Cover Image: Come Back in September

Come Back in September

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There is a photo, dated 1986, taken in the Manhattan apartment of Elizabeth Hardwick. She is seated on her red sofa next to Susan Sontag and Peter Schneider.  At her end of the sofa, standing behind her is Darryl Pinckney.  The closeness of their relationship, of which this book describes in length, is conveyed in the posture of the two of them in the photo, Pinckney’s hands on Hardwick’s elbow and upper arm, a caress of a dear caring friend in which she is relaxed.

More than twenty years before the photo was taken, the young Pinckney arrived, like many young men and women before him, in New York City, seeking to become a writer.  Fortune favored him, the sister of Pinckney’s college roommate was the best friend of Hardwick’s daughter, Harriet, a connection that landed him a spot in Hardwick’s creative writing class at Barnard.  He would become a frequent visitor to her apartment on West 67th Street, her assistant, young friend, and employee in the mailroom of the New York Review of Books. He gained first hand insights of the current literary scene dominated by men and some women of an earlier generation that he would not get at Columbia and access to Hardwick’s floor to ceiling shelved library, books on top shelves reached by rolling ladder.

His education as a literary black man, indirectly and directly, owes much to Elizabeth Hardwick. Her suggestion that he drop his early efforts at writing about gay life until he was more experienced and write about his family, their NAACP  affiliations brought them in contact with the old guard luminaries, Byard Rustin and Ralph Ellison.  The bounded archives of the New York Review of Books available to him contained articles by Hardwick and her intellectual who’s who of friends, written about the racial injustices of the late 1950s and early 60s, including Hardwick’s reports from the South and Watts after the riots. Books were only part of his education. There were invitations to Black writers’ literary conferences passed along to him, dropped in a conversation about the novelist, Gayl Jones, is the unknown role Hardwick played in the young woman’s life, the anecdotes shared with the personal literary gossip of the circle of women writers, were of acquaintances—even love affairs Hardwick had with a couple of Black men of letters are mentioned.  On the red sofa, Pinckney would see Susan Sontag, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy and Barbara Epstein, co-founder of the New York Review of Books, read their works and often contribute to the intellectual and 	literary talk.  It was a space he could freely point out racist tropes in the pages of American literature.	 
Philips is writing a few years after the Stonewall riots in lower Manhattan. When he arrived in New York, openly gay young men, holding hands, strolled the streets of Greenwich Village.  The art and literary scenes downtown were different from what he experienced uptown, the emphasis was on the club scene of music, drugs and sex.  Philips clubbed with his own circle, becoming acquainted 	with William Burroughs and Basquiat. The old European gay world, part of his reading books on Hardwick’s shelves and conversations of Brit and German letters, Auden, Isherwood, Wilde, members of the Bloomsbury circle and Rupert Brooke, Berryman on homosexuality allusions among the Elizabethan dramatists, formed his gay cultural background.  He ‘was into Weimar.’ 	

The final memoir pages, written from Berlin, in 1989, are entries from Philip’s journal, show him running out money and pondering an essay he is working on about Ismael Reed, and letters from his friends.  1987 saw the death of James Baldwin, most of the writer’s books, Philips reports, out of print and pulped, and in 1989, the deaths of Sterling Brown and Mary McCarthy, one of the rare white writers who mentioned James Baldwin as extremely well-read author and intellectual who frequented parties in the upper New York social world, in a work of prose, her Birds of America, treating his presence as other than subject of a review.  In contrast to Baldwin, when Black literary writers are mentioned in conversation and listed in memoirs and literary criticism by Black authors, Darryl Pinckney’s name is, far too often, absent, nor is he a favorite of Black readers, ironic given the number of black Americans and other black literary writers, from African countries, European large cities, and islands in the Indies, of whom he has seriously written.  Granted, there are jabs taken by him at Sterling Brown, Philips’ distant relative, and off-handed remarks of the young writer, in general, against the old guard—Baldwin himself wasn’t above, as a literary son, slaying fathers.
Philips’ memories of a time from three different worlds read like what would might occurred had the prose of Janet Flanner and William Burroughs met the prose of John Dos Passos for a ménage a trois, told from the perspective of a gay Black writer who was there in New York during the exciting eras of the1970s and 1980s.  Excessive and at times tiring, he writes with an urgency to get it all in, the fear that if he doesn’t no one else will.
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This is an absolutely delightful book for anyone interested in writers who were active in the 1970s forward. Darryl Pinckney is a Black gay man, author and poet, who was Elizabeth Hardwick’s student in creative writing back in 1973. She mentored him without a trace of condescension toward his youthful earnestness and he went from student to assistant to friend. Hardwick was married to Robert Lowell, and between the two of them they knew everyone in New York and the UK (plus everywhere else) who ever picked up a pen ...not all successful writers but all sincere lovers of the word. And Pinckney was a guest at twenty years of Hardwick’s get-togethers.
     To spend time with “Lizzie” Hardwick alone is worth the price of this book. She was a co-founder of The New York Review of Books, charismatic teacher, brilliant author, and she was even kind to Lillian Hellman.  Elizabeth Bishop (who also required patience from friends), Susan Sontag, Zora Neal Hurston, Mary McCarthy, and so many other geniuses were her friends.  Pinckney mocks his young self for the  pretentiousness that came from his passion to learn everything about literature before the age of nineteen. He is lovable and very witty. A line I love dates to his taking an “incomplete” in science at the very end of his final semester at Columbia. After his parents had made the futile trip from Indiana for his commencement, Pinckney’s mother told him that no one in their family had neglected to graduate from college since slavery. 
     There are sad times in this book and a few obnoxious people but, oh, is it worth the ride!
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Fascinating chronicle of the New York literary scene in the 1980s. Black, queer, budding intellectual Pinckney floats between the rarified circle of Elizabeth Hardwick and the New York Review of Books uptown and the raucous downtown art world during the time of Basquiat, punk and AIDS.
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Utterly idiosyncratic, wonderfully observed, and studded with insight into a roiling, competitive period in American literary history, Darryl Pinckney's COME BACK IN SEPTEMBER is an unique look into the world(s) of Elizabeth Hardwick and Barbara Epstein.  Pinckney's voice is captivating--highly recommended.

Many thanks to FSG and to Netgalley for the pleasure of an early read.
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