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How Tough-as-Nails Genius Elizabeth Hardwick Survived NY Intellectual Cage Matches

·14 min read
Yvonne Hemsey/Getty
Yvonne Hemsey/Getty

There was a time long, long ago when bright, young, bookish men and women living in the provinces longed to come to New York, a city where gangs—gangs of public intellectuals, that is—fought passionate feuds, drank gin, smoked cigarettes, and indulged in affairs and sharp-tongued gossip which passed as character analysis. To literary types, this world was infinitely glamorous and stimulating, and the social and political positions taken by the editors and writers who contributed to The Partisan Review, the dominant intellectual journal of the 1940s and 1950s, seemed to matter very much.

One such young provincial was the highly esteemed novelist, short story writer, and essayist Elizabeth Hardwick, who is the subject of A Splendid Intelligence: The Life of Elizabeth Hardwick by Cathy Curtis, the author of three previous biographies of the painters Grace Hartigan, Nell Blaine, and Elaine de Kooning.

Hardwick was born and raised in Lexington, Kentucky—one of eleven children in a working-class family that was neither poor nor financially comfortable. Hardwick’s ambition, as she once put it, was to be a “deracinated New York Jewish intellectual.” She attained that goal—and then some—except, of course for the Jewish part. What Hardwick wrote mattered, or at least it did within the New York literary world.

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Hardwick began her career by writing short stories, which led to a contract for her first novel, The Ghostly Lover. This resulted, Curtis tells us, in a meeting with Philip Rahv, the editor of The Partisan Review. Rahv asked Hardwick what she thought of the reviews written by Diana Trilling, critic and wife of the celebrated Columbia professor and cultural critic Lionel Trilling. “Not much,” Hardwick responded, which apparently was the right answer. Soon Hardwick was contributing attention-getting—and often withering—book reviews to the magazine.

Another novel, The Simple Truth, followed. But Hardwick’s reputation grew owing primarily to her reviews and literary essays. As Curtis explains, the publication of Hardwick’s 1959 Harper’s Magazine attack on the state of American book reviewing made her famous. “Sweet, bland commendations fall everywhere upon the scene,” Hardwick wrote, “a universal, if somewhat lobotomized, accommodation reigns.”

Then there’s the matter of her tumultuous marriage to the resident poetic genius of the era, Robert Lowell. The story is well known. Lowell suffered from severe bouts of manic depression. And Curtis, drawing heavily from Hardwick’s vivid letters to her best friend Mary McCarthy and other writers, lays out a heartbreaking litany of Lowell’s infatuations, affairs, betrayals, and repeated hospitalizations.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Robert Lowell reading a poem at a Poetry Festival held at the Royal Court Theatre in London, July 1963.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Tony Evans/Getty</div>

Robert Lowell reading a poem at a Poetry Festival held at the Royal Court Theatre in London, July 1963.

Tony Evans/Getty

Lowell eventually left Hardwick to marry the beautiful and unstable Guinness heiress Lady Caroline Blackwood, former wife of Lucian Freud. Yet Hardwick remained loyal to Lowell, both as a man and a poet.

Hardwick’s loyalty persisted even after Lowell published altered excerpts from Hardwick’s anguished letters to him in the poems collected in The Dolphin, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973. Lowell’s use of the letters created a literary scandal, as well it should have, and the poets Adrienne Rich and Elizabeth Bishop—among others—condemned Lowell for this betrayal of Hardwick’s privacy.

“I think people are more important than poems,” Rich wrote to Hardwick. And W. H. Auden, Curtis tells us, “was so distressed to hear about the poems that he refused to speak to Cal [Lowell’s nickname] again.” When Hardwick told Gore Vidal, “Well, you can’t be dishonored by bad work,” Vidal responded, “Don’t you believe it!”

Bishop, Rich, Auden, and Vidal are just a few of the literary luminaries who drop in and out of Curtis’ biography. There are also cocktail parties and meals with the likes of T. S. Eliot, Bernard Berenson, Isaiah Berlin, Stephen Spender, Allen Tate, Clement Greenburg, John Crowe Ransom, and Susan Sontag. It’s no surprise, then, that The New York Review of Books was launched in 1963 during a dinner party at Hardwick and Lowell’s book-lined West Side apartment. Hardwick served as advisory editor to the Review, and that’s where, in later years, the dense and brilliant literary essays eventually collected in Hardwick’s Seduction and Betrayal first appeared.

