The Season of Hardwick

October 18, 2021   •   By Zachary Fine

A Splendid Intelligence: The Life of Elizabeth Hardwick

Cathy Curtis

IT IS ONE of the rare uncontroversial opinions in the American literary world that the essayist, critic, and novelist Elizabeth Hardwick is brilliant. Not just a “queen of adjectives,” as Susan Sontag once called her, but a writer known for sentences that are blurred, slanting, and metaphysical, for a tone that is stately and lush, and sometimes acidic. Known as the scourge of limp book reviews and consensus opinions. Known for the elliptical (anti-)autobiographical novel Sleepless Nights, sitting on “staff recommended” shelves in university towns from Berkeley to Gainesville. Known for the shadow of Robert Lowell, whose life she inherited and almost disappeared behind.

Ten years ago, five even, it was not obvious that Hardwick’s reputation would survive this way. Then The Collected Essays appeared in 2017 and was followed by a revival of interest in Sleepless Nights; then The Dolphin Letters in 2020; and now a new biography, A Splendid Intelligence: The Life of Elizabeth Hardwick, by Cathy Curtis. Next April, in what may seem like the beginning of the barrel-scraping, but is actually another compendium of greatness, The Uncollected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick will be published. We are, it seems, in the prolonged season of Hardwick. One can imagine her griping about the “scrofulous cottage industry” of books bearing her name, the endless stream of admirers and followers and phone calls. She often complained about phone calls.

The explanation for Hardwick’s appeal has something to do with that old blade critics like to flash around: style. Not so much a word but a way of separating. Certain writers are said to have it, others not. If we take the term, at minimum, to mean something on the order of “deviance” — a swerve from the usual manner of expressing things — then Hardwick was flush with it. Her prose is occasionally so stylish that it does not make sense. Words melt into misshapen mental impressions, sentences lose track of themselves, meaning smears in different directions. Of the great stylists with whom she is often grouped like Sontag, Janet Malcolm, Joan Didion, Cynthia Ozick, Renata Adler — all of them women alive at midcentury, who lived in New York, and published both essays and fiction, or something in between — none is more strange than Hardwick.

Here is an opening sentence from The Uncollected Essays: “Our country, from the first a vast transcendental diaspora under the celestial protection of two oceans, in the thirties fell heir to, by way of unprecedented disasters, a radiance of genius.” I am curious if any readers, without knowing the subject of the essay, can, with a single read, determine what Hardwick is talking about. (Personally, I could not.) We are accustomed to introductory sentences that invite us into the home of an essay, that entice or orient or welcome like a vestibule. But here, our host has dropped us into a room that is pitted with commas, dependent clauses, unusual modifiers (“transcendental diaspora”), some decently antique language (“from the first,” “fell heir to”), the meaning of all of which is suspended until the last echoing phrase (note the slight assonance: radiance, genius). Not to mention the classically disorienting Hardwickian metaphor: “the celestial protection of two oceans.”

The sentence is knotted and halting and vague. It seems less interested in conveying a particular idea than in imposing a mood. Hardwick often begins her paragraphs this way. From another essay in the forthcoming volume: “A gray Sunday afternoon, smoky light, and a sanctified drawing between our rivers East and West, a quiet except for the sacrificial athleticism of the joggers, running or preparing to run in the park, as a rabbit out of its hutch will surely hop off.” Here we have one of the most recognizable signatures of Hardwick’s style: the dropped verb. The arrangement of static images, a slightly frozen atmosphere.

I am curious why Hardwick, now, has become an object of such attention. What about this style of hers, this body of work — why has it become so ripe in our own time? She is not what can be called a “neglected” writer. She published widely in magazines and literary journals and newspapers — The New York Review of Books, Partisan Review, The New York Times, Vogue, Harper’s, The New Yorker — her books were abundantly reviewed across America and Europe; she was routinely given awards, invited to sit on panels, and praised. And yet there is an air of neglect that clings to her reputation, that creates a certain mood of heroism and rescue to the recent slate of books.

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Hardwick was born in 1916, in Lexington, Kentucky. She grew up in a neighborhood on the north end of town where poor and working-class families, Black and white, lived side by side. Lexington had a population of around 40,000 at the time and was known for thoroughbred racing and tobacco. Hardwick was not enthusiastic about the cult of racing, though many of her early memories revolve around skinny jockeys and horse farms, the large feathered hats worn by women to the tracks, “the tranquil curve of the empty grandstands.”

