OF HOW MANY literary journalists can we say that one of the defining intellectual publications of the second half of the 20th century grew out of a piece of that journalist’s occasional criticism? Probably not many, and yet that’s exactly what Elizabeth Hardwick achieved with her 1959 Harper’s Magazine essay “The Decline of Book Reviewing.” Four years after the essay appeared, the editor who had commissioned it — Robert B. Silvers, who died earlier this year — went on to found, with Barbara Epstein, The New York Review of Books, enlisting the support of A. Whitney Ellsworth, Jason Epstein, Robert Lowell — and Elizabeth Hardwick, whose essay Silvers always pointed to as the earliest source of inspiration. “That essay is crucial,” he told New York magazine on the occasion of the Review’s 50th anniversary in 2013.

“The Decline of Book Reviewing,” included here in a long-overdue collection of Hardwick’s essays (selected by the novelist and critic Darryl Pinckney and published by NYRB Classics), is a powerful and persuasive broadside against the “sweet, bland commendations” that were all too common in the book pages of daily newspapers in Hardwick’s time — and, one is a little embarrassed to admit, are still too common in the twittering society of mutual admiration that is our literary culture today. In a famous passage, Hardwick berated The New York Times for the “flat praise and the faint dissension, the minimal style and the light little article, the absence of involvement, passion, character, eccentricity — the lack, at last, of the literary tone itself,” that too often characterized its literary coverage. She viewed the Times as a kind of bloated provincial rag — a judgment that surely must have ruffled a few metropolitan furs over at the Gray Lady. Yet Hardwick, despite her polemical tone, was being more than just polemical: she was being hostile in the defense of a value. (She did not generally traffic in gratuitous hatchet jobs or cultural postmortems.) She took books — literature — seriously, and could not suffer the sight of alleged newspapers of record treating something so important so blandly:

[T]he drama of the book world is being slowly, painlessly killed. Everything is somehow alike, whether it be a routine work of history by a respectable academic, a group of platitudes from the Pentagon, a volume of verse, a work of radical ideas, a work of conservative ideas. Simple “coverage” seems to have won out over the drama of opinion; “readability,” a cozy little word, has taken the place of the old-fashioned requirement of a good, clear prose style, which is something else. All differences of excellence, of position, of form are blurred by the slumberous acceptance. The blur eases good and bad alike, the conventional and the odd, so that it finally appears that the author like the reviewer really does not have a position.

Hardwick was in her early 40s when she wrote “The Decline of Book Reviewing.” The last essay included here in The Collected Essays, an appreciation of Nathanael West, appeared in The New York Review of Books in 2003, when Hardwick was 87. In the intervening four decades she not only managed to live up to her own exacting standards (the dull thought, the tired phrase, may knock but never enter), but she also grew to become one of the 20th century’s towering writer-critics, deserving of a seat at the table of Virginia Woolf and V. S. Pritchett. Like them, she approached criticism artistically, metaphorically. George Eliot, she writes in one of the essays collected here, was “melancholy, headachey, with a slow, disciplined, hard-won, aching genius that bore down upon her with a wondrous and exhausting force, like a great love affair in middle age”; William James and his siblings, in their childhood, were “packed and unpacked, settled and unsettled, like a band of high livers fleeing creditors”; the Jewish businessman Simon Rosedale, in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (1905), is “weighted down, as if by an overcoat in summer, with a thickness of objectionable moral and physical attributes.”

On every page of this book you will be reminded that Elizabeth Hardwick was not simply a great critic but a great writer. This distinction matters. Hardwick’s essays are always sticking their neck out; their aphoristic grace and easy impressionism are a way of speaking to their subjects in their own language, without deafening them with comprehension and analysis. For instance, in the great essay on Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (1853) — is there, indeed, a greater essay on this story? — Hardwick is not, in the scholarly or theoretical manner, trying to solve the enigma of Bartleby’s resignation; she eschews this temptation, and even gently reprimands Melville for, in the story’s final sentence, inviting it. Instead, she follows Bartleby’s language — his style — and offers up her own in comparison:

Bartleby’s language reveals the all of him, but what is revealed? Character? Bartleby is not a character in the manner of the usual, imaginative, fictional construction. And he is not a character as we know them in life, with their bundling bustle of details, their suits and ties and felt hats, their love affairs surreptitious or binding, family albums, psychological justifications dragging like a little wagon along the highway of experience. We might say he is a destiny, without interruptions, revisions, second chances. But what is a destiny that is not endured by a “character”? Bartleby has no plot in his present existence, and we would not wish to imagine subplots for his already lived years. He is indeed only words, wonderful words, and very few of them. One might for a moment sink into the abyss and imagine that instead of prefer not he had said, “I don’t want to” or “I don’t feel like it.” No, it is unthinkable, a vulgarization, adding truculence, idleness, foolishness, adding indeed “character” and altering a sublimity of definition.

