Come Back in September — a literary education in New York

“I’m here on the edge of metamorphosis.” So reads the epigraph — borrowed from the Martinican poet Aimé Césaire — to Darryl Pinckney’s Come Back in September. A vivid account of the “literary education” of the acclaimed critic of African-American letters, the memoir is based mostly on decades-old diary entries, interspersed with present-day reflection.

“Here” is New York in the 1970s, with Pinckney enrolled at Columbia University; the “education” a product of the mentorship-cum-friendship that resulted from his seeing off competition to be admitted to a creative writing course with Elizabeth Hardwick, a linchpin of the city’s world of letters and regular contributor to the influential New York Review of Books, which she co-founded.

As Pinckney spends more and more time at Hardwick’s West 67th Street home (for some time, his mother rings from Indiana to thank Hardwick for ensuring that he eats on a Sunday), his knowledge of the literary canon grows. And although poetry outranks other genres in Hardwick’s milieu, partly for its creative stimulation — in tribute, lines of verse pepper Pinckney’s stylish prose — her living room is so thick with books of all kinds that “every day, from hour to hour, there was something new, a name to put on my list of names to reckon with”. 

Meanwhile, we follow Pinckney as he is gradually inducted — with the aid of Barbara Epstein, Hardwick’s neighbour and co-founder of the NYRB — into leading cultural circles in New York. As an editorial assistant and in his spare time, he rubs shoulders with such figures as James Baldwin, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Angela Carter, Sigrid Nunez, Stephen Spender, Philip Roth and Derek Walcott. Susan Sontag, rumoured to pen “her essays in a marathon of typing, smoking, and speed”, and the novelist Mary McCarthy put in regular appearances.

Inevitably, much of the book is concerned with two major players in Hardwick’s life: the poet Robert Lowell, her former husband, whose infidelity is recorded in his 1973 collection The Dolphin, and the NYRB. But Pinckney captures both light and shade, so that if Epstein and Robert Silvers, her co-editor, are guilty of flinging around galley proofs in their “theater of secrets and American intellectual history”, they also take time to bring Pinckney on by discussing edits of his work.

The strains of easing into adulthood and one’s own sense of self, along with literature’s power to ease such strains, are on display as Pinckney, like most young adults, chafes at his parents’ outlook and yearns to be freer — but not rid — of them.

Although they do not stand in his way, his parents seem to fear the precarity of the writing life in contrast to a career in law. But meeting Hardwick, and reading with her, banishes any alternative. The fact that the “Bloomsbury [Group] was British, gay and upper class [was] everything a black American queer could want”, he recalls, even if his mentor largely “found the British unbearable”.

Also helpful is the fact that Pinckney’s city is an exuberant “festival of skipped classes, adored classes, weed, burgers, book quotation, booze, films, acid, music, and staring at a quietly pulsing candle on the floor when there was nothing left to say and still everything to wish for” — although repeated parenthetical references in the present to “he died of Aids” point to future grief.

At the heart of the book — which succeeds in capturing idiosyncrasies as well as a cultural and political era — lies Pinckney’s loving relationship with Hardwick. Its depiction is all the more fond for his frankness. Quoted and paraphrased so often that she in effect becomes the protagonist, Hardwick laments her mentee’s early attempts at poetry but is a constant source of encouragement, as well as “unlimited amounts of Mouton Cadet, red and white”.

Pinckney has also starkly cast Hardwick as “a white woman of distinction and I the mugger on an episode of Hill Street Blues”, adding that “she had position and I had none. Yet the vulnerability was hers, not mine.” Eschewing autobiographical convention in form and theme, Come Back in September is a compelling paean to a vital, if unlikely, friendship.

Come Back in September: A Literary Education on West Sixty-Seventh Street, Manhattan by Darryl Pinckney, Riverrun £30/Farrar, Straus & Giroux $32, 432 pages

Franklin Nelson is an FT editor and writer

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