Her mother, Mary Ramsey, was from North Carolina and of Scotch-Irish descent; her father Eugene was from Lynchburg, Virginia, and owned a plumbing and heating business. Both of them had been orphaned at an early age, and neither went to college. The eighth of 11 children, Hardwick seems to have groped her way toward a literary education with little resistance or encouragement. Her siblings became cashiers, plumbers, and beauticians; one of them was a race horse owner, another a director of a playground, another a post office clerk. But as a teenager, Hardwick was drawn to the public library on the corner of Gratz Park.

In 1934, she enrolled at the University of Kentucky and, despite having a strong appetite for politics — she thought of herself as a Trotskyist — she rigorously avoided student associations and clubs. (It’s worth listening to her talk about this period through the University of Kentucky’s Oral History Project, if only to hear her voice, which is often described as a Southern “drawl” but stands out for being distinctively genteel and wry; there is an amused exasperation in her tone that’s hard to not hear in her writing once you’ve heard it spoken.) When she wasn’t busy reading Partisan Review, or working her way through Goethe and Proust, Hardwick liked to spend time with the other English majors, drinking whiskey and talking about books. Her favorite professor was a man named Francis Galloway, who taught a survey of poetry and prose beginning with Milton. He introduced her to 17th-century literature and the Metaphysical Poets — John Donne, in particular — who T. S. Eliot had helped bring back into vogue. It was the subject Hardwick would choose for her PhD at Columbia in New York, where, after getting a master’s degree in Kentucky, she went in 1939 on a Greyhound bus.

Hardwick’s life from this point, until 1980, is more well known and well documented, largely because living in New York as a writer involves writing about being a writer in New York, and being surrounded by other writers who are writing about the same thing — or at least correspond about this shared fate. The 1940s were important years for Hardwick: she dropped out of Columbia (the thought of authoring “some dull little textual thing” no longer appealed); she starting publishing stories in literary magazines (New Mexico Quarterly, The Yale Review, The Sewanee Review); and saw the publication of her first novel, The Ghostly Lover, in 1945, which attracted a letter from Philip Rahv and brought her into the circle of Partisan Review. She met Robert Lowell in the summer of 1947 at a party in Rahv’s apartment.

There is a feeling of inevitability that seems to build in Curtis’s biography, as we see Hardwick turn down a fellowship to LSU, where it so happens Lowell and his then-wife Jean Stafford would go a few years later. Hardwick then moves North, getting her first novel reviewed by Gertrude Buckman (someone with whom Lowell had an affair), and then reviews Stafford’s novel Boston Adventure. The orbit gets smaller, a centrifugal force operating on them as they move toward each other. By the time Hardwick and Lowell start dating in 1948 at Yaddo, the artist’s colony in Saratoga Springs, New York, their relationship seems almost fated in its mirror opposition: Hardwick, the critic and novelist, the daughter of a plumbing and heating contractor, one of 11 children; Lowell, a poet, an only child of Mayflower stock, “born under the shadow of the Dome of the Boston State House.” Hardwick, a Southerner who moved North, aspired to be a New York Intellectual, and fell in with the crowd at Partisan Review; Lowell, a Northerner who moved South, apprenticed with the Southern Agrarians, and gained a lifelong Southern accent. Hardwick, small, thin, and graceful. Lowell, large and disheveled. It was “as tho a bear had married a greyhound,” he wrote.

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In the stacks of American libraries, there is usually a shelf, somewhere, sagging with books about Robert Lowell. Biographies, critical studies, surveys that present his poetry in the sweep of a broader literary moment. With Hardwick, there might be a novel, a collection of essays or two, and a few of the volumes for which she has written introductions. But in the way of scholarly essays, biographies, PhD dissertations even — the sustained attention of other people — there has been almost nothing, until recently.

Curtis says at the outset of her book, in a stand-alone author’s note, that she plans to only mention Lowell insofar as it is necessary. But for more than two-thirds of the biography, between the moment when Lowell arrives on stage in 1947 and dies in 1977, it’s rare that a page goes by without some mention of “Cal.” It would be nearly impossible to write a biography of Hardwick without him. He was not only her close companion and husband but also the chief source of her anxiety and woe. The manic upswings, the depressive crashes, the prolonged and repeated hospitalizations, the affairs, the ranting and raving, the management of his finances, all of it culminating in what amounted to the greatest wound in Hardwick’s life, according to her: The Dolphin, a Pulitzer Prize–winning book of poems that Lowell published after their divorce, not only documenting his affair with Caroline Blackwood, an Irish writer and Guinness heiress, but effectively thieving and altering quotations from Hardwick’s letters for his own artistic needs.

