A View of Her Own

The Collected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick BY Elizabeth Hardwick. edited by Darryl Pinckney, Darryl Pinckney. NYRB Classics. Paperback, 640 pages. $19.

The cover of The Collected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick

BEGINNING THE SECOND PARAGRAPH of her 1973 essay on Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury set, published in the New York Review of Books, which she cofounded, Elizabeth Hardwick had a line on the lesser members of that mutual entourage: “Certain peripheral names vex the spirits.” When the essay appeared a year later in Seduction and Betrayal, her formational work on the fates of literary women and women in literature, the line had changed and become: “Certain peripheral names scratch the mind.” No editor, and perhaps only this writer, would make such a change. Unnecessary, it’s instructive. “Certain peripheral names” is contemporaneous, cool and distant, idiomatic of her good friend Joan Didion. Wallace Stevens had “scratch the mind” in a 1938 poem, “The Man on the Dump,” but a nightingale (symbolic, like all birds) was doing the scratching, so the verb made sense. Tricky to effect a key change in a decasyllable. Hardwick makes the odd sentence weirder. Where “vex” exaggerated and made tonal her discord, and came naturally with “the spirits” to a writer who’d studied metaphysical poetry in graduate school, the furtive, unlikely “scratch” awakes in midsentence those annoying minor characters from their index and disturbs the reader, on whom the revised line falls faster thanks to the shorter “mind” and the continuous s-word after the plural, the unlikelihood registering when it’s too late to object: Who says that?

Hardwick could do more in six words than any Hemingway type, including Hemingway. Her feats of compression were exactly that, special, not habitual, because she was not really laconic and liked words better than she liked choosing between them. Her complaints about the process remind me of the writer (Jeff Goldblum) in Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), protesting the output of an overproductive hack. “It takes me six months to write one line sometimes,” he says, and when a girl asks why: “Because I pick each word individually, that’s why!” Devoted to “the interest of the mind of the individual [writer],” interested in a plurality of writers and literature, places and persons who don’t belong, Hardwick became singular eventually, not as an event; she is more so now that she has not been greatly imitated. I get it: You would be hard-pressed to trace your own thoughts over her syntax the way you can copy, half-consciously, sentences by Didion, or the way Didion copied sentences by Hemingway. Any Hardwickian rules for writing she left unsaid, subject to desire. Even her students at Barnard, said one who wrote about her later, learned little in the way of technique and found that “the idea was to study her, not a particular subject,” while she thought the purpose of study was to acclimate writers to harder lives.

She said writing an essay was like “trying to catch a fish in the open hand.” Leave her pages, sleep, wake—and maybe you’ve forgotten the point but bits of her inimitable phrasings are stuck in your hair and you keep on finding them through the day. There are the “desperate violets” for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s memory, the “silky regularity” of Bernard Berenson’s lifestyle in Italy, the “redundant porches” and “unpredictable potatoes” in Maine. Mrs. Trollope speaks in “vivacious negatives.” Some Americans make “somnolent, careless decisions,” others are compelled to note “the intricate, small-muscled talent for self-destruction in our presidents, the almost bejeweled talent, glittering with faceted opportunity.” In “Back Issues,” a late short story set in the quiet of the New York Public Library—ingenious conceit for avoiding dialogue—her narrator moves to “gather up the Gissing class-bloodied world, a clot of unsuccess. Leave the magazine essays and their seashell precocity.” Forty-one of the fifty-five essays in The Collected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick were written for one of three magazines (the Partisan Review, the New York Review of Books, Harper’s Magazine) and yet, whether they are about hating Boston or trusting in Massachusetts transcendentalists, they are heterodox and differently mannered, with a feeling of occasional verse.

