A Splendid Intelligence: The Life of Elizabeth Hardwick 
by Cathy Curtis.
Norton, 400 pp., £25, January, 978 1 324 00552 0
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The Uncollected Essays 
by Elizabeth Hardwick, edited by Alex Andriesse.
NYRB, 304 pp., £15.99, May, 978 1 68137 623 3
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Elizabeth Hardwick​ was wary of biographers. She called life-writing ‘a scrofulous cottage industry’, a ‘consistent fiction’ masquerading as truth. Its practitioners were necrophiliacs ‘quick in pursuit of the dead’. In her book on Herman Melville, she wrote of the ‘violent exuberance’ that accompanied his rediscovery by critics in the 1920s: ‘He was unearthed … the whole skeleton, as it were, put under the floodlights, a penetrating radar giving the bones a voluptuous rebirth.’ There aren’t many skeletons left in Hardwick’s closet. Since 1973, when Robert Lowell published The Dolphin, a series of sonnets based on Hardwick’s letters to him during the breakdown of their marriage, the story of her life has been bound up with, and contorted by, his overbearing presence. Cathy Curtis, author of the first biography of Hardwick, has the opportunity to set this right, to begin at the beginning.

Elizabeth Bruce Hardwick was born in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1916, the eighth of eleven children. Her siblings became teachers, post-office clerks, beauticians, farmers, but Hardwick had larger aspirations. ‘How can you be from here and think like you do?’ a fellow Southerner asked. The Kentucky of thoroughbreds and tobacco was not for her: ‘I would have gone to the ends of the earth to escape from ashtrays with horses on them.’ Curtis shows her on home turf, however, flirting with jockeys on the front porch. It’s amusing to learn that her charming, conniving father, Eugene, a plumber who enjoyed baseball and jazz, once cheated his mother-in-law out of enough money to buy himself a boat, and that her mother, Mary, a stout woman with a ‘boneless, soft prettiness’ and the ‘scarcest of eyebrows’, was a devout Presbyterian who believed that to get married was ‘sort of the worst thing you could do’. And here is Hardwick at the public library discovering Thomas Mann, whose Death in Venice has been mis-shelved in the murder mystery section. (A lesser woman would have put it back.) In 1934, she went to the University of Kentucky, where she sought out ‘the literary people and the political people’. ‘I have a memory of sitting there and feeling smug,’ she wrote of attending a class taught by John Crowe Ransom in 1938. She identified as a Trotskyite, placing herself on the anti-Stalinist left along with the writers she admired: Irving Howe, Dwight Macdonald and Mary McCarthy.

Hardwick wanted to flee to New York, like ‘a provincial in Balzac, yearning for Paris’, and in September 1939 arrived in Manhattan by Greyhound bus. She enrolled at Columbia, embarking on a doctorate in 17th-century literature but soon dropping out (she didn’t want to write ‘some dull little textual thing’). Instead, she set about writing fiction, working part-time – university admin, teaching at an academy for Southern girls – to make ends meet. In her early years in New York, she existed, she said, ‘on the threshold of starvation’. She resented the cheap apartments, with their ‘marigold odour of multiple occupancy … the greasy couches and scarred tabletops’, and the neighbours – the woman across the hall, for instance, to whom she lent $50 and who called her a ‘dirty cunt’ when she asked for it back.

The Ghostly Lover, her first novel, a coming-of-age story set in Kentucky, was published in 1945. It brought her to the attention of the editors at Partisan Review, who began publishing her criticism: Richard Wright, Faulkner, Hart Crane, the Goncourts – Hardwick could turn her hand to almost anything. When Philip Rahv met her, he was struck by her gumption. He asked her what she thought of Diana Trilling: ‘Not much.’ ‘I weighed about ten pounds then,’ Hardwick recalled, ‘skinny, smoking, and he was quite surprised that I had read everything.’ William Phillips, who co-edited Partisan Review with Rahv, described her as ‘one of our most cutting minds’, ‘charming even when most devastating or malicious’. Isaiah Berlin said she was ‘much more bitchy’ than Mary McCarthy, ‘but sharper and more original’. ‘The Decline of Book Reviewing’, published in Harper’s in 1959, established her reputation. The essay took the press to task for printing ‘bland commendations’ in place of criticism. She slammed ‘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’.

