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This review is taken from PN Review 264, Volume 48 Number 4, March - April 2022.

Cover of A Splendid Intelligence: The Life of Elizabeth Hardwick
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Cathy Curtis, A Splendid Intelligence: The Life of Elizabeth Hardwick (Norton) £25.00
As a writer, Elizabeth Hardwick (1916–2007) showed an impressive critical intelligence, her work stylish, experimental – and tough. She was married to Robert Lowell from 1949 to 1972, a recurrently traumatic experience given his bipolar episodes, which she handled with courage and dignity. Their marriage also promoted her career and influenced its thematic concerns.

After a Kentucky childhood and time spent at the universities of Kentucky and Columbia, Hardwick dropped her studies to concentrate on a writing career in fiction and criticism. Eventually she found her way into the circle of the anti-Stalinist left Partisan Review, and went on to co-found The New York Review of Books in 1963. Her pieces on literary, social and cultural subjects have most recently re-appeared in The Collected Essays (2017). There were also short stories, three novels (the last, the admired Sleepless Nights) and a biography of Herman Melville.

The essays are Hardwick’s most enduring work. When in admiration – on Margaret Fuller, Simone Weil, Billie Holiday, for instance – she wrote with memorable subtlety. Of William James, whose letters she edited, she offered: ‘An equable, successful man is not the ideal subject for portraiture, perhaps, but in the case of William James there is something more: a certain unwillingness to take form, a nature remaining open to suggestion and revision.’

Alternatively, Hardwick could be ruthless: on the ‘sluggishness’ of book sections, on theatre and contemporary authors (including fellow Southerners, Faulkner and Capote). Even her close friend Mary McCarthy suffered a merciless parody. Later, making amends, she could not resist ...

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