Elizabeth Hardwick, Herman Melville

Herman MelvilleHerman Melville by Elizabeth Hardwick

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A review with, or in, digressions:

Elizabeth Hardwick, who died a decade ago at 91, is having a literary revival. Her collected essays are due later this year; articles abound, and will abound. Sentences are offered for our delectation. Sarah Nicole Prickett gives us this observation of Bloomsbury: “Certain peripheral names scratch the mind.” Having written a dissertation chapter on Virginia Woolf while persisting in total indifference even to Leonard and Vanessa, to say nothing of Lytton and Duncan and Dora and Thoby and Ottoline and Roger and Julian and all the rest, I know exactly what Hardwick means. Yet I find the phrase empty, adding a mere simulacrum of the sensuous—the mind, in distinction to the brain, lacks any skin to scratch—to the venerable abstract cliché (“vex the spirits”) it so theatrically revises. Brian Dillon gives us this, on Billie Holiday:

In her presence on these tranquil nights it was possible to experience the depths of her disbelief, to feel sometimes the mean, horrible freedom of a thorough suspicion of destiny.

Perhaps one “of” too many, but I see how the sentence drifts off into polysyllabic abstractions as the singer dispels them with her disbelief, on waves of sound amid clouds of smoke. A stylist, no doubt. Dillon attempts a general characterization:

How exactly to describe Hardwick’s singular style? For sure, it is a kind of lyricism, a method that allows her as a critic to bring the reader close to her subject via the seductions first of sound and second of image and metaphor.

The lyric as a mode is the expression of sensibility and self, so a lyric style must be a personal one, hence the cultivation of any style at all. Plenty of authors, insensible to lyric, do not cultivate style as such. But the essayist on literary and political matters wants to express more than just her self. Literary and political argument cannot be private: they aim at suasion, and they imagine interlocutors. This is why sentences, no matter how original or arresting, are not enough: why, as Aristotle said, the poet is a maker of plots before a maker of verses.

Prickett contrasts Hardwick on just these grounds to Kate Zambreno, who champions subjectivism and gender exclusivity (I confess I somewhat contemptuously stopped reading Zambreno’s Heroines somewhere around the place where she pronounced that Woolf and Stein, because they’d succeeded in their literary aims, were “men”):

Zambreno’s revisionism is separatist, making claims to equality specious. She believes that to take “the self out of our essays is a form of repression,” but I have to confess that while Chris Kraus’s epistolary I Love Dick matters hugely in a Moby-Dick world, I no longer care who loves dick. I care that Hardwick spent her life loving Melville and made her study of him, published in 2000, her excellent last work, careful by then to find the feminine in her hero as a better way of saying that there can be heroines—if we are given the time and the space, but also the covert, exacting generosity of higher standards.

Which brings me around to Hardwick’s little Melville study, an entry in the short-lived turn-of-the-millennium Penguin Lives series and yet not quite a biography. I read it for two reasons: because I’m both reading and teaching a great deal of Melville lately, and because I want to see the Hardwick revival for myself, whether as spirit-moved congregant or skeptical reporter.

I like the old Penguin Lives books. They are the right size for literary biography, in my view. I avoid door-stopper biographies of novelists and poets. Once I have been apprised of the basic Freudian and Marxian data about who any given writer slept with and how, and the way he or she made money and how much, the rest is intellectual history. Writers’ lives are in their reading and writing; what lives on writers’ bookshelves is more important for their work than what happens in bedroom and bank account. Hardwick knows this. Of Melville and the frustrations of biography, she writes:

And then, it is unsettling to have Ishamel in Pittsfield coming down to dinner at night when the talk will be of money. More dislocating to find him retiring to the bedchamber to produce, after Malcolm and Stanwix, his daughters, Elizabeth and Frances. The assembled family cannot have had any idea of this reluctant head of the household. Nor can the graduate students with their theses, the annotators, the eyes searching passages marked in his books, the critics, the biographers in long, long efforts and short ones. It must be said about Melville that he earned the mystery of hi inner life.

