It is unfair to begin an essay on Elizabeth Hardwick with an instance of her cruelty; she was one of the fairest literary critics of her time, as well as the most elegant and humane. Yet the faintest hint of certain themes, overheard in a novel or play or the chatter of a cocktail party, could provoke her to astonishing acts of savagery. These themes included academics, politicians, youth cults playing at revolution, biographers, diarists, and, above all, marriage, with its unremitting and awful capacity to turn a woman into a wife. Consider the letter she sent to her friend Mary McCarthy in 1973, describing the husbands and wives at a writers’ residency in Italy:
Strangely torpid, aging academics from at home and [the] UK; sly, dead eyes, darting away from an idea; envious sighs, and as much intellectual vivacity as a woodchuck. And the wives, of all sizes, yet somehow one size in their heads! They mutter about typing His manuscripts, and they have not made one single demand upon themselves, whether of mind or body, and go forth without any effort or artifice as if they were dogs adopted by their professore. They are mostly kindly, but there is this thorough acceptance of their nature and they seem to have lived in a world without mirrors.
“It is a perturbation—the laziness of wives,” Hardwick pronounces, and her judgment, however unjust, makes visible, audible, and dramatic the figure of the wife. Like Frankenstein’s monster, she is a composite creature, “of all sizes, yet somehow one size.” Unlike him, she is sluggish, weak-willed; destined to travel from one side of the earth to the other and learn no more, live no more, than had she stayed at home. Her resignation, her obtuseness, her simple, secretarial concern for her husband’s manuscript—they represent the essence of all that is undesirable in intellectual and erotic life. But she is not without her powers. She wields the force appropriate to her tyrannized circumstances, the manipulations of “the dominant-dependent woman ruling by disguises and distortions, always on the alert to restrain the freedom of others, to create guilt,” Hardwick wrote. She called it “the revenge of wives.”
The letter to McCarthy is spiteful, petty, and vain. It is so shocking that it prompts a question that tends to arise when reading novels, not letters. Who is speaking here? No one would dispute that the letter was written by Elizabeth Hardwick, born in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1916; fifty-seven years old; a recent and embittered divorcée; the author of two novels and dozens of reviews and essays in The New York Review of Books, which she had cofounded with Robert Silvers and Barbara Epstein, among others, in 1963. Yet the voice that narrates it is the voice of another, tuned to some notion of “the ideal self,” as Hardwick described the distant and fantastic apparition who speaks from within a letter. Here the ideal self is everything the wife is not, all the qualities summoned, via negation, by her brutal dismissal. She is independent, disciplined, self-assertive, and mirthful; attentive to the pleasures of artifice yet penetrating in thought and feeling; passionate about collective life and its moral responsibilities; suspicious of power and those who covet it; persuasive in speech, and, when the occasion demands it, merciless in judgment. She is—as Hardwick was, until her death in 2007—the consummate critic.
It is the critic whose outrage courses through the letter, sneering and jeering from behind the wives’ backs, whistling at the professors’ scruffy, stubby-legged dogs to step lively now, to pick up the pace of their own lives. It is the critic who holds the mirror up, not just to the unseeing wives—may the scales fall from their eyes one day—but to the larger and more luminous world of literature. The mirror was the metaphor Hardwick reached for most often, though she never imagined the reflective quality of criticism, or any other genre of writing, as symmetrical or strictly mimetic. It was subversive. The critic made up her objects anew, drew lines and cast shadows over brightened surfaces, revealed the great patterns submerged below the petty details. Her eyes and ears, her mind, her heart, were pledged to the written word, more interesting in its variety and complexity than any single person could hope to be. Here, at last, was a union capable of withstanding boredom, triviality, fear, and constraint, in life as in the making of art.
Push the conceit a little further, and the responsibilities of the critic are clear. Her obligation is to her materials—to apprehend them faithfully, to represent them honestly, and to coax from fiction’s acting, speaking, and thinking beings those half-glimpsed truths of the human condition. Her resolve is strengthened by a stubborn, if short-lived, fidelity. Hardwick’s best essays attend with considerable energy to a single author, sensing that other critics paid for breadth, and for the grand pronouncements about the state of fiction that often accompanied it, with a certain shabbiness of thought. The “we”—invoked by couples and critics alike, and never more pointedly than in moments of insecurity—troubled her with its falseness, its unscrupulous and overbearing insistence on a single, shared vision. “I am not a law-giver,” she liked to assure people. She knew that the last thing anyone needed was more laws or people eager to enforce them.
