She left the room. She did not forget the incident. Much later she confessed that she’d had the worst hangover that afternoon, having been up the previous night drinking with Barbara Epstein. Yes, Lizzie said one day after class, she knew Jimmy Baldwin. He was never on time, he and his inevitable entourage. I explained the concept of CPT. “You came to New York to be what you are,” she said. “A mad black queen.”

Hannah Arendt’s name came up often in the pages of the New York Review of Books. My first sweltering summer in New York on my own I read in the Review a hotly reasoned essay by Arendt, “Home to Roost,” about the political disarray in the United States after the feeble lies of Watergate and the heavy defeat in Vietnam. Then Arendt died that winter, suddenly. The tribute in the Review was by Robert Lowell, not by Lizzie, who once told me that everything in Arendt’s Riverside Drive apartment was beige, including the food.

Arendt had been, in part, a way out of the inadvertent Stalinism that my love for Angela Davis had led me into. But I returned The Origins of Totalitarianism to Lizzie’s shelves. I had a better time with The Human Condition. I proudly added Arendt’s insights to my bar chatter, such as the distinction she made in Between Past and Future between leisure time, when we are free from cares, and vacant time, which is leftover time after work and sleep that we fill up with entertainment. Crises of the Republic caused me some discomfort, not because of her stern analysis of Black Power and violence, but because Arendt argues that minority admission programs represent a threat to universities, and put black students in the position of having to be constantly aware of their inferiority.

Yet Men in Dark Times meant so much to me. The Randall Jarrell essay; doomed Rosa Luxemburg. But the work of Arendt’s that I studied was Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewess. Arendt’s biography spoke to me, her tale of a sensitive, not-pretty Jewish girl who came of age in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Germany, when Jews were eager for emancipation, but only the privileged among them were allowed limited participation in German society. Moreover, this biography of yearning for unavailable, aristocratic men was full of those things that fascinated me: diaries, letters, and salon gossip. Varnhagen resolved to tell the truth of her experience, loser in love that she was. I adopted her as a spiritual antecedent. But Varnhagen did more than dignify my flight into myself, which her life promised would end in self-acceptance. To read about Moses Mendelssohn and the problems of Jewish assimilation had the effect of making me interested in W.E.B. Du Bois at last.

Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s biography, Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World, tells us that Arendt finished Rahel Varnhagen in 1938, pushed by Heinrich Bluecher, who would become her second husband, and by Walter Benjamin, about whom she wrote so movingly in Men in Dark Times. She introduced Benjamin to the general reader in English. Arendt was born in 1906, in Koenigsburg, East Prussia, as it was then, to secular, socialist Jewish parents. Her father went mad, and after he died in 1913, she moved with her mother to Berlin. She experienced the Weimar Republic as a brilliant student, from Marburg to Freiburg to Heidelburg. But then came the Reichstag fire in 1933. Arendt worked in both the Communist and Zionist undergrounds, until she fled to Paris in 1934. She and Bluecher made it to the United States in 1941. She became a U.S. citizen in 1951, the year The Origins of Totalitarianism was published.

She wrote as she thought and the books appeared, lined up on Lizzie’s shelves, waiting for me to borrow them, until I invested in my own paperback editions that I carried ostentatiously around the city. For me, Arendt replaced Marcuse, and Habermas seemed to adore her, too. But the posthumous, unfinished The Life of the Mind took me by surprise in 1978 and not because this two-volume meditation on the shapelessness of the thinking self was a departure for me from her books on political philosophy, but because the work had been edited by Mary McCarthy.

“Mary McCarthy!,” an essay collected in A View of My Own by Elizabeth Hardwick on her old friend begins. Lizzie felt strongly at the time that the voice in The Company She Keeps belonged to an original in American literature. However, the abstract— theory—did not stay with her for long. In this sense, she was rather left out of what had brought Arendt and McCarthy together, the quest for the truth behind appearances. She told me that after Hannah’s husband died, Mary had Hannah up to stay in Castine, the little town on the water in Maine where Lizzie also spent her summers. Hannah was lying on a sofa, her hands behind her head, staring at the ceiling. “What’s she doing?” Lizzie asked. “She’s thinking,” Mary whispered. Lizzie said she felt not a little put-down by the answer.

Their shared desire to humanize the wilderness of experience is displayed in Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy, scrupulously, even tenderly, edited by Carol Brightman, one of McCarthy’s biographers. After I looked up the references to Elizabeth Hardwick in the index when this volume was published in 1995, I didn’t ask Lizzie about it. Only poor Auden at the end of his life comes off worse in these letters among the people Arendt and McCarthy had cared for.

