Elizabeth Hardwick

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Hardwick, Elizabeth 1916–

Hardwick is an American novelist, short story writer, essayist, and editor. Although she is a noted writer of fiction, Hardwick was attracted to the essay early in her career, and has become a brilliant exponent of that form. Associated for many years with the Partisan Review, Hardwick is also one of the founders of The New York Review of Books. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Thomas Fitzsimmons

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The Simple Truth, Elizabeth Hardwick's second novel, follows the trial of the boy, Rudy Peck, in order to describe and to judge the efforts of those trying to find out what happened that night, and why. The reader receives information as it is given the jury, which represents society. But he also is made privy to the speculations of two individual observers at the trial, a man, Joe Parks, and a woman, Anita Mitchell. The townspeople, who staff the jury, are, says Miss Hardwick, "utterly of this world," while Parks and Anita, who belong to the university, are in a sense "sophisticated." This double contrast between group and individual, simple and sophisticated is maintained throughout the story.

But beneath these contrasts is a common denominator: all these people, in the author's view, are pretentious fools. The jury, in its simple way, succumbs to sentiment and accepts an unsatisfactory explanation of the girl's death. Parks and Anita, rigorously analytical, project their private emotional disorders into the situation and pompously produce grotesque distortions of judgment.

So the author's statement comes to this: simple or sophisticated, neither the collective nor the single mind is equipped to distinguish reality from appearance; to pretend otherwise is absurd.

[The Simple Truth] is made or broken by its people, by the way the author sees and handles them rather than the plot. The plot is skillfully developed. Unfortunately, Parks, Anita, and the jury, all are caricatures. (pp. 325-26)

Poking fun at two dolls stuffed with clichés and at the stereotype of a jury is not an effective way, or even an interesting one, to comment on the delusions men may cling to in order easily to act without really knowing what is real and what is merely appearance. Elizabeth Hardwick has gone seriously wrong in The Simple Truth.

Yet there are things throughout the novel that are good, realized with an impressive economy of means: certain quick scenes, an occasional mood, some of the people who appear briefly: the kinds of things that make for a good short story. Miss Hardwick has written good short stories. And the faults of this novel may only be the mistakes of a gifted writer struggling hard with a more complex form than usual and stretching too far for a subject. (p. 327)

Thomas Fitzsimmons, in The Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1955 by The University of the South), Spring, 1955.

Rosemary Dinnage

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[Seduction & Betrayal: Women & Literature] is so original, so sly and strange, but the pleasure is embedded in the style, in the way [Miss Hardwick] flicks the English language about like a whip. One is reluctant to start taking its epigrammatic charm to pieces and asking dull critical questions about its structure and intention. Yet the issues she raises are both complex and momentous. Her subject is not so much the seduction and betrayal of women portrayed in literature …, as seduction and betrayal itself, in literary contexts; the implicit axiom being that the arrangements made between men and women are never satisfactory….

Miss Hardwick is best on women as characters rather than creators, both fictional characters and actual women whose importance is for what they...

(This entire section contains 499 words.)

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were and felt rather than what they created—Dorothy Wordsworth, Jane Carlyle. Her critical approach is psychological and moral, not formal…. The literary devices that reproduce intangibilities, the feel of the moment and the structuring of time, are not things which engage her very deeply.

Her real concern is to present her own angry and witty view of the sexes, and for this she has more scope with the fictional beings and the companions of writers than with the great creative women, for these less easily align themselves with the victims. She writes sensibly of the Brontës, slyly of Bloomsbury, and compassionately of Sylvia Plath, but she is less at home with the ferocious victories of Plath, Emily Brontë, and Virginia Woolf than with stoic pathos. She stresses especially the financial helplessness of nineteenth-century woman, and sees the Brontës' greatest heroism as their willingness to turn their introverted talents outward to honest breadwinning account….

Miss Hardwick is excellent on the women she dubs "amateurs", talented beings attached to men who overshadowed them. Towards Zelda Fitzgerald—on the basis of her novel, since Zelda herself is not actually included among the amateurs—she shows compassion and indignation for the way her writings were appropriated and her attempts to work and be independent consistently foiled….

Of her third category, the fictional characters, this cannot be said—they seem fixed and defined by their creators; yet she has given them further authenticity by reinstating the literary portrait in a way that is quite free of its how-many-children-had-Lady-Macbeth associations….

The final chapter on seduction and betrayal is a formidable analysis of the betrayed-woman theme in the novel. Every sentence resonates and surprises, glitters with a stoic contempt, and Miss Hardwick's method of contriving, obliquely, a simultaneous judgment on literature and life fully justifies itself….