Whether through intuition or experience or the acuteness of her sympathetic imagination, Hardwick understood that the expression of judgment was an act of persuasion, not coercion. The art of criticism turned on convincing readers that one’s judgment was not merely a permissible opinion but a universal truth. The best critics do not order or whine or throw long, baffling tantrums. They reason and qualify and defend. Occasionally, they do it with such a thoroughly integrated array of tactics—a splendid particularity of description, metaphor, and paraphrase; a casual fluency in the language of genre and form; a knowledge of literary theory, psychoanalysis, sociology, and history; an ear for irony; a gift for compassion—and with such unusual refinement that the reader may confuse the brisk and polished exercise of critical reason for the eccentricities of style or the operations of sensibility. This has been Hardwick’s fate so far, to be worshiped as a stylist. It is an unfortunate fate, in its way, but a fate she tempted for four decades in The New York Review, where she glided between her comically impertinent judgments—“Carlos Baker’s biography of Ernest Hemingway is bad news,” “Almost every idea or opinion in this book is a banality”—and her very precise justifications of them.
And her justifications, it must be stressed, were always historical, grounding the singular shape of a novel in the actualities and possibilities that gave rise to it. Hardwick wrote about history on various scales—the life of an author; the decades of the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s; the pre-war and postwar periods; the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—“as if history were a concert program, some long and some short selections, a few modern and the steady traditional,” she wrote. Whatever the length of the selection, she traced the same Yeatsian arc. A bourgeois social world that had once seemed so pleasantly and progressively arranged, with a logic and a purpose and a center that could hold, had dissipated into something “formless”: “A fearful gap, not only in generations, but in common sense, in ordinary understanding of the world about us, has opened up. And how can we face this, except with dread?” Unpredictability ruled the day. Suffering could no longer be treated as an obstacle to be overcome—the painful but well-proportioned middle of a story—but the yearly cost of living in a world without accountability. The injured and the insulted waited, first at the windows of their dirty lodgings, then in the streets, for a redemption that refused to come.
This is registered in her criticism by a split in the history of the novel. The nineteenth-century realist novel clutched at the moral and aesthetic powers of destiny, “the orderly sequence whereby the seed brings forth a crop of its kind,” as Hardwick liked to quote Silas Marner. Certain acts—auctioning off your wife and daughter, sheltering an escaped convict, sleeping with the local pastor, marrying a mole-speckled pedant with a sexually magnetic nephew, or, really, marrying anyone at all—were fateful, marking a character as profoundly and irrevocably as Odysseus’s scar. These acts transformed people into the protagonists of novels and set the wheels of plot turning. Mysteries were solved; misdeeds were punished; honesty and generosity were rewarded. As she explained in “Reflections on Fiction”:
Through a natural determinism, character and action came together, the intermingling of stories and destinies, of cause and effect, of crime and punishment, gave us most of the great novels of the English and European tradition. Environment, moral choice, defects of character, defaults of luck; these could be depended upon to lead to some plausible resolution.
Modern fiction did not simply break this promise; it flaunted its betrayal of the pact between history and narrative. Its protagonists—exiles, refugees, paranoiacs, picaros, queers, “divorcées, models, whores”—violated the pledge to be faithful to their former selves. The unsettling dramas of Henrik Ibsen and the “clear, chilly” monuments of Henry James, her two perpetually difficult, perpetually interesting loves, laid bare what the realist novel had repressed: the fractured nature of the self and its capacity for reinvention; the anxiety, fatigue, and loneliness compelled by the absence of origins and endings; the irony that made the fragility and the emptiness of the world bearable; and the realization, expressed with beautiful melancholy by Georg Lukács, that the soul was “wider and larger than the destinies which life has to offer it.” Or as Hardwick summed it up in one of her essays, “The self is insatiable.”
The novelist could valorize this insatiability as freedom or lament it as homelessness. Whichever way she chose to take it, it was how life was lived today, beyond the reach of a strange or unique destiny. The modern novel had to display “the mirror-image of a world gone out of joint,” Lukács wrote. Its art was an art of bewildering and irredeemable loss; an art of incongruity, pieced together from the innumerable shards and fragments of consciousness. In the novel’s once-silvered and now blistering glass, the act of thinking—merely thinking—about the past and its shattered relation to the present was both its event and its mystery. “It was June,” announces the narrator of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, before showing us Clarissa Dalloway in her room, searching the mirror for “her self” and finding a false, glittering idol, a reflection whose life belongs only to the present, to this fleeting moment, “pointed; dart-like; definite.” The lines chime through the opening sentences of Hardwick’s final novel, her masterpiece, Sleepless Nights (1979): “It is June. This is what I have decided to do with my life just now. I will do this work of transformed and even distorted memory and lead this life, the one I am leading today.”
