The New York Stories of Elizabeth Hardwick


Elizabeth Hardwick was one of America’s great postwar women of letters, celebrated as a novelist and as an essayist. Until now, however, her slim but remarkable achievement as a writer of short stories has remained largely hidden, with her work tucked away in the pages of the periodicals—such as Partisan Review, The New Yorker, and The New York Review of Books—in which it originally appeared. This first collection of Hardwick’s short fiction reveals her brilliance as a stylist and as an observer of contemporary ...

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The New York Stories of Elizabeth Hardwick

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Elizabeth Hardwick was one of America’s great postwar women of letters, celebrated as a novelist and as an essayist. Until now, however, her slim but remarkable achievement as a writer of short stories has remained largely hidden, with her work tucked away in the pages of the periodicals—such as Partisan Review, The New Yorker, and The New York Review of Books—in which it originally appeared. This first collection of Hardwick’s short fiction reveals her brilliance as a stylist and as an observer of contemporary life. A young woman returns from New York to her childhood Kentucky home and discovers the world of difference within her. A girl’s boyfriend is not quite good enough, his “silvery eyes, light and cool, revealing nothing except pure possibility, like a coin in hand.” A magazine editor’s life falls strangely to pieces after she loses both her husband and her job. Individual lives and the life of New York, the setting or backdrop for most of these stories, are strikingly and memorably depicted in Hardwick’s beautiful and razor-sharp prose.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Hardwick wrote when she had something to say, and she took her time; the impression of ease is owing strictly to her style. Not a poet, she produced a poet’s prose…” –The Guardian (London)

“An odd, original talent, Elizabeth Hardwick writes with a tremendous subtlety and a fine drawn sensibility of common frailties.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Nobody writing prose now gives me as much pleasure as Elizabeth Hardwick. She honors our language and enlivens our woe.” —Susan Sontag

“Hardwick is, characteristically without ostentation or polemics, a gifted miniaturist biographer.” —Joyce Carol Oates

"Elizabeth Hardwick died in 2007, but her influence can still be felt in any writer who knows that a story or essay’s tone is based as much on a word’s weight, and the rhythm of a paragraph, as it is on thesis and intention....In the novelist and critic Darryl Pinckney, Hardwick has a brilliant champion. He has gathered together the best of Hardwick’s short fiction in The New York Stories of Elizabeth Hardwick, and, in his powerful and insightful introduction, he expresses something of the charm of the woman—and her great struggles to produce stories that reflected her unique process of intellection, her engagement in the world of ideas. " — Hilton Als, The New Yorker

The Barnes & Noble Review

Kentucky: Elizabeth Hardwick never wasn't going to move to New York. Joan Didion, who, like Hardwick, came to New York from somewhere else, with a parvenu's attentive, hungry eye, once wrote: "I was in love with the city, the way you love the first person who ever touches you and never love anyone quite that way again." The quote comes from Didion's famous essay "Goodbye to All That"; by then she had returned to California. For Hardwick, though, it wasn't as simple as first love -- it was a marriage. She committed herself. Life was available only in New York.

Newcomers to Hardwick are still advised to begin with Sleepless Nights, the slim, remarkable novel that stands as her masterpiece, but The New York Stories provides an illuminating commentary and context. Arranged chronologically, it makes the case that Hardwick's progress as a writer of fiction followed, like human evolution, a punctuated equilibrium -- a long static period followed by a sudden, giant leap forward.

The early stories are deeply indebted to Henry James, a bit schematic, yet ornamented throughout with casual flourishes of intelligence and insight: "Nothing so easily unbalances the sense of proportion in a woman of artistic ambitions as the dazed love and respect of an ordinary man." "A Season's Romance," from 1956, gives a portrait of a young woman desultorily pursuing graduate school in the humanities: "With a nearly unbearable stab of anguish, she realized she had nothing new to say about Van Eyck or about Flemish altar painting." Hardwick shows, with both empathy and mercilessness, the precarious nature of unrooted ambition -- the pain of wanting something without being certain what that something is.

A silence occupies the years from 1959 to 1979, a gap that divides The New York Stories roughly in half, and nothing in those early stories prepares a reader for the later work -- hard-packed, richly written, hypnotic in its verbal impressionism. All of a sudden Hardwick's prose is capable of passages like this:

Antwerp and Ghent: what wonderful names, hard as the heavy cobbles in the square. Amsterdam, a city of readers. All night long, you seemed to hear the turning of pages: pages of French, Italian, English, and the despised German. Those fair heads remembered Ovid, Yeats, Baudelaire -- and remembered suffering, hiding, freezing. The weight of books and wars.

The alert, sophisticated syntax of pauses and accelerations, the collagist's instinct for juxtaposition -- Hardwick has struck upon a new vein of style. In an interview with the Paris Review, from 1985, Hardwick discussed a sentence, later cut, from an early version of Sleepless Nights: "Now I will start my novel, but I don't know whether to call myself I or she." With two exceptions, the early stories employ classical third-person narration; the later stories, in addition to "the absence of the lumber in the usual prose" and "the relief from spelling everything out, plank by plank," as she put it, almost exclusively use an unusual, highly attenuated first person. Hardwick had found her tool.

In 1979, the year Sleepless Nights was published, Hardwick turned sixty-three, placing her in that rare category of important artists who got their voices late in life. The astonishing transfiguration of her prose brings to mind Cézanne's career -- the stage at which his work underwent a furious metamorphosis and emerged in a heightened state, delirious with its own brilliance. Much the same with Hardwick, it seems. In the Paris Review interview, she said, "For me, writing has not become easier after all these years. It is harder -- perhaps because of the standards you set for your work." All along, one imagines, she knew this, the horrible truth about an artist's vocation: it isn't ever enough to be merely very good.

--Ian MacKenzie

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781590172872
  • Publisher: New York Review Books
  • Publication date: 6/1/2010
  • Series: New York Review Books Classics Series
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 991,814
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Elizabeth Hardwick (1916–2007) was born in Lexington, Kentucky, and educated at the University of
Kentucky and Columbia University. A recipient of a Gold Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, she is the author of three novels, a biography of Herman Melville, and four collections of essays. She was a cofounder and advisory editor of The New York Review of Books and contributed more than one hundred reviews, articles, reflections, and letters to the magazine. NYRB Classics publishes Sleepless Nights, a novel, and Seduction and Betrayal, a study of women in literature.

Darryl Pinckney is the author of a novel, High Cotton, and, in the Alain Locke Lecture Series, Out There: Mavericks of Black Literature.

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Table of Contents

Introduction vii

The Temptations of Dr. Hoffmann 3

Evenings at Home 23

Yes and No 35

The Final Conflict 41

A Season's Romance 59

The Oak and the Axe 79

The Classless Society 101

The Purchase 127

Cross-town 153

The Bookseller 163

Back Issues 179

On the Eve 195

Shot: A New York Story 209

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