Dr Jess Cotton

Everybody’s Autobiography

A review of Splendid Intelligence: The Life of Elizabeth Hardwick by Cathy Curtis (W. W. Norton & Company, 2022)

Elizabeth Hardwick saw biography as an undesirable side effect of literary history. It is not an irony that she was one of its most astute critics in the decades when biography came into its own as a literary industry. Biographies could, she believed, be ‘careful and fair minded’ (Delmore Schwartz); she concedes that ‘there have been outstanding biographies in our time, works of unremitting scholarly labor that add to our knowledge’ (Edmund Wilson); she critiques the ‘scrupulous accounting’ which ‘makes a long life out of a short one’, not incidentally mythologizing a woman’s life over her literary achievement (Simone Weil or Sylvia Plath); she was most against biographical writing that sublimates life into fiction: which reads ‘“the life of” as precisely her life’ (Katherine Anne Porter). The trouble with biography as a form, as she saw it, is its easy relation to factuality, its impulse to include: ‘the biographer proceeds’, she writes, ‘as if under oath “to the best of my knowledge.’”
            For Hardwick, ‘to the best of my knowledge’ was shorthand for mediocrity, as she would have defined much liberal journalism written in the US in the middle decades of the twentieth century. She held herself to higher standards: she put words together with a subversive matter-of-factness that has the thrill of words doing something different from what they have done before. Hardwick recognises this process as violent – ‘essays are aggressive’, she writes, ‘even if the mind from which they come is fair, humane, and when it is to the point, disinterested,’ a violence that is commensurate with the intensified shriek of reality that she heard all around her. To say, as critics have, that Hardwick – and the other female writers she is often grouped with: Joan Didion, Mary McCarthy, or Susan Sontag – that she is merely a cool customer (or ‘tough enough’ in Deborah Nelson’s phrase) misses the point. Her ability to make words quiver as she puts ideas under a microscope has nothing to do with what Hardwick calls the ‘restless and predatory engagement’ that has ‘established its imperial mandate under the phrase “new journalism”’ and everything to do with wrenching language back from the bloodless flow of mediatic information that curdles before it sets.
            Sleepless Nights (1979), a novel that is not advisable to read before her biography, opens the life that biography contains. It proceeds, not by documentation, but as memory does, erratically and uncertainly. It is part of a wave of literary work published in New York in the 1970s that finds a way to narrate – to use Gertrude Stein’s phrase – ‘everybody’s autobiography’, which is to say, it tells a history of post-war America that is sceptical of private life – of the privacy of memory, giving memory back to those who ‘wander about in their dreadful freedom like old oxen left behind, totally unprovided for’ – which is to say, women – that was the risk, Hardwick knew, in undertaking a literary enterprise as a woman, without family wealth to fall back on, in the 1940s. She never lets out of her sight the ‘cleaning women with unfair diseases’, ‘old spinsters,’ ‘solitary music teacher,’ those who have known ‘the scales of disappointment’, ‘the store clerks and waitresses’ – the lives that are written before they are lived, or not written at all.
            ‘Splinters of memory that seem to have been personal’ is as close as one might get to a revelation – confessions are for Bostonians, Hardwick might well have said. If the greatest crime of a biography is to treat its subject as a fiction, fiction is where we go, Hardwick saw, to speak the strange shape of a life. ‘People do not live their biographies’, she writes factually once, but imaginatively time and again; lives are made out of words, not events, she tells us in sentences that are as unlikely as a chance hurricane. Sleepless Nights is a thin miracle of a book: its unfolding, its weather – its scrapbook of memories, reflections, wishes, and dreams – is not wish fulfilment, but that harder thing to come by – the acknowledgement of wish fulfilment gone awry. History looks stranger told from the side lines: thus, halfway through we read (this is the texture of the narrator’s memory) of a transcendentalist family in Kentucky who had learnt about Soviet communism and ‘felt the trembles of conversion’.