What about her past? Her revisions and reinventions? Cathy Curtis’s new biography, A Splendid Intelligence: The Life of Elizabeth Hardwick, begins with an eyebrow-raising author’s note. “This biography of Elizabeth Hardwick includes only as much information about her famous husband,” Curtis writes, “as is necessary to tell the story of her life.” This is an exhilarating promise, carrying with it a whiff of naughtiness, of feminist insubordination. Perhaps he will be glimpsed aslant, in cutting asides and parentheticals, or better yet, in the footnotes. “The famous carry about with them a great weight of patriarchal baggage—the footnotes of their lives,” begins Hardwick’s essay “Wives and Mistresses.” Imagine a biographer wily enough to insist on misreading this statement, treating the famous one as the wife, and her husband as her weighty patriarchal baggage!
Yet Curtis disappoints immediately, with the appearance on the next page of a kind of thesis statement, blunt, earnest, and dutiful:
In this first biography of Elizabeth Hardwick, I seek to go beyond the glimpses that a famously private person revealed in her published writing to present a portrait of an exceptional woman who emerged from a long, troubled marriage with the clarity and wisdom that illuminate her brilliant novel Sleepless Nights.
The book that follows arranges the names, dates, and places of Hardwick’s life with a listless and clumsy workmanship; quotes her writing only to measure its likeness to her life; and is overwhelmingly, even slavishly, devoted to the vexatious, humiliating, and pitiable behavior of her famous husband. One wonders why Curtis chose a subject whose favorite topic was the myriad failures of biography. Why show such indifference to an essayist who hands reviewers the most lacerating sentences with which to flog biographers for their sins? For instance: “Biographies inevitably record the demeaning moments of malice and decline and have the effect of imprinting them upon the ninety years.” Or: “There is no doubt that this is ‘the material.’ But it is not an existence.”
The life, the existence, is best gleaned by reading her work and listening to the six extraordinary interviews Hardwick gave to David Farrell at the University of Kentucky from 1977 to 1980.1 Here is the ghost of the woman herself: the rich and disarming drawl, the frank bursts of laughter, the reverence with which she speaks of Eliot, Hardy, James, and Mann. Her voice is arresting, in part because the style of speech does not and could not match the style of her writing. Yet this is what Farrell wants from her—a performance whose poetry and romance rival those of the page, with plots and subplots and characters splashed with local color—and she amuses herself at his expense, with irony and forbearance. Confronting his questions, at times intelligent, at times obtuse, she creates and withholds herself. Could she describe what her parents looked like? “They looked just like other people.” What kind of clothes did they wear? “They wore ordinary clothes.” She thinks a moment and adds that her father “wore those kind of shoes that lace up.”
He retreats, chastened. Now it will cost her nothing to be courteous and to describe her childhood in Lexington with a little flair. She tells him that her father, Eugene, was a spirited man, handsome, gregarious, and exceptionally musical, a fine baritone-tenor who sang parlor songs when he walked to the fire station to play pinochle. Her weary, industrious mother, Mary, preferred the simple beauty of hymns, and on Sundays, if there weren’t floors that needed sweeping or windows that needed washing or children who needed tending, she would take all eleven of them to sing in the Presbyterian choir.
“Lizzie,” as they called her, was the eighth. She was raised to be thrifty and self-sufficient, it being her mother’s opinion that the two worst things a woman could do were go into debt and get married. The Hardwick girls were supposed to wear patched dresses and wait for the July sales on Main Street to buy new things. They were supposed to go to college and become schoolteachers. A poor, pragmatic upbringing is not ideal for the biographer who wants to put her young subject in touch with “glamour, fantasy, and illicit pleasure”—Curtis’s inflated description of downtown Lexington—but in the case of Hardwick, the drama seemed to emanate from within, from an elemental restlessness, a vigor, and a desire for sovereignty over her intellect and emotion, over money and everything it determined.
She was still living at home when she enrolled at the University of Kentucky in 1934. There was something as pure as water and utterly unabashed in her love of literature; she recalls, over forty years later, “the thrill of freshman English.” And it was, indeed, a thrilling moment in literary studies in America. New Criticism had diffused a strange, excitable air into Kentucky’s English Department. “T.S. Eliot had just made the seventeenth century sort of the thing,” she twangs. John Crowe Ransom, “a very elegant, refined, very complex man,” had come to Lexington to teach summer classes to high school English teachers. The writers she adored, the left-wing, anti-Stalinist critics of the Partisan Review, were leading the revival of interest in James and introducing readers to Kafka, rescuing American literary culture from the clutches of a feeble and decaying regionalism. The first play she remembered seeing, the “first knockout blow” delivered by art, was Ibsen’s Ghosts on a trip to Cincinnati during college. In this southern landscape, a seed was planted whose shoots would be “flowering to their fate,” she wrote of her adolescence. Looking back, she could see the beginnings of her disdain for provinciality, her fascination with “the history of now,” and her sense that literature was, in some oblique way, part of that history, but also a liberation from it.
