WORLD-OBITS-L ArchivesArchiver > WORLD-OBITS > 2007-12 > 1197203754
From: "Peter McCrae" <>
Subject: [W-OBITS] HARDWICK: Elizabeth Bruce Hardwick
Date: Sun, 9 Dec 2007 12:35:54 -0000
Last Updated: 3:01am GMT 06/12/2007
Elizabeth Hardwick, who died on Sunday aged 91, was a critic, essayist,
co-founder of the New York Review of Books and long-suffering second wife of
the poet Robert Lowell.
Elizabeth Hardwick: born a Protestant, her aim
was to be a New York Jewish intellectual
The eighth of 11 children of a plumbing and heating contractor, Elizabeth
Bruce Hardwick was born at Lexington, Kentucky, on July 27 1916 and educated
at Henry Clay High School, Lexington, and at the University of Kentucky.
There she joined, but quickly left, the Communist Party and conceived an
unusual ambition for a well brought-up Protestant girl: "My aim was to be a
New York Jewish intellectual," she explained to an interviewer in 1979.
After leaving Kentucky she began working for a doctorate on 17th-century
English literature at Columbia University in New York and soon established
herself as part of a fast-living intellectual and literary crowd in which
the talk was, as Diana Trilling recalled, "incessantly about sex, sex and
more sex, with particular emphasis on adultery". In her own
semi-autobiographical novel Sleepless Nights (1979), Elizabeth Hardwick
evoked a life of "love and alcohol and clothes on the floor".
She never did finish the doctorate, but in the 1940s she began writing
essays and reviews for the Partisan Review, a radical social affairs and
literary quarterly co-edited by Philip Rahv and William Phillips.
Phillips recalled that she made herself a "master of the slashing critical
style of the politicised, literary intellectuals"; she ranged from reviews
of plays, novels and non-fiction to essays about literature and current
affairs. She also began writing novels and short stories, one of which,
People on a Roller Coaster, won a literary award in 1945.
Joan Didion observed that, as an essayist, Elizabeth Hardwick was drawn to
"women adrift" who "indulge a fatal preference for men of bad character".
This was something in which she became rather an expert after her marriage
in 1949 to the poet Robert Lowell, whom she first met at a party given by
Philip Rahv, when Lowell was in the process of extracting himself, messily,
from his first marriage to the novelist Jean Stafford.
The marriage was turbulent from the start. Lowell suffered from bouts of
manic depression which usually manifested themselves in infidelities,
followed by heavily-drugged periods of incarceration in mental hospitals.
Though she suffered torment, Elizabeth Hardwick was remarkably tolerant of
her husband's wayward behaviour - until 1970 when, on a visiting
professorship at Oxford, he began an affair with Lady Caroline Blackwood.
His wife's patience finally snapped.
As the lawyers set to work (Lowell lost all his posessions apart from 15
books and his grandfather's gold watch), Lowell exposed their bitter
relationship to public view in sonnets in which he quoted (and, where it
suited his purposes, misquoted) his wife's furious letters and phone calls.
When the poems were published in a collection, The Dolphin, one critic
described the book as "one of the most vindictive and mean-spirited acts in
the history of poetry".
Lowell described their relationship as one of "unending nervous strife, as
though a bear had married a greyhound" (though it was unclear which was
which). Even so, Elizabeth Hardwick insisted that she felt her marriage was
the "best thing" that had ever happened to her, and when Lowell died in a
New York taxi cab in 1977, he was on his way back to her after leaving
It was Lowell who put up the initial funding for the New York Review of
Books. The idea was conceived in 1962 over dinner with the publishers Jason
and Barbara Epstein, during a newspaper strike in New York City. The
publication was launched the following year with a declaration that no time
would be wasted on books "trivial in their intentions or venal in their
effects, except occasionally to reduce a temporarily inflated reputation or
call attention to a fraud".
Though she never edited the publication, as "editorial adviser" Elizabeth
Hardwick had a huge influence on its style and content, helping to build it
into one of America's most respected literary journals. She was, as Jason
Epstein said later, "a presiding sensibility whom everyone wished to
Elizabeth Hardwick wrote frequently for the new publication under her own
name and, when she was being mischievous, under the byline Xavier Prynne. It
was as Prynne that she penned The Gang (a parody of The Group, Mary
McCarthy's satire of upper-class life in New England), in which Hardwick's
heroine, after being deflowered on a floral divan, reflects that "Mother
would somehow have minded the odious couch more than the event".
As Mary McCarthy was herself a frequent contributor to the Review, it is
hardly suprising that it acquired a somewhat incestuous and cliquey
reputation. Saul Bellow renamed it "The New York Review of Each Others'
No doubt inspired by her own experience, Elizabeth Hardwick became an
eloquent and intelligent champion of such tortured female literary icons as
Sylvia Plath, Dorothy Wordsworth, Zelda Fitzgerald and the Bront sisters,
brilliantly analysing how women writers have compensated through their
writing for their sense of psychological and social inferiority.
Though she held forceful views on the role of women in society, she was not
really a "feminist writer"; she had too much critical intelligence to
subscribe to any ideological manifesto and preferred reasoned argument to
Elizabeth Hardwick sat on many literary committees and juries where, though
she was an effective advocate of writers she admired, she could be
witheringly haughty to those who disagreed with her.
Her essays were published over the years in four volumes: A View of My Own
(1962); Seduction and Betrayal: Women and Literature (1974); Bartleby in
Manhattan and Other Essays (1983); and Sight Readings: American Fiction
(1998). Her writings won numerous awards over the years, though reviews of
her three novels - The Ghostly Lover (1945), The Simple Truth (1955) and
Sleepless Nights (1979) - were mixed.
She continued to write until late in life, and in 2000 published a brief but
well-received biography of Herman Melville - part of the Penguin Lives
series. During the 1960s and 1970s she taught creative writing at Barnard
She is survived by a daughter.
|[W-OBITS] HARDWICK: Elizabeth Bruce Hardwick by "Peter McCrae" <>|