In lieu of a style she had more style, a command of many idiolects: what my French teacher in college called “high language empathy.” A good mimic, she penned under the name Xavier Prynne a short, harsh parody of the “defloratio” in her friend Mary McCarthy’s novel The Group. Any literary parody requires the subject to have an original, definite modus operandi, making the jokes paradoxically more flattering than straight imitations; but for a parody to succeed with fans as well as foes, the parodist has to be the better writer. McCarthy didn’t think it was funny. It was too good:

[Maisie] put on her Lord and Taylor biascut cocktail dress (all the rage this year, just as Hitler was threatening to reoccupy the Rhineland). . . . In a Kraft cheese glass on the window sill she saw a bunch of paper carnations. Probably something for a still life. Johhn was a painter, not very successful she supposed. She slipped one of the carnations into the buttonhole of the Macy jacket, tiptoed to the couch and pressed a cool kiss on Johhn’s brow. He groaned, Requiescat in pace, dear Johhn, she whispered, as she closed the door which he had rakishly painted bright red, the color of blood.

Hardwick could write a bad sentence unintentionally, too—bad, that is, according to Orwellian or more current rules of writing. She liked slipping into alliteration and lingering on etymological happenstance: Margaret Fuller “did irradiate and also irritate”; the religion of the Jains inclines to both “passivity and pacifism.” Stacking adjectives like rings on light fingers, forgetting to take off one adverb before finishing the sentence, leaving sentences in fragments as on a to-do list, mixing metaphors splendidly or indecorously like metals and spices, glittering the text with odd dichroic similes—she performed at what should have been a very risky level of indulgence, except there was no one to parody her.

It was because she could traipse and trip up and take a second to recover, then seem only to have feinted and come arcing unusually back, that her performances on the page are so captivating. She wrote more best sentences than can possibly be good for the ego, “more beautiful sentences,” said Susan Sontag, “than any living American writer.” Katherine Anne Porter said that at the New York Review the men were all “hatchet men” and Hardwick was “a hatchet man, too,” since “hatchet woman” would be “too gentle,” but it was offhandedness that gave her the edge. She idealized not the “axe for the frozen sea” of Kafka’s purpose, rather the palimpsest by blade she hallucinates at the end of her 1987 lecture “The Fictions of America,” wondering whether it’s “impertinent to question the American scene and to glide on silver skates over a surface . . . filled with bumps and lumps and sudden, unexpected views from the pond.” The pond is hers; her writing still elicits the jitter and awe of watching a favorite figure skater take to the ice, too quickly, with a new routine.

Dramatic and unapproachable on the page, in person Elizabeth Hardwick was “more fun than any American writer I have known,” said the poet Derek Walcott. The poet she married, Robert Lowell, said in verse: “my wife . . . your lightness alters everything.” Hardwick illuminates character and, herself a kind of character actress, steals scenes in biographies of her peers. In Frances Kiernan’s definitive book on McCarthy, Seeing Mary Plain, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin finds it appropriate to say that Hardwick, not McCarthy, was the cleverest woman he ever met: “a feminine mind. Much more bitchy than Mary’s, but sharper and more original.” In Deborah Nelson’s new book, Tough Enough, starring the twentieth-century female figures of McCarthy, Sontag, Didion, Simone Weil, Hannah Arendt, and Diane Arbus, we learn that Hardwick once called Sontag “interesting” and Sontag didn’t get over it: “She was 100 percent wrong,” Sontag told an interviewer much later. “In fact, for a couple of years now, I’ve been accumulating notes toward a critique of this notion of ‘the interesting.’” That’s style, a single light word having the effect of a slur.

For the record: Hardwick used “interesting” favorably in her most generative essay, “The Decline of Book Reviewing,” where, having declared book reviewing a form of writing, to be taken and taken up seriously, she concludes that “for the great metropolitan publications, the unusual, the difficult, the lengthy, the intransigent, and above all, the interesting, should expect to find their audience.” Emphasis hers. When she wrote this she was already forty-three and had yet to publish her first book of essays, though she’d debuted with a novel at twenty-nine. She had married at thirty-three, when her career as a critic was beginning, and had her child at forty, like Colette, so that unlike the competitive brunettes, her peers, she was an always-late bloomer. Precocity doesn’t age well, she knew. Being interesting does.