In her essays on Kentucky these years have a sort of lost and squalid beauty to them, the sadness that comes from measuring the distance between now and then. What does it mean to be from Kentucky? What part of her has endured? “What can I answer except to say that I have been, according to my limits, always skeptical,” she writes, in a piece included in Uncollected Essays, a new volume of her criticism. Kentucky was horse races and tobacco farms and unblended whiskey:
It was Gratz Park and the Public Library, Morrison Chapel at Transylvania College, the John Hunt Morgan House, Dr. Buckner’s house, called Rose Hill, and surviving amidst the rusty oilcans of a filling station, backed by the peeling frames of poor people, a fine old garden facing an adjoining rectangle of old pipes, broken clothesline, Coke bottles, and the debris of hope—those unchurning washing machines, discarded toilet bowls, rusting tire rims.
The avarice with which the sentence hoards these details is heightened by their uselessness; they are worth nothing to anyone, now. This salvage yard of dreams—above all, the dream of a comfortable life for the poor people of the South—holds the clutter of her past, the autobiography of her people. But she is no longer the teenage girl who stopped at the filling station on her walk home. That girl can only be seen across a great distance, in the lovely decrepitude of her people’s old things. “The possessor must at last come to an end,” she wrote, “while the things live on in the mute, appealing obduracy of the inanimate. The decline of one and the endurance of the other is plot.”
The plot of her life would shift the story from the deprivations of many—this, after all, is only backdrop—to the fortunes of one. In college, she prided herself on the distance she kept from group life and its clannish sentiments. She hated sororities, loathed student journalism, found the very idea of athletics ludicrous. “What did you do?” Farrell pleads, sounding irritated and demoralized by her contempt for extracurricular activities. “I talked. I drank,” she cackles. “I drank a lot of whiskey.” When the war began, she rode the Greyhound to New York to start a graduate degree in English literature at Columbia. She found the professors appallingly “conventional”—dried little sticks of men who wouldn’t lift a finger to help place a woman in a tolerable professorship in a tolerable city. “There wasn’t much point in getting a Ph.D.,” she says, “because women did not get very good jobs.” Twice she left the city to go back to Lexington for the summer, and on her second visit she was so determined to avoid studying for her general exams that she wrote a novel instead. She threw it away—“It wasn’t very good,” she says—then wrote another, The Ghostly Lover, which was published in 1945.
The Ghostly Lover is artful and unpleasant, claustrophobic, and more gratifying to think about than pleasurable to read. It marks the beginning of Hardwick’s talent as an intimate, nearly metaphysical portraitist. Here, for instance, is sixteen-year-old Marian Coleman by her porch in Kentucky—“Of course that’s me,” Hardwick tells Farrell—looking at the older man who will seduce her:
She looked squarely at his face. It was relaxed and had fallen into its purest shape. The face was like that of a baby who had grown into full manhood with a beard and lines, but still retained the child’s lack of pain and indecision. It was a face of the present, a startling face that seemed to have reached some ultimate static stage. It was remotely arrogant and cruel.
It is a curiously incorporeal description—no eye or hair color, only metaphor and atmosphere—worthless for the sketch artist but ideal for the judge of character. Already, the man’s sins have risen to the surface of his flesh. The beginning and the end of his relationship with Marian—her vulnerability, his betrayal of her, his callousness—flash like “white lightning, a flash that spread, and spread again, and stayed,” as James would have it.
The chilly, abstracted nature of the description raises the same question as the letter to McCarthy did. Who is speaking here? For while Marian is the one looking, her perception is filtered through layer after layer of reflection by the narrator, whose foreknowledge seals Marian’s fate as tightly as the tomb of some unfortunate fairy-tale princess. So effaced, the narrator lingers everywhere, passing judgment: behind the “alert, trigger-set, dry and scorched eyes” of Hattie, Marian’s maid, for whom “the people of the world were perpetually in a state of indecent exposure”; behind the mask-like face of Marian’s brother Albert, “sharp, lithe, and curious as a glistening dagger” among the “slow-eyed people” at a cockfight; beneath the harsh glare of Marian’s mother, Lucy, who belonged to that “special category: a wife.”
The compression of story through point of view is useful for a certain kind of critic, who, short on space and patience, must assess a writer’s life and work in three or four piercing sentences. But this tactic lends The Ghostly Lover the same airless, frozen, and cruel quality as the man’s face. It is as if the characters, modeled to perfection and glazed by the narrator’s moral judgments, have nowhere to go and nothing left to do. Here is a novel that is not only bereft of plot but fatal to its characters’ vitality. There is no life in it; no voice, save the all-knowing voice of the critic, straining to free herself from the constraints of fiction.
