by James Wallace Harris, 3/31/23
I nominated Come Back in September by Darryl Pinckney for my nonfiction book club because it was on some best-books-of-the-year lists at the end of 2022, and because it was about creative writing and literary people from the 1970s and 1980s. The book club members voted it in and Come Back in September was our March 2023 read.
However, I don’t think I can say, “Rush out and buy it.” It won’t be a bestseller, but I’d highly recommend it for a specific audience. If you have any of these qualities, you should read more of what I’ve got to say about the book below:
- Your twenties and thirties took place in the 1970s and 1980s
- You enjoy reading memoirs and autobiographies
- You majored in English
- You’ve taken or taught creative writing courses
- You enjoy reading and writing poetry
- You’re fascinated by the New York literary scene of the 1970 and 1980s
- You love The New York Review of Books
- You know about Robert B. Silvers and Barbara Epstein
- You’re interested in Mary McCarthy, Norman Mailer, and Susan Sontag
- You get a kick out of books with lots of name-dropping and gossip
- You’re interested in punk rock from the 1970s and 1980s
- You’re interested in black literature and writers
- You’re interested in feminist writers of the 1970s and 1980s
- You want to know about AIDs in New York in the 1980s
- You can handle terse prose that is detailed and highly episodic
Come Back in September is mostly about Darryl Pinckney and Elizabeth Hardwick, two people who were completely unknown to me. Both have achieved a certain level of success in the literary world, especially in New York City, but are far from famous.
Even though Pinckney dedicated Come Back in September to the memory of Barbara Epstein, I feel the book is mainly about Elizabeth Hardwick – she is pictured on the cover. Epstein and her husband Robert B. Silvers, along with Hardwick were the founders of The New York Review of Books. Epstein and Silvers coedited the magazine from 1963 to 2006 when Epstein died, and Silvers was the sole editor until 2017 when he died.
Elizabeth Hardwick was Pinckney’s writing teacher and mentor. She also hired him as an assistant and helper. They became personal friends. Evidently, through that connection, Pinckney got a job working in the mailroom at The New York Review of Books and getting to know Epstein and Silvers. Much of this memoir is about his life at the magazine in the 1970s and 1980s. If you are a fan of The New York Review of Books, then I recommend Come Back in September. Pinckney went from mailroom clerk to typist to substitute assistant to reviewer, writer, and I believe even doing some editing.
Pinckney was born in 1953, making him two years younger than I am, but still very relatable in age. He accomplished goals I only fantasized about achieving. Elizabeth Hardwick (1916-2007) was born the same year as my mother and died the same year as my mother too. So, I pictured Pinckney throughout his memoir as interacting with a woman my mother’s age. I tried picturing my mother, a white woman born in rural Mississippi, befriending a gay black man. She wouldn’t have been prejudiced against him, and I’m positive she would have loved the attention that Pinckney gave Hardwick. She would have considered him a much better son than me.
Most of the memories in the book are divided between Pinckney’s life with friends and family, and his life with the literary crowd, and most of those seem to deal with Hardwick. So, why does he dedicate the book to Barbara Epstein? Maybe she helped his career more because of her position.
While reading Come Back in September I kept thinking about all the things I was doing the same years while Pinckney was writing about them.
Pinckney first met Elizabeth Hardwick in 1973 and he opens his memoir with:
I made Elizabeth Hardwick laugh when I applied late to get into her creative writing class at Barnard College in the autumn of 1973. Not only could I, a black guy from Columbia across the street, rattle off a couple of middle-period Sylvia Plath poems when she asked me what I was reading—Blacklakeblackboattwoblackcutpaperpeople—I told her that my roommate said we would kidnap her daughter, Harriet, if she didn’t let me into the class. His sister was her daughter’s best friend. I’d met her at a party of his Dalton School friends. I was in. Where do the black trees go that drink here? Their shadows must cover Canada. I walked her to the subway at 116th Street and Broadway. Plath had come around once for her husband’s class when they lived in Boston. Professor Hardwick remembered her as almost docile, nothing like the poems that would make her famous. Professor Hardwick was fresh and put together. Her soft appearance made the tough things she said even funnier. In her walk, she rocked gently, from side to side. She was on the job, in a short black leather coat and green print scarf, carrying a stiff leather satchel with short handles just wide enough for a certain number of student manuscripts. I hadn’t yet seen her bound up from a chair and break free, flinging over her silk shoulder a silver evening bag on its chain, saying to an astonished table of graduate students and free spirits who’d just agreed among themselves that poetry was everywhere, —I’m sure you’re very nice, but I can’t bear that kind of talk. And then dancing away from their party because she’d rather be at home looking forward to Saturday night delivery of the Sunday New York Times. At our first official teacher-student conference in dingy Barnard Hall, I made Professor Hardwick laugh again, because I recited the last paragraph of Lillian Hellman’s memoir An Unfinished Woman: Although I do have a passing sadness for the self-made foolishness that was, is, and will be … —That fraud, Professor Hardwick said. She tried to do everything but have me killed. Six years earlier there had been a Mike Nichols revival of Hellman’s play The Little Foxes at Lincoln Center, and she, Hardwick, had reviewed it for The New York Review of Books, calling it awkward, didactic, and full of cliché. She didn’t believe in the South as an idea, she said. —Her use of black people, she said. You would die. Agrarianism was a bore. Had I read Allen Tate? A poet I’d never heard of. —You don’t need him. Faulkner? The Bear. —You do need him. But don’t ever do that again. —Excuse me? —Read Lillian. People were cutting me on the street. She got people to write letters. She told them, I’m not used to being attacked by someone who has been a guest in my house. I made up my mind that I didn’t care if I never went to another dinner party at Lillian’s. Dashiell Hammett was always trying to get away from her, for Patricia Neal. I was discovering so much: Rimbaud, Frank O’Hara, Baldwin’s essays, Gertrude Stein’s autobiography. Every day, from hour to hour, there was something new, a name to put on my list of names to reckon with. One afternoon I walked by an open door and a guy with long blond hair was at his upright, preparing to play. The music had poignance and a couple of other people also paused. My mother loved the piano, but I had never heard of Erik Satie. Friends and professors had a lot to tell me. Pinckney, Darryl. Come Back in September (pp. 3-5). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.
