Each collected object or manuscript is a pre-articulate empty theatre where a thought may surprise itself at the instant of seeing. Where a thought may hear itself see.
These words, from Susan Howe’s Spontaneous Particulars: The Telepathy of Archives (2014) convey not only the collaborative nature of archival research but also the element of chance involved. In the archive each object reverberates with potential meaning; each object awaits a potential audience. The encounter has the spontaneity and the buzz of live performance. But there is also something séance-like about archival practice: a sense that we are in communication with the dead. As Howe put it, in an interview with the Paris Review: ‘There’s a level at which words are spirit and paper is skin. That’s the fascination of archives. There’s still a bodily trace’.
In the archive, what direction are we pulled in, and why? This question extends beyond archival practices to the act of reading itself. ‘If a literary text does something to its readers,’ writes Wolfgang Iser, ‘it also simultaneously tells us something about them’. Literature, Iser tells us, becomes ‘a divining rod, locating our dispositions, desires, inclinations, and eventually our overall make up’. Perhaps this why our relationship with written work – and by extension its author – is so personal: it’s an affinity bordering on ownership.
The title of Susan Howe’s best known work –My Emily Dickinson (2007) acknowledges this sense of affinity and ownership. Howe champions the idiosyncratic style found in Emily Dickinson’s hand-written manuscripts and rallies against the history of (male) editorial interference in the publishing of her work. Early in the book Howe tells us that when Emily Dickinson read about George Eliot’s death she wrote the following in a letter to her cousins: ‘The look of words as they lay in the print I shall never forget. Not their face in the casket could have had the eternity to me. Now, my George Eliot’. And here is Howe, critically addressing the portrait of Emily Dickinson found in Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s The Mad Woman in the Attic (1979): ‘Who is this Spider-Artist?’ She answers: ‘Not my Emily Dickinson’.
Which brings me to Elizabeth Hardwick and my own peculiar sense of ownership. The affinity began, as it most often does, by reading her work. This feeling grew after the intimate experience of coming into contact with her archived papers. Hardwick’s reputation is most often aligned with her literary critical work at the New York Review of Books but I came to Hardwick through her fiction, specifically Sleepless Nights (2001). She wrote two other novels, The Ghostly Lover (1986) and The Simple Truth (1982), as well as several books of criticism and essays including A View of My Own: Essays on Literature and Society (1962), Seduction and Betrayal: Women and Literature (2001) and her collected work American Fictions (1999). A short story collection, The New York Stories of Elizabeth Hardwick (2010) was published posthumously.
I was in Istanbul when I first read Sleepless Nights – lying on a mattress on the floor in my rented apartment. While I read the novel I could hear, in the background, the sound of evening prayer amplified and echoing over the city through cracking speakers. The apartment block where I was staying felt empty. Not once did I pass anyone in the steep spiral staircase or at the entrance of the building. Instead I noticed other signs of life: music or slithers of conversations in a language I couldn’t understand, a woman singing in the apartment below. I noticed when the slippers she kept outside her front door changed position and sometimes I could smell what she was cooking.
I picked up the novel one afternoon and had finished by early morning. The book had been in my bookcase at home in Sydney for months. Sometimes I opened it and skimmed the pages. When I was packing for an overseas trip I tossed it in my suitcase. This time I read the novel in a kind of rapture – resisting the urge to read with a pencil in hand, to underline every second sentence.
Almost a year to the date after I read Sleepless Nights I visited the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Austin to examine Elizabeth Hardwick’s papers. The archive is famous for its vast collection of treasures, which include, among others, the Gutenberg Bible and Edgar Allen Poe’s writing desk. Walking through the building it is impossible not to notice the collection of sculpted busts on display: memorials to James Joyce, Walt Whitman, Jean Cocteau, and William Carlos Williams, to name a few. The busts sit on top of index card shelves, on tables and bookcases. Inside the Hazel H. Ransom Reading Room, on the librarian’s desk, I noticed, among her knick-knacks, several photographs of the female Ransom staff posing alongside the busts. When I showed my appreciation the librarian chuckled. ‘Oh, yes,’ she said, ‘In here, we are surrounded by men.’
