They died within months of each other, these two towering figures, Grace Paley in August at 84, and, just days ago, Elizabeth Hardwick, at 91. As unlike as they were, I think of them in the same breath, as women who touched the lives of so many of us -- us younger women writers lucky enough to have studied with them or known them. They influenced us with their writing, their teaching, and their very different examples of how to live a literary life. They were entirely dissimilar in their affect and their sensibility, but similar in their effect: At a time when there were only a handful of prominent "women writers" -- and a handful might be stretching it -- they took us and our work seriously.'
Grace Paley was a soft-spoken yet outgoing earth mother, warm, welcoming, and unfailingly generous. I never studied with her but first read Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, which came out when I was a student at Barnard, and soon after, I became a Grace Groupie -- kind of like a Dead Head -- attending every reading of hers I could find. In the last six months of her life, while she battled breast cancer, I called her half a dozen times to try to schedule an interview for a literary magazine. She kept putting me off because she was suffering from the cancer treatments. "Call me, tomorrow, honey," she'd say, or "Call me next week, I'm sure I'll feel better by then." I loved her optimism, and I wanted to believe in it.
Elizabeth Hardwick taught for twenty years at Barnard, where I went to college in the 1970s, and in the MFA program at Columbia. At the height of the women's movement, which reverberated mightily on that campus in those years, Hardwick's literary luminosity and pedigree were an antidote to the ideological rhetoric and the talk of revolution, sexual and otherwise. By the time I was a senior, I had the ambition to be a novelist -- a fairly exotic thing to do in those days -- and the good fortune to have somehow finagled a senior tutorial with her because her creative writing class was full.
We met every two weeks in her office in Barnard Hall, and I showed her what I had been working on. I did not write great quantities -- which she noted wryly -- but she somehow let me know that she liked what I was doing. I've since learned that she was not always kind to student writing. She was by no means an earth mother. She could be cutting, even lacerating to students and more so to writers whose work she discussed in Partisan Review and The New York Review of Books, which she helped found. She was an elitist, what we used to call "a snob." Her best friends were Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, and Barbara Epstein, pioneers, high priestesses of literature, none of them shy, none of them compliant or complacent.
As a writing teacher, she insisted that the only valuable thing she could do for me was to suggest books to read. Her perennial favorite was Rilke's novel, The Notebooks of Malte Brigge. What she also did, though I wouldn't know this until after the tutorial was over, was to make me feel good enough about my talent to keep me going and believing in myself for the decade it took me to write my first novel.
She never explained technical things to me, and she responded to my work in a very chatty, personal way. And all of it was said in her inimitable, languid Kentucky drawl, with words so drawn out and emphasized, everything she said had an extra weight, the sound of music. When a man in a short story did not come home until much later that he said he would, she laughed and said, "Are men still doing that?" She was also given to dazzling little pronouncements. My favorite, which I might have overheard in the hallway while waiting for one of our meetings to begin: "I hate to go to a first-class restaurant and have a lot of 'Happy birthdays!'"
After a literature teacher at Columbia told me that I he felt I could "be a writer," I asked her if she agreed with him. "I think you can do the work," she said kindly, "but you have to decide if you want such a hard life."
In my naivete I thought: "She has a hard life because she's an old lady! (She was 55.) I won't have a hard life!" I am reminded of that comment nearly every day.
For many of us back then, she was the only writer we knew, and we knew she was the real thing. She didn't coddle us and didn't flatter us. Even the chaos and sadness of her personal life, her difficult marriage to Robert Lowell, their divorce, their tragic reunion (he died in the taxi on his way back to her apartment), taught us something about the messiness of real life and the salvation of literature in the midst of it.
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