Kentucky University, Lexington in 1916, the year of Hardwick’s birth

How did a woman born into a modest family in Lexington, Kentucky come to write astonishing essays on the post-war intellectual scene that unfurl with the most thrilling compression? Is this biography’s question to answer? Is it a question to answer at all? The South, seen from the angle of the New York intellectuals who published in the Partisan Review, is one answer. A graduate student of English literature at the University of Kentucky in the 1930s, when the first wave of European émigrés and the emergence of student unions transformed the university (Hardwick once said she wanted to be a Jewish intellectual) is another. But neither entirely explain Hardwick who wanted to write interesting (not merely interesting, as Sianne Ngai might have it) sentences, but interesting as the kind of thinking that transforms what might be seen. Interesting was Hardwick’s watchword, and she also wielded it as an indicator of literary value, wrenching the saccharine liberalism out of sentences that might be easily digested in the pages of the New Yorker. That she came to write for it was simply a pragmatic response to times that were tough. The toughness of the times was Hardwick’s moral compass – she had seen poverty, and having seen it, never chose to unsee it.
            Oblique, aslant was not only where she felt most comfortable but where she could see most clearly – and, from this vantage point, exposed the blind spots that plagued other writers of her generation: objectivity, after all, is no kind of analysis. It was also this understanding of poverty that made her one of the best witnesses to the racially charged events of the Civil Rights period: she did not hide behind the supposed neutrality of the witness, but wrestled with the events from the report and the story. She saw racial tension as erupting in particular geographic architecture: Selma, Alabama, where a ‘group of Southerners has only the nothingness of racist preoccupation, the burning incoherence’; Los Angeles, a city where ‘the past resides in old cars, five years old, if anywhere’, where freedom bubbles up in the molten newness of its formation – promising the change that American history had trampled on elsewhere. In ‘After Watts’, she lends the riots a grandeur, a historical trajectory: ‘riots were a way to enter history, to create a past, to give form by destruction’. Few, certainly few white people, wrote on racial tensions with such clarity, without liberal niceties; she writes the complexity forestalled by the report. 
            The granddaughter of an ardent confederate, Hardwick knew how the South, and America, is produced in the imagination and how the idea of being on the right side of history is a fiction that one might cling to at great expense – especially as a journalist. Thus, she narrates, without commentary, how a relative of hers visited a department store the day that an African American man was hung and, in the absence of the operator, fell down the elevator shaft ‘suffering ghastly damage to her body and her mind’. How much is contained in a sentence that asks its reader to make what they will of the simultaneity of those events. The narrator (for that seems what we might call the essayist here) is far from indifferent: like Mary McCarthy, Hardwick saw that one would have to hold the authority of the I to account before you could go about admonishing anyone else. See too, in her review of Richard Wright’s Black Boy – ‘to be a Negro in America is a full time job’. Here we learn that a Marxist close reading might get you closer to the truth than a structural one; or rather, that close reading is structural.
            Without a biography of Hardwick, we might not have known that it was precisely this reading that she honed in a class (A+) for the New Critical scholar and writer John Crewe Ransom whose class in contemporary poetry she took at the University of Kentucky, a reminder that the best sentences produced in the post-war essay began in the university classroom (elsewhere her wilful idiosyncrasy would guarantee her an A-) – as Didion would herself acknowledge in the talks she gave at Berkeley. In ‘Grub Street, New York’, Hardwick’s essay on political and literary stagnation in New York in the 1960s, her concern is the failure of James Baldwin’s long, astonishing article ‘Letter From a Region in My Mind’ to leave its mark – a fault not of the writer but of its liberal audience, or, more precisely, the publication. ‘Whatever white people do not know about Negroes’, Baldwin writes, ‘reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves’. In the middle of Hardwick’s essay, she gives us a character sketch of a man, ‘A South American […] one of those whom struggle had drained dry’ who had ‘arrived, by hideously hard work, at an overwhelming pedantry, a bachelorish violence of self-control.’ It is not an essay that could have been published in the pages of the New Yorker.
            Several fictional letters in Sleepless Nights are addressed to McCarthy (the ideal reader, undoubtedly) – a voice that could almost break apart a sentence as interestingly as Hardwick herself, if she was less committed to entertainment, to being understood, to being Mary McCarthy. McCarthy’s character – gregarious, unflinching, charming – and her past – Catholic, rural, orphaned young – readily lends itself to the memoir form. As Hardwick writes in one of her essays on her friend, ‘it is autobiography that Mary McCarthy excels – that is of course, if one uses the word in its loosest and largest sense’. Hardwick eschewed memoir for fiction – though her fiction would never stray far from her life. Her first novel The Ghostly Lover (1945) – like the novel that followed it The Simple Truth (1954) – is marked by an intelligence that values not character development but atmosphere and quietness, a voice so quietly perceptive that it barely wants to be heard. Privacy here has nothing to do with its legal definition and everything to do with attention. Early on in Sleepless Nights, the narrator, finding her form, asks ‘Can it be that I am the subject?’