Elizabeth Hardwick’s papers were not in high demand. David Foster Wallace’s collection (one of the archive’s more famous and recent acquisitions) takes up 47 boxes. Hardwick has eleven. Seven boxes of material were acquired in 1991 and an additional four boxes in 2002. Hardwick died in 2007. These dates are important because it means Hardwick had a curatorial hand in choosing what she wanted to archive. She did not, for instance, archive any diaries or notebooks. Her papers include draft manuscripts of her last major works including Sleepless Nights, but there are also speech drafts, reviews, photographs and received correspondence. In the ‘Scope and Contents’ description of Hardwick’s papers it reads: ‘The collection should be of particular interest to scholars of Robert Lowell.’ Oh, yes.
Robert Lowell was, of course, one of America’s most celebrated poets. He was also Hardwick’s husband for nineteen years. But let’s go back.
Elizabeth Hardwick was born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1916. She moved to New York in 1940 to study as an English graduate student at Columbia. She once said she moved to New York with aspirations of becoming a Jewish intellectual. Jewish, she would later clarify, in the sense of ‘an angular vision, love of learning, cosmopolitanism, a word that practically means Jewish in Soviet lexicography.’ Hardwick grew up in the evangelical and segregated South reading copies of Partisan Review: the radical publication that would later launch her literary career. By the time she arrived in New York she had already been a ‘Commie and ex-Commie’ and for a while she lived in a seedy hotel near Times Square in a ‘mariage blanc’ with her gay friend from Kentucky, Greer Johnson. It was Johnson who led Hardwick into the world of jazz. During this period she wrote short stories. She met Billie Holiday. All of this she would later fictionalise in Sleepless Nights.
Hardwick never did finish her PhD. After three years she left Columbia to write her first novel, The Ghostly Lover. It was her fiction that brought her to the attention of Phillip Rahv, editor and co-founder of Partisan Review. After the publication of The Ghostly Lover Rahv and Hardwick met. ‘I weighed about ten pounds then,’ Hardwick told Hilton Als in 1998, ‘skinny, smoking, and he was quite surprised that I had read everything’. Writing for Partisan Review and later for The New York Review of Books (which she co-founded in 1963) gave Hardwick license to explore the outer edges of the essay form in a way that would not have been possible within the academy.
Hardwick’s literary essays reflect her expressed belief that the form could be as imaginative as fiction. In 1959, she wrote an essay for Harper’s lamenting what she saw as the decline of book reviewing; ‘The flat praise and the faint dissension, the minimal style and the light little article.’ Later, she would label biography ‘a scrofulous cottage industry.’ The last book Hardwick wrote was a biography of Herman Melville. In it she writes, ‘Melville didn’t want to be known; he is someone who treasures, insists on anonymity’. And yet in Herman Melville (2000) and indeed in the majority of her literary critical work, Hardwick’s strength is her expert negotiation of relevant ways her subject’s life and work intertwined. On this approach, Darryl Pinckney, the writer and close friend of Hardwick’s, has written:
A writer’s work has a life separate from that of the writer, Hardwick maintained, but she liked to read the work in view of the life, because the act of composition was for her above all a human drama’.
The writing of biography, Hardwick knew, is subject to the same technical questions that govern fiction but with an added ethical dilemma. Namely, that the writer must choose from one of many possible narratives, focus on one of many possible plots or themes, with the knowledge that this act of selection will fundamentally influence the representation at hand. We encounter the same dilemma in the archive: how to construct, from a lifetime of papers, a singular portrait of the author? It is impossible to include everything. For Hardwick, the problem with biography seems to be the bold stamp of ‘nonfiction’ tied to a genre with enormous potential for manipulation. In Herman Melville Hardwick paints a vivid portrait but she is also at pains to keep the author’s mysteriousness intact. She is clear about the things she cannot possibly know. ‘Biographers, the quick pursuit of the dead, research, organise, fill in, contradict,’ wrote Hardwick in 1982, spurred on by reading Joan Givner’s biography of Katherine Anne Porter. She continues:
Our power of documentation has a monstrous life of its own, a greater vivacity than any lived experience. It makes form out of particles and finds attitude in a remembered drunken remark as easily as in a long contemplation of experience – more easily in fact. It creates out of paper a heavy, obdurate permanency.
