Elizabeth Hardwick’s Life of the Mind

Elizabeth Hardwick’s Life of the Mind

Elizabeth Hardwick’s Life of the Mind

The first biography of the critic and novelist examines the personal costs of devoting oneself to intellectual pursuit.


Until someone has the temerity to write a biography of Elizabeth Hardwick,” Hilton Als remarked in 1998, “we will have to rely on her work for its powerful evocation of the life of her mind, and on hearsay from friends and acquaintances for the details of the life itself.” That someone is Cathy Curtis, whose biography of Hardwick, A Splendid Intelligence, is the first comprehensive portrait of the writer, critic, professor, and cofounder of The New York Review of Books, from her working-class origins in Kentucky to an insider of “New York’s cultural A-list” until her death in 2007, at the age of 91.

Much of what has been said about Hardwick has been in relation to her husband of over two decades, their tempestuous marriage, and his scandalous use of her personal letters in his poems. In the author’s note, Curtis writes, “This biography of Elizabeth Hardwick includes only as much information about her famous husband, the poet Robert Lowell, as is necessary to tell the story of her life.” Lowell subsequently figures heavily in six of the 10 chapters of the book. Curtis herself may be pointing out the obligatory nature of his inclusion here. Try as she might, it is impossible not to give weight to Hardwick’s life with him: Their tortuous entanglement was as insistent as it was compulsive. This is all to say that Hardwick’s illustrious life as a writer and intellectual, which long preceded her marriage to Lowell and flourished after his death, persisted throughout his abuse, his philandering, his illness, and her subjugation to his mercurial needs. This is a book about an influential woman who shaped the literary landscape during her lifetime, and also a book about how that determination was influenced by what she endured in her personal life.

For Hardwick, and the subjects of Curtis’s other biographies (all women artists in midcentury New York), the conditions of patriarchal power exert themselves in every aspect of female labor. The contexts of production are as endemic to the work as the work itself. As the first biography of Hardwick, what A Splendid Intelligence accomplishes is a glimpse into the costs of committing oneself to the work of both caretaking as well as literary production under the perennial threat of destruction to oneself.

I feel that culture is not an inheritance. It is a life-long cultivation of the intellect,” Hardwick once said. Born in 1916, the eighth of 11 children, in Lexington, Ky., she spent her childhood at the library reading the classics before becoming the literary editor of her junior high school’s class newspaper. At the University of Kentucky, she was an honors student who found fellowship in a cohort of intensely literary and political students. She considered herself a Trotskyite and would be remembered by a fellow classmate from this time as a “radical student living in a world apart.” Being a bookish anomaly in her family, who did not share Hardwick’s devotion to cultivating a life of the mind, meant that there would be no inheritance of knowledge about art and literature; she would spend her life pursuing it.

Arriving in New York City in 1939 on a Greyhound bus, she spent the next years starting and dropping out of a PhD program in literature at Columbia, moving into the debauched Hotel Schuyler, where she befriended Billie Holiday’s publicist Greer Johnson, having a series of affairs and two abortions, publishing short stories in The Yale Review and The Sewanee Review, and writing a novel, The Ghostly Lover (1945), which was published when Hardwick was 29. Philip Rahv, cofounder of the Partisan Review, set up a meeting with her after reading The Ghostly Lover and introduced her to the writers Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, who would become her closest friend and confidante, and Lionel and Diana Trilling. Curtis’s description of Hardwick’s life during this time mostly details her ascending ambitions as an essayist and book critic, publishing in The New York Times and writing about William Faulkner and Anaïs Nin, whose writing she declared “mercilessly pretentious.”