Miss Hardwick's book is in a different category from the usual works of feminist victimology, and simple arguments seem crude against its subtlety. One wants, however, at least to try to find one crucial, elusive piece that is missing from her pattern.

Rosemary Dinnage, "Men, Women and Books: The Rule of Heroism," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1974; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), November 29, 1974, p. 1333.

Jean Stubbs

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[Seduction and Betrayal: Women and Literature] is a titillating title, and the contents bear it out—though not as some might think.

Miss Hardwick is no hand-wringer. She is a literary surgeon, admirably equipped to expose the nerves. The Brontës are her first patients and she sets to work on them with precision. Diagnoses: 'In the Brontë sisters there is a distinctly high tone and low spirit'. Charlotte 'underneath the correcting surface' is 'deeply romantic, full of dreams and visited by nightmares'. Emily has 'a spare inviolate centre, a harder resignation amounting finally to withdrawal'. Anne's 'religious earnestness' covers 'a secret suffering, a mute, hidden torment'. All three, quiet and repressed though they are, possess 'a disturbing undercurrent of intense sexual fantasy'. By the time Miss Hardwick has stitched them neatly up, and pronounced them heroic, we not only know the Brontës better, we also marvel. (p. 38)

One by one, the august literary bodies are wheeled into the theatre. Miss Hardwick selects another scalpel and reveals fresh aspects…. Her betrayed ladies emerge wonderfully changed under the inspection. Hester Prynne wearing her Scarlet Letter 'is an ideologue, making by way of her adulterous isolation a stand against Puritanism'. Hetty Sorrel 'is merely romantic in an ordinary way … we weep for her—but she is not a heroine'. Roberta in An American Tragedy 'We cannot quite forgive her the simplicity'. Clarissa 'seeks the net she flees from'. But Tess D'Urbeville 'is the most perfectly conceived of the modern betrayed heroines'. Miss Hardwick ends by reporting the death of sex as a tragic, exalted theme. We have, with the aid of contraception and a new attitude towards sexual morality, robbed it of drama. Venus, to quote Zola, is rotting! (pp. 38-9)

Elizabeth Hardwick's stringent perception, her elegant prose, her wit and commonsense, her objectivity, her knowledge of human nature, are enviable. I am prepared to swear that she would have survived somehow, as a feminine writer, anywhere and at any time in history. But I am grateful that she is writing now, when we can breathe more freely and appreciate her all the better. (p. 39)

Jean Stubbs, in Books and Bookmen (© copyright Jean Stubbs 1976; reprinted with permission), January, 1976.

Joan Didion

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"I have always, all of my life, been looking for help from a man," we are told near the beginning of Elizabeth Hardwick's subtle and beautiful new book ["Sleepless Nights"]. "It has come many times and many more it has not. This began early." What follows eludes immediate summary or categorization. "Sleepless Nights" is a novel, but it is a novel in which the subject is memory and in which the "I" whose memories are in question is entirely and deliberately the author: we recognize the events and addresses of Elizabeth Hardwick's life not only from her own earlier work, but from the poems of her husband, the late Robert Lowell…. The result is less a "story about" or "of" a life than a shattered meditation on it, a work as evocative and difficult to place as Claude Lévi-Strauss's "Tristes Tropiques," which it oddly recalls. The author observes of her enigmatic narrative: "It certainly hasn't the drama of: I saw the old, white-bearded frigate master on the dock and signed up for the journey. But after all, 'I' am a woman."

This strikes an interesting note, a balance of Oriental diffidence and exquisite contempt, of irony and direct statement, that exactly expresses the sensibility at work in "Sleepless Nights." "But after all, 'I' am a woman." Triste tropique indeed. (pp. 1, 60)

In certain ways, the mysterious and somnambulistic "difference" of being a woman has been, over 35 years, Elizabeth Hardwick's great subject, the tropic to which she has returned incessantly: it colored both of her early novels, "The Ghostly Lover" in 1945 and "The Simple Truth" in 1955, as well as many of the essays collected in 1962 as "A View of My Own" and all of those published in 1974 as "Seduction and Betrayal: Women and Literature."

She has chronicled again and again the undertow of family life, the awesome torment of being a daughter—an observer in the household, a constant reader of the domestic text—the anarchy of sex. She has illuminated lives traditionally misrepresented as tragic instances of the way all women live….

This is all very original and interesting, and so is Elizabeth Hardwick's radical distrust of romantic individualism, her passionate apprehension of the particular havoc that a corrupted individualism can play with the lives of women. Women adrift, in Elizabeth Hardwick's work, indulge a fatal preference for men of bad character. Women adrift take dancing lessons, and end up on missing-person reports.