Which is to say – as Peter Handke once did – that the formulation of lived experience (whether our own or someone else’s) is a kind of fiction itself. Memories are suspect, relationships sour and rekindle, and our understanding of the past is in a constant state of transformation.
We learn from the first page of Sleepless Nights that the narrator (named Elizabeth) is writing a work of ‘transformed and even distorted memory.’ The narrative then proceeds to include, in fact explicitly to reference, places, dates, and events correlating with Hardwick’s own life. ‘Why didn’t you change your name?’ Elizabeth asks, midway through the novel, ‘Then you could make up anything you like, without it seeming to be true when all of it is not. I do not know the answer’.
Sleepless Nights is often referred to as an autobiographical novel but I would argue that it is, above anything else, a performance of the act of fictionalising. Sleepless Nights is anti-autobiography in the sense that Hardwick embraced the novel as the form best suited to examining lived experience in all its complexity. In Sleepless Nights, a woman remembers and writes about various scenes and people in her life. In this act of writing (and of remembering and fictionalising) memories are found, questioned, imagined, and reshaped. ‘If one only knew what to remember or pretend to remember,’ writes Elizabeth, ‘Make a decision and what you want from the lost things will present itself. You can take it down like a can from a shelf. Perhaps.’
Writing about Hardwick’s work in view of her life is no easy task. This is, in part, because she seems to resist the approach she so successfully applied to others in her own critical work. But it is also because the controversy that followed Lowell’s publication of The Dolphin (1973) has never dulled and, at times, hangs over discussions of her work like an ominous cloud. And yet, to write about the work Hardwick published in the 1970s, without reference to Lowell, seems impossible.
If there is a particular part of Hardwick’s ‘real life’ that is well known, it is her marriage to Lowell, not least because it was mythologised in The Dolphin. Early on in their relationship, in 1949, Lowell wrote to Hardwick from hospital:
How would you care to be engaged? Like a debutant. WILL YOU?
How happy we’ll be together writing the world’s masterpieces, swimming, and washing dishes.
P.S. Reading The Idiot again.
Before this proposal Hardwick had written to Lowell: ‘I feel so happy about you that I’m suspiciously dizzy and in fact it may be true, as the rumour goes to my chagrin, that I’ve had a nervous breakdown’. During their long marriage it was Lowell who suffered from the breakdowns. His bouts of manic-depression often began with an affair and ended in his hospitalisation. In 1954, Hardwick wrote to a friend about Lowell’s latest episode: ‘I know it will not be the last. Can I endure it?’.
Endure it she did until 1970 when Lowell left Hardwick for Lady Caroline Blackwood. The two had met in England while Lowell was teaching at Oxford. Letters, telephone calls, and telegrams passed between Hardwick and Lowell about his leaving. There was talk about his mental state and, at times, Lowell expressed his desire for Hardwick to take him back. But by 1972 Lowell had made up his mind. He and Blackwood flew to the Dominican Republic for a divorce/marriage package (Blackwood also had to get divorced). In 1973 Lowell published, alongside two other works, The Dolphin: a collection of poems directly addressing the end of his marriage to Hardwick and his new life with Blackwood. In several poems Lowell took lines from Hardwick’s letters, edited them, and published them enclosed in speech marks.