Part of the challenge for Curtis, and for any biographer of Hardwick, is that she was not merely overshadowed by Lowell but oftentimes hid behind him. A visit to the Hardwick Papers at the Harry Ransom Center reveals how much she scrubbed and pared down her own legacy, ensuring that hungry researchers and disciples would have little to work with. Across seven boxes of material, a substantial portion of it concerns Lowell. There is more than half a box just dedicated to condolence letters written to her after Lowell’s death. When it comes to what would seem like the meatiest part of the archive, Hardwick’s drafts — which, from what we know about her process, sometimes involved six months of writing and revising one 15-page essay — we are only permitted to see near-final typescripts with light changes of tense, occasional cross-outs and emendations. Unlike Lowell, the arch “confessionalist,” Hardwick was not someone who wanted to be known — or at least not by us.

Much of what we learn about her in the biography involves a certain everydayness, not the flashing of a brilliant mind at work. She is getting surgery on her middle toes or dealing with bacterial illnesses. Other days, it’s leaky roofs and squirrels, packing and unpacking, acquiring furniture and handling suitcases. This is the stuff of life; I am not faulting Curtis for including it (especially if this is all we really can know about Hardwick). But the regrettable impression one gets from the biography is that Elizabeth Hardwick is not exactly worth knowing. The complexity and interestingness of her writing seems to exist at a mysterious remove from her life, which is lived by a person who, at least on record, spends a lot of time gossiping, griping, and scolding other people. By one student, she is remembered for her “appetite for malice.” Another says that her teaching style was not “particularly suited to nurturing a promising talent.” In social settings, she is often “[l]ubricated with martinis,” or drunk on wine, and quarreling with aristocrats or berating people over dinner. One starts to wonder: where is the person who the poet Derek Walcott once described as “more fun than any American writer I have known”?

The other question that the biography never answers, and which feels crucial to any accounting of a literary life, is: Why does Hardwick matter? Or rather, why has she mattered to so many people? Even if the book is not a so-called “literary biography,” and is just a biography of a literary figure, it still seems incumbent on the biographer to go beyond the “benign lump of fact,” as Hardwick called it, and to find a way toward a spirited engagement with the main source of drama in her life: the writing itself.

With Hardwick’s short stories and essays, Curtis tends to summarize them, and then give telegraphic appraisals (bad writing is “heavy-handed,” good writing is “timely” or “gorgeous”). But she does not engage with Hardwick’s much-admired style. The biography is much more interested in stances. There is a diligent accounting, for instance, of her troubled relationship to feminism, and her concern for the poor and working class.

From the earliest short stories onward, Hardwick wrote about the lives of waitresses and maids and the condemned, displaying what she once described as “a prying sympathy for the victims of sloth and recurrent mistakes, sympathy for the tendency of lives to obey the laws of gravity and to sink downward.” She was put off by “the moral numbness” of art that turned away from poverty and suffering. Having grown up in Lexington, she recalled the “legal lynchings” that took place in front of the local courthouse and developed a lasting attention to the pain and struggle of Black life in America. Engagements with race in her nonfiction ranged from her first piece in Partisan Review, about Richard Wright’s Black Boy, to a string of essays in the 1960s on the “revolutionary ecstasy” of the Watts Rebellion, on Selma, and on the death of Martin Luther King Jr.

