Hardwick, Elizabeth

Hardwick, Elizabeth
Jul. 27, 1916-Dec. 2, 2007
American novelist, short story writer, essayist and critic


In New York's elitist literary circles few writers and critics have attained the influence and respect that belong to the essayist and novelist Elizabeth Hardwick. As a founder and the advisory editor of the New York Review of Books, to which she also contributes reviews and essays, she has helped since 1963 to shape that cultural biweekly into what Philip Nobile described in Intellectual Skywriting as "the premier literary-intellectual journal in the English-speaking world." In that achievement, as in her books, the latest of which is her semiautobiographical novel, Sleepless Nights (1979), she has been credited with an elegant and epigrammatic style and a fine, discriminating intelligence that resists the trendy and the cliche. Susan Sontag recently named Elizabeth Hardwick-along with E.L. Doctorow, Donald Barthelme, and only two or three others-among the contemporary American writers who, in her judgment, are "playing for the real stakes" and are "involved in the enterprise of literature."

Elizabeth Hardwick was born on July 27, 1916 in Lexington, Kentucky to Eugene Allen Hardwick, a businessman of modest means, and Mary (Ramsey) Hardwick. In an affectionate recollection of her native city in Harper's Magazine (July 1969), she wrote of Lexington, "This was, is, truly home to me, not just a birthplace." To the question that she has apparently often been asked, "How can you be from there, and think like you do?" she responded, "What can I answer except to say that I have been, according to my limits, always skeptical, and that I have, always, since my first breath, 'been from Kentucky.'"

Like the narrator of Sleepless Nights, who was one of nine children, Elizabeth Hardwick came from a large family. She grew up with many brothers and sisters in Lexington's North End, where different races and social classes lived side by side. Main Street fascinated her, and so did reading. She attended Lexington Junior High School and Henry Clay High School before pursuing her love for literature at the University of Kentucky, which awarded her the B.A. degree in 1938 and the M.A. degree in 1939.

"When I was in college," Elizabeth Hardwick recalled in an interview with Richard Locke for the New York Times Book Review (April 29, 1979), "…my aim was to be a New York Jewish intellectual. I say 'Jewish' because of their tradition of rational skepticism; and also a certain deracination appeals to me-and their openness to European culture…the questioning of the arrangements of society, sometimes called radicalism." In 1939 she left Lexington for New York City and enrolled in Columbia University to work for her doctorate in English literature. Soon becoming aware that a Ph.D. degree might not be very useful to a woman, because few of them at that time landed top teaching positions, she withdrew from Columbia in 1941 and devoted herself to writing fiction.

Presumably autobiographical in some aspects of its theme and in many of its descriptive details, Miss Hardwick's first novel, The Ghostly Lover (Harcourt, 1945), studies the entangled relationships and difficulties of communication within a middleclass Kentucky family. The story unfolds, sensitively and subtly, from the perspective of a daughter thwarted in her efforts toward self-realization. Most critics felt that the novelist's promises, such as the freshness of her perceptions, far outweighed her flaws; and Diana Trilling, the book reviewer at that time for the Nation, compared her moments of "imaginative intensity" with those achieved by Eudora Welty and D. H. Lawrence.

The action of Elizabeth Hardwick's second novel, The Simple Truth (Harcourt, 1955), centers on the trial of a penniless student of an Iowa college, Rudy Peck, who is accused of murdering his rich sweetheart. Disclosures during the trial are seen through the eyes of two observers from the academic community whose reactions contrast with those of the jury, made up of townspeople. Some reviewers seemed to be puzzled about Miss Hardwick's purpose, but Thomas Fitzsimmons asserted in the Sewanee Review (Spring 1955), "The author's statement comes to this: simple or sophisticated, neither the collective nor the single mind is equipped to distinguish reality from appearance; to pretend otherwise is absurd." Although disappointed in the way Miss Hardwick worked out her theme, Fitzsimmons liked much about the novel-"the kinds of things that make for a good short story."

During the decade between her two novels, Elizabeth Hardwick had, in fact, written many superb short stories. One of her early stories, "People on a Roller Coaster," was selected for O. Henry Memorial Award Prize Stories of 1945, and "What We Have Missed" was similarly honored the following year. "The Golden Stallion," which she contributed to the January 1946 issue of Sewanee Review, was reprinted in both The Best American Short Stories of 1947 and The Best World Short Stories: 1947 and was anthologized also by Thomas Blair in Fifty Modern Stories (Row, Peterson, 1960).

"The Classless Society," another of Miss Hardwick's anthologized stories, exposes with keen-edged irony the social and intellectual snobbery, along with various tactics of self-deception and self-preservation, that infect a small dinner party at which a University of Chicago professor and his wife entertain his colleague and her relative, a woman, like herself, from a prominent family of vanished wealth. The story first appeared in the New Yorker (January 19, 1957) and won the distinction of being included in Stories from the New Yorker: 1950-1960 and How We Live, Contemporary Life in Contemporary Fiction (1968). Among her several other New Yorker stories are "The Purchase," reprinted in The Best American Short Stories: 1960 and "The Faithful," reprinted in The Best American Short Stories: 1980. The latter, a witty tale of the gallantries of an aging Dutch doctor, is a chapter from Sleepless Nights.