I quote so much of the opening pages to give you an idea of reading Pinckney’s prose. I had to pay close attention, and often reread lines to pick up on what he was saying. Pinckney’s prose reminds me of poetry, which involves short lines, that are tense, terse, vivid, detailed, and hard to read. On a superficial level, Pinckney’s prose reminds me of Hardwick’s novel Sleepless Nights, which I’ve just started. Both books are told in a long series of snippets of memories.
Our nonfiction book club rates books, 1 to 10, at the end of the month. I gave it a 10 even though I had problems with it. I think those problems were mine and not Pinckney’s. I admire Come Back in September quite a bit, but it’s just not something I always cared about, but I never stopped valuing its quality. My hunch is that Come Back in September is far more brilliant than I’m capable of perceiving.
This memoir is an amazing bit of memory excavation. I write about dredged-up memories all the time, so I know how hard it is, and I admire it when I see it done so much better than what I do.
I had problems with Pinckney’s writing style at first, but once I tuned into his way of expressing memories, I could see what he was doing. I don’t know if it was intentional, or if that’s how he thinks. His prose is very granular. He depends on the accumulation of memory flashes rather than one long consistent narrative.
I am reminded of Kurt Vonnegut’s technique. Vonnegut claimed to write his novels in 500-word chunks. Pinckney does something similar, but often his chunks are very short – just long enough to capture a significant moment of the past. Come Back in September covers the years 1973 to 1989 and is based on journals and letters, but I also expect deeply buried memories.
By our reading group’s rating scale, a 10 should be for books that we consider highly recommendable. I can’t say that’s true for this book. It’s highly recommendable if you are the right reader for this book, but I guess most readers won’t be. Still, I rated it a 10 for a group. I wasn’t the only one.
Now for the philosophical reading question. Should we always read books that are exactly like what we’ve trained ourselves to read? Even though my undergraduate degree is in English, and I’m a dropout from an MFA creative writing degree, Pinckney’s prose and subject matter were far outside of my normal stomping grounds. For the first half of the book, I had to push myself to read it. Eventually, I adapted and the second half became a page-turner.
I’m not sure if I will ever reread Come Back in September, but I think if I do, I will find a great deal more to get out of it. I’ve tried to find out more about Pinckney and Hardwick online. There’s a lot for Pinckney, he’s become somewhat successful over the years, but I believe Hardwick has become more obscure. I can’t find any videos of her at all, but within Come Back in September she expressed a distaste for that kind of attention.
A couple of years after the events in Come Back in September Pinckney published his first novel, High Cotton. It’s dedicated to his parents and sisters. Elizabeth Hardwick mentored and encouraged his writing during this time, so I was surprised she wasn’t mentioned in the dedication.
Another problem I had with the book, is all the big-name authors that Pinckney got to hang with back in the 1970s and 1980s are not ones I care about. How many people still read Mary McCarthy, Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, Robert Lowell, etc.? Still, I imagine for people who do, this book will delicious inside gossip.
Pinckney leaves me mostly interested in Elizabeth Hardwick. I’ve started Sleepless Nights, but so far I don’t like it. It’s too poetic. She shunned plots. I can read books without plots, but I need engaging characters and marvelous settings to make up for them. So far I haven’t found them.
Hardwick’s novel and Pinckney’s memoir are both about collecting memories and depending on the totality of those collected flashes of memories telling a story. That worked for Pinckney but it took a while, that may also be true for Hardwick.