Lowell was a “handsome, imposing figure,” Curtis writes, the “scion of an old and storied Boston family” who was already a Pulitzer Prize–winning poet at the age of 30. Freshly divorced from his first wife, the writer Jean Stafford, he set his sights on Hardwick while both were in residency at Yaddo in 1948. Once Lowell enters the narrative, Hardwick’s life becomes engulfed in his. The tonal shift that occurs fills one with a dread that is sustained over the majority of the biography. Shortly after the residency, Lowell suffered from a manic episode and was arrested and hospitalized after assaulting a police officer. Friends warned Hardwick that he was “‘dangerous’ with homicidal tendencies.” Elizabeth Bishop told her to “take care.” Allen Tate responded to Hardwick’s effort to keep this violence hidden from their coterie: “I realize that your instinct is to conceal the whole thing (it always is with you, my dear!).” As a result of Lowell’s needs, Hardwick struggled to work on her third novel, which was based on a murder trial she attended of a fraternity boy accused of killing his fiancée. (Her first novel, The Dyer’s Hand—named after Shakespeare’s Sonnet 101—was rejected by Knopf in 1943 and remains unpublished.) News of a Guggenheim fellowship awarded to Hardwick is swiftly buried under the dominion of Lowell’s troubles, which spread across the pages like an infection. This would be a recurring pattern over the next 28 years of their marriage.

Yet Hardwick’s stalwart dedication to her writing, Curtis argues, continued to give her a sense of direction. She wrote frequently for Partisan Review, including a polemic on Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex; Harper’s Magazine; Vogue; and The New York Review of Books. William Carlos Williams and Flannery O’Connor praised her third novel, The Simple Truth, published in 1955. Editing a volume of William James’s letters, Hardwick attributes “his special awareness of merging states of mind, of the blurred flow of consciousness, the involuntary, subconscious mental life” to his early struggles. This delineation of the bearing of one’s unconscious on the writing process recurs throughout Hardwick’s own work about women’s lives and feminism, which vacillates between championing women’s voices and the insistence on suppressing them. This schism is indeed a special awareness of the contradictions inherent in Hardwick’s life. The New Yorker published over her lifetime seven short stories, including an early one, “The Oak and the Axe,” about an accomplished editor who falls for a depressed trust-fund dilettante. Hardwick’s own struggles serve as material for her life’s work; themes of class, feminism, the outsider in academe, and the challenges of women writers recur in her writing—though her work did not always escape the perils of patriarchal structures.

In Seduction and Betrayal (1974), a collection of essays on Zelda Fitzgerald, Jane Carlyle, Sylvia Plath, and the Brontës, Hardwick explores the treatment of women in letters whose boundaries between life and writing are blurred, if not entirely eradicated. She prioritizes the silent, noble suffering of women and the needs of selfish male writers above “the pull of ordinary passions.” Hardwick wrote a letter to Susan Sontag before On Photography was published that doubled down on this sentiment. “Every pain is one of structure, demonic twin of each happy inspiration.” Pain is to structure as willful obfuscation is to survival.

This retrograde tendency rears its head often in her work, denying agency to those who are actually victimized. In “Family Values,” an essay on the O.J. Simpson and Menendez brothers trials, she accuses the parricidal Erik and Lyle of fabricating the sexual abuse they suffered from their father. Tate’s earlier comment about Hardwick’s repressive tendency to deny (often projected onto others) tracks with blaming women for not achieving sainthood in martyrdom. The discomfort is strong along these lines, as Curtis relentlessly juxtaposes the hypocrisies between Hardwick’s life and the desultory moral positions she assumes in her writing, her obsession with women’s suffering as heroism. Yet Hardwick herself knew that her writing was equally subject to forces beyond her control.

The “involuntary mental life” perhaps emerges in its most prominent form in Hardwick’s 1979 novel, Sleepless Nights. Anyone who has suffered sleeplessness knows that it is at that late hour of night that the repressed returns in the form of memory, flashbacks, fantasies, and recurring thoughts. In this new work, Hardwick attends to what she calls “the broken, the episodic, the ironical” as interventions “whispered from the wings, reminding us not to be swept away, someone is in charge.”

On the cusp of a new decade, the somewhat widow (Lowell was married to Caroline Blackwood when he died, though he was apparently returning to Hardwick) published Sleepless Nights, a plotless novel that would become her most celebrated work. Facing criticism, Hardwick retorted, “If I want a plot, I’ll watch Dallas.” The novel doubles as a work of veiled memoir, an early example of autofiction, which has “an unconscious identification with damaged, desperate people on the streets, cleaning women, rotters in midtown hotels, failed persons of all kinds,” she wrote. Or more succinctly: “C’est moi, in some sense,” Hardwick admitted.

