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What I Got Wrong About Elizabeth Hardwick

Forty years ago, on the barricades for radical feminism, I set out to “prove” she was overrated.

It’s a jolt, facing up to the casual pitilessness that can, at times, characterize the work of a book reviewer in the grip of an ideological passion. These days, thanks to the publication of Cathy Curtis’s new biography, A Splendid Intelligence: The Life of Elizabeth Hardwick, I’m feeling that jolt.

A Splendid Intelligence: The Life of Elizabeth Hardwick
by Cathy Curtis
W.W. Norton & Company, 400 pp., $35.00

In 1981, on the barricades for radical feminism, I published a piece in The Village Voice in which I analyzed without mercy the work of a group of writers—Joan Didion, Rosellen Brown, Diane Johnson, and Elizabeth Hardwick—none of whom I considered partisans of my cause. As for Hardwick, I used two of her best-known books, Seduction and Betrayal (1974) and Sleepless Nights (1979), to “prove” that her work—when written specifically as a woman writing about women—was not worthy of the unstinting admiration it had garnered in the Establishment press.

For me, at that time, Hardwick’s voice felt trapped in cultural stasis and, enveloped in that scorning elegance of hers, was now “not a comfort to the reader but an infliction.” She cannot, I wrote, stop “seeing women except in relation to the men … from whom there radiates that proximity to world and self every sentient being craves”—a proximity, she all but says, only the rare woman can hope to attain. It was not that she was an anti-feminist; it was rather that she could not imagine the world other than as it was. And the women’s movement appalled her. She did think the movement had made women befriend one another, and that was good, but “the rest is bad writing, bald simplicity, and simple-mindedness,” as she put it in a letter. It was the bad writing that really pissed her off.

At the heart of it all, I could not help feeling, lay her deep conviction that a woman alone could not achieve a first-rate life; more importantly, she could never manage the level of seriousness required of a genuine artist. “This is the dirty little secret that runs, only half-hidden, throughout Seduction and Betrayal,” I said of Hardwick’s famous collection of essays about women and literature. “She does not, cannot, will never be able to place any woman artist as high on the scale of towering talents as she places the many men of whom she writes.... Virginia Woolf and the Brontës are simply not Ibsen and Hawthorne; after all, Art is Art, and it will do none of us any good to forget or deny it; that way lies social work and philistinism.”

As for Sleepless Nights, a memoir masquerading as a fragmentary novel, it seemed to me a “thin, sad book” characterized by “a battered delicacy of spirit, ropy veins in uncut wrists, the dug-in strength of the life-enfeebled.” In short, a stylish embodiment of the fatal lack, common among women, of the energy needed to struggle through to an experience of any significance.

A Splendid Intelligence has sent me back to these books, and while I am startled by the degree to which my politics determined how I once read them, I am even more startled by the degree to which I dismissed them. In the long, brilliantly sustained pieces that make up Seduction and Betrayal, one often feels a depth of concentration on the classic love triangle as Hardwick sees it: the despair of the wife, the vanity of the husband, the cunning of the mistress. Around this situation, her insight revolves and sinks steadily down to the perilous heart of things. I came away from the book surprised—and pained—by the degree of marital humiliation laced through the essays. Hardwick herself seemed right up against it; in fact, glued to it. In the tone of the prose, I seemed to hear her saying, It’s all so complicated. That was the trouble with modern feminism: It didn’t see how complicated it all was.

Elizabeth Hardwick was born in 1916 in Lexington, Kentucky, the eighth of 11 children in a working-class family, and the only one to turn out an intellectual. In 1939, she took a Greyhound bus to New York City and never looked back. Living happily from hand to mouth for the next few years, she soon began publishing short stories. Then, in 1945, her novel, The Ghostly Lover, attracted the attention of Philip Rahv, one of the editors of Partisan Review, then the classiest literary magazine in town. Rahv hugely enjoyed her razor-sharp smarts and the delicious Southern drawl she never lost. Not yet out of her twenties, she was already a dazzling talker, whose personal charm made palatable her most outrageous pronouncements. Somehow, this style—elaborate syntax, high-minded irony, take-no-prisoners judgment—could make a reader with only a minimal amount of sophistication feel like an insider. It was to this reader that she wrote about everything from literature to civil rights to cultural change for the next 50 years.

In 1949, Hardwick married the poet Robert Lowell, thereby setting her life on a course that would be dominated for the next 28 years by Lowell’s recurring bouts of mental illness. He was a victim of bipolar disorder who, about once a year, suffered a severe breakdown that always began with a seizure of mania, quickly escalated into hallucination, then progressed to an affair with some woman or other (friend, student, stranger, it mattered not which), and ended more often than not in a psychiatric ward.

Throughout these episodes, Hardwick remained steadfast, caring for Lowell while enduring, among many other hardships, the abuse that poured out of his mouth—“She was appalled by the rudeness, the meanness, the stinginess,” she wrote to a friend—and the mortifying obtuseness of regulation sexism. “It’s been my experience,” she wrote elsewhere, “that nobody holds a man’s brutality to his wife against him.”

