Elizabeth Hardwick is the moral and cultural center of Darryl Pinckney's memoir "Come Back in September: A Literary Education on West Sixty-seventh Street, Manhattan."
Pinckney, who came to Columbia University in the 1970s from an upper middle-class upbringing in Indianapolis, signed up for Hardwick's creative writing course, which she taught at Columbia and Barnard.
The Southern-born Hardwick grows fond of the young gay black student, inviting him to her Upper West Side apartment and introducing him to many of the great books of Western literature.
The long-suffering wife of the mentally unstable poet Robert Lowell, Hardwick gained an independent reputation as a critic, journalist, short story writer and novelist, especially after Lowell's death in 1977.
In Pinckney's remembrances, Hardwick regally conducts her tutorials from her red couch in the apartment's living room, taking books from her shelves for Pinckney to borrow. The reader pictures her elegantly dressed, as in the winsome photo on the book's cover.
She wittily regales Pinckney with literary gossip from the past and present, and stories about her own youth in New York City and upbringing in Kentucky. Her voice rises from Pinckney's pages.
Pinckney's elliptical, lyrical style gives the impression of overheard conversations from a dangerous, thrilling era of New York City, when art, music, theater and literature swirled in ferment. Hardwick both upholds cultural traditions and welcomes new creative energy.
While often visiting Hardwick, Pinckney was receiving another education as a member of New York City's avant garde gay scene, frequenting all-night clubs and engaging in drugs and wild sex.
He recounts adventures with fellow young aesthetes Felice Rosser, Jim Jarmuch, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Luc (now Lucy) Sante, Howard Brookner and Nan Goldin. Athens' own B-52s appear several times as a favorite band.
The revels end with AIDS decimating an entire generation. Pinckney escaped succumbing to the disease but did require a stint in rehab. Whether for alcohol or a harsher addiction to heroin or cocaine is left unclear. In recovery, Pinckney heads to Europe, living in still divided Berlin and writing his first novel, "High Cotton."
A driving conflict of the book is Pinckney's efforts to keep his Bohemian lifestyle secret from his proper family. His father is a high-ranking NAACP official, and the family has ties with black leaders of the civil rights movement.
Pinckney treasures his family's prominence while seeking to escape their strictures. The serious health problems suffered by one of his two sisters gives a sad undercurrent.
Thanks to Hardwick, Pinckney falls into the New York Review of Books circle, working for editors Robert Silvers and Barbara Epstein, Hardwick's neighbor and best friend. Epstein emerges as almost as important a mentor to Pinckney as Hardwick and the book is dedicated to Epstein's memory. Silvers is pictured as an unstable, bullying tyrant, whom Epstein endures.
Under Epstein's exacting editing, Pinckney gains his first publications in The New York Review, co-founded by Hardwick, Lowell, Barbara Epstein and her then husband Jason Epstein during the New York newspaper strike of 1963.
Now 70, long involved in a stable relationship with the English poet and political journalist James Fenton, Pinckney is known for his novels and the nonfiction works "Busted in New York and Other Essays," "The Black Vote and U.S. Democracy" and "Out There: Mavericks of Black Literature."
Fenton, a close friend of the late Christopher Hitehens and Martin Amiss from their days at Oxford, acts as sort of a Greek chorus, commenting on Pinckney's reminsceces and reading.
The powerful women writers Susan Sontag and Mary McCarthy also play significant roles in the book. Pinckney especially grows close to Sontag., who over the years rises as the third feminine grace in Pinckney's life.
McCarthy makes more of a subsidiary appearance, mainly as an old friend of Hardwick. Along with literary events in Manhattan, McCarthy and Hardwidk were neighbors in Castine, Maine, where they both had summer homes. Like Hardwick, McCarthy overcame a doomed marriage to a prominent male writer, in her case the critic Edmund Wilson.
Pinckney gives a Proustian view of a vanished era. The book ends in 1989 with the death of McCarthy, and an image of Hardwick taking the cross-town bus to see her old friend in the hospital as McCarthy was dying.
Hardwick lived on until 2007, her reputation eventually surpassing that of Lowell. Pinckney launched a recent revival of interest in Hardwick's work, editing her Collected Essays in 2017 and a collection of her New York City short stories. Hardwick's autobiographi9cal novel "Sleepless Nights," recently republished by the New York Review of Books, is considered a classic.
In summing up Hardwick's work, Pinckney says "Elizabeth Hardwick wrote to honor the literature she cared for."
Pinckney's beautiful work does the same.