Elizabeth Hardwick, 1916-2007

How the extraordinary critic read fiction.

Elizabeth Hardwick

It has been a bad year for grand dames: In August, we lost Grace Paley, and Elizabeth Hardwick died last weekend at the age of 91. Hardwick, in particular, is hard to say good-bye to. She was almost a half-century older than I am, and I never met her, but it would be fair to say I had something like a crush on her. Allow me to take the occasion of her passing to explain why.

She was one of the last survivors of a group of extraordinary women, many from the West or the South, who redefined the American essay: Pauline Kael, Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, and M.F.K. Fisher, all from California, Mary McCarthy from Seattle. Hardwick was born to a middle-class Presbyterian family in Lexington, Ky.; after college she came to New York to pursue a Ph.D. at Columbia. She wrote a novel, fell in with the Partisan Review crowd, and in 1949 she married the poet Robert Lowell. In the early ‘60s, she and Lowell, along with Jason and Barbara Epstein, founded the New York Review of Books, and the essays she wrote for that journal, on everything from Robert Frost and Edith Wharton to the Watts riots and Warhol’s movies, were as fine a record of sensibility, thought, and composition as that periodical, or any other, ever printed. She once admitted—half-jokingly, but only half—that as a young woman she wanted to be a New York Jewish Intellectual. Two out of three’s not bad.

Hardwick’s marriage to Lowell lasted from 1949 to 1970; they were in the process of reuniting when he died, in 1977. Their relationship was difficult, to say the least: He was brilliant, patrician, and generous, but he was also severely manic depressive and given to acts of appalling cruelty—infidelities, betrayals, enthusiasms that grew rank and rotten. Hardwick seems to have loved him profoundly, learned a great deal from him, and forgiven him often, but she was no one’s idea of a woman living in the reflected light of her husband, for she generated quite enough light of her own.

Literary criticism is a peculiar business: I don’t think even serious readers can name more than one or two contemporary figures who make a living writing about other people’s books—and not just because there aren’t very many, but because those we have are not very memorable. In latter years, the once-proud field has been split into two lesser parts, one occupied by the Assistant Professoriat, supplementing their incomes and their reputations with an appearance in this or that semipopular review, and the other occupied by newspaper men and women, who generally have to crank out shallow criticism by the column inch. Both camps are stocked with people who can’t write, or can’t read, and more than a few can’t do either.

Hardwick was something else: In fact, she was the best literary essayist of the last century. Better—yes—than Edmund Wilson, better than Trilling or Steiner or Sontag. She was not as broad as they were, but she was deeper, and line for line a better stylist.

Her great theme, broached and refined in books like Bartleby in Manhattan, Seduction and Betrayal, and Sight-Readings (and collected in an omnibus called American Fictions), was the way fictional characters inhabit a field of responsibility and act out the subtleties of their situations as moral agents in a bounded universe. I wouldn’t say that she treated a novelist’s inventions as if they were real, but she didn’t treat them as parlor tricks, either. She immersed herself in the mores of a book and emerged with insights that more skeptical or surgically minded critics would have missed. On Sylvia Plath: “Suicides are frequent enough, but the love of death, the teasing joy of it are rarely felt.” On Updike: “A promiscuous, astonishing span, a labyrinthine talent through which the author makes a smooth, experienced, dashing, even dandyish passage. A bit of a parson, too, something icy inside the melting flesh of concupiscence.” In an essay on John Reed, she makes a passing reference to “Henry ‘Fucking’ Miller”: Could anyone say any more?

Hardwick wrote prose the way poets do—to find her equal you have to turn to Auden or, more recently, Brodsky—because she knew what poets know and novelists rarely do: that the most powerful rhetorical tool is not metaphor or euphony, it’s compression. Poetry succeeds by saying as much as possible with as little as possible, and Hardwick’s essay are the same: swift, complex, unencumbered by niceties or setups. She knew what went into a novel (she wrote three of them), and what could be gotten out of one. Her last book, on Melville, was only 156 short pages, but it’s as dense as a sonnet, and it repays rereading as few books of nonfiction do.

There was always, I think, something of the Southern belle in Hardwick. She wasn’t showy, and she never played the Queen Bee. She could be tart and amused and occasionally cutting, but she was never rancorous: She was modest, but she knew what she believed. In an interview she once admitted, “I don’t like aggressiveness and I detest anger, a quality some feminists and many psychiatrists think one should cultivate in order to express the self. … I don’t see anger as an emotion to be cultivated.” These days, when I find myself increasingly unimpressed with other people’s anger and uninterested in my own, such an attitude seems not just civilized but revolutionary.

When American Fictions came out in 1999, I wrote a celebratory essay about it for Bookforum. Some weeks later—to my astonishment and delight—I received a handwritten note from Hardwick herself. She thanked me, and wrote a bit about growing up in Kentucky and how important literary journals were to her at the time. She made it seem as if it was I who had done her a favor, when, of course, it was the other way around, for my review couldn’t have given her nearly as much pleasure as her book had given me. I suppose she knew that. Yes. I’m sure she did.