Yet, even after Lowell left her to marry another woman—at the same time dragging her into a humiliatingly public scandal through the publication of a collection of poems in which he openly used the letters she wrote when he was leaving her—she held fast. She believed firmly that Lowell was a Man of Genius and an American of consequence. In remaining loyal to him, she believed, she was not only serving Art with a capital A, she had become something of a midwife to American culture. However much she suffered at Lowell’s hands, she felt destined to be there for him until the last poem had been written. And she was.

Hardwick lived on for 30 years more after Lowell’s death in 1977, cementing her reputation as one of the most original writers of the literary essay this country has produced, as well as a figure who contributed visibly to the ongoing life of American letters. Not only was she an influence on her peers—Susan Sontag said she wished she could get “more Lizzie” into her writing—she was valued for her work as one of the founders of The New York Review of Books in 1963, and prized for her 20-odd years of teaching at Barnard College, where she often nurtured the talents of young would-be writers. As the years progressed, she received prizes and awards galore, sat on literary panels and committees, continued to venerate Art, and wrote ever more ornate sentences on its behalf. Long before she died, she was anointed an elder stateswoman of American letters.

But what I have just written is the kind of wrap-up we might encounter in an encyclopedia of American writers. It was rereading Hardwick that brought her to new life for me.

Early in Sleepless Nights, the first-person narrator, having just returned to New York after a long absence, writes to a friend to tell her how foreign the city feels to her. Looking out the window of her well-appointed Manhattan apartment on a gloomy winter’s day, she sees “Displaced things and old people, rigid, with their tired veins and clogged arteries, with their bunions and aching arches, their sparse hair and wavering thoughts, over the Carpathian Mountains, out of the bayous—that is what it is like here in the holy city.”

Only a few pages later, she is making common cause with the immigrant seediness she had earlier deplored. After all, she’s something of an immigrant herself, isn’t she? She’s here in New York because she never felt at home in her own birthplace—“Many are flung down carelessly at birth and they experience the diminishment ... of their random misplacement.” However, misplacement seems to have been supplanted by displacement. Something in her, she suspects, rather than the city itself, condemns her to emotional homelessness. “[For me] the highway, the asphalt paths, the thieves, contaminated skies like a suffocating cloak of mangy fur, the millions in their boroughs—that is truly home.”

The narrator has, in fact, always been irresistibly drawn to the way the city accommodates the marginal. The rich, lively account she gives of her early years in the city—when she was living in midtown Manhattan, in a fleabag hotel filled with down-at-heel itinerants—seems written by one who identifies strongly with the subject. “These people ... lived as if in a house recently burglarized, wires cut, their world vandalized, their memory a lament to peculiar losses,” she writes. “They were lifted by insolence above their forgotten loans, their surly arrears, their misspent matrimonies, their many debts which seemed to fall with relief into the wastebaskets where they would be picked up by the night men.... Most of them were failures but they lived elated by unreal hopes.... They drank, they fought, they fornicated. They ran up bills.... They were not poverty-stricken, just always a little ‘behind.’” And all this happening just steps from “the Harvard Club, The New York Times, the old Hotel Astor, the Algonquin.”

That is the extraordinary thing about the city. Nobody gets away from nobody, including you from yourself. There are always those times when the city throws in your face some shabby yesterday you’d just as soon not be reminded of. The narrator runs into Alex A., a vain, handsome man she’s known on and off through the years, and speculates idly on what he might be thinking about: “But what is his intention? I mean the intention of his life.” Pages later, in the mood to call a spade a spade, she writes, “I slept with Alex three times and remember each one perfectly.... I was honored when he allowed me to go to bed with him and dishonored when I felt my imaginative, anxious, exhausting efforts were not what he wanted.”

It’s the emotional weariness in Sleepless Nights that I was unable to grasp, much less sympathize with, all those long years ago. It runs just below the surface of the prose, and riddled through it is a strain of self-doubt that also came as revelation. The city, always and ever, is a reflection of the narrator’s edgy anxiety. Perhaps, after all, she is only an interloper in a New York that can never be other than metaphorical for her. At such moments comes the haunting thought that she has been cut loose against her will, rather than that her solitary condition is a consequence of decisions she made on her own:

A brilliant night outside in New York City. It is Saturday and people with debts are going to restaurants, jumping in taxicabs, careening from West to East by way of the underpass through the Park. What difference does it make to be here alone?

That “outside”! It speaks volumes.

A Splendid Intelligence is admirably researched and supplies the reader with a thorough account of Hardwick’s calendar life, complete with names, dates, places, publication summaries, and—most important—a remarkably well-organized portrait of the chaos that dogged the Lowell-Hardwick marriage. Everything one could ever want in a biography is here. Everything but Hardwick herself. There are not many places in the book where one feels the live presence of the woman who made herself up from Kentucky scratch, was instrumental in bringing new life to a long-neglected genre, worshipped art but identified with the sleaze and dereliction of the city, and dreaded not so much the reality as the stigma of a woman alone.

It’s the inner life of that woman—the one who wrote the celebrated essays—that we want on the page, but it’s not here; just as it wasn’t 40-odd years ago, when I took her to task for not writing in the voice of a militant feminist 20 years her junior. Hardwick deserved better then, and she deserves better now.