Curtis’s biography coincides with a revival of interest in Hardwick after decades of neglect. Collected Essays appeared in 2017; Seduction and Betrayal and Sleepless Nights were republished in 2019; the Uncollected Essays came out earlier this year. There has been hagiographic praise of her elaborate syntax, her strange yet apposite adjectives, her lacerating one-liners, the depth of her learning and breadth of reference – even the placement of her commas. Hardwick’s acolytes make fleeting apology for her ambivalence about second-wave feminism, her bitchiness about her female friends (her parody of McCarthy’s The Group was published in the New York Review of Books in 1963 under the pseudonym Xavier Prynne), her snobbishness and her inexplicable indulgence of Lowell.

A Splendid Intelligence is not the biography Hardwick’s champions have been waiting for, however. The section on her early life is skimpy, while later chapters are full of inane details – ‘the bland, insistent recording of the insignificant’, as Hardwick once described a Life of Hemingway. At its worst, the book embodies what Hardwick detested about biographies: the sense of being trapped ‘on a long trip with the subject in the family car’. Do we really care that Lowell and Hardwick played tennis with a clergyman in Maine in 1958? Or that the same year she switched from ‘using fabric flowers’ to ‘Italian-made plastic roses that looked amazingly life-like’? What about the leaky roof in the summer house and the squirrel invasion midway through a reupholstery project? The foot surgery Hardwick had to correct her ‘tormenting middle toes’? Anyone?

Hardwick is most famous for the essays collected in Seduction and Betrayal (1974), a series of pieces on women in literature first published in the NYRB (a magazine she helped found) in the early 1970s. Her topics included writers and fictional characters: the Brontës, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Dorothy Wordsworth, Hedda Gabler and Hester Prynne (hence ‘Xavier’). Hardwick’s great subject was women – their subjection, their stoicism, their self-reliance – but she wrote about them with a sort of fatalism, a fatalism that characterised her treatment of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, which she reviewed for Partisan Review when it appeared in English in 1953:

Are women ‘the equal’ of men? This is an embarrassing subject. Women are certainly physically inferior to men and if this were not the case the whole history of the world would be different … women are ‘doomed’ to situations that promise reasonable safety against the more hazardous possibilities of nature which they are too weak and easily fatigued to endure and against the stronger man. Any woman who has ever had her wrist twisted by a man recognises a fact of nature as humbling as a cyclone to a frail tree branch.

Beauvoir’s book was ‘briskly utopian’, a ‘governessy scolding’ of society that ignored what Hardwick saw as ‘reality’. Only ‘the whimsical, cantankerous, the eccentric critic’ could suggest that books written by women rivalled those produced by men. Biology was all. Lowell wrote that his wife’s essay ‘proves with all the eloquence of Shelley that no woman can ever be as good as a man’.

And so, with the fate of all women sealed, Hardwick set about exploring the way ‘heroines’ shouldered their misfortune. In the title essay of Seduction and Betrayal, she invites us to admire Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne not for rebelling against the orthodoxies of Puritan New England, or for her defiant sexuality, but for her stoicism in the face of public humiliation: ‘Punishments are embraced by Hester … as opportunities for self-knowledge, for a strange and striking stardom.’ Hardwick admires ‘the capacity for high or lowly suffering, for violent feeling absorbed, finally tranquillised, for the radiance of humility, for silence, secrecy, impressive acceptance’. Her conclusion is depressing: ‘Lust – and then, for the women, stoicism. This is the highest choice.’ In the same essay, she praises the unflappable virtue of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, who ‘is not seduced, cannot be seduced, fraudulently led into adultery. She can be raped, just as anyone can be … Her dignity afterwards is another thing – her saintly suffering, the apotheosis of degradation which truly ennobles her, like a salvation finally achieved.’