Was it this voice that compelled Philip Rahv, the editor of Partisan Review, to believe that Hardwick would make a good reviewer? The letter he wrote to her after reading The Ghostly Lover most likely reached her at the Hotel Schuyler on West 45th Street, where she and a friend had rented an apartment after she left Columbia. They worked odd jobs, scraping together enough money to live in sleazy glamour, surrounded by
a nettling thicket of drunks, actors, gamblers, waiters, people who slept all day in their graying underwear and gave off a far from fresh odor when they dressed in their brown suits and brown snap-brim hats for the evening’s inchoate activities.
She wrote short stories for little magazines and copy for a “crummy publishing company,” whose books left not a single mark on her memory. She taught literature to cloistered debutantes at a “horrible Southern academy” in a “gray stone house” on Riverside Drive, its stately beauty diminished by its dull, frivolous inhabitants. “But it was history, wasn’t it?” she wondered, recalling how she “worried a great deal about ‘disgrace’: about pregnancy, promiscuity, gossip, mistakes.”
“The Family”—the name that Rahv and his fellow New York intellectuals gave themselves—took her in. They assigned her Partisan Review’s monthly Fiction Chronicle and published her famous and scathing review of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. They saved her from the tepid ooze of middlebrow publishing and the indignities of teaching high school, waved away her quaint notions of disgrace and downfall and fate. From the beginning, her role in the Family was defined by what they believed she was destined never to be: a wife. “There weren’t many women in it,” she tells Farrell, who points out that wives did not seem to be considered part of the Family. In a voice edged with pride and uncommon prejudice, she recalls the lordly parties that Rahv threw for the critics to discuss art and politics. “You didn’t do anything,” she qualifies. “You just talked all the time. It was all ideas. But nobody ever addressed a word to a wife. They just sat there like stuffed dummies.”
Farrell wonders why they bothered coming at all. “Well, you can’t leave your wife at home,” Hardwick replies, shocked. “Unless you just get so fed up she must stay.” And the literary critic Diana Trilling? “Did you consider her a wife?” “I still do,” she laughs, a malicious laugh.
There is a deep, almost punitive irony in the fact that she met her famous husband in the Rahvs’ living room in 1947. Later, he wrote a poem titled “Man and Wife,” which seemed at once to commemorate and to mourn the occasion. Farrell recites part of it to her:
You were in your twenties, and I,
once hand on glass
and heart in mouth,
outdrank the Rahvs in the heat
of Greenwich Village, fainting at your feet—
too boiled and shy
and poker-faced to make a pass,
while the shrill verve
of your invective scorched the traditional South.
“He wasn’t fainting at my feet. That was hyperbole,” she remarks, very dry and a little wistful. She encountered him casually here and there, then more fatefully at Yaddo in early 1949, where he, “handsome, magnetic, rich, wild with excitement about his powers,” had deigned to consort with lesser beings. “What were you doing there?” Farrell asks, rather stupidly. “Just what we were all doing up there—just writing!” she exclaims. But the man was not doing what they were all doing. He was helping to whip up an FBI investigation into Yaddo’s subversive director instead of writing poems. Later, he drove across the country to harangue friends and assault policemen outside movie theaters. She kept him company during what she calls his “flights”—a word she utters with muffled tenderness—and what his psychiatrists would diagnose as “his struggle with bipolarity.” They were married that summer, after he was released from Baldpate Hospital, a name so absurd even Dickens could not have dreamed it up.
“My husband,” she calls him. “My own husband.” It comes as a shock to realize that, at the time of the first interview, her husband, the poet Robert Lowell, had been dead for only a month, and that at the time of his death, he had not been her husband for five years. Meekly, Farrell tells her he thinks she was very brave to “take on Lowell” after he had been released from the hospital. Her words are perfectly deflating. “Well, he got over it,” she says. Farrell does not seem to have the courage to contradict her. “A lot of other people have been willing to forbear also,” she laughs, trying to rescue herself from the humiliation of his compliment by crushing it with the humiliation of her husband’s affairs.
Had Hardwick derailed the plot of her life by becoming a wife? Well, not exactly; she merely had diverted it onto another track, a rickety and unfinished one. She and Lowell spent the first three years of their marriage wheeling around Europe, seeking a reason for their self-imposed exile. The essays in Partisan Review that bear the marks of these years preserve the fears and the possibilities of tearing away from one’s place of origin—the freedom of solitude, the guilt of indolence, the intense, irreconcilable pull of both the new and the familiar. “The expatriate sometimes suffers painfully from the dread of losing touch with the world he has left but towards which he looks back…with all the tart ambivalence of the injured lover,” she wrote in “Living in Italy.” “It is, after all, the fickle, abandoned country for which the exile writes his books.” And the sense of history in Europe was deeper, more sobering, than what America had to offer. In Vienna, the opera house rose like a jewel box amid the rubble of the war. In Amsterdam, the air was cold and sorrowful, but the life they lived, with little money and endless conversation about the Old Masters, was “marvelous.” (In the background—his flights.)