I was shocked by their picture of Lizzie, in Lowell’s shadow, the “keeper” of his private “zoo,” to be pitied for the girlfriends and his repudiations of her during his breakdowns. And how little notice they took of her work.

“Lizzie’s tongue rattles on, like a child’s toy,” McCarthy says. Lizzie, along with Sonia Orwell, is one of the “hysterical” women she wonders why she knows, the “neurotically afflicted friends, mostly female” in her social orbit. Their tone about her changes slowly after Lowell’s departure.

These are engrossing letters, and they are unlike Arendt’s letters to Karl Jaspers, her former teacher, or to Bluecher, because, although McCarthy was devoted to the truth as an organizing principle of her intellectual life, she was not a philosopher. Then, too, Arendt was writing in English. But these are, most importantly, letters between women. After a long, animated account of Nabokov’s Pale Fire, McCarthy closes with “I must stop and start cooking a dinner.”

McCarthy is as full of advice as Arendt, but the confidences are almost all McCarthy’s. McCarthy is the novelist, Arendt’s reticence seems to say. McCarthy looks to her friend for solace after an unhappy affair and enlists Arendt in the drama of trying to convince her third husband to give her a divorce so that she can marry Jim West, the American diplomat she met in Poland in 1960 and the reason she lived in Paris, apart from summers in Maine, until the end of her life. Although McCarthy told Carol Brightman in 1985 that Martin Heidegger had been the great love of Arendt’s life, there is no sense in their letters that he was more to her than one of the most interesting philosophers she had known, a friend from her past whose decline in old age saddened her.

Young-Bruehl tells us that Arendt began a very secret affair with her professor in Marburg in 1925, which lasted for three years. Heidegger was married to a deeply unpleasant anti-Semite. Richard Wolin, in his Heidegger’s Children, tells us that Arendt was humiliated by the way Heidegger ended his dangerous affair with his Jewish student and that, fatherless, she had looked to him for protection. Wolin also suggests that her quick first marriage to a young philosopher was in part a reaction to the end of her affair. In 1946, Arendt published an article she never reprinted in which she took Heidegger to task for having forced Edmund Husserl, his former teacher, to resign on the grounds that he was Jewish. However, when she returned to Europe for the first time in 1949, she made her peace with Heidegger. Arendt had perceived the danger of Hitler as early as 1929, but Heidegger’s allegiance to Nazism she attributed to the innocence of his German nationalism.

Perhaps she felt she owed him so much. However, the revelation of Arendt’s affair with a Nazi Party member, even though she broke with him, and the protection she granted him in her heart down through the years, disturbed people in my generation in the way that her report of the Eichmann trial did not. Students in my day saw “the banality of evil” in almost every large political event and most of us had not read Arendt’s book. Her concept had entered the way our world discussed the things we were trying to understand.

Eichmann in Jerusalem, published in 1963, after sensational serialization in The New Yorker, provoked bitter controversy among our elders. It was Arendt’s criticism of the Jewish Councils in the ghettoes for what she described as their cooperation with the Nazis—compiling transport lists, keeping track of vacant apartments and other assets to hand over to the authorities—that inflamed many of her readers. She was accused of blaming the Jewish leadership for the destruction of their people. “What a risky business to tell the truth on a factual level without theoretical and scholarly embroidery,” Arendt tells McCarthy. She insisted that the furor was about the facts, the hostility because she told the truth, not because she held theories or ideas that were in conflict with the general view of what had happened to European Jews during World War II.

McCarthy says that “this Eichmann business” had assumed the proportions of a “pogrom.” She fired off a lengthy rebuttal to Lionel Abel, who wrote disparagingly about Arendt’s book in Partisan Review, a journal with which they’d both been associated, McCarthy in particular. She and Arendt referred to the magazine’s editors, Philip Rahv and William Phillips, as “the boys.” Arendt was dismayed by the scandal and was glad for McCarthy’s support. Soon it would be her turn to stand by McCarthy, who was bewildered by some of the “terribly hostile” reviews of her novel, The Group, which came out in the autumn of 1963 and stayed on The New York Times best seller list for two years. McCarthy admits that she was depressed by what seemed to her the treachery of “people who are supposed to be my friends.” “The Gang,” a parody of the novel, appeared in the New York Review and McCarthy knew that Elizabeth Hardwick had written it under the pseudonym, “Xavier Prynne.”

