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. Being interesting does.
Seduction and Betrayal – New York Review Books
The novel was uneven, but the prose, if not the photo, landed Hardwick at the desk of Philip Rahv, editor of the Partisan Review. Hardwick became and remained a domestic writer. Her best subject was American literature. The feminine lack is one of experience, adventure, ventures undertaken at personal risk, without which there would be no Herman Melville, no Arthur Rimbaud. 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.
I hasten to shudder.
She is such a good writer. I also hasten to furnish her for company a review. She had the last word. 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 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. 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.
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.
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. 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. It may have annoyed. 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.
I care that Hardwick spent her life loving Melville and made her study of him, published in , 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. All differences of excellence, of position, of form are blurred by the slumberous acceptance. The blur eases good and bad alike, the conventional and the odd, so that it finally appears that the author like the reviewer really does not have a position.
Like them, she approached criticism artistically, metaphorically.
CONTINUE TO BILLING/PAYMENT
On every page of this book you will be reminded that Elizabeth Hardwick was not simply a great critic but a great writer. This distinction matters. Bartleby is not a character in the manner of the usual, imaginative, fictional construction.
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And he is not a character as we know them in life, with their bundling bustle of details, their suits and ties and felt hats, their love affairs surreptitious or binding, family albums, psychological justifications dragging like a little wagon along the highway of experience. We might say he is a destiny, without interruptions, revisions, second chances. Bartleby has no plot in his present existence, and we would not wish to imagine subplots for his already lived years.
He is indeed only words, wonderful words, and very few of them. I find this passage astonishing. She is writing as a creator herself, sharing in the language of literary creation, and all the while still managing to perform the task of the critic. She published her first novel, The Ghostly Lover , in and shortly afterward was enlisted by Philip Rahv to pen book reviews for Partisan Review , where she quickly gained a reputation for her acerbic, cutting style. In she married the poet Robert Lowell, a decision that would shape her life for decades to come.
They were engaged while Lowell, who suffered from bipolar disorder, was recuperating from electric shock treatment in a hospital north of Boston.
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But even these warnings could not have prepared Hardwick for the mental breakdowns and momentary break-ups, the impulsive infidelities and public indiscretions she would suffer through for the next odd years. Though she suffered greatly, Hardwick maintained that marrying Lowell was one of the best things that had ever happened to her.
Seduction and Betrayal was a challenge to precisely such notions: the romantic view that women writers are either victims or heroines or both. Though Hardwick achieved her greatest success in with Sleepless Nights , a much-admired collage-like quasi-novel, the compressed density of her style was always more suited to literary essay, which may be why it was the genre she remained most faithful to. In sheer size alone, The Collected Essays , which spans six decades and pages, is a testament to the happy union between author and form.