Seduction and Betrayal’s fetishisation of female suffering is all the more troubling when Hardwick is writing about real people. For Plath, ‘suicide is an assertion of power, of the strength – not the weakness – of the personality. She is no poor animal sneaking away, giving up; instead she is strong, threatening, dangerous.’ Nor is Hardwick afraid to pit Plath’s suicide against that of another female writer: ‘When the day comes for Virginia Woolf, the pain of the illness bears down on her and she feels only apology, gratitude and depression.’ Woolf’s death is unremarkable, where Plath executed things with panache: ‘When the curtain goes down, it is her own dead body there on the stage, sacrificed to her plot.’

‘Style matters,’ Hardwick wrote in her essay on Woolf, even a ‘deformed kind of style’. Hedda Gabler is at her best ‘when she shows nothing beyond her style’. Billie Holiday somehow ‘retrieved from darkness the miracle of pure style’. Hardwick’s own reputation rests on that slippery word ‘style’. Who else would have written of Gertrude Stein:

There is nothing hothouse in this peculiar American princess. For one thing, she is as sturdy as a turnip – the last resort of the starving, and native to the Old World, as the dictionary has it. A tough root of some sort; and yet she is mesmerised and isolated, castlebound, too, under the enchantments of her own devising … We can see her like a peasant assaulting the chicken for Sunday dinner. She would wring the neck of her words. And wring the neck of sentences, also.

Hardwick’s conceits often rely on contradiction: Stein is a peasant and a princess. She is a turnip – there is an echo here of Wyndham Lewis’s appraisal of her ‘prose-song … a cold, black suet-pudding … Cut it at any point, it is the same thing … all fat, without nerve’ – but also a literary aristocrat, an ‘aesthetician’ of ‘Methuselah prodigiousness’, ‘dandyish in her handsome wools and velvety in her sentences’ because she has made her spareness lush, ‘her prose an intimidating heap of bare bones’.

A writer’s style mattered, but so did their physical appearance; in fact, one often provided a clue to the other. Billie Holiday, that ‘miracle’ of pure style, ‘was fat the first time we saw her, large, brilliantly beautiful, fat’. George Eliot ‘was homely, even ugly, and perhaps that accounted for some of her thoroughness and quiet determination; she was afraid of failure and rebuff. She suffered.’ The appeal of Hardwick’s writing rests on a trick of repetition, a sort of parallelism, that implies great familiarity with her subjects. Dylan Thomas ‘satisfied a longing for the extreme. He was incorrigible and you never knew what he might do. He was fantastically picturesque.’ Robert Frost ‘was never more than an indifferent farmer. He wrote slowly and did not flood the offices of magazines with his verse, only to suffer rejection. He was not immediately recognised and no doubt the tardiness was cruel; yet when fame came it was not dramatically late and it was certainly dramatically brilliant.’ Hardwick had a great command of pattern and some of her characterisations jingle like a good ad: Frost was ‘malicious and capricious’; New York, a ‘restless monster of possibility and liability’; Marianne Moore gave us ‘treasures of eccentricity and authenticity’. It’s an aural trick: if one thing sounds like another, their pairing seems right.

Hardwick once admitted that she would read her work and ‘look for a line where I might insert a vivid phrase, or change a few adjectives, alter a verb to a more unusual one’. You often find a strange clause shoehorned into the middle of her sentences, suggesting retrospective tinkering for sound rather than sense. Here’s an example from the essay on Stein: ‘Without confidence, fidelity to death, as it were, the work Gertrude Stein actually produced cannot easily be imagined.’ Fidelity to death? But no editor would be allowed to strike out that meaningless clause. ‘I’m very against editors,’ Hardwick told an interviewer in 1978. ‘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.’ She found the New Yorker’s interventionist approach to editing egregious. ‘It seems to be an office designed to give anyone ulcers within a month,’ she told a friend. ‘The weight of all those notes and comments alone is too much to bear.’

