In her essay “The Decline of Book Reviewing,” which first appeared in Harper’s, Elizabeth Hardwick admonishes that “book reviews are only, at their most, the great toe of the giant” (with publicity being the great force that pushes books into the spotlight). But it is Hardwick’s astonishing intelligence and her ability as a critic to strike with humor and candor, that throw essays like “Decline” into high relief: the piece begins with the rumor that Keats turned “his back to the wall and gave up the struggle against tuberculosis” because of a bad review, and ends with a disparaging remark about the “busy hands working to shape it all [meaning book reviews] into a small, fat ball of weekly butter.” One feels acutely, especially as a reviewer, how finely tuned her writing is — the standards to which Hardwick held her own work.
So a review of “Elizabeth Hardwick: A Splendid Intelligence,” the new biography by Cathy Curtis and the first biography devoted to Hardwick, cofounder of The New York Review of Books, is to be approached with some trepidation, as is the biography itself, since both grapple with one of sharpest literary critics of the time.
It’s refreshing to read a history of Hardwick that lasts more than a few paragraphs and pictures her solo. Hardwick has made appearances in other biographies — of those she befriended, loved, wrote about, or taught — but most of all in the ones dedicated to Boston’s poetry giant, Robert Lowell, whom she married in her thirties. In Curtis’s book, we learn Hardwick, born in Kentucky in 1916, was bookish from the start (she served as literary editor of her class newspaper at Lexington Junior High). At the University of Kentucky: “Her sense of herself as an intellectual and an unconventional person led her to avoid all extracurricular activities at the university.” Hardwick went on to attend Columbia. She heard Billie Holiday sing in those years, and later wrote about Holiday, long after meeting her in 1943. She befriended other notables, including Philip Rahv, writing for him first at Partisan Review; and Allen Tate, with whom she was briefly romantically involved. She began writing reviews for The New York Times, her friendships and connections cementing the foundation for a life in letters at The New York Review of Books — a project she helped dream up at a dinner party. Her writing life weaves in and out of recorded struggles in her marriage to Lowell: “the amazing thing is that in the midst of her tumultuous personal life, Elizabeth was writing reviews.”
In a prologue, Curtis insists that Hardwick’s marriage is not the subject of “A Splendid Intelligence,” but since Lowell and Hardwick were married from 1949 to 1972, there’s really no avoiding it. Hardwick met Lowell at a party in 1947, returned to Boston in 1953, suffered through his many breakdowns and infidelities, gave birth to Harriet Lowell in 1957, divorced in 1972, and split her time between New York and the Lowells’ second home in Castine, Maine, for the rest of her life. Lowell’s influence on Hardwick, for better and worse, is inescapable.
It’s hard to fathom the consistency of their union, but what’s clear is an intimate literary bond. Curtis notes: “the playwright and poet William Alfred said, I’d never talked to people who cared that much about words. It was absolutely electric.” Based on what Hardwick writes about Lowell later, and given his return to her even at the moment of his death in a New York cab, that bond was lasting. Curtis witnesses these feelings without probing, without erasing how his mental illness eviscerated their marriage, as did his decision to remarry and have a child with Caroline Blackwood, and his deeper public betrayal in the reconstruction of Hardwick’s personal correspondence in “The Dolphin.” Hardwick’s unpredictable marriage is out for all to see, but her private experience remains decidedly opaque.
“A Splendid Intelligence” is informational, fact-centric, unsurprisingly since Curtis is not only a biographer, she was once a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times. That’s underscored, however, by a lack of living voices contributing to Hardwick’s account (Harriet Lowell did not participate, citing privacy, and Curtis herself notes many who knew Hardwick first-hand are now dead). The best moments of the biography are when Hardwick’s own voice gushes forth, primarily in anecdotes from her later years. Jon Jewett, her driver, recalls meeting her up in Castine: “She used to love to say, ‘Sweetheart, let’s drive around and see where we weren’t invited.’” Jewett became her personal assistant in New York; when she became wheelchair-bound after a pacemaker implant, he recalled pushing her to museums and Central Park: “‘Lizzie was not an outdoor girl,’ he said. ‘After fifty years of living next to the park, she finally visited it.’ … Once she said, ‘I never thought there were so many different colors of green.’” Her voice, when captured, lifts her portrait out of black-and-white.
In a book that tells very little about life with daughter Harriet, one sees Hardwick as matriarch over a legion of women writers. While many writers she bonded with were men (with the exception of her long-time dear friend, author Mary McCarthy, who appears throughout), as times changed and women’s literary voices grew more numerous, she befriended and alienated important women — so many that the rush of them in the latter half of the book is hard to keep up with. One of the most important mentorships was with Susan Sontag: “The closeness Elizabeth felt for her seems to have been of a different quality — more intense, more yearning — than her long friendship with Mary [McCarthy].”
The years chronicled in Curtis’s book are, as they always will be, dominated by Lowell, but documented here is her persistence in the marriage, her teaching, her criticism, her book publications, her literary accomplishments. In addition to winning a Guggenheim, among other honors were those that recognized her beginnings: “in 2015 Elizabeth was one of four authors posthumously inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning in Lexington.” In the end, the writer from Kentucky came full circle, proving herself the equal of the male literary lions of the 20th century as the author of the novel “Sleepless Nights” and in her prolific writings for Partisan Review, The New York Times, Harper’s, and New York Review of Books. While she was legally Elizabeth Lowell in the days before women commonly kept their surnames, Hardwick once said, “the name Lowell has nothing to do with my writing.” Being called “wife of Robert Lowell,” she said, was like “putting a little ruffle on a housedress.”
A SPLENDID INTELLIGENCE: The Life of Elizabeth Hardwick
By Cathy Curtis
Norton, 400 pages, $35
Valerie Duff, a freelance writer and critic, is the author of “To the New World” and can be reached at email@example.com