Our new neighbors were remote, hidden by trees, winding fences, ivy, and double doors. Raccoons and boogeymen shook the woods; cardinals banged into the picture windows and boomeranged from view; crows kept watch from telephone wires, disappeared beyond chimneys, and popped up with kernels of dry dog food in their beaks. Golden retrievers scampered ahead of half-naked boys on bicycles shouting themselves home from a swim…. The yellow school bus was on time on mornings that got darker and darker, mornings of rain, frost, untrammeled snow; and it was there, mud free, on mornings when the sun’s running yolk caught the moon in the ether.
—From High Cotton, Darryl Pinckney’s autobiographical novel, set in Indianapolis
Yes, Lizzie said one day after class, she knew Jimmy Baldwin. He was never on time, he and his inevitable entourage. I explained the concept of CPT. “You came to New York to be what you are,” she said. “A mad black queen.”
—From Come Back in September, Pinckney’s memoir of New York in the seventies
The distance between Darryl Pinckney’s first book, High Cotton, and his latest, Come Back in September, is the difference between Indianapolis and Manhattan. High Cotton is inward and leafy, with sprawling yards and silences, while Come Back in September is more populated, filled with the soon-to-be or already famous talking: on the street, in clubs and theaters and bars, in restaurants and apartments.
It’s a type of coming-of-age memoir that I love: the story of an artist who leaves home for a large city and finds him/herself part of a literary and artistic flourishing. The artist is young, so everything feels new. There’s always an ensemble cast, with everyone a main character in their own lives and a supporting actor in others’. They make art, talk about their art, form and break relationships, write manifestos, and start journals. They meet at performances and galleries, everyone together forming a scene: Paris and Berlin in the twenties, for instance, Laurel Canyon in the sixties, New York in almost any decade.
Memoirs of these creative times often have their source in diaries and notebooks, giving the reader a sense of the scene unfolding as we read. I’m thinking of books such as Francoise Gilot’s Life With Picasso, Kay Boyle and Robert McAlmon’s Being Geniuses Together, Hemingway’s Moveable Feast, or Patti Smith’s Just Kids. Or, from Indianapolis writers alone, Dan Wakefield’s New York in the Fifties, Margaret Anderson’s My Thirty Years War, Janet Flanner’s Paris Was Yesterday, books that require only a glittering new city, an awakening artistic self, and that large cast.
Darryl Pinckney’s Come Back in September, the critically acclaimed memoir of his literary education in New York in the seventies, holds its own with the best of these. Published in 2022, the paperback is being released this fall.
Born and raised in Indianapolis, the son of politically active middle class parents, Pinckney left Indy for Columbia University in New York. Pinckney’s parents wanted him to go into law. As the child of what W.E.B. DuBois referred to as “The Talented Tenth,” his parents taught him that he had a duty and responsibility to the Black community to go into the professions. But Pinckney wanted to be a writer. To choose writing as a career back then, he’s said, was as good as dropping out. He went to Columbia to be in the city where his favorite books were set, and to write his own.
While a student, he was introduced to the writer Elizabeth Hardwick by her daughter, Harriett Lowell. Pinckney took a workshop from Hardwick at Barnard, where he impressed her with the poems and pages of prose (including her own) that he had by memory, and for the next decade he becomes Hardwick’s unofficial secretary and mentee. That’s when his literary education begins.
As co-founder of the New York Review of Books, Hardwick’s apartment was an unofficial salon, with editors and writers such as Mary McCarthy, Hannah Arendt, Susan Sontag, Marianne Moore, Gore Vidal, and others part of the group. Pinckney learned by listening to their talk, but primarily he learned from Hardwick, who left books for him to read on a chair by her door, read and critiqued his writing, and modeled a life of discipline, will, and critical discernment. “She taught us how to take ourselves seriously without being arrogant about it,” he said later.
Come Back in September (the title refers to the day Hardwick returns from her home in Maine with her novel Sleepless Nights in a blue box and shows it to him) is a love letter to Hardwick and her milieu, a portrait of the women in that time and place. Its focus is on the friendship and rivalries between these strong intellectual women who come in and out of Hardwick’s life. Her famous ex-husband, the poet Robert Lowell, appears now and then. Mostly, though, we’re given access to Hardwick’s brilliant mind, to her apartment and friendships, her teaching, her wide reading, her life.
