Review: ‘A Splendid Intelligence’, Elizabeth Hardwick’s life

On the shelf

‘A Splendid Intelligence: The Life of Elizabeth Hardwick’

By Cathy Curtis
Norton: 400 pages, $ 35

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The very idea of ​​a biography made the critic and novelist Elizabeth Hardwick anxious. In 1973, she wrote to the poet Elizabeth Bishop: “I can not tell you how I fear the future with biographies. … Fortunately, I’m dead before most of them come. “Opinion, analysis, may be unfair, but the reader has the right to suggest his own judgment and judgment the moment he reads – the other is simply a grant.”

This fear was hard earned. Hardwick’s ex-husband, Robert Lowell, acquired her personal letters during a period of alienation for her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of poems “The Dolphin”. This unauthorized act triggered a strong sense of insult and grief. It also had a lasting impact on her legacy. For too long, despite her great authorship and influence as the founder and frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books, Hardwick was best remembered as Mrs. Robert Lowell, immortalized through his skewed view of their marriage.

Compared to his other cultural critics Joan Didion and Susan Sontag, Hardwick enjoyed a more understated degree of success. She was a professor at Barnard College with less time and energy for celebrities or publishing books, and she more often concentrated her efforts on individual essays and critiques. Yet she was a force in American letters, which led Sontag to say, “I think she writes the most beautiful sentences, more beautiful sentences than any living American writer.”

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

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

(Teresa Miller)

A renewed interest in women from the end of the 20th century finally allows Hardwick’s reputation to catch up. A biography of Sontag from 2019 won Pulitzer; just last fall, Adrienne Rich was the subject of her first biography; Audre Lorde, whose non-fiction was recently republished, will be the subject of an upcoming biography. And with the release of Hardwick’s total essays in 2017, the 2019 release of “The Dolphin Letters” and an upcoming collection of unpublished essays, it’s an ideal time for a critical look at her legacy. Enter Cathy Curtis with “A Splendid Intelligence: The Life of Elizabeth Hardwick,” a biography whose disappointments often justify the subject’s skepticism of such endeavors.

Interestingly, the last book Hardwick published was a biography. She avoided a linear format for “Herman Melville” (2000), analyzing the novelist’s work in current chapters. Although her editor, James Atlas, called it “idiosyncratic,” two decades later it can keep up with biographies such as Imani Perry’s “Looking for Lorraine” (about Lorraine Hansberry) and Jenn Shapland’s “My Autobiography of Carson McCullers.” Imbued with cultural and often personal context, this newer breed of life studies often feels fresher than any sealing chronology could.

Compare these to Blake Bailey’s “Philip Roth”. Published this year and then withdrawn due to credible accusations against the author, it was an inflated failure for many reasons. But let’s focus on the hubris of a subject so obsessed with biography that he proposed to and rejected many cinemas before settling on one whose worship could not look beyond small personal struggles and sycophantic readings of his works. . Today, readers want a rigorous cinema whose job is not to flatter – or even out – the subject.

Alas, “A Splendid Intelligence” is not corrective in this sense. Curtis cuts close to a traditional format, keeping the cinema at a distance and taking on the role of an archivist presenting evidence on a timeline. Rather than be based on a fiery prologue that delineates Hardwick’s renewed importance as a refreshing writer through literary examples and personal accounts, Curtis quietly and predictably claims Hardwick’s place in 20th century American letters as a far more than a despised wife, immortalized by her own wrong words. .

This choice hits a strange defensive chord. Drawing immediate attention to her relationship with Lowell merely reinforces this connection. After reading her masterpieces, as well as “The Dolphin Letters,” I could think of countless moments that would speak more powerfully by example. Instead, Curtis moves from the brief introduction to a largely dry and linear chronicle of her life.

A black and white photo of Elizabeth Hardwick on the front of "An excellent intelligence," by Cathy Curtis.

Hardwick’s desire for biographical restraint rises as Curtis dutifully recounts Hardwick’s youth and the struggles of her early years in New York City. Domestic concerns and real estate resonate through close readings of Hardwick’s often autobiographical stories. The book builds momentum in line with Hardwick’s career, as her marriage to Lowell gains some magnetic inevitability. Lowell is Hardwick’s intellectual foil, and however stormy it may be, their relationship forced both spouses to stretch the boundaries of art.

While Lowell literally made art out of their correspondence, their separation forced Hardwick to make certain economic choices. Their divorce prompted her to commit to teaching again, staying in the United States and writing for a wider audience to make ends meet. The emotional impact of their breakup, meanwhile, caused her to take bolder risks in her books. Curtis’ respectable impulse to downplay the period prevents her from examining what brought Hardwick to this point in her marriage after Lowell’s infidelity and mental health interventions – and more importantly, what she was able to achieve after she broke up.

Where the biography rises significantly is its last chapter, rightly entitled “Literary Lion (1980-2007).” Here, Curtis reveals yet another layer of Hardwick’s achievements and demonstrates how many years of commitment gave the author influence in politics, literature, and academia. Former students (among others Sigrid Nunez, Mary Gordon and Susan Minot) as well as contemporaries step in to fill in a more vivid and complete picture of the author. A co-author confided in Curtis that Hardwick was not “interested in clear answers. It’s not about a statement that makes sense. It’s about all the 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.

(Castine Historical Society)

Elizabeth Hardwick and Robert Lowell in Mary McCarthy’s Garden, Castine, Maine, 1977.
Hardwick remains important because her literary eye rattled conventional perception. As careful and observant as her professional literature is, her fiction revealed subversive new insights into self-awareness and critical evaluation. Curtis was familiar with her work, her letters and many interviews. “A Splendid Intelligence” is an admirable work that fills a glaring void in 20th-century American literary landscape. Still, there is something in her project that calls for a less conventional approach.

Group biographies remove the overwhelming focus on the individual in a way that I think would meet Hardwick’s approval. Intuition and atmosphere, as well as collective influence, mean more than the exact details of a person’s life as a driving force at work. Saidiya Hartman’s groundbreaking “Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments” is striking, as is Mary Gabriel’s “Ninth Street Women”. Oddly enough, Curtis has written biographies on two of the topics in “Ninth Street Women” – Elaine de Kooning and Grace Hartigan. She is a writer committed to fighting for women who are underrated for their contributions.

Although it is unclear whether “A Splendid Intelligence” will draw new readers to Hardwick, it is a necessary and welcome biography that raises major questions about literary influence and the role of biography in literary prestige – even if it does not always answer them.

LeBlanc is the books’ columnist for Observer; she lives in Chapel Hill, NC

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