Fairly early in her development as a writer, while she was earning critical regard for her first novel and short stories, as well as a Guggenheim fellowship in fiction for 1948, Elizabeth Hardwick discovered her congeniality with another literary form. Her concern about political and social, along with cultural, matters led her "inevitably to the essay," as she wrote in an autobiographical sketch for World Authors: 1950-1970 (1975). "I have great affection for the form," she explained, "and have given to it everything and more than would be required of fiction, that is, everything I possibly could. Indeed I have always written essays as if they were examples of imaginative writing, as I believe them to be."

An opportunity to prove herself as an essayist came soon after the publication of The Ghostly Lover, when Elizabeth Hardwick received a phone call from Philip Rahv, a founder in 1933 of Partisan Review. With his coeditor, William Phillips, in 1946 Rahv summed up the politics of his monthly periodical as "a kind of independent and critical Marxism." Partisan Review attracted many bright young contributors, including Elizabeth Hardwick, who had been a devotee of that literary journal while still in Lexington and who recalled in her World Authors sketch that writing for Partisan Review was "the very peak of [her] ambition" when she arrived in New York.

In her conversation with Richard Locke, Miss Hardwick, referring to her first contact with Rahv, recounted, "Thus was a lowly reviewer born. I say 'lowly' because it took me a number of years to get anything like a voice in my critical writing." Besides book reviews and other essays, she contributed short stories to Partisan Review. She also wrote articles for other periodicals, among them, the Reporter, Mademoiselle, New Republic, New York Times Book Review, and Harper's Magazine. Seventeen of her essays make up A View of My Own; Essays in Literature and Society (Farrar, Straus, 1962), a much-praised collection that suggested to Charles Poore of the New York Times (August 23, 1962) that Miss Hardwick shared "Mary McCarthy's brilliance, Margaret Fuller's [the nineteenth-century New England writer and feminist leader] masterly range of ideas and Virginia Woolf's aloof felicities of style."

David Riesman and the vocabulary of sociology, Bernard Berenson and the lifestyle of American expatriates in Italy, and the husband of George Eliot were among the subjects of Miss Hardwick's essays. Another was the New England philosopher William James, whom she found to be so interesting that she edited and wrote the introduction to The Selected Letters of William James (Farrar, Straus, 1961). When she was working on James's letters, Elizabeth Hardwick was living in Boston, on Marlborough Street, with her husband, the poet Robert Lowell. About that time she also wrote an essay that has been called an "autopsy"-"Boston: the Lost Ideal," which was published first in Harper's (December 1959) and then included in A View of My Own. According to Steven Gould Axelrod in Robert Lowell; Life and Art (1978), it was to that essay, together with one of her edited letters of William James, that Lowell owed the "genesis" of some of the poetic drafting of one of his major works, For the Union Dead.

In another of her essays for Harper's, "The Decline of Book Reviewing," which appeared in the October and November 1959 issues, Elizabeth Hardwick lamented, "A book is born into a puddle of treacle; the brine of hostile criticism is only a memory." Deploring the blandness and banality of American book reviewing, she made clear the need for a literary journal that would seek out "the unusual, the difficult, the lengthy, the intransigent, and, above all, the interesting." The 114-day New York City newspaper strike, which began in late 1962 and blacked out book reviews and book advertising along with the news, provided whatever further impetus was required for Miss Hardwick and her like-minded friends and acquaintances among the intelligentsia to launch the New York Review of Books.

Having moved in 1960 from Boston to New York, Robert and Elizabeth Hardwick Lowell were living on Manhattan's Upper West Side at the time of the newspaper strike. As recounted by Susan Edmiston and Linda D. Cirino in Literary New York (1976), the New York Review of Books "was conceived" one evening when the Lowells were having dinner at the apartment of their neighbors Jason and Barbara Epstein, and "the first issue was dummied up on the dining room table of the Lowell-Hardwick apartment." With Jason Epstein serving as acting publisher and Barbara Epstein sharing the editorship with Robert B. Silvers, the New York Review of Books appeared in February 1963, informing its readers that it presented "reviews of some of the more important books published this winter," but spent neither time nor space "on books which are trivial in their intentions or venal in their effects, except occasionally to reduce a temporarily inflated reputation or call attention to a fraud." After quoting that "editorial credo," as he called it, in his Intellectual Skywriting: Literary Politics & The New York Review of Books (1974), Philip Nobile observed, "What style. What class. What brass."

Although it has been condemned as well as admired for its highbrow appeal, by 1980 the New York Review of Books was filling the need of some 100,000 subscribers for intelligent discussion of political, social, and cultural issues by writers with recognizable names. Besides serving as its editorial adviser, over the years Elizabeth Hardwick has upheld its standards with many contributions of her own. The essays on the theatre that she wrote for the New York Review of Books made her the first woman to win the $4,000 George Jean Nathan Award, which was presented to her in December 1967. Although she had contributed "Theatre Chronicle: Disgust and Disenchantment: New British and American Plays" to Partisan Review (Spring 1958) and had covered the theatre for Vogue during the year 1964, she said on the occasion of winning the award that she did not consider herself a drama reviewer. She was, rather, a literary critic, "a person whose interest in the drama is principally literary" and who sees and writes about only those plays she chooses.

