Once upon a time, a certain kind of fairy tale goes, the most interesting and articulate minds in the world converged in dank Manhattan apartments to debate the merits of literary fiction and Trotskyist politics over cocktails. This is the story of the New York Intellectuals, of the minds and temperaments behind Partisan Review and eventually The New York Review of Books. There isn’t any real magic in this bit of cultural history, but there is fairy dust to be found in it all the same. For a certain kind of person in America, the New York Intellectuals had so much: vigorous debate, devotion to literature and ideas, and suitably shabby homes in the tasteful precincts of Manhattan and coastal Maine.
Elizabeth Hardwick lived in one such apartment, on West 67th Street, as few reminiscences of her fail to mention. She lived the exemplary midcentury literary life, publishing a few well-regarded novels and a substantial pile of extravagantly praised essays, later becoming a founder and editor of The New York Review of Books. Her essays, now reissued by NYRB Classics, are specimens of impeccable taste. Her prose is ornamented but not ornamental. Adjectives come to her in artful trios. Sentences hum with an energy of their own, even trill a little, but only within the bounds she prescribed. And even though she often addressed unruly subjects—Zelda Fitzgerald’s “sad, wasted life” or the “violent self-definition” of Sylvia Plath—somehow her approach in prose was always proper, always carefully calibrated, even genteel.
It was that sense of decorum, I think, that John Leonard had in mind when he praised the “brilliant domesticity” of her style, a phrase one could characterize as sexist. (It is hard to imagine even the softest-spoken of male writers being complimented for their “domesticity.”) Her admirers often remarked the elegance of her put-downs, what Hilton Als once called her “frankly intimate tone.” On the page, the person you meet is someone whose erudition is intimidating and presents itself both as effortless and admonishing. Every major American work of literature is right there at her fingertips: all of Melville, all of Wharton, all of James. And she seems to know everything not just about great writers’ work but about their lives, too. Did you know, for instance, that Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller were the best of friends? No? Hardwick makes you feel you should.
And yet it must have been very hard to actually be Elizabeth Hardwick. Her marriage to Robert Lowell in 1949 brought her both transcendent passion and abject disaster. She spent many years playing his nursemaid, as he was repeatedly committed to mental institutions, and bearing his infidelities as a function of his madness. Perhaps worse, she was in her professional life that double-edged thing, a writer’s writer. She lived in a welter of literary gossip, surrounded by people who managed, by most measures the world cared about, to do more than she did: to write more books, win more awards, attract more readers. Mary McCarthy, Joan Didion, and Susan Sontag all counted as her friends, though she did not become as famous as they did. She managed, somehow, to present her secondary status as evidence of more seriousness. There is always something slightly vulgar, to intellectuals, about worldly success, and Hardwick benefited from the idea that the best fiction, the best criticism truly thrive at a slight remove from the masses.
Hardwick’s life and work are full of dualities like these. For example, the joke the literary profiles liked to tell about Hardwick is that she came from Kentucky, a southern belle through and through, and yet arrived in New York with the stated intention of becoming a Jewish intellectual. This was in fact a joke Hardwick made many times herself, including in her 1977 novel, Sleepless Nights. She tried to qualify her intent in an interview with the Paris Review in 1985. “What I meant was the enlightenment, a certain deracination which I value, an angular vision, love of learning, cosmopolitanism, a word that practically means Jewish in Soviet lexicography,” she explained to the novelist Darryl Pinckney.
One might take issue with this: The deracination of midcentury Jewish intellectuals may not have been strictly chosen in the way Hardwick’s self-exile from the South surely was. But maybe, on another level, they had something in common: “Many are flung down carelessly at birth and they experience the diminishment and sometimes the pleasant truculence of their random misplacement,” she wrote in Sleepless Nights. Even though her whole family was from there she always felt, in Kentucky, like one of the “imports, those jarring and jarred pieces that sit in the closet among the matching china sets.”
