Essays from a noted critic - disappointing; Bartleby in Manhattan and Other Essays, by Elizabeth Hardwick. New York: Random House. 292 pp. $15.95.
By Merle Rubin — Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor. The qualities we look for in a critic may vary from one to another. Some critics we value for their polemical skills, the energy and ingenuity of their arguments. Others we respect for sound judgment, wide learning, and the ability to draw together divergent ideas into a coherent outlook. Others may delight us with the power and beauty of their writing, the shrewdness or originality of their insights, or the sweeping architecture of their system-building.
Elizabeth Hardwick does not pretend to be a systematic critic. Nor is she an outstanding polemicist. Her virtues would appear to lie more in the area of shrewd insight, aided and abetted, perhaps, by excellence of literary style. Certainly, she is an intelligent and competent critic. But does she, in fact, live up to the very high reputation she has enjoyed for the past few decades?
Her views are usually impeccable. She reminds us that the real John Reed was a far cry from the glamorized hero of the film ''Reds,'' that Georg Buchner's ''Danton's Death'' is a far better play than it may have seemed in a wrongheaded revival.
But little in this collection of essays could be called original or intellectually challenging. Nor is the blandness of her approach redeemed by the scope of her enterprise. No grand theme or design pervades ''Bartleby in Manhattan''; it is very clearly an accumulation of limited apercus. We might expect, then, to be charmed by felicities of style. ''Her superb writing is a rare gift to the reader,'' proclaims the New York Times Book Review of Hardwick's earlier collection ''Seduction and Betrayal'' on the dust jacket of this collection. Such critical hyperbole does not prepare the reader for passages like this one from ''The Apotheosis of Martin Luther King'':
The marchers waited without restlessness for the chartered airplane to arrive and to announce that it could then truly begin. A limousine will be waiting to take the noted ones to the front of the line, or to leave them off at the stage door.
This is not good writing. It is not even grammatical writing. Not all of the writing in ''Bartleby in Manhattan'' is quite like this, but much of it is disappointingly flaccid. Reading her essay ''Domestic Manners,'' for example, is like wandering through a fog - or driving along a billboard-plastered highway. One is accosted by a steady stream of hazy platitudes and half-defined attitudes.
Hardwick is generally better when she is able to focus on specific topics, as she does in her theater reviews and in her analytical sketches of fictional characters such as Shakespeare's ''Timon of Athens'' - ''the exhausted innocent and the weary aesthete.'' Yet her reading of Melville's ''Bartleby, the Scrivener,'' in the essay that gives the collection its title, is little more than a desultory retelling of the story. Her views are hard to refute, but also hard to remember. Coming from the pen of someone who for decades has been at the center of New York literary and intellectual life, Hardwick's latest collection of essays is curiously lacking in intellectual substance.