Elaine Showalter

Formidable woman of letters: the grit and wisdom of Elizabeth Hardwick

The fearless critic finally escapes the shadow of her husband Robert Lowell in Cathy Curtis’s sensitive biography

Formidable woman of letters: the grit and wisdom of Elizabeth Hardwick
Formidable woman of letters: Elizabeth Hardwick in 1967. [Alamy]
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A Splendid Intelligence: The Life of Elizabeth Hardwick

Cathy Curtis

W.W. Norton, pp. 400, £27.99

In an author’s note at the beginning of her biography of Elizabeth Hardwick, Cathy Curtis warns that she has included ‘only as much information’ about Hardwick’s ‘famous husband, the poet Robert Lowell, as is necessary to tell the story of her life’. Ironically, this caveat highlights Hardwick’s status as another wife of the poet. There’s no question that her tumultuous marriage and singular divorce from Lowell were major events in her literary career, but it’s disappointing that in this very first biography of Hardwick, Curtis offers so little argument for her literary and cultural importance.

Admittedly, that’s no simple task. Although she is highly regarded as a productive literary critic, acerbic essayist and formidable woman of letters, Hardwick never produced a signature great book. She wrote three novels which have won a cult following, especially Sleepless Nights (1979), and 20 short stories, mostly for the New Yorker. But she is generally admired for her non-fiction, especially 168 essays, reviews and op-eds, chiefly for the New York Review of Books, which she co-founded in 1963.

Hardwick’s breadth of literary genres and incisive style gave her writing unusual weight. She believed that ‘essays are aggressive’. No opinion could be meaningful, she argued, unless ‘an assault has taken place, the forced domination of... putting it in your own words’. She was also aggressive in her literary roles. As Joel Connaroe, the president of the Guggen-heim Foundation, said: ‘She sometimes made fellow jurors feel as if they had no literary judgment at all.’

Hardwick seems to have been born tough. Curtis provides a detailed chronological account of her life, based on deep archival research and particularly her unpublished letters. Born in Kentucky in 1916, the eighth of 11 children, she was a gifted student and an omnivorous speed reader, who went to the University of Kentucky intending to be both a professor of English and a novelist. She quickly moved on to New York, aspiring to become a ‘Jewish intellectual’. By 1941 she had dropped out of the Columbia PhD programme, started publishing prize-winning short stories and wrote her first novel, The Ghostly Lover.

Philip Rahv, the co-editor of the influential Partisan Review, heard about her, called her for an interview (and a brief affair), and invited her to write for them. She was quickly accepted for her slashing style and fearless attacks on established writers such as William Faulkner. But for a woman, gaining admission to the inner circle required beauty and sexual sophistication as well as intelligence and chutzpah. As Hardwick later observed: ‘A career of candour and dissent is not an easy one for a woman.’ A successful aspirant needs ‘a great reserve of personal attractiveness and a high degree of romantic singularity’. She always kept that in mind.

At a party at the Rahvs in 1947 she met Lowell, mad, bad and dangerous to know. He was with his first wife, the novelist Jean Stafford, whose face had been permanently scarred when he angrily crashed his Packard into a stone wall after she resisted his proposal of marriage. They were divorced in the spring of 1948, and although Allen Tate warned Hardwick that Lowell was a violent manic depressive, she was swept away by his passion and charm.

They married in 1949, but in their first decade together he had at least ten manic episodes. Over the 21 years of their marriage he was hospitalised 15 times. The first symptom of an imminent crisis was his infatuation with another woman, flight to be with her, and the inevitable crash. He was a loving but unsupportive spouse. Curtis provides a litany of his criticism, complaints and general irresponsibility. In an essay about Simone de Beauvoir, Hardwick also wrote chillingly about the inevitability of male dominance: ‘Any woman who has ever had her wrist twisted by a man recognises a fact of nature as humbling as a cyclone to a frail tree branch.’

In 1970, on a visiting fellowship at Oxford, Lowell left Hardwick and their daughter Harriet for the Irish heiress and writer Lady Caroline Blackwood. After a divorce in 1972, he married Blackwood and they had a son. Hardwick was lonely, anxious and desperate for money. But with generosity, grace and self-control she managed to conceal her pain, work furiously to pay the bills and be an exemplary mother to Harriet, even insisting that Lowell must continue to see her. Then, in 1973, he published The Dolphin, a book of poems which incorporated and even altered Hardwick’s anguished letters to him. Universally condemned by critics and by their mutual friends, including Adrienne Rich, who called it ‘one of the most vindictive, mean-spirited acts in the history of poetry’, it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974.

Yet Hardwick remained a champion of his poetic genius throughout her life. In The Dolphin Letters, 1970-1979, the correspondence of Hardwick, Lowell and their friends, edited by Saskia Hamilton, Lowell is charming, dodgy, selfish, observant, obtuse and unapologetic. But Hardwick is the heroine of what reads like a great epistolary novel. Despite a few outbursts of anger, she shows courage, grit, humour and wisdom, what she called in Seduction and Betrayal (1970) the ‘moving qualities of endurance, independence, tolerance, solitary grief’ that always ‘overshadow the man who is the origin’ of the betrayed woman’s torment. She was even going to take Lowell back, but he died of a heart attack in the taxi heading to her New York apartment. She signed his death certificate as ‘friend’.

She was writing during the height of Women’s Liberation, yet Curtis notes that Hardwick, like her friends Mary McCarthy and Hannah Arendt, was both critical of the movement and ‘hostile to feminist-themed novels that failed to meet her standards for stylistic brilliance’. The only time I met her was on a panel on feminist criticism in the 1980s, when she brushed off the idea of women’s writing as a meaningful category and wittily said that Henry James was a great woman writer.

Curtis points out that Hardwick’s book on women in literature, Seduction and Betrayal, which did not blame seducers and betrayers, ‘led to accusations that she was mired in the judgmental standards of the bad old days’. Yet Susan Sontag called it ‘the most subtle of feminist books’. And Hardwick anticipated much of feminist literary history in her assessment of forgotten American women writers. In 1974, she was the advisory editor for Arno Press of an 18-volume series of rediscovered fiction by American women, including novels by Constance Fenimore Woolson, Ellen Glasgow and Josephine Herbst. She wrote a screenplay of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, and in 1986 an essay on the 19th-century feminist intellectual Margaret Fuller, so powerful that Mary McCarthy thought she should write a screenplay for a film starring Vanessa Redgrave.

The contradictions that make Hardwick puzzling also make her life story compelling. Now she is having a literary revival, with her three novels in print, her stories collected, the first volume of her essays published and a second coming this spring. She was cynical about literary biography. At best, she opined, it is written mainly for subsequent biographers. Certainly other biographers of Hardwick will rely on Curtis’s groundbreaking work, and, hopefully, make the case for her rightful inclusion among the important women writers of the 20th century.