Several of Miss Hardwick's essays on literature for the New York Review of Books were collected, in somewhat altered form, in Seduction and Betrayal: Women and Literature (Random, 1974), studies of women writers and fictional women in which she glides back and forth between the real and the imagined, life and art, biography and literature. Her subjects include the Brontes, Virginia Woolf (whose The Common Reader she has said influenced her own criticism), and Sylvia Plath; the "amateurs" Dorothy Wordsworth and Jane Carlyle; Ibsen's women; and Tess D'Urberville and other luckless female protagonists of the novel.

"Hardwick's personal involvement with women writers is the genesis of this new collection; it dictates the style and constitutes the true subject matter of the book," R.P. Solomon wrote of Seduction and Betrayal in the New York Times Book Review (May 5, 1974). Although her book is factually informative and well researched, Elizabeth Hardwick takes a nonacademic approach to literature that favors her fluid style. In her review for the New York Post (May 20, 1974) Doris Grumbach tried to pinpoint Miss Hardwick's "strength as a literary critic": "She is an eyeopener, a revealer of truths not contained, often, in the scholarship on a writer. She is a reader of fierce insights."

Interviewed for a profile in the New York Post in late 1967, Elizabeth Hardwick told Bryna Taubman, "I've had no desire to write fiction for more than ten years. I don't think I can now." Her proposed solutions to the problems she encountered on her return to the novel form some years later were incorporated into a draft of the first chapter of a novel in progress, "Writing a Novel," which she published in 1973. The short, plotless novel that emerged in 1979, Sleepless Nights (Random), fuses fiction and autobiography in what its narrator, Elizabeth, describes as a "work of transformed and even distorted memory." Francine du Plessix Gray, in Vogue (June 1979), pointed to an affinity between Peter Handke's A Sorrow Beyond Dreams and Sleepless Nights: the two authors share "a Socialist concern for the victims of middle-class morality, a boldly collagist, modernist handling of autobiographical fact which breaks through stilted definitions of 'novel' or 'memoir' and forges the vitality of a new genre." Like Elizabeth Hardwick's other novels and many of her short stories, Sleepless Nights conveys the elusive, mystifying nature of human experience.

The character of Elizabeth of Sleepless Nights is developed indirectly through what she happens to remember about persons and places. Desultory memories call to mind fragments of her reading of Pasternak, Goethe, Borges, and others-again in a blending of life and literature. Miss Hardwick's incisive, condensed style accommodates a range and variety of experience that is ordinarily the burden of a full-length novel. The perception by some reviewers of style as the unifying force of the episodic Sleepless Nights may have been gratifying to Elizabeth Hardwick, a practitioner of a "high style" that she defined in her talk with Francine du Plessix Gray as "a text that can be interpreted on many different levels of meaning, a text that is very much written, and this doesn't necessarily mean Nabokovian baroqueness. When I talk to students, they think I mean writing with a lot of adjectives, but the sparsest of styles can be the highest."

The students to which Elizabeth Hardwick referred were very likely those in her creative writing courses at Barnard College, where she began teaching as adjunct professor of English in 1964. She gave three lectures for the Christian Gauss Seminar in Criticism at Princeton University, including those that appear as essays on Dorothy Wordsworth and Jane Carlyle in Seduction and Betrayal. At Vassar College in 1972, moreover, she read the concluding, title chapter of that collection of essays. Miss Hardwick was chosen a member of the advisory committee for the National Book Awards in 1963. She holds an honorary degree from Smith College, awarded in 1973. Since 1976 she has been a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

Elizabeth Hardwick and Robert Lowell were married on July 28, 1949 and had one daughter, Harriet Winslow Lowell, born on January 4, 1957. The marriage was at times a tormenting one, as Lowell disclosed in some of his poems to his wife that were published in Notebook (1970). The couple divorced in 1972, and Lowell remarried but returned to Elizabeth Hardwick before his death in September 1977. Their Manhattan home, where she still lives, is one of the duplex apartments on West 67th Street that Lowell described as "the last gasp of true Nineteenth-Century Capitalistic Gothic." Elizabeth Hardwick is a tall woman with reddish hair, a well-proportioned figure, and, in the words of Francine du Plessix Gray, "a rich, warm gracious voice still faintly honeyed with a Kentucky drawl."

"In some ways, the mysterious and somnambulistic 'difference' of being a woman has been, over 35 years, Elizabeth Hardwick's great subject," Joan Didion proposed in the New York Times Book Review (April 29, 1979). That consciousness has pervaded her three novels and many of her essays. In reply to a question of Richard Locke, she affirmed, "Yes, I call myself a feminist in that I believe there are cultural, social and economic boundaries set for women which are immoral and unnecessary and which should be resisted publicly and privately."

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