Elizabeth Hardwick was a master of the opening sentence. Few writers have the guts to begin so boldly—or with so many adjectives. Here’s the first line of her 1955 essay on George Eliot: “She was melancholy, headachey, with a slow, disciplined, hard-won, aching genius that bore down upon her with a wondrous and exhausting force, like a great love affair in middle age.” An essay about the poet Dylan Thomas begins more briskly, but with equal intrigue: “He died, grotesquely, like Valentino, with mysterious weeping women at his bedside.” Her biography of Herman Melville, from 2000, carries on the tradition: “Herman Melville: sound the name and it’s to be the romance of the sea, the vast, mysterious waters for which a thousand adjectives cannot suffice.”

Sound Hardwick’s name, however, and it’s at least a thousand and one adjectives; they paint an enticing portrait, though not necessarily a clear one. To William Phillips, the co-founder of Partisan Review, she was “charming even when most devastating or malicious.” To the philosopher Isaiah Berlin, she was “bitchy,” with a “feminine mind.” Her friend Susan Sontag said that she wrote “the most beautiful sentences, more beautiful sentences than any living American writer.” There was Hardwick the merciless reviewer, who co-founded The New York Review of Books; Hardwick the exile, who left the South; Hardwick the young bohemian, who wanted to write fiction. In the years since her death, in 2007, she’s been praised as “inimitable,” a “landmark” critic, and a writer who grasped “the relentlessness of collective experience,” which is to say—and it really cannot be said enough—that she often wrote about the struggles of the poor.

With “A Splendid Intelligence: The Life of Elizabeth Hardwick” (Norton), Cathy Curtis joins the chorus of admirers. Curtis—who has published three other biographies, all of female painters—clearly appreciates her subject. “Elizabeth” was not just splendidly intelligent but “an attractive, beguiling woman,” “a writer of minute distinctions and fine-grained opinions,” and a “literary lion.” The first biography of Hardwick, the book capitalizes on renewed interest in her work. Her “Collected Essays” were published in 2017, to great fanfare; two years later came “The Dolphin Letters,” which included correspondence between Hardwick and her husband, the poet Robert Lowell, as they navigated divorce and rapprochement. Her “Uncollected Essays” are due to be published this spring, and one anticipates another round of praise for her syntax, her similes, her eccentric use of the comma.

This focus on Hardwick as a stylist, however well deserved, has obscured other aspects of her life. Curtis, to her credit, attempts illumination. Reading the biography, we learn that tobacco was a “defining element” in Hardwick’s home town of Lexington, Kentucky. We learn, too, that she and Lowell rented a Renault during a trip to the Loire Valley in 1951; that their house in Duxbury, thirty-five miles south of Boston, was built in 1740; and that she installed cable TV in their summer home in Maine, so that she could watch tennis. Awash in such details, one can’t help but recall Hardwick’s review of a Hemingway biography: “The bland, insistent recording of the insignificant, respectful, worshipful as it is, cannot honor a human being and it is particularly useless in the case of a writer—outstandingly inappropriate.”

The best way to understand a writer is to interpret the work, something that Curtis mostly refuses to do. This is what Hardwick herself did in her criticism, as she toggled between a writer’s life and his art, looking for resonances, obsessions, origin stories. Her approach was biographical, but unconventionally so: she was less interested in locating the real-life model for a character than in understanding a writer’s sensibility, whether shaped by region, religion, or social class. New York City formed Henry James and Edith Wharton. John Cheever was an “Episcopalian anarch.” And Sylvia Plath’s rootlessness—her lack of a definitive regional identity—was partly responsible for the brutality of her poetry.