The rest of the biography is rich, utterly dense, with Hardwick’s ideas—often documented in correspondence with fellow writers. She became “the queen bee of parties,” according to her friend Ginny Foote. Readers will take pleasure in her many barbs—declaring writers of first-person fiction bereft of “anything new to say about the larger world,” dissing the “flaking, tedious columns” of the Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, calling Bill Clinton in his denial of sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky a character as “solemn as a rogue in a Molière comedy”—as well as the accolades she bequeaths: Gertrude Stein is “as sturdy as a turnip.” She did what she wanted, including writing a biography of Herman Melville that her editor said was “just Lizzie riffing on whatever she felt like riffing on. The book is bizarre.” Moby-Dick, according to Hardwick, was “an active, sonorous explosion of sheer sensation arising from the affluent sperm of the great sea creature.”

There is abundance in Hardwick’s friendships with other women writers, most of all with Mary McCarthy, whose friendship dates from loaning Hardwick a wedding day Balenciaga hat to being posthumously roasted at her memorial service for befriending skewered subjects: “I would think, ‘Oh we’re going to have to see them for dinner for the rest of our lives because Mary has made fun of them in a book,’” Hardwick joked. She and Sontag commiserated about the difficulties of their respective writing projects throughout the years and wrote about each other’s books. A scene with Adrienne Rich, another close friend, is vividly recalled: Elizabeth and Adrienne Rich, who was pregnant at the time, had a “forty-five minute argument, carried on in [the] dining room, pantry and library about two people neither liked or really knew,” Lowell remembered.

Readers indulging in these delights are freed from the hypervigilance of having to watch their backs for Lowell’s next dirty trick; this feels earned, an experiential relief. We have the sense that this life of intellect was the one Hardwick was always meant to inhabit. “Writing is so hard,” she said a few years before her death. “It’s the only time you have to think.” Writing as thinking, and so much of it over the span of her intellectual calling, was indeed a lifelong cultivation.

Curtis’s three other biographies are on women painters—Nell Blaine, Elaine de Kooning, and Grace Hartigan—who occupy their own unique positions of success, marginalization, and abuse, historical figures who fall outside the American canon. De Kooning’s husband, Willem, destroyed her artwork and forced her to remake it again and again when it wasn’t up to his standards. The subjects of all of Curtis’s biographies also share the same New York City midcentury milieu, where male dominance was so prevalent, especially in the world of Abstract Expressionism and the New York School painters, that de Kooning signed her paintings with her initials to avoid marking her work with the kiss of death: femininity. In offering deft recontextualization and extensive documentation of the lives of these artists, Curtis’s oeuvre becomes an archive of its own, one that helps situate the significance of their work, looking at the way gender impacted their own labor and production.

Still, the lives led by extraordinary women writing and making art, consorting and collaborating, and challenging and engaging in dialogue with one another is viewed amid the men who were the beneficiaries of the entitlement their gender afforded them, as well as the the recipients of better pay, more opportunities and accolades, and the freedom to work unburdened by domestic labor. As Curtis attempts in Hardwick’s biography, I resist situating women’s work solely within the context of their patriarchal eras—yet it is hard to discern the trajectory of Hardwick’s work and achievements, to see its relief amidst the bog of Lowell’s excreta. I found myself frustrated by how much real estate was given to the latter’s destructive dysfunctions. Curtis, to a large extent, allows an explicit view into the conditions of Hardwick’s life, whose marriage to Lowell unyieldingly affected her emotional stability and ability to write.

Curtis’s narrative goes as far as to characterize abusive behavior on Lowell’s part as not crossing the threshold into actual abuse (though an argument can be made that the latter is indeed substantiated). Jeffrey Meyers, in his biography of Lowell, writes that the poet was prone to violence, especially when drunk or in the throes of his mental illness. Hardwick bore the responsibility of reminding him that “other men don’t hit their wives.” If a biography isn’t the time to lay bare the extent of what Hardwick’s splendid intelligence was up against, then (temerity notwithstanding) perhaps it too becomes another venue to replicate the secrecy and suppression of a woman’s truth.

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