Soon afterward, a review by Norman Mailer, also in the New York Review, dismissed The Group as “a lady book” by “our First Lady of Letters…our saint, our umpire, our lit arbiter, our broadsword, our Barrymore (Ethel), our Dame (dowager), our mistress (Head), our Joan of Arc.” His main criticism was that McCarthy was too timid to do anything significant with her girls or that because they were girls they couldn’t do anything significant. “I am afraid that Elisabeth [sic] had the brilliant idea to ask him—just as she had the brilliant idea to ask Abel to do the PR piece. I asked her and she said ‘yes’—so no doubt about PR.”

The American in Europe writing to the quintessential European in America, united by their horror at what they saw as the increasing corruption of American political life. Arendt praises McCarthy’s fiction and political reportage when few others seemed to. “I have a feeling of futility in everything I do,” Arendt says. Marked by the refugee’s insecurities and by the immigrant’s deep commitments to her adopted land, Arendt spoke a language of survival. The political was personal. For her part, McCarthy claims that “my mind is void of ideas and I say to myself that perhaps I won’t write any more—what’s the use?”

In 1974, Arendt had a heart attack when in Aberdeen to give the Gifford Lectures. McCarthy flew from Paris to be by her side. Afterward, McCarthy worries in a letter that she somehow got on Arendt’s nerves then as well as later when Arendt paid a visit to Castine. Arendt tries to reassure her, saying that she was grateful for every minute of her presence. “For heaven’s sake, Mary, stop it, please… I love you.”

But McCarthy was not reassured. In her “Farewell to Hannah Arendt,” she says that when she found in Maine the anchovy paste that Arendt liked to have at breakfast, which she took alone, Arendt made a face and turned aside, as if displeased that McCarthy had attempted to show her how well she knew her—“alluring, seductive, feminine” Hannah, not ambitious, incapable of lying, riding like a solitary passenger her train of thought:

Heinrich Bluecher, her husband and friend, was the last of her teachers. Though he was only ten years older than she, in their intellectual relationship there was some-thing fatherly, indulgent, on his side, and pupil-like, eager, approval-seeking, on hers; as she spoke, he would look on her fondly, nodding to himself, as though luck had sent him an unimaginably bright girl student and tremendous “achiever,” which he himself, a philosopher in every sense, was content, with his pipes and cigars, not to be. He was proud of her and knew she would go far, to peaks and ranges he could discern in the distance, and calmly sat back, waiting for her to find them.

I remembered the Lowell tribute, but not “Farewell to Hannah Arendt,” which was published in the New York Review of Books in January 1976 after Arendt’s death at the close of 1975. I was sure I’d missed it back then—until I got to the part where McCarthy says that Arendt had pretty feet and loved shoes. “I think she only once had a corn.” The line stirred my memory of Lizzie being terribly put off by the detail, which she thought said more about the state of Mary’s feet than it did of Hannah’s. In any case, it was somehow indelicate to her way of thinking, she who retreated from too much frankness about the body on the page. It was a minor example of what Lizzie implied could be the obtuseness of McCarthy’s insistence on truthfulness in all things.

Lizzie tried to give a sense of this endearing, exasperating character trait in her Foreword to McCarthy’s Intellectual Memoirs: 1936–1938, published in 1992, three years after McCarthy’s death.

What often seems to be at stake in Mary’s writing and in her way of looking at things is a somewhat obsessional concern for the integrity of sheer fact in matters both trivial and striking… The facts of the matter are the truth, as in a court case that tries to circumvent vague feelings and intuition. If one would sometimes take the liberty of suggesting caution to her, advising prudence or mere practicality, she would look puzzled and answer: But it’s the truth. I do not think she would have agreed it was only her truth—instead she often said she looked upon her writing as a mirror.

And thus she will write about her life under the command to put it all down. Even the name of the real Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt in the fiction of the same name ...

McCarthy’s regard for the truth may have been her motivation for the annotations, addressed “To the Reader,” that she inserted between the published episodes of Memories of a Catholic Girlhood when they were collected in book form in 1957.

McCarthy was born in Seattle, Washington in 1912. Her handsome young father and her beautiful mother died in the influenza epidemic of 1918. They may have contracted the disease while en route to her paternal grandparents in Minneapolis. The family arrived grievously ill. When she and her three younger brothers recovered, they were orphans. Her grandfather had made a fortune in the grain elevator business, but the children lived in Dickensian conditions, at the mercy of a childless aunt and her ghastly husband, which their selfish, devout grandmother was somehow unaware of. “Luckily, I am writing a memoir and not a work of fiction, and therefore I do not have to account for my grandmother’s unpleasant character.”

