In a review of Joan Givner’s Katherine Anne Porter: A Life (1982), Elizabeth Hardwick noted that “a biography appears to be thought of as a good project, one that can at the very least be accomplished by industry.” To career biographers, Hardwick’s own life must have seemed of late a particularly good project. In the first eight years of The New York Review of Books, which she helped to found, less than ten percent of the essays were written by women, and the same six women were responsible for more than half of those; Hardwick was one of the six.
Unlike her friend Mary McCarthy, also one of the most celebrated women writers of that era, she has not lost stature in recent decades. Unlike her husband, Robert Lowell, she could probably pass Twitter’s background checks for artists (Joseph Epstein claims that Hardwick once referred to the critic Irving Howe as “another Jew-boy in a hurry”, but on this he seems to be our only source). And unlike both McCarthy and Lowell, Hardwick has not already been the subject of several biographies.
Devoted admirers of Hardwick, on the other hand, may view the situation quite differently. We want to read about her, of course. But sign on to write the life of a woman who stressed the importance of “some claim to equity between the subject and the person putting on the shoes”? A fearsome prospect, and equally daunting is the great mystery at the heart of Hardwick’s story: she seemed, as she once claimed of Porter, “from the first unaccountably sophisticated.” I’d also venture that to love Hardwick is to feel a proper awe of the difficulties, summarized here by Mary Oliver, of writing any life:
How can the biographer know when enough is known, and known with sufficient certainty? What about secrets, what about errors, what about the small black holes where there is nothing at all? What about the wranglings among minor characters, the withholding of facts for thoughtful and not-so-thoughtful reasons—or their mishandling—and this not even in the present but in the past, hidden in letters, in remembered conversations, in reams of papers? And what about the waywardness of life itself—the proclivity toward randomness—the sudden meaningless uplift of wind that tosses one sheet of paper and keeps another? What about the moment that speaks worlds, as the saying goes, but in the middle of the night, and into deaf ears, and so is never heard, or heard of?– Mary Oliver
Cathy Curtis, author of A Splendid Intelligence: The Life of Elizabeth Hardwick, appears to know how to push through all those doubts: she has published four biographies in the past six years, coaches other biographers through an international organization, and is currently at work on a book about Edna O’Brien. Curtis is less successful at allaying the reader’s suspicion that Hardwick is just another superb subject. What drew her to this writer? How does she see her? How should we?
The clearest answer appears in the prologue: “I seek to go beyond the glimpses that a famously private person revealed in her published writing to present a portrait of an exceptional woman who emerged from a long, troubled marriage with the clarity and wisdom that illuminate her brilliant novel Sleepless Nights.” That Hardwick was exceptional is a given; that the break-up of her marriage was somehow the making of her—she was in her late 50s at the time—seems anything but.
Though Curtis is obviously a hard worker who produces pages that have grip, we feel in every chapter that we have boarded a biographical express. Hardwick’s New York seems not very well known (Bergdorf Goodman—nine stories, still there—is helpfully identified as “an exclusive women’s shop”, West 104th Street less helpfully identified as “the heart of Spanish Harlem”); more important, both her work and what has been written about it seem too speedily digested. An essay about Hardwick credited to Lionel Trilling was in fact, I discovered after trying to track it down, by Alfred Kazin. The text of a talk Hardwick gave at Barnard in 1957 is said to be “[u]nfortunately…not available”, yet a 1958 Mademoiselle essay of which Curtis is aware—she quotes it—includes a note that the essay is “based on a lecture delivered at Barnard College as part of a series of seminars in American Civilization.”
The biographer’s reliance on at-hand language and journalese—Dylan Thomas in 1953 gets “rock star treatment”; Hardwick is a “literary lion” and a member of “the cultural A-list”—may be another symptom of speediness, but it could just as easily be a problem of sensibility. When Curtis reports on the first page of the prologue that Lowell left Hardwick for “a younger woman”, one imagines Hardwick drawling Oh—is that what she was? Caroline Blackwood, who became Lowell’s third wife, was a writer, as was Lowell’s first wife, Jean Stafford. “I don’t think he ever had a true interest in a woman who wasn’t a writer,” Hardwick once said, “—an odd turn-on indeed and one I’ve noticed not greatly shared.”
In the absence of a strong point of view on her subject, Curtis lets Hardwick’s correspondence drive the narrative, with the result that Hardwick’s work too often feels subordinate to every other part of her life; the book might be called Meanwhile, She Wrote. After several paragraphs about a Lowell family vacation in South America, for instance, Curtis tells us what Hardwick wrote to Kazin about the trip, then notes that the purpose of the letter “was mainly to thank him for his glowing review of her essay collection, A View of My Own, published that fall….” This is a remarkably offhanded way to bring up a great essayist’s first book of essays.
It is also odd that we learn that Vogue mentioned the collection and Hardwick’s hometown Lexington Leader failed to appreciate it, but do not hear more about the serious reviews. “I think I can say in good conscience that I have never—repeat, never—read a review of a novel, or, especially, of a collection of poetry by a woman that did not include somewhere in its columns a gratuitous allusion to the writer’s sex and its supposed effects,” Cynthia Ozick has written. The pervasive sexism in the reviews of A View of My Own, at times comical, deserves more attention, but so do the occasional insights.
Perhaps the book we need on Hardwick is the one being written by her great friend and former student Darryl Pinckney, a memoir to be called Come Back in September: A Literary Education on West 67th Street, Manhattan. It may also end up serving as the best introduction to her work for a generation of writers less traditionally bookish than Pinckney’s own.
Not long ago an undergraduate who had heard me praise Hardwick mentioned that he’d put her soon-to-be-published Uncollected Essays (2022) on his shopping list. I was at once pleased and apprehensive, because the student had briefed me on his reading habits. Most recently he’d enjoyed a novel about a man and woman “who don’t like each other, but then they do.” Pride and Prejudice? No, The Hating Game. Helping a reader go from there to Hardwick: now that’s a really good project.
Epstein, Joseph. “The Sins of Leon Wieseltier”. The Weekly Standard. 2 November 2017.
Hardwick, Elizabeth. “Katherine Anne Porter”. American Fictions. Modern Library. New York. 1999.
Hardwick, Elizabeth. “Katherine Anne”. Vanity Fair. March 1984.
Oliver, Mary. “Steepletop”. Blue Pastures. Harcourt Brace & Company. 1995.
Ozick, Cynthia. “Previsions of the Demise of the Dancing Dog”. Art & Ardor. Alfred A. Knopf. 1983.
Reuben, Elaine. “Can a Young Girl from a Small Mining Town Find Happiness Writing Criticism for The New York Review of Books?“. College English. October 1972.