Promises, Promises

BOOKS

Bartleby in Manhattan and Other Essays By Elizabeth Hardwick Random House; $15.95

IT IS DIFFICULT to read Elizabeth Hardwick's third book of essays. "Bartleby in Manhattan", without a growing sense of irritation and dismay. Hardwick is a wordsmith who cannot, apparently, control her craft; her essays meander and bring one at long last to a denouement of sorts, without ever really engaging one's interest. She writes with constant reference to pundits both past and present, but without really linking her own criticisms and those she cites to form a coherent whole. A Columbia English professor, Hardwick is strongest with literary criticism, but weaker on popular issues. All too often she writes cryptically of popular media creations such as Billy Graham and, she suggests. Martin Luther King Jr. or rites of passage, such as the assassination of John F. Kennedy, '40. The Oswald Family"), and the past two decades ("Domestic Manners"), without revealing anything more than her own distaste for her subject.

Hardwick is often unenlightening just when she claims to be at her most revealing. Having savaged Lee Harvey Oswald as an unappealing holdover from the Depression years, she caps her appraisal with reference to his sex life:

...we are not surprised when, upon the release of the [Warren] Report, sev makes an entrance into his drama. We are told he was a poor performer there, too.

This aside is utterly gratuitous, adding nothing to the essay or to the understanding of its protagonist. It is fashionable these days to equate sexual performance with success in other fields, but surely it is inappropriate (and rather mean-spirited) to drag in the old war-horse here.

More often Hardwick turns her ideas into parlor tricks, lessons in obfuscation:

Only the forgetful can easily ignore the duplicity practiced upon the defining imagination by the sudden obsolescence of attitudes and styles just past, styles that collapsed or scattered into fragments just as one had felt free to identify them as facts, changes, alterations of consciousness, shifting of power or threats to power.

Completing such a sentence is not guarantee one will finish with any sense of its meaning. Just what Hardwick does mean about the subjects of her essays is often a question that goes unanswered. She seems more concerned with her prose than with her reader, and the erudition generally obscures whatever ideas prompted her to write the piece.

ONLY WHEN HARDWICK focuses upon a work of fiction does she unite form with content. The title essay, "Bartleby in Manhattan", is one of the finest in the collection. She takes Herman Melville's novella. "Bartleby the Scrivener", and dissects it as a verbal tour de force. Bartleby speaks only 37 times in a story of 16,000 words concerning himself, and each time he speaks he does so in a variation of the phrase "I would prefer not to." Hardwick convincingly equates Bartleby's character with the modern New Yorker; his footlessness is the predecessor of our own.

When Hardwick is so constrained by the limitations of her subject, her writing shines. All too often, though, she darts to and fro without ever leaving a firm point of departure. Her reviews are concerned with stylistic pyrotechnics, while her general essays are generally impenetrable. Hardwick is never dull however, and one reads on simply to decipher her meaning. That the essays are compelling despite their impenetrability is a measure of Hardwick's skill" unfortunately, these essays do not other the reader concrete proof of Hardwick's talent, only the illusory promise of it.