The life of an essential writer

A Splendid Intelligence: The Life of Elizabeth Hardwick by cathy curtis. new york: norton. 400 pages. $35.

The cover of A Splendid Intelligence: The Life of Elizabeth Hardwick

WHAT IS IT WE WANT from literary biographies? A portrait, surely, of the subject, something beyond the profiles and interviews that they grinned through whenever one of their books appeared. Perhaps even a good story. A prominent biographer once told me that there would never be a biography of Don DeLillo because all he ever did was sit at his desk and write his books: there’s no fun for a biographer in mining that kind of life. On the other hand, new books seem to appear every year on the short life of Sylvia Plath, the narrative thread always winding through the snow to the frantic calls to Ted Hughes from a phone box on Regent’s Park Road and back to the flat in Primrose Hill and the oven. If you have a good story, how many other characters are necessary—not just names but real characters? Certainly there will be parents, siblings, spouses, children, but how much room will there be for other writers, whether friends or rivals? And how much room should the publishing business be given? Most publishers’ files will provide a treasure trove of detail, but need we know the amount of every advance, the details of every publicity campaign, or every quarrel over a cover? No matter that these are things that many authors forget the day after they transpire. If editors don’t become friends, or don’t intervene meaningfully in the work, do we even need to know their names?

The work itself presents problems. It could be the proper subject of a literary biography or merely an excuse to spin a yarn and air out a few decades worth of gossip. A career of moonshots and gutter balls like Norman Mailer’s lends itself to both approaches. Interpretation, explication, and contextualization of the books, stories, poems, essays are usually essential but may in some cases be superfluous. Beyond their formulaic elements, the novels of Georges Simenon don’t beg for exegesis but the details of his blockbuster success and priapic adventures fascinate. It may be that we always suspected the name on the cover of the books was that of their true protagonist. The private struggles, the childhood trauma, the pennilessness, the divorce, the love affair, the feuds among friends—maybe these were the real stories all along. I have read too many literary biographies. There seem to be four kinds: the biographer may be like a reporter or newspaper obituary columnist delivering the facts and going the distance; like a critic evaluating and contending with the work all the way through; like a scholar bent on achieving the exhaustive and definitive at the risk of the reader’s boredom; or like a novelist highlighting some details and suppressing others and lending the life a shape that might be at odds with reality.

The case of Elizabeth Hardwick is vexing in these ways and more. She was one of the supreme women of letters in postwar America. The scope of her achievement, much of it accomplished in occasional writings undertaken across six decades, has only begun to come into view with the appearance in 2017 of her Collected Essays. (A volume of Uncollected Essays is to follow this spring.) She chronicled the transformations of American life and culture across seven decades, traced the progress of American literature from its beginnings here and in Europe, connected those roots and parallel strands to the present in essays of idiosyncratic synthesis, and realized those ideas in her own fictions. She was a singular stylist and an essential writer of her time.

Cathy Curtis’s A Splendid Intelligence—the heart sinks on encountering such a generic title: what writer isn’t possessed of intelligence and what intelligence could be otherwise than splendid?—is the first life of Hardwick, who died in 2007 at the age of ninety-one. Curtis opens with an epigraph from Hardwick’s 1979 novel Sleepless Nights: “Sometimes I resent the glossary, the concordance of truth many have about my personal life. . . . Such fact is to me a hindrance to memory.” The very project of biography having been undermined by her subject, Curtis then kicks off: “On July 27, 1973, the novelist, essayist, and critic Elizabeth Hardwick turned fifty-seven. Soon after arriving in New York from Kentucky decades earlier, she had become a fixture of the literary scene.”

The heart sinks again: what is this nebulous literary scene and how do you become a fixture in it? (The word “fixture” appears again a few pages later in Curtis’s book, in the plural, with reference to furnaces Hardwick’s father installed around her native Lexington, Kentucky.) By writing novels? (Hardwick’s first two books, The Ghostly Lover [1945] and The Simple Truth [1955], attracted mixed notices, have gone in and out of print, and remain hard to find today.) By teaching writing? (Hardwick taught at Barnard for two decades, and mentored many laureled novelists, among them Mary Gordon, Susan Minot, Nancy Lemann, and Mona Simpson.) By starting a publication and serving for decades as one of its star contributors? (Hardwick was one of the architects of the New York Review of Books and appeared in its pages regularly for the rest of her life.) By writing two masterpieces in a minor key? (That could be said of Sleepless Nights and Hardwick’s second collection of essays, Seduction and Betrayal.) Or by marrying the country’s most famous poet?