Cover from the first edition of Elizabeth Hardwick’s The Ghostly Lover, 1945. Courtesy David Albert/ABE Books.
Cover from the first edition of Elizabeth Hardwick’s The Ghostly Lover, 1945. Courtesy David Albert/ABE Books.

THE FIRST EDITION OF HER DEBUT, The Ghostly Lover, set in her home state of Kentucky and written in lieu of finishing her Ph.D. at Columbia, gives me my only literal picture of a young Elizabeth Hardwick. She has the fluent prettiness that’s constitutive and stronger in the flesh: an opal face with soft cheeks and wide soft eyes under actressy brows, the whole appearing structured by arches and light, no strongly delineating bones, and fair hair softly curled. The novel was uneven, but the prose, if not the photo, landed Hardwick at the desk of Philip Rahv, editor of the Partisan Review. When they met she was “at the height of her beauty,” Kiernan writes. “I weighed about ten pounds then, skinny, smoking,” Hardwick told Hilton Als in a 1998 New Yorker profile, the only major magazine treatment she ever received, and Rahv “was quite surprised that I had read everything.” They slept together quickly, and within a year she was chronicling fiction for his “little magazine.”

Hardwick became and remained a domestic writer. She did not go like McCarthy to Vietnam or Sontag to Bosnia or Didion to El Salvador; her only reporting trip was back home to the South, to see Selma. Her best subject was American literature. Her other best subject, limned in The Ghostly Lover, was the “mysterious chasm” of sexual difference. In her piqued corrective to Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, Hardwick defends with wild, sympathetic elaborations of female physiognomy the prerogative of women to be weaker, resigned and sighing, performative and not victorious in the arts. The feminine lack is one of experience, adventure, ventures undertaken at personal risk, without which there would be no Herman Melville, no Arthur Rimbaud. Meanwhile, at home: “The dust pile is revoltingly real.” Meaning, of course, that someone has to do the wageless housework, and also that the woman who stays at home to write has a fear, more realistic than the similar fears of men, that her work will end up in slush piles or out of print.

Yet the metaphor can be extended so that a sweeping pronouncement is another kind of no-nonsense women’s work. In her second and last piece as Xavier Prynne, Hardwick parodied the countercultural bombast of Norman Mailer, the great anti-feminist of letters—no easy task, almost redundant. When he heard she was reviewing his new novel An American Dream in the Spring 1965 issue of the Partisan Review, Mailer phoned the magazine and bought a two-page advertisement for himself: “Elizabeth Hardwick,” he announced, “has written a bad review for PR. I hasten to shudder. She is such a good writer. I also hasten to furnish her for company a review . . . which appeared in Life.” The rave by a lesser male critic he reprinted in extenso, these shenanigans appearing over a hundred pages before Hardwick’s piece. She had the last word. On the man: “At the moment . . . a bombed-out talent, scraping in the ashes.” And on the novel: “What was meant to be a black pearl, evilly shining, is just a pile of dust.”

Hardwick never wrote a bad review; she wrote and went on to rue some mean ones. We are not obligated to share her regret, only guided to do so by Darryl Pinckney, a student of hers in 1973 and a longtime contributor to the New York Review, so that in selecting and forewording this collection he naturally favors her longer, friendlier pieces for that magazine. We get, in lieu of her early condemnation, a long and not-unfriendly lecture on Mailer’s journalism and the tape recorder’s mangling of oral tradition. We are not granted her savagery on Truman Capote’s 1948 novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms (“the parody whose appearance was inevitable; amidst sherry and gloom, withering homosexuals, and dainty sadistic women,” sounding “a tinkling funeral bell for . . . recent Southern fiction”), but rather a soft-spoken eulogy in which the same novel becomes “the best of his down-home fictions.” Even Faulkner is deemed too sensitive for treatment by the younger Hardwick, who diagnosed him as enviably insane in a takedown of his 1948 novel, Intruder in the Dust, for the Partisan Review; here he appears as she acknowledged him decades later, as “the grandest fictional talent our country has produced.”