When they returned to America in 1953, it was without settling into it. Boston, where they lived on and off until 1960, “isn’t particularly good for women,” she informs Farrell, who suggests that her description of the city (in her 1959 essay “Boston”) as “wrinkled, spindly-legged, depleted of nearly all her spiritual and cutaneous oils, provincial, self-esteeming” may have offended Bostonians. “Only fools identify themselves with a place,” she laughs. “Who cares?” They spent a year in Iowa City, where her husband taught at the esteemed writing workshop. Of the essays she started drafting there, it is “George Eliot’s Husband” that contains the most optimistic hints of the connubial life she imagined. Eliot and her husband were
inconceivable as anything except what they were, two writers, brilliant and utterly literary. They led the literary life from morning to midnight, working, reading, correcting proofs, traveling, entertaining, receiving and writing letters, planning literary projects, worrying, doubting their powers, experiencing a delicious hypochondria. The Brownings, the Webbs, the Garnetts, the Carlyles, Leonard and Virginia Woolf, Middleton Murray and Katherine Mansfield—the literary couple is a peculiar English domestic manufacture, useful no doubt in a country with difficult winters. Before the bright fire at tea-time, we can see these high-strung men and women clinging together, their inky fingers touching.
Might the list of couples end one day with “the Lowells”? The university made this fantasy hard to sustain, despite its difficult winters and her bad nerves. “I was present as the wife of a teacher,” she recalled in the bitter afterword to her second novel, The Simple Truth (1955), which she wrote when she could not get a job teaching because the university refused to hire wives, she claimed. (In the background—his flights. A return to Boston. A move to New York.)
The Simple Truth prolonged the Jamesian spell that had gripped her since her college years, but in a popular genre: the true-crime novel, a useful vessel for a twentieth-century writer thirsting for the eventfulness of nineteenth-century sensational fiction. “There is beauty to be torn out of the event, the suicide, the murder case, the prize fight,” she later wrote in “Grub Street: New York.” “Real life is presented as if it were fiction. The concreteness of fact is made suggestive, shadowy, symbolical.” While the writers attracted to true crime—Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, William Styron—planted themselves at the center of the excitement, as an obstinate and “vividly experiencing ‘I,’” she stayed in the shadows of the third person in The Simple Truth.
The book’s murder trial was based on one she followed closely during her time in Iowa. It comes into focus through the affable eyes of Joseph Parks, a writer who haunts the courthouse while his wife, Doris, bleaches the kitchen, puzzling “over the way to be both a housewife and a ‘free person.’” With the impressionability and the heartlessness of youth, they create a fiction out of the unrequited love the murderer, Rudy Peck, nursed for his victim, Betty Jane Henderson. But when Joseph meets Anita, a shy, middle-aged, professor’s wife, spouting a “loose and generalized Freudianism” in the visitor’s gallery, she becomes his confidante and the analyst of his fictions.
Fiction and its interpretation tempt Joe away from the uncertainty, the poverty, and the banality of his life into snobbish speculations about intention and consciousness, about psychological and sociological explanations for why human beings hurt one another. Doris, hearing her husband on the phone to Anita, chooses simply to ignore it all: she “put another cigarette in her black-and-white holder. A single cool tear clung pleasantly to her eyelashes.” This single cool tear is a sphere of beautiful unfeeling. In its reflection lurks the danger of transforming real people into fictional characters and putting them through the paces of scandal. It makes them easy to weep over and easy to forget.
In her essays, Hardwick reproved and indulged the temptation to fictionalize. How could she help it? Between the person and the page lies the prism of fiction, always. No genre can avoid it. Even criticism, if it is to speak of the lives and works of the dead, must bring the dead to life—the words of the past distilled in the words of the present. The only reprieve comes from retreating into generalities, speaking of archetypes and myths rather than individuals. Through the 1950s and 1960s, she wrote of “the American woman as snow-queen” and “the Turks, with their scarecrows in colored rags doing all the work in the fields.” Dylan Thomas was not a person but “the charming young man of great gifts, wilfully going down to ruin. He was Hart Crane, Poe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, the stuff of which history is made.” Robert Frost “was his own stereotype.”
The current ran in the opposite direction too; writing about fiction presented her with a repository of characters and tropes to help make sense of reality, to yoke the past to the present. Her pieces on the obliterated hopes of the civil rights movement, dispatches from Selma and Memphis, from Chicago and Los Angeles, remain in thrall to novels. This gives them a distant, unreal quality, a sense that they have been observed by a presence hovering high above the action rather than a reporter with her feet on the ground. Martin Luther King Jr.’s solitary evangelism recalls Adam Bede, when “Dinah preaches that Jesus came down from Heaven to tell the good news about God to the poor.” The scorched southern countryside
inevitably brings to mind flamboyant adjectives and images from Faulkner. Immemorial, doomed streets, policed by the Snopeses and Peter Grimms, alleys worn thin in the sleepless pursuit of a thousand Joe Christmases.