‘The Art of the Essay’, first published in the New York Times in 1986 and included in the Uncollected Essays, is the closest thing we have to Hardwick’s manifesto on criticism, and it makes clear that she saw arrogance as essential. She acknowledges that essayists can be ‘self-congratulatory’, but then essayists are not hacks, jobbing writers capable of producing only ‘a review, a sketch, a “piece” … a lesser offering … summoned to feed the hungry space of periodicals’. ‘The aggressiveness of the essay,’ she writes, ‘is the assumption of … authority,’ but that authority is ‘earned’ by ‘previous performance’; it is the privilege of those who have read enough, and whose sensibility is fine enough, to tackle forms that lesser writers cannot:

We would not want to think of the essay as the country of old men but … existing knowledge is so often required. Having had mothers and fathers and the usual miserable battering of the sense of self by life may arouse the emotional pulsations of a story or a poem; but feeling is not sufficient for the essay. Comparisons roam about it, familiarity with those who have ploughed the field before … Tact and appropriateness play a part. How often we read a beginner’s review that compares a thin thing to a fat one. ‘John Smith, like Tolstoy, is very interested in the way men interact under the conditions of battle.’ Well, no.

It was this assumption of authority that allowed Hardwick to produce ‘The Decline of Book Reviewing’, and to deliver the swift and slashing put-downs that make her criticism fun. (Anaïs Nin? ‘Mercilessly pretentious.’ Faulkner? ‘Historically ridiculous.’) She was supremely confident and grabbed her subjects by the throat. But some of her longer sentences are so riddled with fusty diction – usually when she is striving towards stateliness – that they become convoluted and unclear: ‘The peculiar instability of the democratic vistas which face the American author and in which his imagination is rooted does not seem to offer a world-view or a view of America in the world.’ Or: ‘Conrad’s America, as he extracts it from his literary texts, is hospitable to interpretation, exploitation, and finally to therapeutic manipulation, but its spacious indefiniteness is not hospitable to literature, and not to the novel in particular.’ And her writing can be congested with allusions. Take ‘The Fictions of America’: Jacques Vaché, André Breton, Oscar Wilde, Melville, Whitman, Poe, Hawthorne, Emerson, Dickinson, Benjamin Franklin, the King James Bible, Shakespeare and Erasmus, all within the first three paragraphs. Some appreciate Hardwick’s tacit assumption of her readers’ sophistication; the rest of us feel bamboozled.

Theessays in Seduction and Betrayal were written when Hardwick and Lowell’s marriage was ending. When they first got together, mutual friends had been quick to sound the alarm. Allen Tate warned Hardwick that ‘Cal is dangerous. There are definite homicidal implications in his world, particularly toward women and children … You must not let him in your apartment.’ He had twice broken the nose of his first wife, Jean Stafford, and injured her badly in a deliberate car crash. Hardwick wasn’t put off. ‘He’s an Adonis!’ she said to Elizabeth Bishop.

They were married in July 1949. Hardwick insisted she didn’t know what she was getting into, ‘but even if I had, I still would have married him.’ Did she write about women in literature in the way she did because she married Lowell? Or did she put up with Lowell because she felt that way about women in literature? The best one could hope for in a husband, as Hardwick put it in her essay on Jane Carlyle, was sensitivity: ‘This is the unspoken contract of a wife … In the long run wives are to be paid in a peculiar coin – consideration for their feelings.’

Again and again, Hardwick’s essays return to the subject of marriage. Some of the occasional pieces she wrote for Vogue and Mademoiselle in the 1970s display her scepticism about parity between the sexes, even when she is ostensibly writing in praise of it. ‘Is the “Equal” Woman More Vulnerable?’ is often cited by critics attempting to excuse Hardwick’s ambivalence towards feminism. Of course the women’s movement is ‘quite serious’, Hardwick writes, but ‘I believe the breakdown of marriage is the historical source of the Women’s Movement … Liberation, self-knowledge, self-reliance, training, planning – these are a sort of private investment, a savings account that acknowledges the shakiness of marriage.’

