Born 27 July 1916, Lexington, Kentucky
Daughter of Eugene A. and Mary Ramsay Hardwick; married Robert Lowell, 1949 (divorced); children: one daughter
Novelist and essayist Elizabeth Hardwick, still vigorous and opinionated at 83, writes in the New York Review of Books (22 April 1999) about the gripping drama which dominated national and international news during that winter. Her review of the specious book, Monica's Story by Andrew Morton, displays a characteristically mordant wit and distaste for the vulgar and indecorous: "The shabby history of the United States in the last year can be laid at the door of three unsavory citizens," she writes—describing one as "shallow and reckless," another as "aggressive and exhibitionist" and the third as a "pale, obsessive Pharisee." It is significant that Hardwick can and does make sweeping political statements in her "Head over Heels" column with complete confidence in both her own judgement and her audience.
As founding partner at the New York Review of Books in 1963, as an advisory editor there still, a distinguished and respected woman of letters for more than 60 years, Hardwick is central to the literary and social commentary of the 20th century. Her undisputed position as Critic, in an age when fashionable criticism comes and goes, makes the appearance of a new book by her a cause for rejoicing. Joyce Carol Oates, no slouch of a writer herself, has written that Hardwick's most recent collection of essays, Sight-Readings: American Fictions (1998), contains "commentary on literary biographies [that] is, quite simply, brilliant, the most reasoned and responsible thinking on the subject the general reader is likely to encounter…without ostentation or polemics."
Hardwick was born into a family of 10 brothers and sisters in Kentucky. She was educated at local schools, including the University of Kentucky where she earned both B.A. and M.A. (1939) degrees in English literature. When she moved to New York City shortly after, and enrolled at Columbia University, her orbit of friendship and influence grew to include the leading writers and critics of the era. With her marriage to the dashing but deeply disturbed poet Robert Lowell in 1949 she entered a family of American intellectual aristocrats, and the intimate company of the best poets and writers in the world. Together the Lowells traveled to meet Elizabeth Bishop in Brazil, to James Merrill in Greece, to writers' conferences and colonies. They lived in Boston while he taught at Harvard. She later lived and taught in New York as an adjunct professor of English at Barnard College. Hardwick has won many awards and honors: an early Guggenheim Fellowship in Fiction (1948), was followed by the George Jean Nathan Award for outstanding drama criticism (1967), a nomination to the National Book Critics Circle (1980), and election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1989).
If Lowell was brilliant and prolific; Hardwick was equally so. Her novels The Ghostly Lover (1945), The Simple Truth (1955), and Sleepless Nights (1979) emerge as a series of fictions that attempt to explain the dilemma of human emotional development. In the last of these she succeeds—through a judicious blending of semiautobiographical material and stream-of-consciousness motif (explored in the first novel)—to realize the promise of her own narrative line. The reflective nature of Hardwick's immature work becomes the foundation of an explicit and comprehensive view of the human individual in her mature stories and essays. She was praised early and often for the quality of her prose as well as her gift for the nuances of casual discourse and a flair for description.
Her literary and social criticism and her short stories are widely admired as quirky, compelling, and very smart. The amount of writing she has produced is substantial, its range enormous: three serious collections of essays including A View of My Own: Essays on Literature and Society (1962), Seduction and Betrayal: Women and Literature (1974), and Bartleby in Manhattan and Other Essays (1983) precede Sight-Readings (1998). These volumes include book reviews, social criticism, political commentary, biographical sketches, and trenchant remembrances that appeared, along with many short stories, in the New Yorker, Harper's, Partisan Review, New Republic, Sewanee Review, and other varied periodicals. Two of her most successful endeavors remain relatively unknown: 18 volumes of Rediscovered Fiction by American Women: A Personal Selection (1977) which she carefully compiled and edited; and an edition of the letters of William James. These texts emphasize her range of mind, her breadth of interest and of knowledge. Anne Tyler has exclaimed that "Whatever her subject, Hardwick has a gift for coming up with descriptions so thoughtfully selected, so exactly right, that they strike the reader as inevitable."
Hardwick combines this intense critical scrutiny and what she herself has described as a "passion" for ideas with the roles of devoted mother to Harriet Lowell and of supportive wife to Robert Lowell (despite their divorce and his subsequent remarriage) until the last moments of his life, (when he died in a taxi returning with her to her apartment in New York City). She is most gracious still in answering the hundreds of questions about her more famous husband (winner of two Pulitzer Prizes for poetry), but in outliving him by two decades has surely influenced more writers, more often and more fully than he did.
Selected Letters of William James (edited by Hardwick, 1961).
Pinckney, D., "Elizabeth Hardwick" in Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews (1986).
CA (1969). CANR (1991). CLC (1980). DLB (1980). Modern American Women Writers (1991). WA.
Manchester Guardian Weekly (18 Sept. 1983). Nation (5 May 1945). NR (14 Feb. 1955). NYRB (24 September 1998). NYT (24 May 1983, 17 Aug. 1986). NYTBR (29 April 1979, 12 June 1983). Newsweek (30 May 1983). WPBW (29 May 1983).
—KATHLEEN BONANN MARSHALL