Elizabeth Bishop attempted to persuade him not publish the poems depicting Hardwick’s letters. In a letter dated March 21 1972, she writes:
One can use one’s life material – one does, anyway – but these letters – aren’t you violating a trust? IF you were given permission – IF you hadn’t changed them . . . etc. But art just isn’t worth that much.
In reply Lowell writes: ‘The trouble is the letters make the book, I think, at least they make Lizzie real beyond my invention’. Consider this intention––‘real beyond invention’––against Hardwick’s own novel of ‘distorted memory’ that was published six years later. In Sleepless Nights, Hardwick’s narrator both encourages and undermines any conflation between author and author-as-persona. In contrast, The Dolphin encourages, in fact insists upon, an autobiographical reading.
Adrienne Rich famously called Lowell’s inclusion of the letter poems ‘one of the most vindictive and mean-spirited acts in the history of poetry’. In 1997, Hazel Rowley visited the Ransom Center to examine Lowell’s papers. After viewing his received correspondence and draft manuscripts of The Dolphin, she outlined the various edits Lowell made to Hardwick’s original letters. Rowley went on to argue that, because of the edits, Hardwick appears ‘more angry, more resentful, less dignified.’ The Dolphin won a Pulitzer Prize in 1974.
Three years later in 1977, when Lowell died in a taxi from JFK on his way to the apartment he and Hardwick once shared, he was apparently returning for good. When he died, Lowell had with him in the back of the taxi, a portrait of Blackwood painted by Lucien Freud. He had taken it to New York to have it valued. Much has been written about the Lowell-Hardwick-Blackwood triangle and it remains difficult to make an assumption about how it ended or even what influence it had on Hardwick’s work. But the fact that Lowell died with a portrait of his new wife, on his way to be reunited with his ex-wife, is an achingly evocative image of what had passed between the three over seven years.
The real letters between Lowell and Hardwick from this period (or at least, the ones I was able to read at the Ransom Center) are sombre, angry, comical, and endearing. There are emotionally fraught letters and ones discussing books they’ve recently read. In certain letters Lowell refers to Hardwick working on something autobiographical in her notebook, something she had jokingly titled ‘Smiling Through’. But she never went on to publish anything that explicitly addressed the letter poems or the end of her marriage to Lowell. And we learn from her archived papers (in a letter to Ian Hamilton) that she ‘tore [her notebook] up like many another false start’. (Lowell to Hardwick in a letter dated October 1 1971: ‘Whatever you do, don’t burn your Notebook! I hope to live in it long after I’m dirt’).
In Hardwick’s papers there are copies of her correspondence with numerous writers pursuing biographical projects about Lowell and her responses range from legal action to mild apprehension. The fact that Hardwick archived her responses is significant. In a letter to Paul Mariani dated February 91992, Hardwick writes: ‘I know you are proceding [sic] with your work on Cal [Lowell]. There’s been so much written about him that I can’t say I look forward to more. As for me I have said, somewhere or other, all I have to say.’
For Hardwick, the ‘somewhere or other’ seems to be more in her essays than in her fiction. Oscar Wilde’s insight, by way of Harold Bloom, about criticism being ‘the only cilvilised form of autobiography’ seems remarkably apt in considering the essays Hardwick wrote in the 1970s. They were collected and published as Seduction and Betrayal: Women and Literature in 1974 (and republished in 2001). In this collection Hardwick examines, among others, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Zelda Fitzgerald, Jane Carlyle, and the heroines of Ibsen’s plays. Her interpretations often point to the intersection where social and historical implications of gender affected the representation, reception and ambitions of female characters and authors.
In 1971 Mary McCarthy wrote to Hardwick of the ‘personal references’ she sensed in the essay on Ibsen’s love triangle in Rosmersholm, ‘which gave it a sort of extra voltage like highly charged wire’. She writes: ‘But I don’t see anything wrong with that; maybe literary criticism should be more personal and speak from the heart’. Here are two examples of the ‘extra voltage’ in Hardwick’s essay:
It is a play about death perhaps, the death of the hunter, in this case a woman, who returns from her trip into the forest of sexual competition with two bleeding carcasses and a feeling of futility.
