Sometime in 1975, the writer Darryl Pinckney, then a senior at Columbia, was hanging out in the novelist Elizabeth Hardwick’s apartment on the Upper West Side. Pinckney had applied to Hardwick’s creative-writing class at Barnard the year before, and soon became a fixture in the apartment she shared with her teenage daughter, Harriet.
That evening, he was pretending to watch a Rolling Stones concert on TV with Harriet, while eavesdropping on Hardwick’s conversations with the other guests, among them Barbara Epstein, one of the founding co-editors of The New York Review of Books, and Susan Sontag, “the writer mocked as the most intelligent woman in America.”
Later, when Pinckney stood up to chaperone Harriet to a party somewhere else, Hardwick asked him to stay on for a while. “My cub!,” she exclaimed, by way of introduction to her friends. “Saigon had fallen,” Pinckney writes in his memoir, Come Back in September: A Literary Education on West Sixty-Seventh Street, Manhattan, “and I was in Professor Hardwick’s living room with Susan Sontag.”
Pinckney’s account of his languid cub years, before he would become an acclaimed essayist, novelist, and playwright, doubles up as a portrait of Hardwick in her prime, the period when she was working on her magnum opus, Sleepless Nights. He is a meticulous Boswell figure, tracking her daily moods, her progress with the manuscript, her insomnia, her aphoristic wit, her tempestuous marriage with and divorce from the poet Robert Lowell, her summers in Maine, her presence at the center of literary Manhattan. He is comfortable with her silences and respectful of the affinities and evasions necessary to a writer’s temperament: the books re-read, the themes obsessively explored, the nights spent mulling over a sentence or a paragraph.
Pinckney’s parents, in Indiana, would have liked him to go to law school. When he failed to graduate in his senior year because of an incomplete science requirement, his mother told him, “You’re the first person in the family since slavery not to have a college degree.” There he was in New York, getting by on measly jobs through his 20s, and worse, hanging out with an older white woman on the weekends.
“She expected me to know more than I did,” Pinckney writes of his mentor. Just like Hardwick, he became a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books: his early essays on, among others, Zora Neale Hurston and James Baldwin, wouldn’t have been possible without her encouragement. For a while, after Lowell’s death, in 1977, Hardwick even employed Pinckney as her assistant.
Pinckney manages to be revelatory without being indelicate: about Hardwick’s disdain for “upper-class Britishness” following Lowell’s marriage to the novelist Lady Caroline Blackwood; about the passive-aggressive dynamic between Epstein and her co-editor, Bob Silvers, inside the offices of The New York Review of Books; about the poet Sterling Brown and his condescending ways (he once called Hardwick a “cracker”); about the writer Lucy Sante, Pinckney’s closest friend, consumed by Brecht and the Situationists through the 70s.
The book transitions intermittently into party reports and sidelong snapshots of the city’s underground music and arts scenes. Pinckney deftly memorializes the concatenation of energies in midcentury New York, much like the wunderkind Bombay poet Dom Moraes, whose memoir, My Son’s Father, thrillingly captured the bohemian Soho vibe in 60s London.
Here is the great Jean-Michel Basquiat, “a moody tag artist” when Pinckney first encounters him, scrawling over every surface of his friends’ rented apartments. The filmmaker Jim Jarmusch shows up as Sante’s roommate and friend. This is the era of anarchic New York nightspots—the Loft, CBGB, the Mudd Club—while at the same time, in Pinckney’s words, “every week your idols were reading downtown in the East Village or at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project.” One moment Pinckney is discussing the writer V. S. Naipaul’s prickly misogyny, the next he is getting high at a concert or sex club.
AIDS is the tragic hook to Pinckney’s lyrical evocation of his youth. It is heartbreaking to read about his college roommate and acquaintances he partied with—so many in his circle were dead within a decade.
Pinckney alludes to other personal calamities—his father’s and sister’s respective mental illnesses, his own drug addiction and stint in rehab—but you get the sense that those are chapters of a different story. Come Back in September is, in many ways, a classic Künstlerroman, and Hardwick the lodestar of Pinckney’s literary ambition. On every page you encounter an older writer re-creating, with immense individual flair, his younger self’s capacity for experience, the adolescent impulse to render everything that happened as equally important.
Be it the awkwardness of Hardwick’s reading voice, or the dishes punctually piled up on the sink in her apartment, Pinckney casts an intimate and cool glance on the woman who changed his life.
Abhrajyoti Chakraborty is a New Delhi–based writer and critic