Their Protestant grandfather in Seattle, a prominent lawyer, his name “a byword for honesty,” saved them, or her. Her brothers remained in Minnesota in boarding schools, while she was taken back West, allowed the faith her mother had converted to and given over to convent schools. “I was always transposing reality for them into terms they could understand.” The chapters concerning her passionate education, her loss of faith, her unexpected studies with bookish nuns, her stumblings toward womanhood, are marvels of composition. “I always had the sensation of lying.” McCarthy’s memoir ends with a portrait of her maternal grandmother, a vain, pampered eccentric who did not talk about being Jewish. “Happiness, like love, was a concept she had no real patience with.” But of course Memories of a Catholic Girlhood is above all a rendering of her coming self. “I hardly knew whether what I was saying was true or false.”

That this is the work of a novelist is clear on every page, in its richness of detail and penetrating observation. “The conversations, as given, are mostly fictional.” In these later passages of reflection on her reflections, McCarthy consults her surviving uncle, a friend of her mother’s, or her oldest brother, and admits their evidence even when, or especially when, to do so calls into question what she has remembered.

“It was she who insisted on playing Truth and on getting everybody in the group to make lists of their friends in the order of preference… She would not mind, she said, hearing the truth about herself.” The Group is told entirely from one or another woman character’s point of view. The gaze, as the young today would say, is completely feminine. The women, the eight friends, all Vassar, class of 1933, in McCarthy’s serial third-person internal narratives, see themselves from the inside, when capable of it, and from the outside as well, as they imagine they appear to their friends and society. But the men are seen from the outside, from the women’s point of view, and perhaps this is why Mailer in his review can sound at times as if he believes a sort of con game is going on. “In her cool character the only passion yet awakened was the passion for truth.” He minds that McCarthy has in the novel men who are weak or fools or repressed homosexuals. “Before she wrote her parents, she wanted to be sure that he was telling her the whole truth and not just his partial view of it. That was the big thing they taught you at Vassar: keep your mind open and always ask for the evidence, even from your own side.”

The action of The Group takes place between 1933 and 1940, after the fall of France, but Mailer felt the novel more pre-suburbanite and 1950s in its atmosphere than Depression era. This might be another way of complaining about women setting the terms of understanding in the novel, but he might also be doubting how up-to-date McCarthy’s girls are. To them, Freud is already passé. Mailer was only born in 1933. McCarthy’s novel is contemporary with the popular success of Betty Friedan. In an extended scene, McCarthy reclaims the destructive diaphragm from “Goodbye, Columbus” and lets Polly abandon it in a box under a park bench before the use of it can bring her to harm.

But this directness about all things female—“‘Give me your tongue, Elizabeth. Give me a tongue kiss.’ Slowly and reluctantly, she raised the tip of her tongue…”—would also have put off the critic in Elizabeth Hard-wick. McCarthy’s women are well-informed and garrulous in their dialogue and thoughts about breast-feeding, toilet training, French kissing, and “defloration.” And the “defloration” scene of Polly Andrews by one of McCarthy’s deluded and mysteriously wounded men is what Hardwick makes fun of in “The Gang.” Robert Silvers remembers that Lizzie wrote to McCarthy to tell her in advance about the parody and that in time the old friends made it up. After all, “Xavier Prynne” got around to making fun of Mailer in the pages of the Review later that year. McCarthy’s relationship with the New York Review revived when she agreed to travel first to Saigon in 1967 and then to Hanoi in 1968 for a series of arresting reports on the war.

McCarthy’s criticism stood out because of her bold, unexpected assessments, which were sometimes a surprise. She got the “soured utopianism” and “musical comedy inferno” of The Naked Lunch: “The first serious piece of science fiction.” She was amazing on Orwell, “a philistine who loved beauty.” Yet what McCarthy demonstrates in On the Contrary (1976) and Ideas and the Novel (1980)—or in essays in which, for instance, she spells out the difference between the novel, the tale, and the romance, with ample references to illustrate what she means—is a firm belief that the house of realism remains in good structural shape, even if the kitchen could use some renovation and the growing demands of family urge her to construct an addition, no matter the trouble, at the back. “The novel, after all, is the literary form dedicated to the representation of our common world.”