Heaven is not likely to send a desperate, strong-willed woman of thirty an interesting unmarried man. No, it will send her someone’s husband and tell her to dispose of the wife as best she can.
Hardwick maintained that her interpretations in Seduction and Betrayal were autonomous from her own situation. Archived with Hardwick’s papers is a fax she sent to Hilton Als in response to questions for his New Yorker profile: ‘I don’t think Seduction and Betrayal grew out of my life with Lowell. It actually had its origin in some lectures I gave on Ibsen at Princeton’.
Maybe so – but it is easy to read Hardwick’s own sense of betrayal in the essays she wrote during the 1970s. Darryl Pinckney (who was her student in 1973) remembers Hardwick telling her class at Barnard College, ‘There are really only two reasons to write: desperation or revenge’. To be sure, Hardwick’s essay topics were diverse. She wrote on Boston and Bernard Berenson, on Selma and on Martin Luther King. Later in life she developed an interest in the publicity of the crime trial and wrote on O.J. Simpson and the Menendez Brothers. But the two topics she returned to consistently throughout her life were women and literature. In 1959 Hardwick published ‘I’ve Been Reading: On Reading the Writing of Women’ in the Columbia University Forum. Far from being a celebratory list the essay is a nuanced inquiry into Hardwick’s own complex feelings. She writes:
when I admit to myself the half-hostile but helplessly fascinated involvement I feel with women’s writing, I excuse myself by remembering the effort I have put into reading and thinking about their work.
In 1973, Hardwick published an excerpt of her novel in-progress in the New York Review of Books. Six years later that work would evolve into Sleepless Nights. By then, it had been thirty years since she had published fiction in the first-person. As Darryl Pinckney has noted, the first-person voice we encounter in Sleepless Nights recalls Hardwick’s early essays for Partisan Review. But in the 1973 excerpt, which aptly appeared under the heading “Writing a Novel,” the narrative oscillates between first-person and third-person, and it ends with Hardwick’s narrator wondering whether to call herself ‘I or she.’ According to Pinckney, Stuart Hampshire would later tell Hardwick that “Writing a Novel” was ‘such an intense performance that he didn’t see where she could go after it or how she could sustain a work at such a pitch.’ The performance can be understood as Hardwick trying on different authorial personas; trying to figure out how to fictionalise her story. Questions of form dominate the narrative. Certain fragments take the form of letters. They are ambiguously addressed to ‘M.’ and signed ‘Elizabeth.’ In the paragraph after one such letter the narrator muses, ‘Was that written for the archives? Who is speaking?’
In letters, we construct a persona of ourselves according to the addressee. Who is this authorial persona? Who is speaking? This was, in fact, a question Hardwick pursued early in her career. In 1953, she writes: ‘Letters are above all useful as a means of expressing the ideal self; and no other method of communication is quite so good for this purpose’. In 1961 she edited Selected Letters by William James (1961) and wrote admiringly of his letters, in which ‘unrevised and personal moments have an authenticity utterly innocent of posthumous longings’. But Hardwick also admired the kind of letter that depicted daily life as though it were fiction. On Jane Carlyle’s letters she wrote: ‘[they] are more brilliant, lively, and enduring than all except the best novels of the period’. For Hardwick, then, letters fall into two broad categories: the private letter and the letter written for the archives.
Letters and journal entries are scattered throughout Sleepless Nights. They situate the narrator in time and place in an otherwise disjointed narrative by, at times, directly alluding to Apollinaire’s poem. Here I am – writes Elizabeth from New York, Amsterdam, Boston, Maine, Kentucky (all places in which Hardwick lived.) But the use of letters and journal entries is also strategic: they act as a catalyst for the narrator to remember certain scenes from her life. The first letter to appear in the novel reads ‘1959 Dearest M.: Here I am in Boston, on Marlborough Street, number 239’.