Perhaps no one has written more acutely and poignantly about the ways in which women compensate for their relative physiological inferiority, about the poetic and practical implications of walking around the world deficient in hemoglobin, deficient in respiratory capacity, deficient in muscular strength and deficient in stability of the vascular and autonomic nervous systems….

The ways in which "Sleepless Nights" recalls "Tristes Tropiques" are not only of tone. The method of the "I" in "Sleepless Nights" is in fact that of the anthropologist, of the traveler on watch for the revealing detail: we are provided precise observations of strangers met in the course of the journey, close studies of their rituals. These studies take the form of vignettes, recollections, stories that at first offer no sustaining thread….

The meticulously transcribed histories begin to yield a terrible point, although not one that would astonish our mothers and grandmothers. In the culture under study, life ends badly. Disease is authentic. The freedom to live untied to others, however desired that freedom may be, is hard on men and hard on children and hardest of all on women. "Why is it that we cannot keep the note of irony, the jangle of carelessness at a distance?" the narrator of this extraordinary and haunting book asks toward the end of her reflections. "Sentences in which I have tried for a certain light tone—many of those have to do with events, upheavals, destructions that caused me to weep like a child." Oh yes. (p. 60)

Joan Didion, "Meditation on a Life," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 29, 1979, pp. 1, 60.

Laurie Stone

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Sleepless Nights [is] a very beautiful and concise probe of the past told by a woman called Elizabeth.

I have almost nothing negative to say about this book: There are a few dead phrases, i.e., "moral unease hurt" and "I stepped into [the rooms] with the feeling of falling into a well of disgrace." Also, the second half of the book is a small letdown—stories of disappointment, despair, and the bittersweet ironies of aging—by comparison to the first half's extraordinarily powerful stories of promise, reckless extravagance, and determination.

But mostly Hardwick's sentences sing. By saying just enough, and never too much, she has perfected the art of making private meaning public. Hardwick passes the test autobiographical works always set: to write about passion, anger, and betrayal without blathering, sentimentalizing, or fuming. She sees the past with a clarity and a freedom from judgment that come not so much from remembering acutely—as forgetting acutely the feelings that blur.

Sleepless Nights is about a romance with memory, a habit of mind that defines the writer—at any given moment—by the way she "transmogrifies" the past. Hardwick seldom focuses directly on Elizabeth. She is revealed, instead, as she remembers and by what and whom she remembers. Unable to talk with her phantoms over a bottle of wine, as Elizabeth would prefer, she spins insomniac "letters" to the sleeping, the unreachable, and the dead. They are love letters without sap; her attraction is always compounded with a little awe, a little envy, a little irony….

Written half in protest and half in acknowledgment, Sleepless Nights is the confession of a feminist who is also a heterosexual. "The break with human love remains somewhere inside, and at times, under rain clouds, it aches like an amputation," Hardwick wrote in Seduction and Betrayal. "I have always," Elizabeth says, "all my life, been looking for help from a man. It has come many times and many more it has not." She could have said the same of women, with whom her relationships are as varied and deep, but she does not: the "help" one woman gives another may be more critical to survival than sex and bonding, but once asserted, these needs, Hardwick shows, change the weight of everything….

Propelled forward by the sheer energy of Hardwick's descriptions, only gradually did I observe the subtle connections and try to answer the question implicit in every portrait: What are so many strangers and partly-knowns to the writer that she should remember them so well?

What was Billie Holiday to Elizabeth Hardwick—Billie, followed nightly from club to club; Billie, quintessentially obsessed, talented, and isolated? She was a secret sharer for a period of time, the person—or animal—which expresses everything repressed, or feared or desired at that moment: "The creamy lips, the oily eyelids, the violent perfume," Elizabeth describes Billie, "and in her voice the tropical l's and r's. Her presence, her singing created a large, swelling anxiety…. Onto the heaviest addiction to heroin, she piled up the rocks of her tomb with a prodigiousness of Scotch and brandy."

Hardly an addiction, failing or longing goes unmasked in Sleepless Nights. Hardwick is an artful and brainy moralist, never sententious, because Elizabeth's observations of others almost always imply, "me too." (p. 98)

This is what we know about Elizabeth: Life amounts to books and people; the face, the gesture, the memory are, for her, inseparable from the word. This is what we know of Hardwick's intention: Simply, it is "to lay out the evidence," as her character Alex says, and take pleasure in that. (p. 100)

Laurie Stone, "Hardwick's Way," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © News Group Publications, Inc., 1979), May 7, 1979, pp. 98, 100.