She is an old believer compared to Lizzie. In Hardwick’s musings on the novel as a form or on the current state of fiction, in Review essays such as “The Fiction Break Up” (from 1969), “The Sense of the Present” (printed in 1976), or “Fiction in America” (from 1987), the whole creative landscape seems threatened by the stupidity of the traffic. Dull, heavy vehicles are clogging the roads, clueless narrators of many types at the wheel. “It is not the possibility, the purpose of fiction to keep up, to be on time. Literalism would be dangerous, since the landscape is under the domination of rapid obsolescence.”

Elizabeth Hardwick from the beginning had written in the shadow of Mary McCarthy, the satirical, caustic radical. But McCarthy’s fiction after The Group struck Lizzie as too schematically conceived. Characters were very illustrative of McCarthy’s points, and the larger point was almost always rather neat. McCarthy’s autobiography, How I Grew, published in 1987, took her story up to her years at Vassar and the women professors who’d been her opportunities to cultivate her sense of intellectual challenge. But Intellectual Memoirs moved Lizzie in a way How I Grew did not, because, even though the later memoir also deals with McCarthy’s life before Lizzie knew her—they did not meet until 1945—it showed the Mary McCarthy who stayed in Lizzie’s mind throughout their complex friendship: the irresistible prodigy, not worldly, not fashionable, but discriminating, and romantic by nature.

In Intellectual Memoirs, McCarthy is charming about the accident of her opposition to the Moscow Trials in 1936, a position she took before she really understood its implications. Her name had appeared on a petition on Trotsky’s behalf. Instinctively, she resisted Stalinist bullying to remove her name, just as by instinct she had answered yes when asked if Trotsky had a right to a fair hearing. “I let my name stay—a pivotal decision, perhaps the pivotal decision of my life. Yet I had no sense of making a choice; it was as if the choice had been thrust upon me by those idiot Stalinists calling my number.” She refers to her description of this political awakening in “My Confession,” from On the Contrary. But Intellectual Memoirs also tells us how much McCarthy took from her life for The Group, down to the modernistic Russel Wright cocktail shaker Kay is excited to have in her cosy newlywed’s apartment. Of the black-tie walkout in support of the waiters’ strike at the Waldorf in 1936, “the reader will find some of it, including Eunice’s tiara and a pair of long white kid gloves, in Chapters Six and Seven of The Group.”

Intellectual Memoirs begins with her first husband, covers two men in between whom she nearly married, and ends with her escape into marriage with Edmund Wilson. (Dawn Powell says terrible things about McCarthy in her diary; Wilson says terrible things about Powell in his diary. He withdrew his offer to help her when they met. She wasn’t attractive enough for this man who believed in education as seduction. Mary McCarthy was certainly pretty and Wilson evinces in his writing about her not just the man’s pride of ownership, but the unattractive man’s astonishment at his own good fortune. From McCarthy, we learn Wilson’s nickname for his penis: “my club.” In his diaries, Wilson devotes himself to recalling the sensations of the women who got clubbed.)

One of the men she hadn’t married was Philip Rahv, and her portrait of him is very touching, even guilty. “The boys had made me the theatre critic, not trusting my critical skills in other fields.” McCarthy’s description of what it was like to visit Rahv in the Partisan Review offices and to hope for a book review assignment from him parallels the scene in The Group where Libby’s exertions as a manuscript reader count against her with an editor at a publishing house. Another member of the group will have an affair with the editor, in her East Village apartment, very like the one McCarthy describes in Intellectual Memoirs as the scene of her affair with Rahv. In the novel, Polly knows that because the editor is “ordinary” he will go back to his wife. Once again in fiction, McCarthy pronounces judgment on the Rahv character. Rahv had been so wounded by McCarthy’s portrayal of him in The Oasis that he contemplated a lawsuit, Brightman tells us.

I remember that Lizzie wondered if Mary had been as in love with him back then. “The memory, no matter the inevitable strains of difference between them, has an idyllic accent and she appears to have discovered in the writing, decades later, that she loved Rahv.” She said that Mary told Carol Brightman that she, Lizzie, also had an affair with Rahv and that if she, Lizzie, denied it, not to believe her. Lizzie was clear that she hadn’t. She wasn’t annoyed, because it interested her too much to speculate as to why Mary had said that. She decided it was to make Rahv himself more interesting, more of a man women would be after. Lizzie had written to McCarthy about Rahv’s death in December 1973. (I am grateful to Saskia Hamilton for sharing this letter with me, and to Harriet Lowell for letting me quote from it.)