Elizabeth Hardwick, Columbia University, New York, 1945. Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin
Elizabeth Hardwick, Columbia University, New York, 1945. Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin

Robert Lowell tumbles, swerves, and skids through these pages like a selfish demon. “Cal” and “Elizabeth” (Curtis’s way of naming the couple can cause the reader to forget that we are reading about a pair of great writers) first met at a party at Partisan Review editor Philip Rahv’s apartment in 1947. Lowell was with his first wife, the novelist Jean Stafford, and at the same party Hardwick met the poet Allen Tate, who would become one of her “sometime lovers.” Lowell wrote of the party in his 1959 poem “Man and Wife”: “outdrank the Rahvs in the heat / of Greenwich Village, fainting at your feet— / too boiled and shy / and poker-faced to make a pass, / while the shrill verve / of your invective scorched the traditional South.” They would meet again a few months later at a poetry reading at Bard College, where, in a story Curtis calls “possibly apocryphal,” Hardwick and Elizabeth Bishop escort Lowell to his room after too many cups of punch, and Hardwick, on loosening her future husband’s tie, exclaims, “Why, he’s an Adonis!” Their affair would commence, Lowell now divorced, the next year at the Yaddo colony, where the “majestic four-hundred-acre estate contains hundreds of thousands of coniferous and deciduous trees.” What a nice place to fall in love!

Up to Lowell’s entrance in the narrative, we have heard something of Hardwick’s early years in Kentucky (eighth of eleven children; Presbyterian; bookish; voted “best-natured member of the class,” a distinction that brought her to tears; surrounded by tobacco, Jim Crow, lynchings) and her invective (glosses of and quotes from the tyro’s early reviews of Stafford, Peter Taylor, and Faulkner hint of the polemics to come). Curtis’s early passages lean heavily, if reasonably, on details from Sleepless Nights, from Hardwick’s memories of Kentucky to her residence in the Hotel Schuyler in Times Square after a phase of graduate study at Columbia, with only a few speculations softened by the requisite “perhaps.” (Did she, as her narrator does, sleep with a man she meets at the Lexington library? Maybe.) She dropped out of Columbia, uninterested in learning German and pessimistic at the prospects of teaching at the college level as a woman in New York City. She took odd publishing jobs, abridging detective novels, and fell in with the crowd around the nascent Partisan Review. Friendships ensued with Mary McCarthy and Hannah Arendt, whose “self-assured persona rubbed some people the wrong way.” (You don’t say!) There was a rejected first novel, The Dyer’s Hand, the manuscript of which does not survive, before The Ghostly Lover was picked up by Harcourt, Brace in 1944.

It was the novel and a scattering of stories that got her to Yaddo and the fateful reencounter with Lowell. Their marriage dominates two hundred of the three hundred and eight pages of A Splendid Intelligence, and it presents a structural problem for Curtis. (Hardwick dealt with this problem in Sleepless Nights by eliding the narrator’s spouse.) The marriage was no doubt the central drama of Hardwick’s life. Many passages read like a summary with quotations of an as-yet-unpublished volume of Hardwick’s letters. Given the couple’s nocturnal habits, it’s hard not to infer that many of these letters owe their tone of complaint to hangovers. Lowell’s many manic episodes, hospitalizations, and extramarital affairs, his final abandonment of Hardwick and their daughter Harriet for Caroline Blackwood in 1970, and his death of a heart attack in a taxi on the way to their apartment on West 67th from JFK Airport in 1977 are a story that has been told many times: in Lowell’s poetry, as well as in several biographies of the poet and collections of his and others’ letters, most recently The Dolphin Letters, 1970–1979, edited by Saskia Hamilton, which appeared in 2019. Most of Lowell’s intimates, including Bishop, felt that his use of lines from Hardwick’s letters (alongside some he made up) in The Dolphin constituted a cruel violation, yet the book was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1974. It is now another episode in the annals of bad art spouses and bad art lovers. (Usually, Curtis insists, such spouses and lovers have been men; perhaps the tables started turning with Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick.)