To write a letter is to mark time. The horror we sometimes experience in reading our old love letters or journal entries is rooted in the fear of the unfamiliar: we no longer recognise ourselves in the words we once wrote. In Sleepless Nights the letters are written in the present tense (here I am) while the journal entries appear retrospectively (there I was). The effect of this is a kind of echoing call and response between the ghosts of the narrator’s former selves. Kafka, in Letters to Milena (1953) speaks of letter writing as
a communication with spectres, not only with the spectre of the addressee but also with one’s own phantom, which evolves underneath one’s own hand in the very letter one is writing or even in a series of letters, where one letter reinforces the other and can refer to it as witness (Kafka quoted in Altman 1982)
Just as the addressee of a letter informs the persona adopted by the addresser, in Sleepless Nights, Hardwick’s narrator begins to write her novel and is struck by two questions: what memory should I fictionalise and (therefore) what kind of self will I construct?
At the Harry Ransom Center, leafing through Hardwick’s papers, I wondered if she had asked herself what to archive. How far can the idea of an authorial persona extend? Is there a correlation between the construction of an author-as-persona in the literary text and the curatorial process involved in choosing what to archive? The knowledge we gain from spending time with the intimate documents of someone’s life (documents that were archived while the author was still alive) has to depend, in some part, on what they chose to preserve and what we suspect they left out. Of course, our own experience enters into this pursuit of knowledge. How do we read their papers? What direction are we pulled in, and why? In the archive two minds meet in the middle.
When I visited the archive my intention was to focus on Hardwick’s draft manuscripts of Sleepless Nights but I inevitably felt the pull of her received correspondence. ‘Tear this letter up,’ writes Darryl Pinckney from Berlin to Hardwick in New York. The correspondence between Hardwick and Pinckney spans 25 years (1976-2001). And, of course, out of all of Hardwick’s received correspondence, Pinckney’s letters were the most engrossing. Not for literary gossip but for the insights, emotional terrain, anecdotes, ideas, commentary on political and social matters of the time, the humour. More than anything else Pinckney’s letters are simply well written. They could be short stories or monologues.
Without a biography of Hardwick it has been Darryl Pinckney, more so than anyone else, who has given us a portrait of the writer in the form of essays, interview, introductions to her work, and eulogy. It was Pinckney who selected the stories included in her posthumously published collection. In his introduction to the work he writes:
Her whole body was engaged when she got into the rhythm of her conversation. She touched her hair; she touched the arm of the person she was talking to; her hands conducted the music of the point she was making. When being ironic, mischievous, she rocked her shoulders like Louis Armstrong.
Pinckney’s letters to Hardwick take up almost an entire box of her small collection and, without access to her responses, the reader must look for clues in his letters for the content of her replies. Likewise, although Hardwick’s letters to Lowell are also archived in Austin, not all of them survived. In May 1971, when Lowell was eager to sell his papers, he wrote to Hardwick: ‘I understand your not wanting your letters mingled in the pile’.Then, two months later: ‘I’ve mislaid your letters (not lost) and don’t know how we agree on correspondence …’.
At the Ransom Center, after long days of reading Hardwick’s received correspondence, I was reminded that the art of letter writing is surely dead. In emails, and in other online conversations, there is a digital archive present at all times. In Hardwick’s correspondence I found apologies for things that may have been said in a previous letter, retractions of a sentence written earlier on the page (to delete it would require manually typing out the entire letter again) corrections and post-script notes made in pen. There was, in other words, physical evidence of the drafting process.
In an email this labour is invisible. For many people written communication now takes the form of instant messaging. It is less fragmentary and more staccato: a seemingly endless (albeit jumpy) flow of something like conversation. It will be interesting to see how this method of communication affects writing, thinking, self-expression, archiving, and privacy.