Hardwick was more inconsistent in her treatment of women. Seduction and Betrayal, her most celebrated collection of essays, was published in the heyday of second-wave feminism and yet shares very little of its spirit. (Sontag described it as “the most subtle of feminist books.”) In fiction by and about women, Hardwick revered the “silent sufferers” (to use Curtis’s phrase). She admired self-sufficiency, fortitude, and endurance. Literature that trafficked in political stunts or graphic sex were artistically compromised and empty. “Subject matter is not what counts,” Hardwick said. “It’s the radicalization of view and style that matters.” This led Hardwick to downplay the role of gender — “Of all the problems writers have, being a woman is the least grave” — or to be utterly denigrating at times. Take, for example, a letter she wrote to Mary McCarthy from Italy in 1973:

What an extraordinary collection of dull people are assembled here. Strangely torpid, aging academics […] And the wives, of all sizes, yet somehow one size in their heads! They mutter about typing His manuscripts, and they have not made one single demand upon themselves, whether of mind or body, and go forth without any effort or artifice as if they were dogs adopted by their professore. They are mostly kindly, but there is this thorough acceptance of their nature and they seem to have lived in a world without mirrors. Needless to say the only two women one can talk to at all, and also the only two given to any “dressing” have Ph.D’s in their own right. It is a perturbation — the laziness of wives.

It’s the cutting remarks likes this one, the almost enthusiastic cruelty, that makes Hardwick’s recent apotheosis in the literary world unexpected in some ways. There is an inconsistency and murkiness to her politics; she occasionally signed open letters and petitions, and was something of a news junkie, but a vocal champion of the oppressed? No, not really. Much has been made of her sympathy for the poor, as if to secure her literary saintliness, but when you look at how she actually wrote about the poor, she was sometimes patrician and slightly fetishistic, despite her upbringing. In an interview about Sleepless Nights, she spoke of an “unconscious identification with damaged, desperate women on the streets, cleaning women, rotters in midtown hotels, failed persons of all kinds. C’est moi, in some sense.” This was after decades of employing live-in housemaids and grumbling about them in her letters. It seems hard to imagine our reverence for a contemporary writer who shuttled between the elite precincts of Manhattan and coastal Maine, identified with the working class and poor, made good literary use of their struggle, and yet continued to find women guilty, in part, for their own oppression.

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Hardwick once said that she agreed with Sontag’s formulation about style, which is that a writer who had it wrote “beyond the useful and necessary.” This did not mean that style was decorative. (It was a “consuming essence,” Hardwick wrote, “from which morals, politics, vices, and virtues cannot be expunged.”) But for writing to be stylish, it had to be autotelic and daring. It could not be angled toward a particular end, a function, a use.

Perhaps this is part of what we relish in Hardwick today, the uncompromising spirit of her work. It is as bewitching and beautiful as it is impossible to edit and difficult to read. “I’m very against editors,” she told an interviewer. “Lots of books are really quite transformed by editors, but in my work nobody ever has anything to say. They can’t do it any differently than I do it. You have to take it or not.” Isn’t this the narcissistic dream of writers hunting for a so-called “voice”? To be able to write so singularly that no one can alter or improve upon their writing, much less imitate it?

A different interpretation of Hardwick’s popularity, perhaps a more predictable one, would involve a familiar clump of words: material conditions, precarity, branding. There is lots of talk now, in the world of criticism, about how social media, job scarcity, and paltry freelance pay are conspiring to change the way literary critics write their criticism. The compromises are said to involve essays that seem over-inflated with praise, or artificially cruel, or “themed” (i.e., attempting to brand some hidden trend in the contemporary novel) — all of them efforts of exaggeration and misrepresentation, designed to attract more readers online. It so happens that some of these critics are writing more and more like Hardwick. There are similar phrasings and words and syntax; sometimes the very same words, even. But why? Is Hardwick’s influence just a symptom of their admiration for her, or possibly suggestive of something else?

Many of Hardwick’s essays, taken whole cloth, would be considered unpublishable by some of the same magazines she used to write for regularly. (It is an under-recognized aspect of her career that, as cofounder of The New York Review of Books, she had, in Barbara Epstein and Bob Silvers, two very sympathetic editors who encouraged her to write the way she did, and at great length, with very little intervention, for decades.) Perhaps the new interest in Hardwick, then, is a reaction to the perceived irrelevance of long-form literary criticism. What better way to sneer at mass-market fiction and the flat Globish prose of “world literature,” say, than to insist on writing like Hardwick: stunningly, unsaleably, and right on the border of the illegible? Are the Hardwickian critics wallowing in their own irrelevance? Resisting it? Or trying to distinguish themselves from their peers, to write in ever more bending lines of prose, hungering for strange choices of diction and dreamy adjectives that not only delight their sensibilities but attract the notice of new editors, new opportunities? Or do they, like her, believe that literature is the greatest of great things, and that she happened to write about it better than the rest?

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Zachary Fine is a writer from New Orleans.