Curtis is a former staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, the author of A Generous Vision: The Creative Life of Elaine de Kooning, and past president of Biographers International Organization. In addition to bland titles and overshadowed spouses, she favors the chronological litany over the discrete series of thematic syntheses. Work and life are treated in tandem, the latter often overwhelming the former, not least because marital strife has a higher quotient of drama than the composition of essays and reviews. Curtis’s account of the Lowells’ marriage shifts the emphasis from Lowell’s manias to Hardwick’s tribulations. He was never an equal partner in keeping house, even less so in parenting, and every breakdown of his brought with it her romantic humiliation. One of Curtis’s scoops is that on August 24, 1962, while the couple were in Brazil visiting Bishop, Lowell spent the night, according to notes in Bishop’s papers, with the novelist Clarice Lispector. I contacted Lispector biographer Benjamin Moser about this and he said he hadn’t been aware of it, but speculated that Lowell might be the subject of a remark of Lispector’s he could never track down: “There was an American poet who threatened to commit suicide because I wasn’t interested.” Hardwick arranged passage home for her and Harriet right away. Lowell stayed on in Brazil with Keith Botsford (the agent of the Congress for Cultural Freedom who arranged the trip—a detail that suggests it was indirectly funded by the CIA), went astray in Buenos Aires, and had to be checked into a Connecticut psychiatric facility on his return to the States.

Curtis’s decision not to cordon off the work from the life leads to some awkward transitions. After an account of Hardwick and Lowell’s “social whirl” of cocktail parties and concert attendance in Boston during the 1950s, she writes: “Daytime was for writing.” One would hope so. After a breakdown of Lowell’s that left him believing divorce and remarriage would be the only way to save the union, we read: “The amazing thing is that in the midst of her tumultuous personal life, Elizabeth was writing reviews.” Hardwick was amazing, but not merely for getting it done. After her divorce from Lowell and more so after his death, Hardwick emerges in Curtis’s pages as the sort of character one might imagine from her writings, witty and caustic, cruel but warm. Her students quote her: “Honey, come over.” “Honey, when I looked at this, this is hideous, girl!” “Mona, this is a wonderful story, but nobody wants to read this.” Not speaking for everyone, Mona Simpson attests that her influence was “overwhelmingly positive.”

“Elizabeth enjoyed being a member of New York’s cultural A-list,” Curtis writes. What an LA thing to say. Curtis says that Hardwick and Lowell’s apartment on West 104th Street, where they lived after getting married, was in “the heart of Spanish Harlem,” which is across Central Park. The error isn’t characteristic, but Curtis does seem like a tourist in the realm of the New York intellectuals. She calls Hardwick’s 2000 book on Herman Melville “a biography that is largely a literary analysis with topical chapters rather than a conscientious chronicle of the life.” Curtis’s book is conscientious and chronological to a fault, but it lacks any literary feeling, any sense of the dynamic between Hardwick the critic and her subjects. Many of her glosses on Hardwick’s criticism are perfunctory, as if the biographer is eager to get back to the messy marriage. Curtis calls Hardwick’s essay on Renata Adler’s Speedboat “disjointed,” as if imitation of the novel under review wasn’t the intention. About many essays that mention the wives of writers, she speculates that they might have been animated by Hardwick’s own marriage. No kidding. She says “Domestic Manners,” Hardwick’s probing reflection on the 1970s, “rambles over too much territory to be effective.” If the point of an essay is to be “effective,” then hang me.

Curtis quotes Hardwick’s notes for a talk about writing: “You are always confronted with the limits of yourself, your knowledge, your ear, your character. . . . And for that reason, writing is a very daunting activity and it will not make you happy.” Curtis comments: “The last clause is a provocative statement. Should we take it to mean that writing did not make Elizabeth happy? More likely, this remark was meant to reflect the struggle involved in writing a piece that met her high standards; happiness did not come until the battle was won.” If “happiness” were the end of writing, there would be no such thing as literature.

Christian Lorentzen is a writer living in Brooklyn.

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