Hardwick’s relationship to her own beginnings, however, fueled some of the best writing in this new volume of her essays. When in 1965 she went to Selma to cover the voting rights marches for The New York Review of Books, she wrote with personal stakes in the future of the South, more so than one usually found in her other work. Would its sense of isolation and exceptionalism deepen as white Southerners dug in to racist policies, or could the civil rights movement bring about a new era? She meets “a poor young man, a native of Alabama, in a hot, cheap black suit,” and he tells her he is made “right sick” by the “white folks mixed in with the colored.” Another sort of writer would merely have recorded this, perhaps added some editorializing about how awful it was. Not Hardwick. She intervened in the case:
And what could one answer: Go to see your social worker, find an agency that can help you, some family counsellor, or perhaps an outpatient clinic? I did say, softly, “Pull yourself together.” And he too shuffled off, like the convicts, his head bent down in some deep perturbation of spirit.
That “pull yourself together” was no doubt all the more devastating because it was quietly delivered, a judgment made not quite in kindness but with cutting finality. This is, too, a time-honored technique in the South, the “bless your heart” form of shutting people down. Hardwick was plainly a lot more Southern than she thought.
Once in New York, Hardwick claims to have meandered a bit, living with a quarrelsome gay roommate and going out to jazz clubs to see performances by, among others, Billie Holiday. But she quickly found a place among the fabled set of Partisan Review, a small-circulation magazine that somehow made itself into a legend. It was run and written by a number of men and Mary McCarthy, the novelist and critic, who always said, with more good humor than apology, that she was originally invited to join the journal only because she was dating one of the editors, the caustic Philip Rahv. By the time Hardwick met her in 1945, McCarthy was a celebrated figure in the group. In 1942, she had published The Company She Keeps, a book that pioneered the now oh-so-familiar story of a Young Literary Woman making her way in New York. The book was widely praised and also widely understood to be autobiographical. Hardwick always found McCarthy’s fidelity to the facts of her life in fiction curious. “If one would sometimes take the liberty of suggesting caution to her, advising prudence or mere practicality,” Hardwick wrote in her introduction to McCarthy’s Intellectual Memoirs: New York, 1936–1938, published in 1992, “she would look puzzled and answer: But it’s the truth.”
This was actually the third bit of writing Hardwick would publish about McCarthy, and the first she would publish after McCarthy’s death in 1989. Though Hardwick is often presented as one of McCarthy’s best friends, in reality the bond was prickly. One of its most public stings came when, just as McCarthy’s biggest popular success, The Group, topped charts in 1963, Hardwick published a parody of it. She wrote it under the pen name Xavier Prynne and published it in The New York Review of Books, which virtually guaranteed that McCarthy, a close friend of the editors, would find out who it was:
His clothes were thrown over the chair. Shamefully, she peeked. The label said, simply, MACY’S. She stroked his back, gently, and lay quietly wondering until suddenly, appalled, she felt violently hungry. In her slip she went to the kitchen and opened a can of Heinz Tomato Soup. Carefully she flavored it with a dash of stale curry powder. What she really wanted was a glass of pure, fresh milk, but the soup restored her tremendous Middlewestern energies and she decided to walk home, even though it was after midnight.
This piece, which appeared under the title “The Gang,” does not appear in Hardwick’s Collected Essays, but the small fracas over it reveals something of Hardwick’s character. When she first read the novel, she had actually written to McCarthy in vague praise of it. “It is very full, very rich,” was the sort of compliment Hardwick offered. Most experienced writers would, I think, recognize that sort of comment as a friend offering positive thoughts on a book they hadn’t responded to. Still, to follow vague praise with the publication of a brutal parody was on another level.
Anger? Jealousy? Contempt? It is hard to say exactly what Hardwick was feeling when she decided to publicly mock her friend’s work. She later wrote McCarthy an apology. “It is hard to go back to the time it was done, but it was meant as simply a little trick, nothing more. I did Not mean to hurt you and I hope you will forgive it.” McCarthy did, in time, perhaps out of a sense that the bigger fish should be generous to her less successful counterpart. Or even out of eventual sympathy with Hardwick’s misstep: McCarthy had, herself, a few run-ins with people she had savaged, by design or accident, in her own books. But it strains credulity not to suspect that Hardwick knew that this would upset her friend, and did it anyway.
