SIGHT-READINGS by Elizabeth Hardwick


American Fictions
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A strong gathering of literary essays from a leading American critic and public intellectual. In her fourth collection of essays (after Bartleby in Manhattan, 1983, etc.)--all of which have been previously published in the New York Review of Books and other such venues--Hardwick trains her gaze on American writers and books. Among the categories of inclusion are “Old New York” (Edith Wharton and Henry James); “Americans Abroad” (Gertrude Stein, Margaret Fuller, Djuna Barnes); and “Fictions of America” (Richard Ford, Philip Roth, John Cheever, John Updike, and Joan Didion); and Hardwick rounds out her collection with an uncategorizable critique of televangelists from the South. Her particular strength, though, lies in the literary. She has known personally many of these writers, both living and dead. This may explain why one senses special pleading in a few cases. Her essays on John Updike, John Cheever, Philip Roth, and Richard Ford are deeply perceptive and beautifully written, but when it comes to Joan Didion, Hardwick seems to be making the best of a bad situation. Her insights are in this instance less compelling, perhaps because she can’t quite persuade herself or her reader that Didion’s novels hold up under the severest scrutiny. Hardwick’s particular strength is her casual-sounding yet deadly accurate language. In her essay on Elizabeth Bishop she writes: “Nothing is more striking to me than the casual prose of poets, with its quick and dashing informality, its mastery of the sudden and offhand, the free and thrown away.” This gracefully iambic passage describes (and embodies) one of the many virtues of her own prose, and it explains why reading her is such a pleasure. And, finally, anyone who doesn—t yet know what a weird national phenomenon Vachel Lindsay was should read that essay first. Taken together, these essays constitute a vivid reflection of American literary culture in the imagination of one of our most urbane critics.

Pub Date: July 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-375-50127-4
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Random House
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1st, 1998


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