Review: “A Splendid Intelligence”, the life of Elizabeth Hardwick


On the bookshelf

‘Splendid Intelligence: The Life of Elizabeth Hardwick’

By Cathy Curtis
Norton: 400 pages, $ 35

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The mere thought of the biography made critic and novelist Elizabeth Hardwick anxious. In 1973, she wrote to poet Elizabeth Bishop: “I cannot tell you how much I dread the future with biographies. … Luckily, I’ll be dead before most of them arrive. … Opinion, analysis, may be unfair but the reader has the right to offer his own estimation and judgment as he reads – the other is only an appropriation.

This apprehension was hard won. Hardwick’s ex-husband Robert Lowell appropriated his personal letters during a period of estrangement for his Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of poems “The Dolphin”. This unauthorized act triggered a strong sense of violation and grief. It also had a lasting impact on his legacy. For too long, despite her prodigious writing and influence as founder and frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books, Hardwick is best remembered as Mrs. Robert Lowell, immortalized by her distorted view of their marriage.

Compared to fellow cultural critics Joan Didion and Susan Sontag, Hardwick has enjoyed more low-key success. She was a professor at Barnard College with less time and energy for fame or book publishing, more often focusing her efforts on individual essays and reviews. Still, she was a force in American letters, prompting Sontag to declare, “I think she writes the finest sentences, finer sentences than any living American writer.”

Cathy Curtis, author of “A Splendid Intelligence: The Life of Elizabeth Hardwick”.

(Teresa Miller)

A revival of interest in women at the end of the 20th century finally allows Hardwick’s reputation to catch up with this assessment. A 2019 biography of Sontag won the Pulitzer; last fall, Adrienne Rich was the subject of her first biography; Audre Lorde, whose non-fiction has just been reissued, will be the subject of a future biography. And with the publication of Hardwick’s collected essays in 2017, the 2019 release of “The letters of the dolphin”And an upcoming collection of unpublished essays, this is an ideal time for a critical look at his legacy. Enter Cathy Curtis with “Splendid Intelligence: The Life of Elizabeth Hardwick, ”a biography whose disappointments often justify her subject’s skepticism of such efforts.

Interestingly enough, the last book published by Hardwick was a biography. She avoided a linear format for “Herman Melville” (2000), analyzing the work of the novelist in topical chapters. Although his editor, James Atlas, called him “idiosyncratic”, two decades later he could be in good company with biographies such as that of Imani Perry “In search of Lorraine”(On Lorraine Hansberry) and“ My Autobiography of Carson McCullers ”by Jenn Shapland. Infused with a cultural and often personal context, this new breed of life study often seems fresher than any laborious timeline.

Compare them with Blake Bailey’s “Philip Roth”. Published this year and then withdrawn due to credible allegations against its author, it was an exaggerated failure for many reasons. But let’s focus on the pride of a subject so obsessed with biography that he wooed and rejected many biographers before settling on one whose worship could not see beyond small personal battles and sycophantic readings of his works. Today’s readers want a rigorous biographer whose job it is not to flatter – or flatten – the subject.

Alas, “A Splendid Intelligence” is not a corrective in this sense. Curtis closely follows a traditional format, keeping the biographer out of the way, taking on the role of an archivist who presents evidence on a timeline. Rather than embarking on a flamboyant prologue describing Hardwick’s renewed importance as an invigorating writer through literary examples and personal narratives, Curtis calmly and predictably asserts Hardwick’s place in 20th century American letters. as someone more than a despised wife, immortalized by her own devious words. .

This choice strikes a strangely defensive agreement. Drawing immediate attention to her relationship with Lowell only strengthens that association. After reading his major works, as well as “The Dolphin Letters”, I could think of countless moments that would speak more powerfully by example. Instead, Curtis goes from this brief introduction to a largely dry, linear chronicle of his life.

A black and white photo of Elizabeth Hardwick on the cover of "A Splendid Intelligence," by Cathy Curtis.

Hardwick’s desire for biographical restraint looms as Curtis dutifully recounts Hardwick’s youth and the struggles of his early years in New York City. Domestic and real estate concerns find an echo in careful readings of Hardwick’s often autobiographical stories. The book gains momentum in tandem with Hardwick’s career as his marriage to Lowell takes on some magnetic inevitability. Lowell is Hardwick’s intellectual foil and, tumultuous as it may be, their relationship forced the couple to push the boundaries of art.

While Lowell made their correspondence a literal art, their separation forced Hardwick to make certain economic choices. Their divorce prompted her to re-engage in teaching, to stay in the United States, and to write for a wider audience in order to make ends meet. The emotional impact of their breakup, meanwhile, prompted her to take bolder risks. in his books. Curtis’ respectable impulse to downplay the importance of the period prevents him from examining what brought Hardwick to this point in his marriage after Lowell’s infidelities and mental health interventions – and, more importantly, what brought Hardwick to this point in his marriage. that she was able to accomplish after going wild.

Where the biography picks up considerably is its last chapter, aptly titled “Literary Lion (1980-2007)”. Here, Curtis reveals another layer of Hardwick’s accomplishments, demonstrating how years of commitment have enabled the author to influence politics, literature, and academia. Former students (Sigrid Nunez, Mary Gordon and Susan Minot, among others), as well as contemporaries, intervene to paint a more lively and complete picture of the writer. A fellow author told Curtis that Hardwick was not “interested in straightforward answers. This is not a statement that will make sense of things. These are all statements that question the truth of things.

Elizabeth Hardwick and Robert Lowell in Mary McCarthy's Garden, Castine, Maine, 1977.

Elizabeth Hardwick and Robert Lowell in Mary McCarthy’s Garden, Castine, Maine, 1977.

(Historical Society of Castine)

Elizabeth Hardwick and Robert Lowell in Mary McCarthy’s Garden, Castine, Maine, 1977.
Hardwick remains important because his literary eye has shaken conventional perception. As meticulous and observant as his non-fiction is, his fiction has revealed new subversive perspectives on self-awareness and critical appraisal. Curtis knew about his work, his letters and many interviews. “A Splendid Intelligence” is an admirable work that fills a glaring void in the American literary landscape of the 20th century. Still, there is something about his project that calls for a less conventional approach.

Group biographies do away with the overwhelming emphasis on the individual in a way that I think would meet with Hardwick’s approval. Intuition and atmosphere, as well as the collective impact, matters more than the exact details of a person’s life as a driving force in the work. The inauguration of Saidiya Hartman “Capricious lives, Beautiful Experiments ”comes to mind, as does“ Ninth Street Women ”by Mary Gabriel. Oddly enough, Curtis wrote biographies of two of the subjects of “Ninth Street Women” – Elaine de Kooning and Grace Hartigan. She is a writer committed to championing underrated women for their contributions.

Although it is not clear whether “A Splendid Intelligence” will attract new readers to Hardwick, it is a necessary and welcome biography, raising broader questions about literary influence and the role of biography in literary prestige – though not always answered.

LeBlanc is the book columnist for Observer; she lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina


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