No model of sisterhood or solidarity, of course, ever appealed to Hardwick. Toward feminism, and particularly its second wave, she was only intermittently sympathetic. She found Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex almost ridiculous—in scope, in argument, in execution. The “almost,” of course, is key. She praised Beauvoir for being neither “a masochist, a Lesbian, a termagant, or a man-hater” and for having a “nervous, fluid, rare aliveness on every page.” But ultimately she thought there were natural differences between men and women: “A woman’s physical inferiority to a man is a limiting reality every moment of her life,” she argues.
It is only the whimsical, cantankerous, the eccentric critic, or those who refuse the occasion for such distinctions, who would say that any literary work by a woman, marvelous as these may be, is on a level with the very greatest accomplishments of men.
Hardwick gave herself some breathing room, herself arguing about the available published evidence of literary greatness, and not necessarily women’s abstract capacity to achieve it, though her dismissiveness of Austen, the Brontës, and George Eliot is unequivocal. It is also worth noting that this essay was published in 1953, and that Hardwick would go on writing—and writing specifically about women and literature—for another 40 years. Still, if this conviction is where the pistol fired on her own efforts as a writer, one has questions. After all, for all this protestation, we are still reading Hardwick in a way that we are not, really, reading Irving Howe. Or Paul Goodman. Or any of the innumerable very-good-but-not-quite-eternally memorable critics. And that has happened, in part, because there is a renewed interest in this question of women’s contributions to what might be called the American literary tradition.
It’s also true that most of Hardwick’s transcendent literary efforts after the Second Sex review emerged from her analyses of women. One of the shames of this volume is that it does not include all of them, perhaps because many have been published in another volume reprinted by NYRB Classics, called Seduction and Betrayal. So you will not find her rather unsentimental appraisal of the Fitzgeralds, in “Caesar’s Things”; nor her work on Sylvia Plath, in which, with 20 years more in the writing trenches, she concluded that, “Every artist is either a man or a woman and the struggle is pretty much the same for both.” In those pieces she had the knack for illustrating what might have been called feminist themes by way of specific details of specific lives. In Plath, for example, whose life quickly became for so many critics a parable about mental health and marital trauma, Hardwick saw no “general principles, sure origins, applications, or lessons”—a quality that might very well be found in Hardwick’s own writing. Hardwick had been saved from such brutalities, too, by not ever being elevated to the position of “feminist icon,” as Plath was. She continued to be read for her work rather than for details of her tumultuous personal life.
It is the variety of terrain they covered that makes Hardwick and the other midcentury women writers so engaging. These women wrote novels, they wrote memoirs, they wrote criticism, and they wrote about politics and current events. The eclecticism of their careers fueled the romance of the New York Intellectuals; they left not just a body of work but a way of life. Such a breadth of subject matter is less fashionable today, when, with some exceptions, writers tend to specialize. We have novelists and intellectuals, but few novelist-intellectuals or intellectual-novelists. Memoirists tend to stay in a lane, too, and nonfiction is virtually severed from fiction. Everyone has specialized. It’s often claimed that the rise of this or that genre—specifically the personal essay—has helped women writers rise like cream, but ironically it has narrowed the aspect ratio, too. Somehow the implication in all those think pieces is that women feel and think differently from men, which does nothing but keep us from exploring other realms of possibility. Yet Hardwick managed to do all this as a woman writer in what we imagine to be a harder time for them.
Hardwick has the reputation of someone who would not like such claims made about her. “Woman writer? A bit of a crunch trying to get those two words together,” she told Pinckney when he interviewed her. But then she also backtracked. “I do feel there is an inclination to punish women for what you might call presumption of one kind or another,” she said. The presumption that they might lay claim to the same freedom as men, to write as grandly as men do, must have been what she meant. And though all her life she seems to have lived with a sense of modesty about her talents, insisting that Lowell was the actual genius in the family, there was, perhaps, in there a final duality. Sometimes, she recognized, it’s best not to be the biggest luminary in the room.