Elizabeth Hardwick (1916-2007) was born in Lexington, Kentucky, and educated at the University of Kentucky and Columbia University. A recipient of a Gold Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, she is the author of three novels, a biography of Herman Melville, and four collections of essays. She was a co-founder and advisory editor of The New York Review of Books and contributed more than one hundred reviews, articles, reflections, and letters to the magazine. NYRB Classics publishes Sleepless Nights, a novel, and Seduction and Betrayal, a study of women in literature.

On Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath, 1959; photograph by Rollie McKenna
In Sylvia Plath’s work and in her life the elements of pathology are so deeply rooted and so little resisted that one is disinclined to hope for general principles, sure origins, applications, or lessons. Her fate and her themes are hardly separate and both are singularly terrible. Her work is brutal, like the smash of a fist; and sometimes it is also mean in its feeling. Literary comparisons are possible, echoes vibrate occasionally, but to whom can she be compared in spirit, in content, in temperament?

Barbara Epstein (1928–2006)

Barbara Epstein, my friend and fellow editor for forty-three years, died on June 16. She did much to create The New York Review and she brought her remarkable intelligence and editorial skill to bear on everything that appeared in these pages. We publish here memoirs by some of the writers …

Susan Sontag (1933–2004)

Except in unusually desolating circumstances, human beings do not want to die. Medicines, hospitals, and so on are called upon to do what they can, and, that failing, there is not much to do except to surrender. It was otherwise with Susan Sontag, who fought death, challenged it. Her death …

Funny as a Crutch

Nathanael West (1903–1940) published four novels, wrote many screenplays, and left strewn about among his papers “Unpublished Writings and Fragments.” West had the masochist’s subtle attachment to his failures, a recognition which is, in its fashion, somehow self-affirming. He reports that the income from his first three novels was $780: …

Among the Savages

The Golovlyov Family, a novel from the late 1870s by the Russian writer M.E. Saltykov (pen name Shchedrin), is a curiosity of world literature in its relentless assault on the common sentiments of family life. The Golovlyovs, mother, father, three sons, and a daughter, live on their estate in the …

On ‘The Unpossessed’

The Unpossessed by Tess Slesinger is a daring, unique fiction, a wild, crowded comedy set in New York City in the 1930s.[^*] The inchoate, irrational, addictive metropolis, ever clamoring, brawling between its two somehow sluggish rivers, is a challenge to its citizens and to the novelist’s art. In the end, …

Pilgrim’s Progress

Sinclair Lewis, with a crumpled face, red hair, manic zest, and manic writing, came forth from Sauk Centre, Minnesota, the year of his birth, 1885. His father was a doctor and after the death of his mother he had a kind, ambitious, ever-onward stepmother. The young man was not a …

Celebrities

So many years at home, Lexington, Kentucky, heart of the Bluegrass, as we name it, to wrench it away from the Kentucky mountains with their hills scarred and rutted from ruthless strip mining for coal; the Anglo-Saxons or Scotch-Irish on the front porches; their songs with zithers and fiddles; bungalow …

The Foster Father

Catherine Sloper, in the clear, chilly masterpiece Washington Square, must explain to the handsome, corrupt fortune-hunter, Morris Townsend, that if she marries without her father’s consent, as she is willing to do, her own adequate fortune will not be augmented at the time of her father’s death. Dr. Sloper has …

The Torrents of Wolfe

On the matter of a manuscript written by Thomas Wolfe, we find his agent busy at work. I’ve been cutting like mad since it came and have got it down to ten thousand and a half by cutting very stringently. Thomas Wolfe, were he living today, would be a hundred …

Melville in Love

Herman Melville died in 1891 at the age of seventy-two. He was buried next to his son Malcolm in a cemetery in the Bronx. His death was marked negatively, as it were, by an absence of public ceremony; just another burial of an obscure New Yorker. This obscurity, or neglect, …

Far from Rome

J. F. Powers’s Morte D’Urban creates an American scene of striking individuality: Roman Catholic priests in a woebegone village in Minnesota.[^*] That is the general subject and setting, but the outstanding quality and vividness of the novel is in the composition, the mastery of detail, the wit of the teller, …

Head Over Heels

The shabby history of the United States in the last year can be laid at the door of three unsavory citizens. President Clinton: shallow, reckless, a blushing trimmer; Monica Lewinsky, aggressive, rouge-lipped exhibitionist; Judge Kenneth Starr, pale, obsessive Pharisee. There was collusion among back-country elected ayatollahs stoning the adulterers in …