I have thought a lot about it, about Phillip, and I cannot bear the end of it, the way it all simply gave way so bitterly and unhappily. I don’t think he had much gift for happiness but he had power and a certain amount of discipline and clarity at times. I am thinking intense thoughts, also, about the pain of excess, especially as we get older…

But on March 1, 1974, McCarthy wrote to Arendt, “This leads me to doubt Lizzie’s picture of his utter ‘isolation,’ heavy drinking, sleeping drugs, total disintegration. I had suspected her account anyway, so hysterical and insistent—a good deal of projection, I think, of her own assessment of her position onto him.” McCarthy left Rahv for Wilson and not because Wilson could do more for her, though he did persuade her to turn away from book reviews in order to write fiction. Was it because Wilson was not Jewish, was, as she described herself, a “patrician”?

In her Foreword to Intellectual Memoirs, Lizzie remembers the reverence McCarthy had for Arendt. She was “quite literally enchanted by Hannah’s mind, her scholarship, her industry, and the complexities of her views. As for Hannah, I think perhaps she saw Mary as a golden American friend, perhaps the best the country could produce.” For Mary McCarthy, life itself was a test of character, but she cared more about class, or lived more in accord with the rituals of her class than some of her friends. She liked having a husband, someone to tend bar or to cut the grass, whereas for Lizzie to be divorced was to be off the hook, socially.

McCarthy’s last piece for the New York Review of Books was a short remembrance of having been on a prize committee in 1970 with James Baldwin. He was late to the meeting in Nice, but spoke eloquently. They gave the prize to Edmund Wilson, who, she knew, could use the money. She had not expected Baldwin’s warm support of Wilson, nor had the French on the committee, who didn’t dare to contradict a black writer. Baldwin reminded her, she said, of Delmore Schwartz, his soft, breathy voice. He’d read everything, she felt, and his reading had not been “colored by his color.” But she confessed that she hadn’t read his novels—too homosexual—and didn’t read his essays after The Fire Next Time, because she’d been afraid to. I wanted to be insulted that she was surprised Baldwin of all people was so well read, but it was really my wounded pride that I’d failed to interest her the one time I met her.

Mary McCarthy didn’t age so much as succumb to one unfair thing after another, Lizzie said. In McCarthy’s final illness in 1989, Lizzie would take the cross-town bus, looking out at Central Park, over to New York Hospital, to sit beside her friend. Toward the end, McCarthy couldn’t speak, except with her eyes, Lizzie was sure. “I would have liked Mary to live on and on, irreplaceable spirit and friend that she was.”

The fact of Mary McCarthy, her early stardom, made Elizabeth Hardwick look for what she could do in fiction that was different, her own territory. It took her a lifetime to return to the writing of fiction in the first person. The narrator of Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, her acclaimed novel from 1979, is recognizable in Hardwick’s earliest efforts in Partisan Review. Her voice is unmistakable. The prose style she perfected in her essays was maybe not only an excited response to the literature she was talking about, but also a sign of the authority of the first person that underlay every line, impatient to break through.

Elizabeth Hardwick was born in 1916, in Lexington, Kentucky, the ninth of eleven children, and much of the early story is there, compressed, in Sleepless Nights: the University of Kentucky, Columbia University, Billie Holiday. What isn’t in the novel, except obliquely, is the rest of her story: her two other novels, her marriage of nineteen years, as well as decades of writing for Partisan Review and then the New York Review. The friendship of Barbara Epstein and Robert Silvers saved her when Lowell left her in 1970. McCarthy observes in one of her letters to Arendt that Lowell had grown resentful of the Review crowd. Lizzie once said he would tease her for ruining Plath for everybody and she was not often in the mood for that kind of pointed banter.

In the autumn of 1973, Hardwick published in the New York Review of Books the first chapter of a novel she was calling The Cost of Living. Stuart Hampshire would tell her later that he found this opening, “Writing a Novel,” such an intense performance that he didn’t see where she could go after it or how she could sustain a work at such a pitch. That was precisely the problem, a question of form, to her mind, and also one of what to tell. She put the project aside. Then Lowell died. She had experienced marriage in part as a sacrifice. And maybe his death marked the end of some unrest in her. Their story was finished. It seemed time to reflect. But her lack of interest in herself was another formal problem and her determination not to write about Robert Lowell a principle. She wrote instead about what a life with him had allowed her to think about: beautiful writing and great literature and human weirdness.

