On Elizabeth Hardwick

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Elizabeth Hardwick, New York City, 1991; photograph by Dominique Nabokov

Elizabeth Hardwick, born in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1916, said that if she had to come from the South, she didn’t mind it being the Upper South, because even though a lot of nonsense about the Confederacy could be found in Kentucky as readily as anywhere else, for some reason when she was growing up, coming from a border state made her feel less complicit as a white person in the racial order all around her. She said she was probably as terrified as a black Northerner when in the Deep South, afraid that other white people might read her mind and discover her scorn for the exculpatory stories they in cotton country told themselves. She said that as distressing to her as the urban unrest and her fear of black militants in the Sixties had been, that was preferable to the way things used to be, having to pretend that black people did not exist, looking through them on the street.

And yet she herself could seem so Southern, in the captivating cadences of her speech, the brilliant charm of her manner. Her whole body was engaged when she got into the rhythm of her conversation. She touched her hair; she touched the arm of the person she was talking to; her hands conducted the music of the point she was making. When being ironic, mischievous, she rocked her shoulders like Louis Armstrong. She swayed with laughter—she had a most beautiful smile. She agreed that her dance was intended to disarm, a disguise she could hide behind so that she could get away with letting someone have it, really giving that person the once-over for the shortcomings of his or her argument. For Hardwick, the segregated South of her upbringing made for a weak argument, and she was at her most pleasantly cutting when holding forth, as she liked to describe it, about the white Southerner’s pretensions, particularly those associated with the old family silver and what she called the region’s “false Cavalierism.”

Elizabeth, the narrator of Hardwick’s acclaimed autobiographical novel, Sleepless Nights, published in 1979, reflects that her mother

had in many ways the nature of an exile, although her wanderings and displacements had been only in North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and Kentucky. I never knew anyone so little interested in memory, in ancestors, in records, in sweetened back-glancing sceneries, little adornments of pride. Sometimes she would mention with a puzzled frown The Annals of Tennessee, by her grandfather with the same name, but she had never read it.

In Hardwick’s New York home, a copy of The Annals of Tennessee to the End of the Eighteenth Century, by J.G.M. Ramsey, published in 1853, was stored on a closet shelf, left to hold its own against several volumes on the same shelf that had to do with the history of Robert Lowell’s family and the writing of Life Studies …

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