Neither “the Southern Negroes” nor “the white people” are made of flesh and blood, but ideas and symbols; it is startling to realize that not a single proper name, except for those of the heroes and the villains, appears in these essays.
(In the background—a daughter, Harriet, born in 1957, whose “smiles were, in Sylvia Plath’s phrase, ‘found money,’” and whose privacy Hardwick guarded with ferocious love. A summer home in Castine, Maine, “where man and nature are one, or seem to be,” she wrote, perplexed by the state’s immunity to change. And his flights, leaving her to raise the child by herself for long stretches of time.)
How does marriage matter for criticism? This is an embarrassing question.
It is, however, the correct one to ask of Hardwick’s writing in the 1970s. What does it mean to be married for a long time, for twenty or thirty or forty years? Nothing, perhaps. “You’re never really a married person,” she informs Farrell. Anyone who claims to be one is pretending, for if marriage teaches you anything, it is how “alone one always is,” she says. “This is just common experience.” A person, a wife, does not need to suffer what Hardwick suffered to know it.
But betrayal added injury to injury. She is reticent when Farrell brings up the end of her marriage. The record of it is already public, in the poems her husband wrote about leaving her for a woman he met while on a fellowship at Oxford, altering and embedding snippets from the letters she sent him while he was having the affair.2 The letters trace a too-familiar plot: the deception and devastation of the wife. He praises the loveliness of the countryside, pretending that he is tucked away among the dreaming spires, when he plays house with his mistress in some charming London square. Hardwick is his housekeeper, his bookkeeper, his child-minder, his archivist, his frantic and destitute secretary. “I have been absolutely overwhelmed with all this,” she writes, “the taxes, insurances, houses, studies, papers, schools organized, mail answered, things turned down.” Over her side of the correspondence, which, in her husband’s words, “veers from frantic affection to frantic abuse,” there hangs a blackened cloud of dramatic irony. The reader of the letters is forced into the wrenching position of the friend who knows before the wife does.
But the plot has a twist, or maybe another change of track: the appearance of the critic, the possessor of an achieved, enjoyed, and triumphant life. Until that point, “I wasn’t very conscious of Elizabeth Hardwick,” she tells Farrell. “It’s been a kind of an accumulation of a little bit of reputation”; “I didn’t write so terribly much.” Everyone is vulnerable to projection, and I cannot help thinking that, in her letter to McCarthy, she unleashed the voice of the critic in all its severity on the wife she had been. In doing so, she revealed the strange structural correspondence between the critic and the mistress; to their great relief, they are both not the wife. They gain their dazzle from her blindness, their verve from her complacency.
Most of all, the freedom they represent—the freedom to create anew, to judge without obligation—is sweetened by the debt the wife extracts. “This is the unspoken contract of a wife and her works,” Hardwick wrote. “In the long run wives are to be paid in a peculiar coin—consideration for their feelings.” Yet the true tragedy of the wife was not her betrayal by her husband but her failure to create for herself an enduring structure, a form, that assisted and protected her. “In the end what strikes one as the greatest personal loss,” she observed of the life of Jane Carlyle, among others, “is that the work could not truly build for the women a bulwark against the sufferings of neglect and the humiliations of lovelessness.”
If, in marriage, there is a triangle that matters for criticism, it is the shifting allegiances among the wife, the critic, and the mistress. This is the immanent logic (and sometimes the theme) of much of the criticism Hardwick wrote in the 1970s: “Sue and Arabella,” “Sense of the Present,” “Domestic Manners,” “Wives and Mistresses,” the essays gathered in Seduction and Betrayal, the occasional pieces on women for Mademoiselle and Vogue. They are not personal essays. She never strayed from her anti-confessional ethic, never abandoned her belief in reticence or her contempt for writers who made art by betraying the secrets of those they had loved.
Yet the mist of impersonality occasionally parts, and never more dramatically than when she passes judgment on characters. There is a hint of her in Jude the Obscure’s Sue, who is as original in her “intellectual alienation”—“Sue thinks,” she insists—as Arabella, “the hard, needy, shackling” wife, is conventional. She reveals herself more openly in her discussion of The Kreutzer Sonata. Her description of Countess Sonya Tolstoy, destroyed by her husband’s portrait of her in his novella, lurches into free-floating generalities: “An adjutant, wracked by drama, brilliant in her arias; and then awakening to uncertainty, shame.”