If we subject Hardwick to her own method, certain themes emerge. She had an exile’s fascination with place, and used it as a lens through which to view people. Caught in a difficult marriage, she returned again and again to “the clash between the sexes.” Most strikingly, in both her fiction and her essays, we see her exploring the tension between autonomy—what she sometimes called “self-reliance”—and dependency. This was not an unusual preoccupation for a writer at mid-century, a moment when politicians, intellectuals, and activists championed “freedom,” that most American of ideals, and contrasted it with Soviet citizens’ reliance on the state. But Hardwick inverted these values: for her, freedom, even when desired, could be lonely, and dependence, so often limiting, could sometimes be sweet.

Hardwick was born in the South, seemingly against her will. Her father, Eugene, owned a plumbing-and-heating business in Lexington; her mother, Mary, labored in the home, cleaning, cooking, and gestating. (Hardwick was the eighth of eleven children.) The family was not poor, but Eugene’s career was unstable, and he much preferred singing or chatting to working, anyway. Mary, more sombre, worshipped at the First Presbyterian Church, where Hardwick began to feel “a prying sympathy for the victims of sloth and recurrent mistakes, sympathy for the tendency of lives to obey the laws of gravity and to sink downward.”

“I think it’s time to consider the possibility that you might never reuse your old jars.”
Cartoon by Sophie Lucido Johnson and Sammi Skolmoski

At an early age, Hardwick resolved to resist the laws of gravity. Bookish and ambitious, she wanted more for herself than a “local teaching certificate, a celestial and long-delayed reward for girls.” More specifically, she wanted to get out, and she succeeded, earning a master’s degree in English from the University of Kentucky, in 1939, then enrolling in a Ph.D. program at Columbia. She dropped out in two years—she couldn’t stomach the idea of writing “some dull little textual thing”—but she remained in the city, eventually living in a run-down apartment with a gay man she knew from back home. An aspiring fiction writer, she spent her nights at the clubs on Fifty-second Street, listening to Billie Holiday.

Hardwick, who had felt like “some provincial in Balzac, yearning for Paris,” was now living an exciting, independent life in the country’s cultural center. But the heroines of her early fiction—wry little stories, narrated by women too smart for their own good—are much more ambivalent about such a life than we might expect. They kill time in drugstores, drinking cup after cup of coffee, or they endure tedious dates with men they don’t respect. The narrator of “The Temptations of Dr. Hoffmann,” a short story from 1946, is a young woman living in a co-op near Columbia with other single women, whom she finds “lonely and idle and . . . pathetic.” Like many of Hardwick’s early protagonists, she came to New York for adventure, but found herself bored.

Hardwick tells another version of this story—her story—in “The Ghostly Lover,” her début novel, published in 1945. Following a young woman named Marian, the book explores the nature of female independence, suggesting that it is both difficult to attain and often disappointing. Marian lives in an unnamed Kentucky town with her grandmother, a nearly illiterate shut-in, and her dud of a brother. Her mother, Lucy, is a girlish, irresponsible figure who is excessively attracted to her husband, and who trails him from state to state as he searches for business opportunities. Intelligent and curious, Marian follows an older suitor to the wrong side of town; later, with his financial help, she goes to college in New York. She learns that her mother had once longed to do the same: “Always I dreamed of going away to school, but my husband and children were given to me when I was very young and that made further education impossible.”

Marian is thus living out her mother’s dream of autonomy—and yet she’s not sure that she wants it. As in Hardwick’s short stories, the independent urban life is not all that it seems. The landscape is bleak: “Fat, lascivious pigeons strutted up the walk. An iron-colored boat broke through the gray water.” Marian dislikes the other single women in her hotel—“intelligence clung to them like some functionless appendage”—and she yearns to go home. She attaches herself to Leo, a kind, dull stranger who once offered her his umbrella, and reflects that she might as well marry him. Throughout the book, Marian assumes that she will always need a man for protection, much as one needs an umbrella—any umbrella—in the rain. It is only at the end of the novel that she chooses full independence: coming back from her grandmother’s funeral, she sees Leo waiting for her at the train station and, avoiding his gaze, swiftly walks away.

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