The Cutting Mind and Romantic Heart of Elizabeth Hardwick

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By Heather Clark

A SPLENDID INTELLIGENCE
The Life of Elizabeth Hardwick
By Cathy Curtis

When Elizabeth Hardwick left Kentucky in 1939 to enroll in a Ph.D. program at Columbia, she hoped to become, as she famously put it, a “Jewish intellectual.” This was an unusual aspiration for a Southern woman from a large, working-class Protestant family. But Hardwick always seemed to know where she was going, and who she was going to be. Bored by academic research and skeptical about her job prospects, she dropped out of Columbia and began writing for Partisan Review. For years she lived in drab rooming houses, sometimes on the edge of starvation. Eventually she became part of the Review’s inner circle, married Robert Lowell and helped found The New York Review of Books. When she died in 2007, she was one of the most influential — and feared — American critics of the postwar era. William Phillips, the co-editor of Partisan Review, called her, dryly, “one of our most cutting minds.”

Hardwick’s reviews were always penetrating, and sometimes brutal. She made a lifelong enemy of Lillian Hellman and did not spare even her best friend, Mary McCarthy, from malicious satire when she parodied McCarthy’s 1963 novel “The Group” in The New York Review. But she was a romantic at heart and her life’s grand passion was literature — worth all the poverty, sacrifice and burned bridges. She read everything and took her role as a standard-bearer seriously: If not her, then who? Hardwick’s marriage to Lowell, whom she thought one of the best poets of his generation, was a manifestation of this great literary passion. Hardwick was cleareyed about Lowell’s mental illness but reluctant to give up on him, even in his nastiest phases. “I will never find his equal,” she wrote to a friend. By saving Lowell, over and over, she saved his extraordinary gift; her loyalty was as much to the poetry as to the man. Hardwick knew history was watching, and she knew what was expected of her: “It’s been my experience that nobody holds a man’s brutality to his wife against him.”

The Hardwick-Lowell marriage comprises the heart of “A Splendid Intelligence,” the first, succinct biography of Hardwick (1916-2007), despite an early disclaimer that we won’t hear much about Lowell. Cathy Curtis follows the lead of two recent books — “The Dolphin Letters, 1970-1979,” edited by Saskia Hamilton, and “Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire,” by Kay Redfield Jamison — in revealing Hardwick’s trials, strength and compassion during the Lowell years. Curtis sheds new light on Hardwick’s academic wanderings with Lowell in Iowa and Ohio, and their miserable sojourn in Europe. (Hardwick shopped, cooked and cleaned with no help from Lowell. “I have known the bottom of drudgery and ugliness,” she wrote to her friends the writers Peter and Eleanor Taylor.) We learn, through liberal quotation of Hardwick’s unpublished letters, how deeply she suffered through Lowell’s manic episodes, hospitalizations and adulterous love affairs. She wrote to friends about the “moral and psychological torture” Lowell inflicted upon her, and constantly apologized to editors for missing deadlines on account of “family troubles.”

For all her pain, Hardwick tried hard to keep her husband’s struggles private: The farther he fell, the straighter she stood. But by the time Lowell left her for the writer Caroline Blackwood, a daughter of a Guinness heiress, in 1970, Hardwick was ready to let go. Blackwood had her own problems and, as Hardwick predicted, could not give Lowell the practical and emotional support he needed during his manic phases. He died in a New York City taxi, on his way back to Hardwick. She later said the marriage, despite its turbulence and indignities, was the best thing that ever happened to her.

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    Like her friends Elizabeth Bishop and Susan Sontag, Hardwick made her literary name in a man’s world that was tough and unsentimental, and she was initially suspicious of second-wave feminism. Her critique of Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex,” which appeared in Partisan Review, is a masterpiece of feminist equivocation: “This book is an accomplishment; on the other hand, if one is expecting something truly splendid and unique like ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism,’ by Hannah Arendt, to mention another woman, he will be disappointed.” Hardwick argued that women lacked worldly experience, and were thus incapable of matching men’s literary accomplishments. Someone had to raise the children, make the meals and clean the house, and “women are fairly well adapted to this necessary routine.”

    This review was widely praised; Lowell wrote to Peter Taylor that Hardwick had proved “with all the eloquence of Shelley that no woman can ever be as good as a man.” (He was only half-joking, Curtis notes.) Although Hardwick admired her husband’s groundbreaking 1959 collection “Life Studies,” she was more skeptical toward what she considered the excesses of women confessional poets. She admitted that she felt a “nearly unaccountable attraction and hostility to the work of other women writers. Envy, competitiveness, scorn infect my judgment at times.” She commended Sylvia Plath’s austere poetry, but characterized her suicide as an act of dramatic performance art. She infuriated Maxine Kumin when she called Anne Sexton’s suicide “so stagy.”

    Yet Curtis, the author of a biography of the artist Elaine de Kooning, among other books, complicates our understanding of Hardwick’s feminism, such as it was, noting that she was less complacent about women’s struggles than she appeared. (“Courage under ill-treatment is a woman’s theme,” she wrote in 1973.) Hardwick published a celebrated essay collection, “Seduction and Betrayal,” about women writers, and had strong female literary allies, not only McCarthy, but also Bishop and Adrienne Rich, who rallied round her during the “Dolphin” controversy, when Lowell published parts of her letters without her permission; and she was devoted to Sontag, who dedicated an essay collection to her. Joan Didion wrote that Hardwick was the only writer she knew “whose perception of what it means to be a woman and a writer seems in every way authentic, revelatory, entirely original.”

    As the years passed, Hardwick grew less wary of the women’s movement. She conceded in 1985 that her review of “The Second Sex” had been shortsighted, and that Beauvoir’s work had ushered in a new era for women. And she understood better than most the obstacles women faced in their struggle to gain power, writing that “women will have to take it from the present holders — men. … It will not come as a gift.”

    Curtis treats Hardwick’s work with respect and admiration, though her detailed, dutiful summaries of essays and fiction sometimes grow tedious, and come at the expense of historical context and literary insight. Her discussion of Hardwick’s acclaimed novel “Sleepless Nights” quickly dissolves into a list of blurbs and reviews. If we get too many details about the work, we sometimes get too few about the life. Curtis skims over Hardwick’s childhood and adolescence in Kentucky and her relationship with her parents, who are shadowy figures here. Alarming suggestions of sexual assault are dropped into the narrative and left to sit, unexplored. Curtis spends considerable time on the Hardwick-Lowell marriage, but is nearly silent about Hardwick’s experience of motherhood.

    These omissions may be due to a dearth of primary sources — Hardwick’s daughter, Harriet Lowell, declined to be interviewed for the book — but even well-known figures sometimes get short shrift. I wanted to know more about Hardwick’s sustaining friendships with McCarthy, Sontag, Rich, Bishop and Arendt — legends whose names appear often, but mostly in outline. Curtis quotes from letters among these brilliant women, but does not really probe the deeper currents of their affections, alliances and rivalries. Still, I finished this book with a strong sense of Hardwick’s resolve and intelligence. Hardwick, who hated biographies, might have approved.

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