It’s striking how much Hardwick was prepared to put up with to save her own marriage, during which, Saskia Hamilton notes in her introduction to The Dolphin Letters, Lowell ‘suffered at least ten major manic episodes and at least fifteen hospitalisations’. The first of many ‘other women’ was Giovanna Madonia, a music student whom Lowell met in Salzburg when he and Hardwick were travelling in Europe, not long after they were married. ‘Honey, I love you,’ he told his wife, ‘but I think I want a divorce to marry Giovanna.’ When Hardwick was pregnant with their daughter, Harriet, Lowell began seeing a young poetry student who looked, according to Edmund Wilson, ‘like a Renoir’. On one occasion, the girl played hostess at their house in Boston, while Hardwick retreated upstairs to cry. Bishop cut short a visit in the summer of 1947 after Lowell began declaring that he was in love with her. When the couple visited Bishop in Brazil in 1962, Lowell had a one-night stand with Clarice Lispector; Hardwick flew home early. There was his infatuation with Ann Adden, a college student who was doing research at the hospital in which he was institutionalised in 1957; and Sandra Hochman, a Jewish woman for whom he threw a surprise engagement party shortly after they met in 1961, at which he called himself Hitler and tried to strangle her. And so on and so on. Hardwick was endlessly patient: ‘You can be as gross, slovenly, mean and brutally verbose as you want.’ At one point, during a row, she calmly reminded him that ‘other men don’t hit their wives.’

Lowell’s bad behaviour makes it easy to empathise with Hardwick, but in doing so we can lose sight of the woman herself, at the risk of removing her agency. Why did she stay with him? Lowell’s wealth and status as a Boston Brahmin was part of his allure. ‘I suppose I don’t like to face the reality of myself,’ she told a friend shortly after arriving in New York in 1939, ‘which is that I am solely dependent on my own ability to support myself.’ During the couple’s stay in Europe in the early 1950s, she confessed that despite her ‘proletarian sympathies’, daily existence was intolerable without paid help. When their maid in Florence was struck down with appendicitis, she complained that ‘living in a foreign country is complete hell unless you have someone to do the work.’ In 1955, after they returned to the US, Hardwick found herself at long last where she felt she belonged: ‘a stone house in the Federal style at 239 Marlborough Street in Boston, a block from Cal’s boyhood home’. It was, she wrote to Robert Giroux, ‘a mansion, quite splendid’. But Lowell had depleted his trust fund to pay for it and, after Harriet’s birth, Hardwick was upset to find that their finances could stretch to only one full-time member of staff. Housekeeper or nursemaid? She opted for the nursemaid, who kept her daughter ‘starched and perfumed and spotless as a princess’, even if, as Lowell wrote to Bishop, ‘poor Lizzie isn’t allowed to play with Harriet … except between six and six-thirty when she would like to be relaxing over an Old Fashioned.’

Despite the difficulties, Hardwick enjoyed being Mrs Lowell – the Mayflower heritage, the bloodline that reached back to Jonathan Edwards and Amy Lowell. Bishop once confessed that she was ‘green with envy’ at Lowell’s pedigree: ‘All you have to do is put down the names!’ Her husband might stray, but Hardwick was confident he would always find his way back home. This is why, when Lowell left her for Caroline Blackwood, her first reaction was laughter. ‘I knew Cal had a girl,’ she wrote to McCarthy, ‘but it was just this afternoon that I knew it was Caroline. I felt such relief and burst out laughing! … I cannot take her seriously.’

Lowell married Blackwood in 1972, the same year that ‘Is the “Equal” Woman More Vulnerable?’ appeared. Hardwick’s thoughts on women’s liberation speak directly to the pain of her divorce. ‘Nothing is more pitiful than an older woman thrown into “freedom”, lying like some wounded dragon in a paralysis of rage and embittered nostalgia.’ ‘With women,’ she wrote, ‘resentment often arises out of a sudden, piercing cry that all they have felt and sacrificed is somehow not constantly foremost in the minds of those they have felt and sacrificed for.’ It’s easy to trace a line from here to her literary criticism. ‘Independence is an unwanted necessity,’ she writes of Charlotte Brontë, ‘but a condition much thought about. All of one’s strength will be needed to maintain it; it is fate, a destiny to be confronted if not enjoyed.’