I find this passage astonishing. Notice how quickly Hardwick is tempted into literary detail (“suits and ties and felt hats” [my emphasis]) and metaphor (“a little wagon along the highway of experience”), and then, tellingly, how she encourages us to view Bartleby from the perspective of his creator, Melville, by entertaining poor alternatives to his famous utterance. She is writing as a creator herself, sharing in the language of literary creation, and all the while still managing to perform the task of the critic. No comprehensive analysis of “Bartleby” that I’ve ever read is as suggestive — perhaps because Hardwick, in the end, dares to be just that: suggestive, as opposed to conclusive; aphoristic, as opposed to comprehensive; metaphorical, as opposed to merely critical.

Born in 1916 in Lexington, Kentucky — a place she wasn’t sorry to be from, she said, “so long as I didn’t have to stay there forever” — Elizabeth Hardwick moved to New York City in 1939 to study English at Columbia University. She published her first novel, The Ghostly Lover, in 1945 and shortly afterward was enlisted by Philip Rahv to pen book reviews for Partisan Review, where she quickly gained a reputation for her acerbic, cutting style. (When Rahv asked Hardwick what she thought of Diana Trilling, The Nation’s book critic, Hardwick quipped: “Not much.”)

In 1949 she married the poet Robert Lowell, a decision that would shape her life for decades to come. They were engaged while Lowell, who suffered from bipolar disorder, was recuperating from electric shock treatment in a hospital north of Boston. Hardwick was warned against the union by the poet-critic Allen Tate, who described Lowell’s mental state at the time as being “very nearly psychotic.” Shortly before the engagement he even went so far as to call Lowell “dangerous,” claiming there were “definite homicidal implications in his world, particularly toward women and children.” Lowell’s Boston Brahmin father was no fan of the engagement either. “I do feel,” he wrote to his afflicted son, “that both you and she, should clearly understand, that if she does marry you, that she is responsible for you.”

But even these warnings could not have prepared Hardwick for the mental breakdowns and momentary break-ups, the impulsive infidelities and public indiscretions she would suffer through for the next 20-odd years. “I have sat and listened to too many / words of the collaborating muse,” Lowell self-incriminatingly wrote, “and plotted perhaps too freely with my life, / not avoiding injury to others, / not avoiding injury to myself.” Their turbulent marriage finally ended in 1970 when Lowell left the United States for England to live with Lady Caroline Blackwood, whom he married in 1972. For Hardwick, however, worse was yet to come: Lowell famously made public art of their marital difficulties and divorce; in the poetry collections For Lizzie and Harriet and The Dolphin, both of them published in 1973, he quoted from Hardwick’s personal letters to him, a trespass his friend Elizabeth Bishop scolded him for in a stinging letter: “It is not being ‘gentle’ to use personal, tragic, anguished letters that way,” she wrote, “it’s cruel.”

Though she suffered greatly, Hardwick maintained that marrying Lowell was one of the best things that had ever happened to her. She called him an “extraordinarily original and brilliant and amazing presence, quite beyond any other I have known.” Speaking to Darryl Pinckney in 1985, she said that Lowell, for all his flaws, was at least encouraging of his wife’s intellectual pursuits:

He liked women writers and I don’t think he ever had a true interest in a woman who wasn’t a writer — an odd turn-on indeed and one I’ve noticed not greatly shared. Women writers don’t tend to be passive vessels or wives, saying, “Oh, that’s good, dear.”

Women writers — and women in literature more generally — were the focus of Hardwick’s most influential collection of essays, Seduction and Betrayal, published in 1974. (Regrettably, and a little ill-advisedly, it is not included in The Collected Essays; it was reissued separately, in 2001, also by NYRB Classics.) These stirring, evocative portraits — of the Brontë sisters, Zelda Fitzgerald, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Wordsworth, and others — have sometimes been viewed as a veiled response to Lowell’s betrayal, though this notion seems reductive, as if Hardwick needed Lowell to betray her in order to challenge perceived truths about literary history. Seduction and Betrayal was a challenge to precisely such notions: the romantic view that women writers are either victims or heroines (or both). “Toward the achievements of women,” Hardwick had written in an earlier essay, “I find my own attitudes extremely complicated by all sorts of vague emotions.” These attitudes and emotions were to the benefit of her readers, for if they were not complicated they would not interest us, at least not from a literary perspective. As Hilton Als has beautifully put it, the human impulse in Hardwick’s writing always outweighed the abstract.

Though Hardwick achieved her greatest success in 1979 with Sleepless Nights, a much-admired collage-like quasi-novel, the compressed density of her style was always more suited to literary essay, which may be why it was the genre she remained most faithful to. In sheer size alone, The Collected Essays, which spans six decades and 600 pages, is a testament to the happy union between author and form. Hardwick could quite simply squeeze more into a sentence than most writers could an entire paragraph. Reviewing a new biography of Ernest Hemingway, she writes of the literary biographical genre that “in a hoarding spirit it has an awesome regard for the penny as well as the dollar.” William James, in The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), was guilty of “running on both teams — here he is the cleverest skeptic and there the wildest man in a state of religious enthusiasm.” And, in an essay on Simone Weil, we are told: “the present fashion of biography, with the scrupulous accounting of time, makes a long life of a short one.”