Am I being too nostalgic? Nothing romanticises the letter more than reading one in an archive where they are preserved in an air temperature controlled room and delivered to you covered in a sheet of protective plastic. With certain archival collections it may be necessary to wear white protective gloves. This is, of course, completely practical and necessary for preservation but it also, interestingly, makes the researcher appear as if they are digging through a crime scene.
To be curious in our time is to be surrounded by temptation and instantaneous satisfaction. Never has it been so easy to retrieve information about people, living or dead. This kind of snooping, whether professional or purely for entertainment, often takes place in anonymity and on a screen. To sit in an archive library and pour over personal letters is to feel like a spy and this has everything to do with the idea of audience. The letter is the only form of writing that, by way of formal convention, directly addresses its intended audience. In the archive, it is an undeniably intimate experience to hold someone else’s possessions in your hand, let alone read a letter that is clearly not addressed to you. And, of course, this only contributes to the thrill (Susan Howe: ‘what is forbidden is wild’). That we engage in archival research in a room with other researchers and staff also elicits a kind of performance. At the Ransom Center I found myself turning pages extra slowly, I held letters and photographs by their edges with extreme and unnecessary precaution. I engaged in the performance of spying in a very serious and self-conscious manner.
In the archive, Howe writes, ‘we may capture the portrait of history in so-called insignificant visual and verbal textualities and textiles.’ In Hardwick’s papers I found coffee stains and lipstick smudges. Notes were scrawled in large, almost indecipherable handwriting, on the backs of Barnard College slips and on paper with the New York Review of Books letter heading: the stationery of her working life. In reading the draft manuscripts of Sleepless Nights I found a parallel between her once work-in-progress and the published book. In her manuscripts the process of writing (and editing) is traceable: new sections are stapled over old ones, certain words are changed in blue and red ink, and the words ‘Extra spaces here’ appear under certain fragments. In the published work this process is fictionalised via the narrator’s musings about what to include in her story and what to omit. For instance, towards the end of ‘Part Three’ the narrator writes: ‘That was all. Goodbye’ before proceeding with
Goodbye? I have left out my abortion, left out running from the pale, frightened doctors and their sallow, furious wives in the grimy, curtained offices on West End Avenue.
Or at the very end of the novel where the narrator writes:
Oh, M., when I think of the people I have buried, North and South. Yet, why is it that we cannot keep the note of irony, the jangle of carelessness at a distance? Sentences in which I have tried for a certain light tone– many of those have to do with events, upheavals, destructions that caused me to weep like a child.
In Austin, after spending long days in the library looking for clues and trying to read between the lines, I was high-wired for observing, for blowing up the so-called small and insignificant, and for eavesdropping. I spoke very little. I said hello to the staff at the library in the morning and goodbye when I left. Sitting on the bus, or in a bar, or when eating a lonely Mexican dinner (which I did almost every night with upbeat mariachi music playing in the background) I wrote down snatches of conversations or the things that I saw. ‘When you travel,’ writes Hardwick in Sleepless Nights, ‘your first discovery is that you don’t exist.’ The narrator of the novel is an observer of others. We get glimpses of her character via what she chooses to remember, what she chooses to witness. In a 1979 interview Hardwick said:
I suppose there is unconscious identification with damaged, desperate women on the streets, cleaning women, rotters in midtown hotels, failed persons of all kinds. C’est moi, in some sense.
Perhaps the best kind of biographical writing, or at least the most ethical kind, is the kind that is forthright about the things we cannot possibly know. Writing that owns its own bias – in which the author openly acknowledges their relationship with the subject and their work, even if it means they have to enter into someone else’s story.
Often, what we choose to witness, what captures our attention, says more about ourselves than about our subject. This is surely a complex endeavour. How to wrestle with this? How to write about the work in view of the life? How to navigate the archive? How to account for the intimacy of reading and for the multiplicity of interpretation? ‘I go to libraries because they are the ocean’ writes Susan Howe. To begin with, by embracing the pull of the tide, and by acknowledging, even investigating, reasons why we drift in a certain direction.
Research for this essay is supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship.
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