Lowell knew that The Dolphin would be a humiliation for Hardwick. ‘Lizzie is the heroine,’ he wrote to Stanley Kunitz, ‘but she will feel bruised by the intimacy. She should win all hearts but what is that when you are left, and left again in print?’ It wasn’t just the appropriation of her correspondence that bothered Hardwick, but ‘the distortion of the letters’, as she called it, ‘the writing of some for me, putting lines unwritten by me, in my voice’. Reviewing a biography of Katherine Anne Porter, in 1982, she was clearly drawing on bitter experience:

Our power of documentation has a monstrous life of its own, a greater vivacity than any lived existence. It makes form out of particles and finds attitude in a remembered drunken remark as easily as in a long contemplation of experience, more easily, in fact. It creates out of paper a heavy, obdurate permanency.

Lowell’s friends and contemporaries responded strongly to The Dolphin. ‘I will grant that parts of it are marvellous – wild, erotic, shattering,’ Kunitz wrote, ‘but some passages I can scarcely bear to read: they are too ugly, for being too cruel, too intimately cruel.’ Adrienne Rich called it ‘one of the most vindictive and mean-spirited acts in the history of poetry’. Bishop felt ‘perfectly awful’ after reading the poems: ‘IF you were given permission – IF you hadn’t changed them … etc. But art just isn’t worth that much … I feel sick for you.’ Lowell himself was defensive, claiming that he ‘couldn’t bear to have my book (my life) wait inside me like a dead child’, and dismissing Bishop’s criticism: ‘No one would object if I said Lizzie was wearing a purple and red dress when it was yellow.’

‘I have never tried to deny my grief and pain and my love for you,’ Hardwick wrote to Lowell. ‘The recent shocks have added something new. I don’t know what to call it – the intolerable.’ He responded: ‘I think I am living through many of your feelings. I suffer.’ Hardwick seems to have taken the poor quality of the poems, at least as she saw it, personally: ‘So many fatuities, indiscretions, bad lines still there on the page,’ she complained to Bishop. ‘That breaks my heart for all of us.’ But Lowell argued that he had combed out the ‘abuse, hysteria, repetition’ from her letters, and as time went on, she came round to his way of thinking: ‘The poems from my letters seem to me quite silly, and perhaps I should be glad they are not in the mode of fury of some of my communications at the time.’

By 1977, she had made peace with Lowell’s treachery. They spent the last summer of his life together in Maine. (Things with Blackwood had taken a turn for the worse.) That September, returning from a brief trip to England, he died en route to Hardwick’s apartment from JFK. There’s an irony in those last moments: Lowell in a taxi, Lucian Freud’s painting of Blackwood on his lap (he was seeing about having it appraised), caught between two women, suffering a heart attack.

Hardwickbegan writing Sleepless Nights shortly after her separation from Lowell, describing it as the book that ‘will save my life’. But the novel wasn’t published until two years after Lowell’s death; it became, at least in part, a response to The Dolphin. ‘Sometimes I resent the glossary, the concordance of truth many have about my personal life, have like an extra pair of spectacles,’ the narrator tells us. Hardwick’s two earlier novels, The Ghostly Lover and The Simple Truth (1955), which was based on a real murder trial in Iowa, languish in the third person. Sleepless Nights is a compelling experiment in autobiography, an attempt to think through the ways fact and fiction might complement each other, without resorting to the crudeness of Lowell’s letter-poems.