Seduction and Betrayal focused on women writers (the Brontë sisters, Virginia Woolf, and Sylvia Plath); women in the lives of male writers (Dorothy Wordsworth, Jane Carlyle, and Zelda Fitzgerald); and women in the works of Ibsen, Hardy, and others. As Mary McCarthy put it, part of Hardwick’s great gift was to write “as if all these people, dead or imaginary, were real and living a few blocks down the street.”

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Mary McCarthy at her desk in Paris, March 28, 1964.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Bettmann/Getty</div>

Mary McCarthy at her desk in Paris, March 28, 1964.

Bettmann/Getty

Hardwick’s crowning achievement was the brilliant short novel Sleepless Nights published in 1979. This highly personal, essayistic work of fiction is a discreet and elegant version of the “life writing” currently in vogue among contemporary novelists. It is a sophisticated, entirely modern novel that is short on plot but long on insights and gorgeous sentences that capture, in Hardwick’s words, “the cemetery of home, education, nerves, heritage and ticks.” As the novel travels from the New York jazz clubs of the 1940s to Boston and Amsterdam, and back to the contemporary New York literary world, Hardwick captures the essence of many lives, both famous and obscure: “Weaknesses discovered, hidden forces unmasked, predictions, what will last and what is doomed, what will start and what will end. “

All of which is to say that Hardwick, as Curtis makes clear, was an immensely formidable figure.

You have to credit Curtis with courage for taking on a biography of Hardwick, who called biography “a scrofulous cottage industry.” But Curtis doesn’t shy away from the issue, quoting, for example, Hardwick’s comment to Elizabeth Bishop, “I can’t tell you how I dread the future with biographies… Fortunately I’ll be dead when most of them are out.”

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Elizabeth Bishop, May 1956.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Bettmann/Getty</div>

Elizabeth Bishop, May 1956.

Bettmann/Getty

I got to know Hardwick a bit when I was a student at Columbia and I took her Barnard writing class. My unspoken nickname for her was Elizabeth “Devastating” Hardwick because of her lofty way of dismissing the work of students she deemed to be without talent. She once reacted to my attempt at a humorous essay by telling me in her slow-motion Kentucky drawl, “Ronald, I think you’re best at writing those sad, Jewish stories.” The complement buried in that remark went a long way towards giving me confidence as a writer. She intimidated me, of course, but I adored her.

I won’t presume to guess what Hardwick might have said about Curtis’ biography, but I found it fascinating.

The following is an edited version of my Zoom conversation with Cathy Curtis.

You’ve written biographies of women painters. What drew you to writing about Hardwick?

I have sort of three stipulations for a subject of a biography. One is that they need to have made a major contribution to their field. Two is that they had to have led a really colorful life. I mean, there are great people who just calmly sat in their rooms and wrote or painted. I need drama. And the third thing is that this person's life needs to be documented in an archive. Preferably with all kinds of heartfelt letters.

It seems as though Hardwick’s letters were the largest source for you.

Yes, the letters were so, so crucial. She poured out her heart when she was having trouble with her husband. They [the letters] were the backbone of the book.

I was impressed that the letters seemed so well-crafted, though not as densely worded as Hardwick’s essays.

Well, first of all, you’re only reading tiny excerpts. So if you read the whole letter, it would sound more incoherent, which is not a criticism. She was a real person who often was writing these letters when she was at her wit’s end. And not for publication. Writing was a difficult thing for her. Her style is always about very closely observed things. She’d lay down one observation in a sentence, and then another one, and another one. She doesn’t build the case in an orderly fashion. She gives you lots of these observations in her devastating way and with her devastating metaphors and you can figure it out.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>American novelist and literary critic Elizabeth Hardwick sits in front of a fireplace in Castine, Maine, 1980s</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Susan Wood/Getty</div>

American novelist and literary critic Elizabeth Hardwick sits in front of a fireplace in Castine, Maine, 1980s

Susan Wood/Getty

Given her well-known, often expressed dislike of biographies, did that give you pause? Was it daunting?

Well, it just kind of amused me. In fact, I put in everything I could find about her thoughts on biography. What she did not like in biography was the sort of thing where somebody goes out with the tape recorder and in the book just stitches together clumps of recorded verbiage, and says, “OK, here’s the biography.”

In doing research for the book, did you long for a time when the views of the sort of public intellectuals in the Partisan Review crowd seemed to matter more?

The thing that interested me was that she was a woman in the midst of mostly men—the Partisan Review guys. And when they got together, they’d all be yelling at each other. She had to learn to stand her ground. And of course she has this way of speaking, she could draw out the words, and in doing that you create a space for yourself.