The author photo for A View of My Own, where some of these pieces appear but which is out of print, shows Hardwick in unflattering profile, her jaw softened, forehead wrinkled if calm, bags under eyes that appear never to sleep; but eyebrows and lipstick excellently done. The three-sentence bio ends: “She is the wife of the poet, Robert Lowell.” How seriously to take this? A persistent and funny motif in her criticism is her disdain for the indiscriminate maw, the stenographed endless hours, of almost any major literary biography—a loathing, even, that served her a little too well. To date the closest thing we get to “a life of” Hardwick is the opposite of a stand-alone portrait: David Laskin’s Partisans, a chronicle of the Partisan Review set, for which he interviewed Hardwick at length, mostly about Lowell. Well, he was famous, and often enough it was for his work. A notion that Hardwick wasted her prime in service to the man would be silly as well as heartless, incomplete. Better to say that she gave herself to an idea of the writer’s life, a whole life of ideas, and to the great reliable narrative of marriage, the artifice of monogamy—to living novelistically. The unmarried, nonmonogamous, but equally loyal de Beauvoir said that her relationship with Sartre was her “greatest achievement.” Hardwick called marriage to Lowell “the best thing that ever happened to me.” Another woman’s “mansplaining” was for her a brilliant husband’s “relentless instruction,” an insatiability shared. Her tone does wonders: “To have him fly off on poetry or history, for instance, was like having a cocktail—and of course there was the cocktail also.”

In a piece from 1953 she argued that private letters are not really candid, should not be used wholesale, posthumously to expose: “In letters we can reform without practice, beg without humiliation, snip and shape embarrassing experiences to the measure of our own desires—this is a benevolent form.” A writer’s correspondence shows that “people do not live their biographies.” Hemingway’s biography by Carlos Baker inspired her to note, postscriptively, sixteen years later, that “persons, while they are living, so often turn away from the best picture of themselves.” By “best” she meant neither the fullest nor the most flattering, more the characteristic; and it was her character stolen when Lowell, in an act inexcusable even by his storied insanity, took the divorce-era letters she wrote him and copied, cut and rewrote, pastiched them in his embarrassing book The Dolphin, which won him the Pulitzer. The subject was his new, third marriage, to Caroline Blackwood, but “the poignance of the book,” he said, was Hardwick. Hardwick had not wanted to be poignant. She had forgiven his affairs, his manic threats, his failure to help her the way she kept on helping him with his work; she did not forgive his edits.

A perfect third, last novel, Sleepless Nights, was published in 1979, or: thirty years after Hardwick reviewed the novels of Elizabeth Bowen, the post-Bloomsbury modernist, and found it a little too “feminist” that four of them end with the death of some complicated man, a “chilling and merciless” vision of “woman’s revenge.”Hardwick began the novel after divorcing her husband and finished it after he died in a taxi from the airport to her apartment, where she was taking him back. It may have sufficed for her dedication to be repaid in the singular, the dedication of his last book, Day by Day, to “Lizzie, / Who snatched me out of chaos, / with all my love / . . . Cal.” (Everyone called him Cal, for Caligula or Caliban, and everyone called her Lizzie, like Melville’s wife.) It may have annoyed. Hardwick dedicated Sleepless Nights to her daughter, Harriet, and to McCarthy, who wrote her saying that the genius of the novel, influenced by the episodic singledom in Renata Adler’s Speedboat and the careless brushes with love in Colette’s The Pure and the Impure, lay in what was left out almost totally: “the huge fact of Cal.”