But let us give the Kate Zambrenos of the world their due. Identity—or, in the slightly more useful postmodern academic formulation, “subject position”—matters, at least until you insist that it does not. Censuring ressentiment and separatism in others, I feel it in myself, like Dostoevsky dismissing the writing of Tolstoy and Turgenev as “landlord literature” or Junot Díaz, in the now-obligatory racialist idiom, declaiming that “that shit was too white.”

All of the above to say that I approach Hardwick, at this stage of my reading life, with a bit, just a hint really, the proverbial soupçon, whatever that means, of suspicion—with apprehensions of fatigue. These days, for me, somehow, the New York Intellectuals, The New York Review of Each Other’s Books, have lost their luster. If I don’t care about Bloomsbury, why should I care about this even less generally relevant coterie? Their organs have been disintermediated, their politics obsolesced, in the thresher of the 21st century. The problem with ressentiment and separatism, though, is that you miss too much of relevance to yourself, because you have artificially constricted your own soul too far in advance of experience. Lady Ottoline Morrell, Barbara Epstein—sure, if you’re not in the club, who cares? But you would not want to miss a Virginia Woolf, not even in the 21st century: so to Hardwick’s Melville I go.

Anyway, Hardwick was no more indigenous to that world than I am, and (I do not say “so,” my overture to the identitarians two paragraphs above notwithstanding) she is good on the Marx and the Freud of Melville. Melville’s family was the American equivalent of decaying aristocracy: they had the names (both Melville and Gansevoort, burnished at the Revolution), but periodically found themselves without the money: “In life it is common,” notes Hardwick with irresistibly worldly mordancy, “to find persons in truth absolutely broke, and yet there they are the next day buying the newspapers; and so it went with the Melvilles and their hanging on, bleeding.”

On the Freud of it all, she admits her interest in and focus on “gay Melville” in her afterword:

I admit I have found it of interest and have marked the notes in the various places they are heard. What it means we cannot know. The fair young men have their dreamlike quality that fades at the break of day. And there we leave them.

The academics scorn the belletrists because of this “cannot know.” I have my academic side. Hardwick, whose bibliography is midcentury-focused and ends with James Wood, can perhaps be excused from the labor (she was then in her ninth decade) of parsing the prose of the late Eve Kosofksy Sedgwick, but all the same, I am broadly persuaded that Sedgwick is correct when (if I understand her rightly) she assigns to Melville, as to Wilde, the historical task of re-orienting sentimentalism for the later 19th century around the figure of the beautifully suffering boy rather than the sweetly perishing girl—from Little Eva to Billy Budd.

Hardwick is better on Melville’s marriage. Her descriptions of Lizzie Shaw, braiding severity and sympathy, are superb:

In The Kreutzer Sonata, Tolstoy would write of marriage as “two convicts serving a life sentence of hard labor welded to the same chain,” which led the Countess to threaten to jump into the pond. As Elizabeth Shaw labored on a weary evening to bring the skewered, cramped handwriting to legibility, she could read of “the disenchanting glasses of matrimonial days and nights.” Well, pass on in the manner of a court stenographer clicking away about heads severed with a hatchet.

Eventually—at a mention of Robert Gould Shaw (as perhaps related to Mrs. Melville) that concludes a chapter—I recalled that Hardwick was married, largely unhappily (if I am not mistaken), to the author of “For the Union Dead,” (not to speak of “‘To Speak of Woe That Is in Marriage'”) a tormented genius not entirely unlike Melville, and that Hardwick, like Mrs. Melville, went by “Lizzie.” (Making a trio with Lowell and Melville, I am also married to a Lizzy—note the y—but will try not to dwell on the implications.) With Sarah Nicole Prickett above, I admire the feminism that sees the heroine in Melville rather than the feminism that would, to no great purpose at this late date, censure him.

