cover image Sight-Readings: American Fictions

Sight-Readings: American Fictions

Elizabeth Hardwick. Random House (NY), $26 (352pp) ISBN 978-0-375-50127-2

Hardwick's latest roundup of literary essays is a gallery of startling portraits. She presents novelist Edith Wharton as a freewheeling social historian who used New York City as a frame of reference in her dissection of American society's heartlessness and predatory sexuality. Peering behind New England protofeminist Margaret Fuller's ""dramatic and romantic presentation of herself,"" Hardwick finds an eccentric full of mannerisms, a ""profoundly urban,"" unlikely convert to Transcendentalism, ""which nearly turned her into a fool."" Whether she is plumbing Joan Didion's roots in the American West, John Updike's learned obsession with sexuality, Katherine Anne Porter's flagrant fabrications about her past or John Cheever's alcoholism and ""gentrification"" of his concealed homosexual lusts, the eminent critic and novelist combines passionate engagement with her subjects and a conversational style informed by prodigious scholarship. In her close readings of Henry James, Philip Roth, Djuna Barnes, Vachel Lindsay, Gertrude Stein and Edgar Lee Masters, Hardwick succeeds in her abiding goal of relating literature to life, making these lapidary essays (most of which appeared in the New York Review of Books) into uncanny reconnoiterings of the American psyche. (July)