There is a danger for the reviewer, when describing Hardwick’s essays, of becoming a mere anthologizer, a dazed and dazzled collector of writerly gems. This is partly because Hardwick herself was a serial jeweler: “I like the offhand flashes, the absence of the lumber in the usual prose,” she once said. But now and again, the writing becomes all flash and no lumber — her style, so hypnotically idiosyncratic, can veer off into eccentricity and become difficult to follow, as demonstrated by her tendency to write sentences that are hardly sentences at all but dashed-off story outlines. From a single essay: “The overwhelming scene, the tremendous importance of the union and its dismaying, squalid complications of feeling, Yasnaya Polyana, the children, the novels, the opinions”; “Every quarrel, every remorse, moments of calm and hope and memory. Diaries, rightly called voluminous, letters, great in number, sent back and forth”; “Lady Byron’s industry produced only one genuine product: the hoard of dissension, the swollen archives, the blurred messages of the letters, the unbalancing record of meetings, the confidences, the statements drawn up”; and so on. It’s like reading literary criticism written by Augie March.

Still, these are minor complaints — the unavoidable thumbprints of such playful, busy hands. For whether she is reporting from the front lines of the Civil Rights movement or tracing the contours of Robert Frost’s reputation, Hardwick revels in her subject matter. Everything in these essays, be it real or fictional, comes alive to Hardwick’s touch. And how funny she is! In Marge Piercy’s novel Dance the Eagle to Sleep (1970), “the girls are constantly available and practical — I’m afraid rather like a jar of peanut butter waiting for a thumb.” William James (again) was guilty at times of being “a sort of Californian; he loves the new and unhistorical and cannot resist the shadiest of claims.” And Peter Conrad’s Imagining America (1980) is described as “a text that bristles like the quills on a pestered porcupine.”

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If Hardwick’s achievement as an essayist has been left to cool somewhat in the collective shadow of her more illustrious contemporaries, The Collected Essays is a much-needed bringer of heat. For Hardwick was mercilessly free of the many occasional sins of her time: she had none of Susan Sontag’s modish, Francophile theorizing, none of Norman Mailer’s wounded egoism, but neither did she succumb to the breezy generalities of Alfred Kazin. She was, on the contrary, George Orwell–like in her good judgment and common sense, admirably demonstrated in this collection by the moral beauty of her essays on the Civil Rights movement and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

Because she outlived them all, the last third or so of The Collected Essays revisits many of those fellow writers who belonged, like Hardwick, to the intellectually gilded age in American letters that spanned the second half of the 20th century (an age that might be said to have ended, earlier this year, with the death of Bob Silvers). Hardwick knew and befriended the likes of Mary McCarthy, Dwight Macdonald, and Philip Rahv, not to mention European exiles like Hannah Arendt and Nicola Chiaromonte. In the last half of this collection, then, we learn that an “evening at the Rahvs’ was to enter a ring of bullies, each one bullying the other”; that Edmund Wilson gave the impression of “a cheerful, corpulent, chuckling gentleman, well-dressed in brown suits and double martinis”; that Hannah Arendt, in her apartment on Riverside Drive, served “cakes and chocolates and nuts bought in abundance at the bakeries on Broadway.”

Yet such anecdotes are kept mostly in the margins; Hardwick always stopped short of outright memoirism. Despite her strong voice and presence on the page, the impression she leaves is one of humility. She was not a romantic of the self; living with Robert Lowell and witnessing the self-destruction of so many of her contemporaries (Randall Jarrell, Sylvia Plath, John Berryman) probably inoculated her against the myths of the mad genius. Thus what she admired in the Brontë sisters was not the romantic notion of them having managed to write any novels at all but rather “the practical, industrious, ambitious cast of mind too little stressed. Necessity, dependence, discipline drove them hard; being a writer was a way of living, surviving, literally keeping alive.” Similarly, she was impressed by Zelda Fitzgerald’s “fantastic energy — not energy of a frantic, chaotic, sick sort, but that of steady application, formed and sustained by a belief in the worth of work and the value of each solitary self.”

In Sleepless Nights, the narrator writes of her mother’s child-rearing (she gave birth to nine children): “It was what she was always doing, and in the end what she had done.” In a similar vein, The Collected Essays are a tribute to Hardwick’s ceaseless activity as a literary essayist, as a critic and a reader — proof, indeed, that being a writer is a way of living.

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Morten Høi Jensen is the author of A Difficult Death: The Life and Work of Jens Peter Jacobsen (Yale University Press, 2017).