Could you talk about how difficult it was for her to have achieved her position in this sort of fast-talking, male-dominated New York intellectual milieu. I mean, it’s amazing really, isn’t it?

Yes, and you know she wasn’t Jewish. Not everybody was, of course. Dwight Macdonald wasn’t Jewish. But she did it through her writing. Also, she was pretty. And they liked having a charming woman around who was beguiling in her way, and who also could be really sharp and witty. Mary McCarthy was probably the real the queen bee. And she was also attractive, also sharp, also the writer you had to pay attention to.

How would you describe that literary milieu to a young person today? What was it like to be part of that Partisan Review gang?

Well, it was highly contentious. You had your turf and you stood on it, and you shot arrows at everybody else. I just started visualizing this mock warfare. It was verbal, naturally. But it must have been exhausting. And because it was so male, everyone had all this aggression to get out and one aggression would mean another aggression. Well, there was a lot of drinking, which I guess exacerbated all this aggression. So people were screaming at each other at the parties.

Do you think they had an outsized notion of how important their opinions were?

Yes, oh yes. The less of a footprint you have in the world, the more you’re going to be fighting with people who do the same things that you do.

Do you think Hardwick was feared?

She was. When she was on committees judging literary works of one sort or another, she was resented because it was as if, you know, “I have stated my opinion. So, let’s move on.” I mean, there’s no other opinion because I’ve stated my opinion, right? That’s the sense of it. She just believed in her own opinions to an extraordinary extent and would not be derailed from them ever.

I found the details of Hardwick’s relationship with Lowell to be shocking. Were you surprised at how much she put up with, how forgiving she was?

Yes, my gosh. I mean, it just went on and on and on and on. And he would have his bouts of mania and there would be yet another young woman that he would try to have—or actually have—an affair with. I mean once, twice, thrice—but it just went on and on and on. And he could be really nasty to her, it seems, even when he was not in the grip of mania. His so-called joking I found cruel for the most part. But she loved him, and she honored him. And it is also tied up with her feeling about the need for what she called endurance.

Was part of this loyalty to his work as much as loyalty to the man? Do you think her loyalty to the art made the betrayals by Lowell more endurable?

She really believed in his talent, his genius. More than I believe in it, frankly. More than I think most people today believe in it. I mean who reads the early Lowell nowadays?

Who reads anything nowadays?

Oh, really, that’s a point. But yes, she believed very strongly in his greatness.

I was surprised at the extent of her financial woes. Throughout the book, you really get the sense of the precariousness of her economic status. She’s always worried about money.

I’m intensely interested in how these people manage, how they pay their rent or their mortgage, buy their groceries. You know, she grew up in a poor family. And her father was sort of a ne’er-do-well. He didn’t like working. And her mother was busy with all those kids. So here she is, the eighth of eleven children in a poor family marrying a man [Lowell] who is the only child in a wealthy family. I mean, their expectations of life were so different.

How would you characterize the evolution of her views about feminism?

She always was a supporter of equal rights. But what she didn’t like was special pleading for women. Again we go back to this ideal of sacrifice and heroism that she admired in women. I mean she really had a problem with contemporary fiction by women that was not elegant and stylish. And she ran into difficulties with some people she knew who wrote this sort of fiction. She didn’t like ideologues, feminist ideologues.

If you were talking to a bright young person who had never heard of Hardwick, how would you describe her and explain why she is someone to learn about and read?

Well, I mean just to describe her, she was really an essayist whose own life included marital turbulence, complicated friendships, struggles to develop her own voice in fiction. When you think of the three novels, the third one coming so much after the first two, just a quantum leap in novelistic brilliance. She was at her best as an example of how to look around, look at what’s in front of you, and find a fresh way to describe it and make it meaningful to somebody who’s never seen it. And she was interested in the difficulties of both the wealthy and the poor and the difficulties of communication. The difficulties of making one’s way in life. I would like to mention her fantastic non-fiction articles about places like Maine and Brazil. And she wrote about Martin Luther King in a very interesting way. She wrote about women’s friendships. And also her short stories, the ones about New York. Oh boy, they are just so right on. They’re so immediate. I mean this is stuff to read, it seems to me.

Do you think that they’ll ever be a figure like her or Sontag again?

No. (laughs)

Were you fonder of Hardwick or less fond after spending so much time with her to write this book?

[My affection for her] grew. And she’s my favorite so far of all the people I’ve written about. It’s kind of hubristic to say this, but I felt I really understood her. I admired her. There were times when I, you know, felt sorry for her when things are going very bad. I really adored her, I have to say.

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