A Sense of Sensibility: On ‘The Collected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick’

October 19, 2017 | 3 books mentioned 5 min read


A review of Elizabeth Hardwick is almost obliged to begin with the following facts: (1) she was born in Kentucky in 1916 and moved to Manhattan in the early 1940s with the self-declared aim of becoming a “New York Jewish intellectual;” (2) in 1963, along with Barbara and Jason Epstein and Robert B. Silvers, she helped found The New York Review of Books; (3) for more than two decades she was married to the famous—and famously “confessional”—poet Robert Lowell. Notable though these facts may be, however, they are hardly the reasons why Hardwick’s writing continues to be read. As the 55 essays gathered in the new Collected Essays make clear, Hardwick was one of the most penetrating literary critics of her time. Whether she was writing about Henry James or Renata Adler, Edith Wharton or Joan Didion, “every assignment got Hardwick at full sail,” as Darryl Pinckney says in his introduction. She was a “writer’s writer” without question—a prose stylist par excellence.

Hardwick’s style is not for everyone. Her wit is subtle, her syntax sinuous, her learning deep, which is no doubt why her work is so seldom taught in the classroom. It is, in the best sense, un-teachable. “The essayist,” Hardwick once wrote, distinguishing him from the journalist, “does not stop to identify the common ground; he will not write, ‘Picasso, the great Spanish painter who lived long in France.’” Such refusal to stop and explain might easily be mistaken for snobbery today; Hardwick, however, saw it as a gesture of respect. She was not only a “writer’s writer,” she was also—silly though the phrase may be—a “reader’s writer.” She addressed her readers as equals, never wanting to bore them with what they already knew, or what, in the course of their reading, they would soon enough find out for themselves.

coverAlthough Hardwick often made her living at universities, she kept aloof from the specialized babel of scholarship. In the Collected Essays, one finds a wonderful absence of “arguments” and a plenitude of splendid sentences, alive to nuance and allergic to jargon. Hardwick has a bit of a reputation as a doyenne of the take-down review, and it’s true that she is very good at disparagement, especially of conventional biographers and biographies. (“Full-length biographies are a natural occupation for professors,” she writes in a blistering evaluation of Carlos Baker’s Ernest Hemingway: A Life, “for only they have the inclination to look at life as a sort of dig.”) But Hardwick is equally good at formulating praise, as in her passionate plea for the reprinting of Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children—a “genuine novel in the traditional meaning of the term…a story of life, faithfully plotted, clearly told, largely peopled with real souls.”

“Real souls” were important to Hardwick. In her essays, as in her fiction, she combined a poet’s sensitivity to language with a novelist’s attention to character. Her great gift was to convey a sense of her subjects’ sensibilities, sketching them in a few swift strokes. Consider the beginning of her essay “Frost in His Letters”:

Simplicity and vanity, independence and jealousy combined in Robert Frost’s character in such unexpected ways that one despairs of sorting them out. He is two picture puzzles perversely dumped into one box and, no matter how much you try, the leg will never go rightly with the arm, nor this brown eye with that green one.

The progression of images here is elegant. The phrase “sorting them out” leads straight to the image of “two picture puzzles,” implying the pictures have already been cut to pieces even before they’re further jumbled in a single, person-shaped box. And this imagery isn’t just so much verbal window dressing; it’s a prelude to the rest of the essay, which will proceed to pick up some of these pieces and examine them, without ever pretending to “solve” the puzzle that is Frost. For Hardwick, a real soul is a complex one.

This is partly why she so disliked “exhaustive” doorstop biographies, with all their endless endnotes filled with archival loot filched from “pharaonic tombs.” Her own approach to biographical matters was more circumspect and more artful. She could pen indelible portraits drawn from life, as in her recollection of her longtime acquaintance Edmund Wilson—“a cheerful, corpulent, chuckling gentleman, well-dressed in brown suits and double martinis.” But she could also conjure up writers she had never laid eyes on, drawing from their work and letters. Gertrude Stein, for example, is:

as sturdy as a turnip—the last resort of the starving, and native to the old world, as the dictionary has it. A tough root of some sort; and yet she is mesmerized and isolated, castlebound too, under the enchantments of her own devising.

No critic writes this way today. Few would have the chutzpah to rely so entirely on the power of metaphor and image. But to acknowledge this is not, for once, a matter of lamenting a lost midcentury literary milieu. Hardwick was a product of her time and place, yes, but she was herself possessed of a sensibility that set her apart even from her contemporaries. Her attunement to the art of the English sentence, together with her feeling for human character—her “thing about people,” as Pinckney calls it—made her a singular talent, and an enduring one.

Her enduringness may be all the more remarkable if one considers how many of her essays began as book reviews (an ephemeral form if ever there was one). Indeed, the Collected Essays lays special emphasis on Hardwick’s work as a reviewer. Its centerpiece would seem to be “The Decline of Book Reviewing” (1959), a spirited critique of the “malaise” and tepid praise to be found in the Sunday New York Times and Herald Tribune, and which served as a fillip to the founding of the NYRB. There are several “non-review” essays in this new volume: memoirs of Italy and Brazil, profiles of Maine and Boston, reflections on the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention and the Murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. But there are many dozens of pieces that Hardwick wrote—for venues as various as Granta and Home & Garden—that have never been collected and that are not collected here, largely for reasons of length. In Pinckney’s introduction, he modestly compares this Collected Essays to the “first Collected Works of most poets,” because “its existence invites a revised collected.”

For a Hardwick fanatic such as myself (who has stockpiled copies of nearly every scrap she ever published, down to a 1936 review in her college paper, The Kentucky Kernel), the absence of so many pieces seems to invite not so much another Collected Essays—one could hardly ask for a better one than Pinckney’s—but an Uncollected Essays, chosen to indicate the full range of Hardwick’s curiosity. Although she, for her part, may have regarded some of her magazine contributions as little more than pecuniary means to an end, she was just as impeccable when musing on Faye Dunaway, second-wave feminism, and grits soufflé as she was on Robert Frost or Gertrude Stein. If she took book reviews as occasions for essays more insightful than most scholarly monographs, she took even “puff pieces” as occasions for meditations far deeper, and more scrupulously composed, than the glossies perhaps knew what to do with.

But The Collected Essays is in no sense a provisional volume;  it’s an assemblage of essentials. Chronologically arranged as they are, these essays represent Hardwick’s intellectual autobiography, the stylish record of a reader steadily engaged by what T. S. Eliot called “the relations of literature—not to ‘life’ as something contrasted to literature, but to all the other activities, which, together with literature, are the components of life.” In Hardwick’s criticism, we discover nothing of the professor with her ax to grind or the peacock with her feathers to flaunt. We encounter an uncondescending intelligence, a humane sensibility, and a forthright independence of mind for which we, in our scatterbrained era, cannot be grateful enough.

is a writer, a translator, and the editor of Best European Fiction 2019. His translation of François-René de Chateaubriand's Memoirs from Beyond the Grave, 1768–1800 is forthcoming from NYRB Classics.

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