The narrator, Elizabeth, comes from Lexington, Kentucky, but although the book is a fragmented account of her experiences, written as a monologue, it’s nothing like a straightforward account of a life. That, Hardwick seemed to be saying, was impossible. What troubled her most about biographers was the coherence they imposed on the mess of experience, as if they were completing a ‘picture puzzle with all the scramble turned into a blue eye, and the parts of the right leg fitted together’. Sleepless Nights takes for granted that any biographical account, even an autobiographical one, diminishes the life it’s trying to describe. In a series of episodic chapters – about a creepy guy from Kentucky, a self-obsessed lover in New York, a sex-addled doctor in Amsterdam – Hardwick decentres the narrative ‘I’, panning out at moments when we might expect Elizabeth’s account to become confessional or self-revealing. The real story is always slipping away. At the end of the third section she writes: ‘Goodbye? I have left out my abortion, left out running from the pale, frightened doctors and their sallow, furious wives in the grimy, curtained offices on West End Avenue.’

In 1976, Lowell read the part of the novel about Billie Holiday. He wrote to Hardwick:

I wouldn’t have guessed, but now I think I see the cause of the more delicate, more poetic (?) prose. Don’t tell me anything, but let me surmise that you are writing something close to autobiography, closer than plot will usually allow, that the style and selections will be artfully angled and chosen … Don’t tell me either if, where and how I turn up.

The best thing about Sleepless Nights is the fact that he doesn’t show up – not really. The narrator’s ex-husband is someone glimpsed across the room, ‘drinking quarts of milk, smoking cigarettes’. After the book was published, McCarthy wrote to Hardwick, speculating about what Lowell would have thought of it: ‘He’d be put out somewhat in his vanity to find himself figuring mainly as an absence and an absence that the reader doesn’t miss … I couldn’t see how you were going to cope with the huge fact of Cal; it didn’t occur to me that you could do it by simply leaving him out.’

Rendering her ex-husband as an absence is inspired, but other sections of the book are less successful. The penultimate chapter is often cited as proof of Hardwick’s political engagement: it’s concerned with the various maids and washerwomen Elizabeth encounters over the years. But writing about the help doesn’t make Hardwick any more of a class warrior than Seduction and Betrayal makes her a feminist. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a more patronising account of the lives of working women: ‘When I think of cleaning women with unfair diseases I think of you, Josette. When I must iron or use a heavy pot for cooking, I think of you, Ida. When I think of deafness, heart disease, and languages I cannot speak, I think of you, Angela.’

In interviews about the novel, Hardwick stressed her ‘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 wasn’t just hypocritical (‘I do begin to think that it will take at least two years before Theresa can answer the phone’). From her study in New York, the narrator laments the ‘intolerable beatitude in the rhythm of slaves’; ‘the energy of [their] lustful movements’. When Elizabeth is reunited with Ida, she thinks: ‘Oh, God, there she is, homely, homely, scabby with a terrible skin rash, heavy in her cotton housedress, lame in her carpet slippers. She is violently cheerful.’ Her ‘large, muscled arms hold me for a moment in a pounding embrace. The smell of laundry is, truly, like a bitter, sacred incense.’

People bought into the myth. Sleepless Nights became a bestseller and Hardwick saw no contradiction between such statements as ‘I myself am poor people’ and her complaints about the tax on earnings from the book: ‘I don’t see how I can possibly keep Maine and this exorbitant life [in New York] going.’ According to Curtis, the success of the novel put Hardwick on ‘New York’s cultural A list’: party invitations from Woody Allen, honorary doctorates, panel appearances (at one such event, she announced that Henry James was ‘the greatest American female novelist’). The final chapter of A Splendid Intelligence is titled ‘Literary Lion’, and the last 27 years of Hardwick’s life, from 1980 until her death in 2007, are crammed into fifty uneventful pages. She wrote a screenplay for Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, but the movie was never made. After McCarthy died of lung cancer in 1989, Hardwick became Manhattan’s literary grande dame par excellence – ‘the queen bee of parties’.