            Here is the outline, then, of the subject: Hardwick was born to a large Protestant family in Lexington, Kentucky in 1916. In an early short story ‘Evenings at Home’, she recalls returning to Lexington from New York (which she did frequently after finishing her studies at Columbia University to write fiction) and finding it nothing like her ‘analysis of all them, pacing again in some amazement, the ugly, angry, damp alleys I think of as my inheritance’. It is the opposite of mythologizing the family romance: she holds herself to account for the restlessness of her analysis, a strange objectivity that strays from reality. She did not blind herself to the truth, to brutalise a Didion phrase, that we tell ourselves stories of the past in order to live. It is this analysis, and the checking of it (also a signature of McCarthy’s work) that makes her an astute writer of the South – as she is, too, of New York, Boston, Maine, Amsterdam, or Brasilia. ‘I am not sorry to have grown up in Lexington, so long as I didn’t have to stay there forever,’ she tells Hilton Als in 1998. ‘I remember the streets, the drugstores, Woolworth’s, the mad preachers in front of the courthouse saying things like “Christ don’t care about cute, remember that, folks”’.
            Of parents, we learn from the narrator of Sleepless Nights: ‘My mother lived as a girl in so many North Carolina towns they are confused in my memory. It was as if she did not know who she was.’ Of the father we get a brief sketch: hard-working, political in the general sense, an early riser, who Hardwick recalls listening on the radio to the fall of Madrid and the signing of the Munich pact. Her father does not, however, make it into the novel. Too much of a literary character, she has no interest, fictionally, in him. The South was another world, bleached with routine prejudice; it was also a space, more particularly, in Hardwick’s imagination of poverty that was ingrained in everything she wrote. ‘Failure is not funny’, she observes in ‘Grub Street New York’. ‘It is cockroaches on the service elevator, old men in carpet slippers waiting anxiously by the mail slots in the lobby, neighbourhood walks where the shops, graphs of consumption, show only a clutter of broken vases, strings of cracked beads, dirty feathers.’ She knew with uncanny accuracy and skill how the weight of one word bears on another, and in this weight the balance of her politics lies. It was, of course, quite natural that she should write her own biographical study of Melville towards the end of her career; to muse over the protagonist – Bartleby – who refused the very framework of the terms on offer to him.
            It is nothing if not an intimidating feat to write a biography of Hardwick. Curtis’s study nonetheless merits the insights that Hardwick would give to Wilson’s biographer: ‘composed with a refinement of style and judgment that honor the subject and give pleasure to the reader’. In the face of so many caveats on biographical writing, she treads carefully, does her research judiciously, and writes with the kind of transparency that is not a false comfort but the attention that comes from the careful labour of methodically undertaking research without stuffing a book with extraneous material. Curtis is for the most part off scene (only at rare moments does her voice assert itself into an interpretation) so that Hardwick is spared the speculations that Benjamin Moser makes of Sontag’s work. There are not many archival or first-hand revelations for one familiar with the work (Hardwick’s daughter Harriet refused to speak to Curtis, fittingly perhaps – Hardwick did not think highly of oral history as a biographical mode) but there is something of value in having a life’s work to hand. And, more importantly, she turns out a sentence that would not look out of place in a Hardwick essay. Thus, we find on Lexington: ‘It was a neighbourhood of chance juxtapositions made permanent by inertia’; on Hardwick’s upbringing: ‘A Southern woman who didn’t fit the Southern sensibility, Elizabeth’s origins were both a form of sustenance and a trial’. “How can you be from here, and think like you do?” people would ask.’
            To say that Curtis does a superior job in her quietness might seem like a back-handed compliment, and a gendered one at that, but the biography attends closely enough to Hardwick’s voice to weave a narrative about her work together and to situate it within contemporary developments in American letters: thus, we learn that the New York Review of Books was founded during the newspaper strike by the New York Typographical Union from December 8,, 1962 to March 31, 1963: it seems unthinkable now that there was no news published in New York for three months. The result is a smoothly written and attentive biography that is more interested, fortunately, in the work than the life, which maps the life judiciously and consistently and does not speculate where information does not readily offer itself. Coherence is after all a more reliable guide than showy takes and Hardwick thus has no need to tremble unnecessarily in her grave.