June 4, 1979… It’s a classic, Lizzie… It’s a true work of art, very moving, painfully so in places— What seem to be peripheral, random, almost fugitive reminiscences are held together by a magic centripetal force—the force of suffering, I suppose, refined to purity and acting like a magnet to pull all the little iron fillings into its field. And what courage it took to be true to it; I don’t mean the courage of autobiography—candor of revelation—but literary daring.

Mary McCarthy, the square when it came to fiction, caught the spirit of what Lizzie was attempting in Sleepless Nights, and the truth was not the objective conquest of reality. That first chapter from 1973 she broke apart and scattered throughout the novel.

O M, when I think of the people I have buried and what of the dreadful cries of murdered men in forests. Tell me, dearest M, why it is we cannot keep the note of irony, the tinkle of carelessness at a distance. Sentences in which I have tried for a certain light tone—many of those have to do with upheavals, destructions that caused me to weep like a child. Some removals I have not gotten over and I am, like everyone else, an amputee.

(But why do I put in “like everyone else.” I fear that if I say that I am an amputee and more so than anyone else I will be embarrassing, overreaching, yet in my heart I do believe I am more damaged than most.)

O you could not know
That such swift fleeing
No soul forseeing—
Not even I—
Would undo me so.

I hate the glossary, the concordance of truth some people have about my real life, have like an extra pair of spectacles. I mean that such fact is to me a hindrance to composition.

In the second volume of Susan Sontag’s Journals, she vows to turn away in her fiction from what she calls the Jewish style, the problem novel, and embrace the Gentile style, which to her meant the beautifully written. (Where does that put The Adventures of Augie March?) The stories of I, etcetera illustrate Susan’s intelligence as a fiction writer. A kind of self-knowledge is on display in this work. In her late short fiction, she makes decisions about how to tell a story that let her rely on her strengths—the essayistic, for instance—and dispose of those elements that she was not good at, such as direct dialogue. But a lustrous surface, the clean sound that she aspired to—these were hard for her to come by. She had to labor at every sentence, because she didn’t have a natural ear. Style is fate, Lizzie said.

Susan admired the refinement of Lizzie’s prose, and how Sleepless Nights was held together by the spell of voice. Hardwick’s novel was published at a time when a great deal of experiment in fiction was taking place in the United States, and among the emergent writers were a number of women. Susan understood why the narrator of Sleepless Nights is transfixed by life’s losers, but she was more interested in the personality of the prose, that it was unapologetically a literary woman’s voice. Susan sometimes grouped Sleepless Nights together with The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Safe Conduct, Street of Crocodiles, and The Pure and the Impure, “triumphs of modernist fiction in that tradition…which cross-breeds fiction, essayistic speculation, and autobiography, in a linear-notebook rather than a linear-narrative form,” as she put it in her essay on Barthes.

“I was then a ‘we,’ that tea bag of a word steeped in the conditional.” Susan liked the sly formulation, the sort of thing that underscored for her what a declaration of Lizzie’s aesthetic and her independence Sleepless Nights was. Much about being a woman included learning how to turn truce into victory. The improvisations that women had recourse to in American history made Lizzie’s narrator a dissident. Even Lizzie’s expectation of women writers was that they would express a tendency toward the subversive in their angular approaches to literary form, not only in choice of content. Susan enjoyed the “ethics of admiration,” yet, finally, the narrator, Elizabeth, is too feminine, coy, or of her generation for Susan.

Susan Sontag, born in 1933, born to be unencumbered, came in from the west, like Mary McCarthy. Hawaii, Arizona, California, but not for long. The University of Chicago and Leo Straus when she was sixteen years old. Harvard and Paul Tillich, when she was twenty years old, coincided with her brief marriage to sociologist Phillip Rieff. Susan’s private life did not impinge on her public self that much, except as further evidence of how hip she was. She retained the ‘A’ student’s enthusiasm and confidence all her life, and in her social manner she brought the atmosphere of the big sister—judgmental, proudly unconventional.

Her style, in conversation and in her essays, maybe can be traced back to her graduate school experience and her refusal to let guys shut her up, her resolve to keep talking, to press home her point, because she knew she was smarter than they were. Her early essays have a breathtaking sweep. In her first piece for the New York Review, published in 1963, she dares anyone to doubt her when she asserts that Camus, like Baldwin, is a beautiful writer, but not a great one. She was immune to Mailer’s voice as well.