She continued to contribute regularly to the NYRB. ‘Might there be something to be done?’ Robert Silvers would say, proposing a subject and offering a generous fee (she wouldn’t get out of bed for less than $4000). ‘Something’ could usually be done. Philip Roth’s novels were, she wrote, ‘prickled like a sea urchin with the spines and fuzz of many indecencies’. John Updike is taken to task for ‘the humbly repetitive Pandemonium’ of his novels. She wrote about the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal in 1999, casting Bill and Monica in a latter-day Scarlet Letter: ‘She it is who proudly wears the red A on her bosom but it is he who “will not speak”.’ ‘What can you do,’ Hardwick wonders, ‘with a poised, demure, intelligent, articulate, insecure, witty, vulnerable, low-self-esteem, overweight girl like that?’ Old prejudices still consumed her: ‘Jesus and Virginia Woolf are the most maligned in our culture. The evangelical preachers and the feminists. Poor radical Jesus. Poor elitist Virginia.’ Hardwick found it difficult to move beyond the small-mindedness to which she confessed in ‘On Reading the Writings of Women’ (1959):

Toward the achievements of women I find my own attitudes extremely complicated by all sorts of vague emotions … As a writer I feel a nearly unaccountable attraction and hostility to the work of other women writers. Envy, competitiveness, scorn infect my judgments at times, and indifference is strangely hard to come by in this matter.

If Hardwick’s reputation as a champion of women and poor people has been exaggerated, her views on race have been smoothed of contradiction. She was an advocate for civil rights, writing enthusiastically about Martin Luther King and the Watts Riots of 1965, and reporting on the Selma to Montgomery marches. She berated ‘the nothingness of racist preoccupation, the burning incoherence’ that she encountered in segregationist Alabama. But then there is this recollection, from Darryl Pinckney’s Come Back in September:*

She wouldn’t want Harriet to marry a black man, because of the problems the children would have.

I said miscegenation didn’t bother white America when black women were not given a choice.

She said I was more of a racist than she was, because I only liked white boys.

I would have let her put the dagger away, but she said white women with black men were inferior Desdemona types and black men with white women weren’t serious.

Curtis tries to lend poignancy to Hardwick’s later years: the cane, the pacemaker, the wheelchair. She notes that after her separation Hardwick had two affairs – one with a tax lawyer called Ben O’Sullivan, which quickly fizzled out, and another with Corliss Lamont, a philanthropist and former director of the American Civil Liberties Union, whom she dumped because he was ‘cheap’. We’re left with the sense that Hardwick never moved on from Lowell. This might well be true, but it makes Curtis’s author’s note – in which she announces that Hardwick’s husband will be mentioned in the biography only sparingly – seem bizarre. Lowell remains centre stage. When Ian Hamilton was preparing his biography of Lowell in 1982, Hardwick asked that he quote something ‘stunning’ of hers: ‘It will give me a little more presence as a writer.’

Curtis implies that Hardwick’s unhappiness with Hamilton’s book was what led her to embark on editing Lowell’s prose with Robert Giroux. She wanted his ‘greatness to be alive once more’ after Hamilton’s ‘diminishment’. In 1973, Hardwick had written to McCarthy scoffing at the wives of ageing male academics she met: ‘They mutter about typing His manuscripts … as if they were dogs adopted by their professore.’ Maybe the débâcle with Blackwood was still raw. After his death, nobody did as much to cement Lowell’s legacy as his ex-wife. There is something depressing about this. Lowell had been spiteful about Hardwick’s literary aspirations. ‘I love Lizzie,’ he told Susan Sontag in 1962, but ‘one can’t have one’s wife writing Madame Bovary in the kitchen.’ (He was making a pass at Sontag at the time.)

The collections of essays that followed Sleepless Nights, Bartleby in Manhattan (1983) and Sight Readings (1998), received mixed reviews. And critics were confused by her short biography of Herman Melville from 2000, which, reflecting Hardwick’s misgivings about biography as a form, reads like a disjointed character sketch. Hardwick ends her book insisting that Melville’s final years were characterised by ‘a resigned, bearable, pedestrian loneliness’. Hardwick, on the other hand, saw things out in style. A month before her death, she and her assistant Jon Jewett indulged in one of their rituals – white wine and oysters at a restaurant opposite Lincoln Centre. ‘Sweetheart, I’m dying, and it’s really not so bad,’ Hardwick told him. ‘Let Mother try her oysters one more time.’

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