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'':