Her ambition made her resist classification, especially the categories of women’s literature, lesbian literature, places in the bookstore that to her felt like second-class citizenship. She put her chin in her hand and gave up on me when I wouldn’t agree that a writer who happened to be black was freer than a black writer. Susan was not as ferocious about the essays of Seduction and Betrayal on women and literature as she was about Sleepless Nights. She admired Lizzie’s immersion in her subjects, but the American and English traditions of the novel that fascinated Lizzie were not of the greatest interest to Susan, who fell in love with and never got over the dreams of European modernism.

New York City made their lives as intellectual women possible, and Susan took in dance, theater, film, opera, or a concert nightly, followed by late talk over food, often in Chinatown. Lizzie became ever more retiring the older she got, which horrified Susan, who expressed a wish to save her somehow. Susan made her presence felt wherever she went. She herself was an extension of her work, an ambassador for her passions. She was never not talked about. When I was a student, the essays in Against Interpretation and Styles of Radical Will were debated—those pieces on Godard or Bataille, or “Notes on Camp.” More debate followed the essays on photography that appeared in the New York Review in 1976. Given her reputation for slashing and burning, it is touching to think how much of what she wrote is celebratory.

For a long time, guys with HIV whom she didn’t know would call her for advice and comfort, because Illness as Metaphor was the only thing out there that spoke to what they were going through. That was one of the reasons she wrote AIDS and Its Metaphors. She changed her mind about Cuba; she changed her mind about Leni Riefenstahl. She changed her mind about what she said in On Photography concerning photographs of atrocities, about how we become inured to such images, and she corrected herself in Regarding the Pain of Others.

The only literary form she did not work in was poetry, and she did not write letters with much pleasure. Yet she wanted the large, modern European career and she got it. She was ready to fall in love with Brodsky, but that was also biography, hers as much as his. She was determined to hold her own with the big guys, to sit at the table with the big guys, which was why she wrote for the theater and made film, why she would not leave fiction alone, and why she could be cruel about the worth of essays. Susan went through a long period in which she denounced the essay form and her own work in it. She believed that fiction, the novel, stood for the higher creative achievement. The critical success of The Volcano Lover in 1992 and the fact that In America won the National Book Award in 2000 made Susan feel vindicated as a novelist. She believed she’d proven herself and that is partly why she could return to the essay in her last years.

“I am no feminist,” McCarthy said. They did not think of women as a class. The new feminism did not interest them. They almost did not need it. Arendt had criticized the women’s movement in Germany in 1931 for not developing a general program for political parties. Arendt, McCarthy, and Susan thought political questions greater than social questions, whereas Lizzie believed the opposite. Maybe this had something to do with Lizzie’s experience growing up in the segregated South.

For Mary McCarthy and Lizzie, the defining issue was the Moscow Trials, more so than the Spanish Civil War. Susan didn’t have a cause, she had Paul Goodman, “our Sartre.” But they were all on the same side regarding Vietnam and wrote about the war and its protests. In a piece for the New York Review in 1969, Frances Fitzgerald said of Hanoi by Mary McCarthy and Trip to Hanoi by Susan Sontag that before them no American journalist had tried to describe what the Vietnamese were like. For both writers, the problem came down to uses of language. What was rhetoric to them as Americans, they discovered, referred to living history for the Vietnamese.

To speak up—this was the responsibility of the intellectual in society. The thinker had to defend humanist values. Sometimes when Susan came back from a trip to Sarajevo she was like someone on parole, unable to accept the triviality of daily life after the horrors she had seen. The moral truth was stark. Susan died in 2004. Lizzie stressed how much Susan would have minded dying, missing out. The last thing Lizzie published in the Review was an homage to its co-editor and her friend, Barbara Epstein, who died in 2006. Lizzie died in 2007, her own longevity not having been a happiness. She liked the way black church ladies put it: to pass away. The struggle would be over; one would drift off into nothing.

The truth is, their critical writings are imaginative literature. Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Susan Sontag have produced some of the most thrilling prose I’ve ever read. Just before Christmas in 1967, McCarthy wrote to Arendt from Paris about Susan Sontag, “When I watched her with you at the Lowells’, it was clear that she was going to seek to conquer you. Or that she had fallen in love with you—the same thing. Anyway, did she?” Nothing was casual. Too much was at stake. Years later, Susan would mention, almost as an aside, in her essay, “Under the Sign of Saturn,” that Benjamin despised Heidegger. Because they were women, they knew how to wait.

Darryl Pinckney is the author of a novel, High Cotton.

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