Tru Confessions

Chatty, gossipy remembrances of the deplorable history of Truman Capote’s last years may be read, in some instances, as revenge or payment-due for the dead author’s assaultive portraits of friends and enemies, although few of the interlocutors can command Capote’s talent for the vicious, villainous, vituperative adjective. George Plimpton has …

On Murray Kempton (1917–1997)

For some years Murray Kempton lived, as I do, on West 67th Street in Manhattan and so he was not only a friend but a neighbor. Every day of his adult life Murray wrote, since he was a practicing journalist with nightly deadlines to be met. When he was not …

Paradise Lost

American Pastoral is Philip Roth’s twentieth work of fiction—an accretion of creative energy, a yearly, or almost, place at the starting line of a marathon. But his is a one-man sprint with the signatures, the gestures, the deep breathing, and the repetitiveness, sometimes, of an obsessive talent. Roth has his …

In the Wasteland

Joan Didion’s novels are a carefully designed frieze of the fracture and splinter in her characters’ comprehension of the world. To design a structure for the fadings and erasures of experience is an aesthetic challenge she tries to meet in a quite striking manner; the placement of sentences on the …

Family Values

Lyle and Erik Menendez, two furtive suburban churls, gunned down their parents in August 1989, almost seven years ago. The brothers were not arrested until six months after the murders; during the gap they had quite a good time spending the impressive bank account of their father, Jose Menendez, a …

Reckless People

From the stories in Richard Ford’s collection Rock Springs (1987): “This was not going to be a good day in Bobby’s life, that was clear, because he was headed to jail. He had written several bad checks, and before he could be sentenced for that he had robbed a convenience …

The Menendez Show

Court TV: December 23, 1993. Waiting for the verdicts in the trial of Lyle and Erik Menendez for the shotgun murders of their parents on August 20, 1989, in their Beverly Hills, California, house. A three-million-dollar “mansion” it was, to set the scene. The crime and the trial, as shown …

The Kennedy Scandals

The price of public life is the exposure of the follies, or worse, the disgraces of private life. Nothing new here—rumors, palace gossip, scandals whispered by the disaffected and the competitive, each sometimes adding false transgressions to a mountain of genuine turpitude. Macauley writes of the “libellers” who, not content …

Mary McCarthy in New York

Intellectual Memoirs: New York 1936–38.[^1] I look at the title of these vivid pages and calculate that Mary McCarthy was only twenty-four years old when the events of this period began. The pages are a continuation of the first volume, to which she gave the title How I Grew. Sometimes …

Wind from the Prairie

Roll along, Prairie Moon, Roll along, while I croon. Around World War I. writers from the American Middle Western states began to appear on the literary scene. In fiction, there were Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, and Sherwood Anderson, and also the three, known as the “Prairie Poets,” Carl Sandburg, …

On Washington Square

The James family came from New York State, the father having been born in Albany. Whether they are New Yorkers in the sense of the city is not altogether certain since they fled it early and did not like it much when they came back from time to time. Still …

Basic Englishing

Balderdash! Etc! (from Germinal by Emile Zola, translated by Leonard Tancock. Penguin Classics, 1954) ‘Strikes? Balderdash!’ ‘Another lot of balderdash!’ ‘Balderdash! They’ll never get anywhere with their poppycock!’ . . . ‘If I walked out today they would at once grant me the hundred and fifty, the artful buggers!’ ‘You …

Citizen Updike

John Updike, the dazzling author, appeared, and still appears, to be one of Augustine’s “fair and fit”—and never more so than when viewed among his male literary colleagues who often tend to show the lump and bump of gene, bad habits, the spread and paste of a lifetime spent taking …

Church Going

They sound forth their message, these New World, and yet not quite to be called new, Gospel evangelists of fame earned and infamy pictured on television, these persons of bold insignificance, masters of inconsequence and befuddlement and reiteration, and yet significant corporate reapers of the efflorescence arising from the spiritual …

Mrs. Wharton in New York

Edith Wharton was born in New York City in 1862 as Edith Newbold Jones. Her mother was a Rhinelander, one of the poor ones, or more accurately not quite one of the rich ones. Her paternal grandmother was a Schermerhorn. Thus the “Knickerbocker element” survived in her pedigree. These were …

The Fictions of America

(This paper was given at the Wheatland Conference on Literature in Washington, D.C., April 1987.) “Rien ne vous tue un homme comme d’être obligé de représenter un pays.” —Jacques Vaché, in a letter to André Breton, quoted as the frontis-piece by Julio Cortázar in Hopscotch Imaginative literature does not …