But Hardwick must have tired of hiding behind the third person, hitching her love and her anger to remote figures and veiled judgments. Sleepless Nights is often described as an autobiographical novel, a memoir, or only “half fiction,” a mongrel breed. It is easy to dwell on the signs of real life—Kentucky, the Hotel Schuyler, the letters to friends the narrator signs “Elizabeth,” the intimation of a recent divorce. “I was then a ‘we,’” the narrator recalls. “Husband-wife: not a new move to be discovered in that strong classical tradition.” “Can it be that I am the subject?” she asks, contemplating the pose of a then-typical female protagonist: the middle-aged divorcée, the newly single woman in New York City. Or could it be that the subject is not a singular person, a self whose interior life broadens and deepens over the course of a predestined plot? What if the subject is a pattern, a structure? The pattern is easy to recognize in Sleepless Nights—this is a novel of the unwived, seeking and receiving acknowledgment, assistance, and a sense of dignity. To tell the story of the unwived is a new move in the tradition that also moved Hardwick away from it.
The unwived are not only women. They are bachelors and queers and utterly unmarriageable Marxists. They are widowers, unwived in a sadder sense of the term. They are the poor, the immolated, the estranged; characters who belong to no one, who have no families and no novels to call home. Yet those who have read Sleepless Nights recognize the women as afflicted old friends, visitors from the narrator’s childhood and adolescence, showing up unexpectedly at her doorstep. Here are Judith, Marie, Juanita, Simone, and Billie Holiday, “because never was any woman less a wife.” Without protest, they submit to the narrator’s gaze, to the cool tenderness of her style. Age and care do not fall away. They are exalted. Here is Miss Cramer, her old neighbor, roaming the street on a bitter December morning:
Miss Cramer in winter in a dress of printed silk, soiled here and there with a new pattern of damage. She is wearing torn canvas shoes and no stockings to cover her bruised, discolored legs, nothing to help the poor naked ankles caked with barnacles of dirt.
She meets another solitary traveler:
She approaches an appalling wreck of great individuality, a black woman who wanders in and out of the neighborhood, covers the streets with purposeful speed. No one has ever seen the black woman’s mouth, since the whole lower part of her face is always bound tight with a sort of turban of woolen cloth. Fear of germs, disfigurement, or symbol of silence?
From these wrecks of individuality rises a collective subject, grotesque almost to grandeur. “They are gladiators, creatures of the trenches,” Hardwick writes. They do not speak to one another, do not disclose anything of themselves. Their mouths remain shut and bound. But the novel recognizes and reflects them both, as it does all the unwived. It honors their terrible, decadent freedom. “Beauty formed out of negatives,” the narrator thinks. A whole formed out of the scattered and shattered selves of history.
Gathering and arranging and scrutinizing the unwived with a “prying sympathy,” the narrator reveals herself obliquely in the pattern she creates. “I love to be known by those I care for,” she thinks in the novel’s final sentences. “Public assistance, beautiful phrase.” The phrase appeared around twenty years earlier, in Hardwick’s essay “The Insulted and Injured: Books About Poverty”: “I think I read recently that before many years have passed it is expected that nearly half the residents of Manhattan will be living on public assistance.” But by the time Hardwick started writing Sleepless Nights, social welfare was as much a thing of the past as the promise of happily ever after. The ruins of marriage smolder in the ruins of the welfare state. In the middle stands the critic turned novelist, though it should be clear that the distance between these identities has, by now, dwindled. She does not patronize. She does not prophesy. She does not look down at her subjects from her perch of omniscience. She shares in their defacement. In her hands, the novel emerges as a form of public assistance, dispersed without expectation of recompense, without judgment of “sloth and recurrent mistakes.”
When Sleepless Nights was published, McCarthy sent a letter to Hardwick praising her achievement. She went on to explain that she had not anticipated how Hardwick would deal with the huge fact of her famous husband:
It didn’t occur to me that you could do it simply by leaving him out. That’s a brilliant technical stroke but proves to be much more than that: he becomes a sort of black hole in outer space, to be filled in ad lib, which is poetic justice; he’s condemned by the form to non-existence—you couldn’t do that in a conventional autobiography.
The poor, unwived beauties of Sleepless Nights are ringed around this black hole—call it the husband, call it the state—like mirrors placed on opposite walls. In their reflections flash the eyes of the critic, who has retrieved from the darkness the miracle of pure style and the model of communal history. McCarthy was right to conclude that the husband had been condemned to nonexistence. But she had failed to grasp the full force of her observation. Where he went, the wife was sure to follow, nipping at the heel.
For more on that correspondence, see Langdon Hammer’s review in these pages of The Dolphin Letters, 1970–1979: Elizabeth Hardwick, Robert Lowell, and Their Circle, edited by Saskia Hamilton, December 19, 2019. ↩