Elizabeth Hardwick

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 793

Elizabeth Bruce Hardwick established a distinguished literary career through writing novels, short stories, and essays; she also became a reviewer, an editor, and—at age eighty-four—a biographer with an acclaimed study of Herman Melville. In addition to writing, Hardwick served as a professor of creative writing, and she, along with a few other literary figures, launched The New York Review of Books in 1963. Literature, the writing as well as the reviewing of it, proved the consuming interest of Hardwick’s life.

Hardwick was born on July 27, 1916, in Lexington, Kentucky. She came from a big family and grew up with many brothers and sisters. Her parents, Eugene and Mary Hardwick, were hardworking people of modest means. As a child, Hardwick was fascinated by books, and by the time she graduated from Henry Clay High School, she was ready to pursue her love of literature. She enrolled in the University of Kentucky and earned her B.A. degree in 1938. One year later, the university awarded her an M.A. degree.

Hardwick, like so many other literary people of her generation, went to New York City to perfect her art and seek fame as a writer. She enrolled in Columbia University to work on her doctorate in English literature. Hardwick withdrew from the program, however, after realizing that a Ph.D. would not help her get a teaching job; few women with doctorates at this time were hired for top teaching positions. When Hardwick left Columbia, she did not become idle: She devoted all of her energy to writing.

Hardwick’s first novel, The Ghostly Lover, was published in 1945. The novel, which is semiautobiographical, studies the entangled relationships and difficulties of communication within a middle-class family. Although the book received mixed reviews, it helped establish Hardwick’s reputation as a writer. Critics noted the subtle, witty quality of her novel, and magazine editors began to contact her about contributing shorter pieces.

During the ten-year interval between her first and second novels, there were several developments in Hardwick’s career and life. She began writing short stories; the best of these, “People on a Roller Coaster” (1945) and “What We Have Missed” (1946), were selected for the O. Henry Memorial Award Prize Stories in their respective years. In 1948, Hardwick also received a Guggenheim Fellowship in fiction. By 1949, she was a wife; she married the poet Robert Lowell, one of the most important literary figures of the period.

As Hardwick continued to hone her skills as a writer of fiction, she also discovered a new genre—nonfiction. Her concern about political and social matters, she later wrote in her autobiographical sketch for World Authors: 1950-1970 (1975), led her “inevitably to the essay.” This genre was profitable for Hardwick, and it is her essays, rather than her fiction, that warrant her place in American letters.

Hardwick’s second novel, The Simple Truth, was published in 1955. This book, like the first, elicited mixed critical reviews. The story, which centers on the trial of a penniless student at a midwestern college who is accused of murdering his rich sweetheart, puzzled some reviewers. Others praised Hardwick’s adept technical handling of a rather complicated plot. After the publication of this novel, Hardwick abandoned fiction writing for several years, choosing instead to concentrate on writing essays.

In 1957, Hardwick’s daughter, Harriet Winslow Lowell, was born. While being a wife and mother took up much of Hardwick’s time, she continued to write. Her interests during the early 1960’s shifted, however, from writing to publishing, and in 1963, she, along with her like-minded friends, started The New York Review of Books. This periodical, according to its editorial credo, was dedicated to presenting “reviews of some of the more important books published.” Hardwick contributed book reviews and essays about political, social, and cultural issues throughout the many years she served on the magazine’s editorial advisory board.

Though Hardwick was hard at work on The New York Review of Books, she took on another career challenge. She began teaching creative writing courses when she joined the faculty of Barnard College as an adjunct professor of English in 1964. She also began giving lectures in such prestigious institutions as Princeton University and Vassar College. In the 1970’s, her life again underwent many changes. She and Lowell divorced in 1972, and she turned once more to writing fiction. Her third novel, Sleepless Nights, appeared in 1979. This work, a fusion of autobiography and fiction, was lauded by reviewers for its incisive, condensed style.

Hardwick’s writing has been praised for its liveliness. A similar vitality characterizes her distinguished literary career. There was never a period in her career when Elizabeth Hardwick was not active, and her fiction, essays, and reviews secured a place for her in the history of twentieth century American literature.

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