            The trouble with biography as a form is that it might be used as both confirmation and contradiction of a writer’s convictions: thus, we learn that Hardwick broke up with a boyfriend when she found out that his father was a coal mine owner (‘I felt they were murders. He didn’t like me much either’). We also find out that Hardwick blindly went along with Robert Lowell’s witch hunt against Elizabeth Ames, the director of Yaddo, the retreat for artists in Saratoga Springs where the couple met in 1948, on the grounds of tainting Yaddo with subversive ideas. As Curtis notes, she was, innocent. The biography necessarily devotes much space to Lowell, who emerges at least as no less abusive than he has in other accounts. Reading the biography, I wondered how far one might go in the service of privacy and write a biography at all. Are privacy and biography compatible projects? Would it have been too much, too experimental a wish (or too naively radically feminist), for Lowell not to have appeared at all?
            In The Ghostly Lover Hardwick revisits her childhood hometown through the perspective of its protagonist, Marian, who struggles to make a life for herself outside of the bounds of marriage – the final pages grapple with what is at stake in leaving the family form behind. But it is also, more subtly, a novel about Hattie, the African American maid in her grandmothers’ home who knows more than can be spoken of in the novel – and which Marian will have to leave the home, the town to learn for herself. In The Simple Truth, the campus novel and crime novel blur in a murder trial that shows a slowly unravelling middle America. Too reticent to make the story take on the melodrama of a Greek tragedy – to subject the accused to the kind of rigorous logic that Janet Malcolm might have done – Hardwick focuses her attention on two spectators in the crowd – as she herself was, having followed Lowell to Iowa City, and watched the Tuxedo murder case, from the side lines, with interest. In another era, and in other hands, the story would have lent itself to long-form journalism, but motivation interests Hardwick far less than the particular climate of the university town. ‘A large university in a small town in agricultural country is a lesson of some sort’, Hardwick notes in the afterword – of the ‘tribal responses – they might be called – of the 1950s, the time of action’ – of ‘certain inchoate grounds of partisanship that attached themselves to a pitiful, small-town murder’ which make ‘their own comment upon the distance between suffering and speculating’. Eager to read Sontag’s book on photography on its publication in the late 1970s, it was this question that preoccupied her throughout her career – which is some part of a life.
            There is a young, contemporary generation of critics whose prose has a shiny, acerbic quality to it (it is, after all, still difficult to be a woman, to have one’s voice heard) who show all the signs of having entered the world of letters via an Ivy League education and having read Hardwick, Didion, Sontag, and Malcolm with ardour, and who apply this learned mordancy as if words were something you could simply bite and chew rather than the form used to think most clearly – to get at something the pushes out the veneer of factuality. The mode of critique usually manifests in the form of an unremitting takedown: here, have the skeleton of your thinking, they say, as a termite might; what is achieved is somewhat unclear other than writerly fame or notoriety: ‘sometimes a cigar’, Lauren Oyler informs us, ‘is just a cigar’. They seem particularly preoccupied with morality and appear to wilfully misread the tone that distinguishes an author from their protagonist. 
            Deconstruction is an easy way to parade knowledge learned in prestigious places. It is far harder to have a politics that is rooted not in an elaborate syntax for its own sake, but in what cannot be grasped other than by tonal discord or tonal exactness – by a sentence that is instructive in its exactitude and therefore almost impossible to imitate. ‘Nothing is easier to acquire,’ as Hardwick observes, ‘than the prevailing taste’. Hardwick was not a mere stylist – after all style is easily reproducible; her work – the essay itself – is grounded in the kind of thinking that she believed could not be taught (she was no collaborator; individuality, she saw, came at a cost, and had to be wrestled from the domestic). ‘We would not want to think of the essay as the country of old men’, she writes in a 1986 essay, ‘but it is doubtful that the slithery form, wearisomely vague and as chancy as trying to catch a fish in the open hand can be taught’. She shied away from editorial and pedagogical duties – a paragon of saying no: even the New York Review of Books, the publication which she co-founded and whose editorial directive she is associated with, quickly became a venue for publication rather than a workplace: Hardwick was the finest editor it seems, of her own sentences. It goes without saying that she would have looked on the current state of education and letters with an excoriating disregard, but her sentences might well be one of the best defences of literature, as it sits precariously, at the centre of the humanities, ready to be dispatched to the sidelines.