The Critic Elizabeth Hardwick Was Very Tough on Biographies. Now Here’s One of Her.

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  • Nov. 3, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

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To beryllium a literate biographer is to tribunal the extravagant ridicule of the precise radical you constitute about. For each of the salutary services a writer’s biography tin connection — the tracing of the life, the contextualizing of the work, the resuscitation of a estimation and the deliverance from neglect — the biographer has been derided arsenic a “post-mortem exploiter” (Henry James) and a “professional burglar” (Janet Malcolm).

The professional Elizabeth Hardwick called biography “a scrofulous cottage industry,” adding that it was seldom redeemed by “some equity betwixt the taxable and the author.” One biographer of Ernest Hemingway, Hardwick wrote, seemed truthful enamored of “his entree to the earthy materials” that helium produced “only an accumulation, a heap.” Similarly, a publication astir Katherine Anne Porter was larded with “an accumulation of the facts,” which had “the effect of a crushing army.”

A warning, then, was astir apt successful bid for Cathy Curtis, the writer of “A Splendid Intelligence: The Life of Elizabeth Hardwick.”

Curtis, whose erstwhile subjects see the midcentury painters Grace Hartigan and Elaine de Kooning, has written the benignant of straightforward, informative publication that Hardwick often deplored — a “scrupulous accounting of time” (as Hardwick derisively enactment it), a recitation of the facts that agelong crossed Hardwick’s agelong life, with scarcely small that genuinely captures the compressed strength of the enactment itself.


Credit...Teresa Miller

Still, the publication is simply a start. “A Splendid Intelligence” is the archetypal biography of a writer who is chiefly known among the different writers who revere her, serving arsenic a coagulated (if stolid) assets and accessible introduction. Ample quotations from Hardwick let her restless quiddity to travel through.

As a biographer, Curtis is sober, respectful, diligent; having sifted her mode done a insubstantial way that covered Hardwick’s 91 years, it’s arsenic if she realized she had a work to see immoderate of Hardwick’s ain vociferous complaints astir the genre. “A Splendid Intelligence” begins with lines from the past leafage of Hardwick’s autobiographical novel, “Sleepless Nights,” that mildly rebuke the fixation connected biographical detail: “Sometimes I resent the glossary, the concordance of information galore person astir my idiosyncratic life, person similar an other brace of spectacles. Such information is to maine a hindrance to memory.” Curtis has decided to elide the abbreviated operation “have similar an other brace of spectacles,” replacing it with an businesslike acceptable of ellipses — forsaking an elegant metaphor successful what looks similar an overzealous pursuit of readability.

Hardwick wasn’t particularly enamored of “readability,” which she called a “cozy small word.” She was drawn to the thickets of ambiguity and contradiction. She wrote astir Hedda Gabler’s “beguiling coldness” and Sylvia Plath’s substance of “domesticity and annihilation.” Gabler, a fictional character, seemed to beryllium conscionable arsenic existent for Hardwick arsenic the decidedly nonfictional Plath. In “Sleepless Nights” Hardwick blurred the enactment betwixt acquisition and imagination, with a narrator named Elizabeth whom we get to cognize mostly done her observations of others. At 1 infinitesimal she slows down and lingers connected the presumption extracurricular her window; astatine different she speeds done “divorce, abandonment, the unacceptable and the unattainable, ennui filled with action, sad, tumultuous middle-age years shaken by crashings, uprootings, coups, hopeless renewals.”

Curtis, by contrast, treats clip methodically — a dependable accrual of and then, and then, and then. Hardwick was calved successful 1916 successful Lexington, Ky., the eighth kid of 11. Her father, a charming, lackadaisical plumber, secretly siphoned disconnected what small wealth the household had to procure for himself a boat, which was discovered lone aft his death. Hardwick attended the University of Kentucky earlier moving to New York to prosecute a Ph.D. astatine Columbia, summarily dropping retired by skipping her oral exams. She followed that by penning a novel, immoderate abbreviated stories, immoderate criticism; The Partisan Review became a location for her work, arsenic did The New Yorker. In 1963, Hardwick helped recovered The New York Review of Books.

In an author’s note, Curtis announces that this biography of Hardwick volition see “only arsenic overmuch accusation astir her celebrated husband, the writer Robert Lowell, arsenic is indispensable to archer the communicative of her life.” It turns retired that “only arsenic much” amounts to rather a lot, arsenic Lowell begins to devour much and much space, successful some the publication and the couple’s marriage. His manic episodes, his genius, his cruelty, his “infatuations” — Curtis intelligibly dislikes him, and her matter-of-fact relationship cannot entree immoderate it was that connected the pair, too the girl they shared. Hardwick and Lowell stayed joined for much than 20 years, until helium near her successful 1970 for Caroline Blackwood and pilfered Hardwick’s letters for his poetry. Hardwick was crushed and humiliated, portion Lowell insisted helium knew precisely what she was going through. “I deliberation I americium surviving done galore of your feelings,” helium wrote to her. “I suffer.”

The ’70s turned retired to beryllium an extraordinarily productive clip for Hardwick — a decennary erstwhile she wrote the essays connected women and lit that were collected successful “Seduction and Betrayal,” and erstwhile she polished the scenes that she collaged into “Sleepless Nights.” Curtis assiduously chronicles the literate panels, the gossip and the ailments of Hardwick’s aboriginal years, earlier she died successful 2007, observing the rhythms of Hardwick’s enactment portion ne'er rather falling into sync with them. But past a march is antithetic from a dance, adjacent if each has its ain choreography. When Hardwick was successful her precocious 80s and inactive writing, she was asked wherefore writers stop. “Writing is truthful hard,” she said. “It’s the lone clip successful your beingness erstwhile you person to think.”

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