While Pinckney had grown up with a house full of books written by the greats of African American literature, he had taken it for granted, thought of the writers as belonging to his parents’ generation. While his first published piece was a poem inspired by a Mari Evans poem, his first literary loves and models were primarily white male poets of the New York School such as Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch. You have to rebel against your parents, even if your parents are cool.
From watching Hardwick, he became interested in the history of women as intellectuals. In the seventies, books by women writers were a sort of avant-garde literature, Pinckney explains. Then he started noticing that the conflicts in feminist literature covered the “spectrum from something very militant to things that the very militant thought didn’t have much transformative value”. That caused him to think about the conflict between critics of writers like James Baldwin and Jean Toomer vs Malcolm X, writers he rediscovered while working with Hardwick.
And so, Pinckney eventually circles back to his parents, as one does. He will write about Baldwin and Toomer and DuBois and Countee Cullen, about Black politics and literature in his essays for the Paris Review and the New York Review of Books, and in a collection of his work titled Busted in New York and Other Essays, with an introduction by Zadie Smith. (Zadie Smith! Fun Fact: Darryl is such a good friend of Zadie Smith’s that he appears by name as a character in Smith’s novel Swing Time.)
But this book is not all about writers. His literary and cultural education continued into the New York nights, in places like the Mudd Club and the Chelsea Hotel bar. It’s a thrilling soup of people and performances. The B52s and Blondie are extras in the book, as are Grace Jones, Bowie, Ginsberg, Warhol and Burroughs. Luc/Lucy Sante is an important supporting character, as is the artist Basquait and others. They’re all part of the cast, the scene.
And while the seventies was the decade between the Stonewall Uprising and the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, and while AIDS is a quietly tolling bell in the memoir—unrecognized in the diaristic present yet noted as Pinckney mentions (parenthetically) the friends lost to the virus in the eighties and nineties—Come Back in September remains an homage to intellectual women from the young man who learned from them.
The book ends in 1981, Pinckney explains in an interview with British scholar Andrew Kelly, “because after 1981 things turned rather dark. I wanted to remember a time of promise and hope because it meant so much to me.”
I’d like to add that Darryl Pinckney was two years behind me at North Central High School. One of his best friends in high school was one of my best friends in grade school. We’ve never met, but it seems that he was at the Beatles concert at the Fairgrounds in 1964, as was I. His novel High Cotton should be recognized, along with Come Back in September, as classics of Indiana literature.
Susan Neville is the author of six works of creative nonfiction: Fabrication: Essays on Making Things and Making Meaning; Twilight in Arcadia; Iconography: A Writer’s Meditation; Butler’s Big Dance; Sailing the Inland Sea; and Light. Her essay on women in the Klan in Indiana, “Into the Fire,” is available as an ebook from Ploughshares. Her collections of short fiction and hybrid fiction include The Town of Whispering Dolls, winner of the Catherine Doctorow Prize for Innovative Fiction, In the House of Blue Lights, winner of the Richard Sullivan Prize; Invention of Flight, winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction; and Indiana Winter. Her stories have appeared in the Pushcart Prize anthology and in anthologies including Extreme Fiction (Longman) and The Story Behind the Story (Norton). She lives in Indianapolis.
Born and raised in Indianapolis, Darryl Pinckney is a long time contributor to The New York Review of Books, the author of two novels, High Cotton (1992) and Black Deutschland (2016), and several works of nonfiction, including Out There: Mavericks of Black Literature (2002), Blackballed: The Black Vote and US Democracy (2014), and Busted in New York and Other Essays (2019). He has contributed to numerous other publications, including The Guardian, Harper’s, Los Angeles Times, The Nation, The New Republic, The New Yorker, the New York Times Book Review, The Paris Review, Slate, TLS, Vanity Fair, and Vogue. His several theatrical collaborations with director Robert Wilson have appeared internationally and at Brooklyn Academy of Music. His most recent book is Come Back in September: A Literary Education on West Sixty-Seventh Street, Manhattan.
Monthly reviews of books written by Indiana authors are made possible by the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana Authors Awards and Indiana Humanities. Opinions expressed in this review are solely those of the reviewer, not any affiliated entity.