This book is less a biography, Hardwick admits, than a “reading of the work,” and the reading is impressionistic and appreciative rather than interpretative. This makes for some spells of summary or redescription that seem dithery and perfunctory. Yet those sentences stand out. A useful generalization—

Throughout Melville’s writing there is a liberality of mind, a freedom from vulgar superstition, occasions again and again for an oratorical insertion of enlightened opinion.

—or this more specific rendering of Billy Budd, just for example—

Garden of Eden before the Fall, sunlit, happy-go-lucky, blissful ignorance; there lies the brute human temptation to bewilder confidence, to test, like Claggart, the defensive powers of the beguiling, androgynous athlete.

She is beautifully withering on Pierre; or, The Ambiguities, even though I love it, while she seems not even to like it:

The windswept Wuthering Heights had been published in 1847, five years previous to Pierre, and it could be wished, if Melville were drawn to exorcising demons, that he had read Emily Brontë; he had not.

And Hardwick renders the greatest service a critic can render: adding a book to one’s reading list. I probably never would have even gotten around to the autobiographical Redburn, but she makes it sound irresistible, essential.

What did I ever want from New York Intellectuals before ressentiment overtook me? What do I want now that I know the literati is not necessarily any more reliable than they were when they, alongside dollars, damned Melville—damned him for a lunatic or a heretic? John Leonard, reviewing his New York Review of Books colleague in where else but The New York Review of Books, praised her thusly, while she lived, almost two decades before she got her posthumous revival:

So superior are these sentences to the churlishness that passes for criticism elsewhere in our culture—the exorcism, the vampire bite, the vanity production, the body-snatching and the sperm-sucking by pomo aliens—so generous and wise, that they seem to belong to an entirely different realm of discourse, where the liberal arts meet something like transubstantiation. […] She sends up kites; she catches lightning.

When I was a teenager, I would set an alarm on Sunday mornings so I could wake up to watch Leonard deliver his own enthusiastic sentences, all incantatory litanies of incongruities, on some network show, reviewing books, reviewing TV (before the golden age!). It was also before the ubiquity of the Internet; such things as learned men and women on TV were needed; he sent me to Rushdie, to Morrison, to DeLillo. What was it I wanted? Not so much the lightning, not from the urbane belletrists. For the lightning, you need the isolatoes, the crazies, the Melvilles, the ones who won’t be, can’t be, in the club.

After his few years at sea in his twenties, Melville lived among decent, well-bred men and women, all the while knowing much of life they could not have known.

And what, we men of resentment, is so great about not being in the club as such? Whence this desire to kill all normies, to take it upon ourselves to judge the landlords’ literature (as if Tolstoy were not a genius) and pronounce that shit too white (as if the sentence would not read just the same if one substituted “Jewish” for “white”)? The worldly-wise, even the worldly-wife, knows that once or twice one must blame the self-anointed victim:

His intelligence and remarkable talent for self-education would have opened any door for him if he had wanted doors to open, as perhaps he did not.

I did not just want “oratorical insertions of enlightened opinion” from the New Yorkers either—though Leonard was a past master at that—but something, as well, a bit more jaded, rumpled, a sign, in a word, of experience. No, to the New Yorkers one goes for higher gossip, gossip in the best sense, Jamesian or Proustian or Saint-Simonian (whoever Saint-Simon was; I scarcely know), the efflorescence of the inner life as it bends toward the light of the outer without any Melvillean need for transcendence or ultimacy. The very rhythm in the cultivated sentences of secularity itself:

Critics, noting the lonely study of the philosophical questions of the mid-nineteenth century, are too quick to rob [Melville] of a melancholy atheism, the moral intransigence of one acquainted with those damned by life.

Whatever form literary culture will take after the disintegration of the cohort the NYRB addressed or thought it did, this “moral intransigence” praised by and found in Hardwick is well worth reviving, however one judges this sentence or that.