The Last of the New York Intellectuals

"It is June. This is what I have decided to do with my life just now. I will do this work and lead this life, the one I am leading today. Each morning the blue clock and the crocheted bedspread, the table with the phone, the books and magazines, the Times at the door."

This is the beginning of Elizabeth Hardwick's 1973 essay "Writing a Novel." You'll never find a more intimate account of what it's like inside a writer's head—nor a better example of what David Laskin, in his book "Partisans: Marriage, Politics and Betrayal Among the New York Intellectuals," called Hardwick's "confident, frankly personal, but unconfiding prose." She began to lead this life as a novelist. But her 1945 debut, "The Ghostly Lover," led Philip Rahv, co-editor of Partisan Review, to invite her to write for what was then America's most influential political and cultural journal—despite a peak circulation of about 15,000. And although her Proustian-postmodernist novel "Sleepless Nights," the book-with-buzz of 1979, survives as a revered if neglected classic, her finest work is her criticism and essays. As Laskin indicates, she was never a confessional writer. You didn't get to know her, only her witty, steely, incisive and often daring literary voice. Here's a sample, from a 1987 essay on Gertrude Stein (whose prose she had the genius to compare to the music of Philip Glass): "Many wires and strings went into the contraption, the tinkering … When she is not tinkering, we can see her like a peasant assaulting the chicken for Sunday dinner. She would wring the neck of her words. And wring the neck of sentences, also."

Beginning in 1963 Hardwick published many of her essays in The New York Review of Books. This alternative to the New York Times Book Review was conceived during a newspaper strike at a small dinner: just Hardwick, her husband Robert Lowell and their hosts, Jason and Barbara Epstein. Instantly the center of New York intellectual life shifted away from Partisan Review. The New York Review writers— Hardwick and Lowell, PR's Rahv (who'd introduced them), Hannah Arendt, Diana and Lionel Trilling, Alfred Kazin, Mary McCarthy, Dwight Macdonald, Norman Mailer, Norman Podhoretz, Susan Sontag, Edmund Wilson—were canonical New York intellectuals. Taking after Wilson, who had begun publishing in the 1920s, they wrote in vernacular English for educated general readers, and combined intellect with attitude. All of these people are gone except for Podhoretz, the onetime leftist turned neoconservative, who took down some of his old colleagues in his 1979 memoir "Breaking Ranks."

The New York Review is still here, and there are still public intellectuals: Helen Vendler, Salman Rushdie, Luc Sante, Camille Paglia, Henry Lewis Gates, Noam Chomsky, Cornel West, Christopher Hitchens, Paul Berman—perhaps the purest descendent of the old Partisan Review crowd—and of course Russell Jacoby, author of "The Last Intellectuals." They're still writing about culture and politics, and many still live in New York. But the term "New York intellectual" had a specific meaning: that often-warring community of critics, essayists and journalists that thrived from the mid-'30s until—when? The mid-'60s, maybe, when their left-liberal politics and the high culture they revered took a hit (which keeps on hitting) from a coalition of the unwitting that included pop culture, New Left politics, a then-small number of academics influenced by the likes of Claude Levi-Strauss and Jacques Derrida—as well as America's perennial anti-intellectualism, once a menace, now the consensus. Maybe the end came in 1967, when a hippie-haired Robert Lowell demonstrated outside the Pentagon. Or maybe not until 2003, when Partisan Review officially died.

In part, the cult of the New York intellectual was a matter of personal mystique. It was a wonderful cast of characters, and it's a wonder nobody's made a movie about them all. The chubby, choleric, magisterial, hard-drinking, womanizing Wilson. The anarchic, quizzical, provocative, borderline-dangerous Mailer. The dashing, passionate, skunk-haired Sontag. Eventually the genteel Hardwick got dragged into a public scandal. Lowell, a manic-depressive, kept leaving her for other women; at last she sought a divorce—and he, without her permission, appropriated parts of her letters and phone calls in his 1973 collection "The Dolphin." Four years later he got her permission to come back: he was the love of her life, and she maintained that she'd never regretted marrying him. He died in a taxi on the way to her door.

But any group of people can produce some colorful specimens—one day Hitchens and Paglia could become legendary and nostalgic figures—some sad cases and some noble spirits. Who'd care about the New York intellectuals' personal lives if not for their work? They graced their time with a degree of thought and expression we may never again find in such abundance. And Elizabeth Hardwick was among the masters in that contentious and competitive era, when everyone seemed to read everyone else, sometimes in mutual admiration, sometimes with a stiletto near at hand. Hardwick had a gift for passionate yet acute appreciation. "There is a forlorn accent," she wrote in her short, rich biography of Herman Melville, "shadowing the great energy of his thought and imagination." She also had a bracing skepticism: "The pastoral and nostalgic mood does not desert him," she wrote of John Cheever, "even at the cost of common experience." Since it would be foolish to compete with Hardwick, she gets the second-to-last word here. Understandably, she gave much thought to death as that blue clock began to run down. She ends her 2004 Melville book with this sentence: "…This ornament and pride of our culture was to end his days with a sigh, a resigned, bearable, pedestrian loneliness." Five years later her obituary for Sontag struck a similar note of resignation: "Except in unusually desolating circumstances, human beings do not want to die. Medicines, hospitals, and so on are called upon to do what they can, and, that failing, there is not much to do except to surrender." Unmistakably personal, yet still "unconfiding"—Hardwick never boo-hooed on the page. But was there any more to be said?

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