REVISION IS THE GIFT OF THE ESSAY. For this reason the first-person, self-centering account of experience, generated in the extreme by Augustine and by Rousseau in their Confessions, is ahistorically considered a woman’s form: Feminist history has to be revisionist. A year before Sleepless Nights came Silences, Tillie Olsen’s form-breaking survey of censorship and self-censorship in writer’s lives and in lives that “never come to writing at all.” Olsen dedicates equal time to Rebecca Harding Davis, a forgotten nineteenth-century writer of working women, and to Melville and his three-decade writer’s block. She provides reading lists and collaged quotations that center the marginalized and remake the canon without abandoning the gravity of what was previously (even if unfairly) acknowledged as great. Her revisionism is expansive, like Hardwick’s. A lighter echo of Silences is Kate Zambreno’s memoir-study Heroines, in which she likens Hardwick and her marriage to Zelda Fitzgerald and her marriage, a comparison that would rankle Hardwick—who objected strenuously to E. Sackville-West’s comparing Bowen to George Eliot—and should cause Hardwick’s estate to sue. Zambreno’s revisionism is separatist, making claims to equality specious. She believes that to take “the self out of our essays is a form of repression,” but I have to confess that while Chris Kraus’s epistolary I Love Dick matters hugely in a Moby-Dick world, I no longer care who loves dick. I care that Hardwick spent her life loving Melville and made her study of him, published in 2000, her excellent last work, careful by then to find the feminine in her hero as a better way of saying that there can be heroines—if we are given the time and the space, but also the covert, exacting generosity of higher standards.

While Lowell said he was “learning to live in history,” Hardwick in Sleepless Nights wrote: “The weak have the purest sense of history. Anything can happen.” She believed that women writers like black writers had, as Pinckney puts it, “a natural tendency . . . toward the subversive,” driven or required to find not a voice but a new, more specific form; and that form is “the survival of style,” as William Gass, an essayist she admired and a rare one to whom she should be compared, says in his work on Emerson. Hardwick’s masterwork can also be seen as John Cagean in its wide-open chanciness, its spare and loose talk over polyphonic city noise, and its almost hypocritical refusal of authorship when really the hand is there on every page, like the clue left accidentally by the second-page indentation of a pen’s scribble, an unerasable scratch, on the blank-seeming notepad in a detective novel. Here and in “Back Issues” the narrators, unnamed, are also unidentifiable, restive, strange, and the men are most beautiful when they’re strangers or bachelors. The best of her fictions are essayistic because in essays the mind by itself goes further, unhindered by the conflicting motives and lifelike imperatives of a more traditional novel (as in life those who are unmarried and childless, not overburdened by recognition, go more as they please). That Hardwick’s observances of the marginal, desperate, poor, and exoticized—the stylings of Billie Holiday and the lives of black women cleaning houses, the doctor’s mistresses as well as the doctor—increase in frequency and specificity as she reaches a maximum fullness of prose is no accident but a colluding genius.

Early on she had “late style,” a “contradictory, alienated relationship” with the social order, per Edward Said. Her later style is unbearably elegant and reclusive, a curling of the open hand, and is best seen in another essay uncollected here, written at the end of the past century, on the Lewinsky tell-all Monica’s Story. Recency makes the piece more strikingly uncontemporary, extraordinary for its dramatic, not feminist, reading of the scandal, for doing nothing the “minor” or “minority” essayist is hired to do today. Deracinated, she abhors the folksy Clintonian thing and anything commonplace, identifying “he’s toast” as “an obscurely derived current idiom” while leaving references to Niobe and Saint-Simon unexplained. A writer for The Guardian, remembering Hardwick on the occasion of her death at ninety-one, said she once gave the Lewinsky essay to a “literary journalism” class and “would sooner teach Ulysses than repeat the experiment.” The difficulty of Hardwick’s writing is in the form, its density and indefatigable, speeding aspiration, and lies far from the voicey, relatable, lived ways of “being difficult” as a woman in pop-cultural, critical feminism. “Her essays have plots,” said Cynthia Ozick, and here, strikingly, the one major character in the story of the girl and the president whom Hardwick does not seem to remember, does not even name, is the wife. Mirroring the excision of Cal, the edit says, without speaking, that the husband’s story has ceased to be hers.

As a last word, no word—silence—multiplies: damning, venerating, passive-aggressive, verklempt, remorseless, secretive. Hardwick had proved her point, for if she does not have the experience a man can have, if she lacks muscle, talent, or opportunity for danger, and when she survives being the wife, the mother, refuses going mad with neglect, then it is simple: In the end, the woman lives longer.

Sarah Nicole Prickett is a writer in New York.