Elizabeth Hardwick Analysis

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Elizabeth Hardwick’s book reviews and literary and cultural criticism have been her most influential work. Her frank, fresh, intellectually audacious, and emotionally engaging comments provided a comprehensive critique of literary and popular culture. Her baroque style and contextual approach, yoking history with art, was formative in developing the particular brand of progressive criticism characteristic of The New York Review of Books and in the tradition of the Partisan Review, bent upon restoring texture and depth to reviewing. Her most influential essays from 1952 to 1961 were collected from the Partisan Review, Harper’s, Encounter, The New Republic, and The New York Times Book Review, as well as The New York Review of Books, in a volume titled A View of My Own: Essays on Literature and Society (1962), suggesting in the allusion to Virginia Woolf her intensely personal approach to criticism. Hardwick’s long-standing interest in feminist issues is reflected in her second collection of essays, Seduction and Betrayal: Women and Literature (1974). A third collection, Bartleby in Manhattan, and Other Essays, appeared in 1983.

An important Hardwick essay, “Domestic Manners in a New America,” perhaps best illustrates the connections between the public and the private self that she defined as “style,” a key concept that informs both her cultural criticism and her fiction. Appearing first in Daedalus (Winter, 1978) and later as “Domestic Manners” in A New America? (1978)—an anthology of influential articles by social commentators—Hardwick’s essay delineates the alterations in contemporary culture brought about by “the power of external forces” and a particular sort of inner change, a new expectation for the private life. The interior perception of life as a long process, one governed by cycles and seasons, is transformed by the deviation and dislocation of contemporary urban life, “the shortened life of the feelings” evidenced in the prevalent failure of will in human relationships, rules, customs, and habits. Hardwick sees in personal “style” the traumatic effects of modernity; for her, as for Jane Austen, style defines moral condition.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Elizabeth Hardwick’s criticism engaged not only literary culture but also the wider group of committed intellectuals seeking synthesis between the diverse, apparently dislocated, aspects of contemporary life. Prominent in her critical ideology is the assumption that a substructure of history, biology, and psychology underlies the complex edifice of contemporary culture, a foundation that the critic must show as informing, though not determining, the work. Coupled with this multidisciplinary approach is that process of dynamically yoking together disparate thoughts and feelings in such a way that a new synthesis or a hidden foundation is revealed. This juxtaposition, similar in so many ways to that of the metaphysical poets, has the effect of constantly recombining and transforming experience.

The matter of style seems a crucial point in Hardwick’s work, both style as a concept and Hardwick’s own yoking of dissimilarities, startling the reader with its expressive, mercurial quality, capturing the play of a mind at work. Her writing frequently has a baroque quality—loose passages coupled with short, pithy statements. Capturing the qualities of supreme thoughtfulness along with engaged feeling, her work creates a sharp effect, combining an almost audacious assertiveness with demure understatement. Her conversational colloquialisms, playful and expressive, appear in Hardwick’s conceptual framework as “style,” that self-presentation by which the interior, one’s relationship to history, is revealed.

The other key concept in Hardwick’s thought and practice is that of the “radical,” not in the political sense, but meaning a return, often an intellectually jarring return, to the crux of a creative work or a received idea. Certain writers such as Mary McCarthy possessed what Hardwick called a radical vision, always unconventional, often involving a moral stance. Characters become emblems of these root qualities, as in the “radical innocence” of Rudy Peck in The Simple Truth. The ability of a writer or a critic to go to the crux of a problem, to perceive something not marked before, to have a genuinely new thought that brings together known facts in surprising ways, was for Hardwick the hallmark of the intellectual and creative life.

Hardwick was the recipient of many awards for creative and critical achievement. She was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and presented with the George Jean Nathan Award for drama criticism.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Branin, Joseph J. “Elizabeth Hardwick.” In American Novelists Since World War II, Second Series, edited by James E. Kibler, Jr. Vol. 6 in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: Gale Research, 1980. Includes background information on Hardwick’s upbringing in Kentucky and the effect on her writing of her move to New York. Mentions her long and successful career as a social and literary critic but notes the lack of development in her novels. A useful introduction.

Caplan, Brina. “The Teller as the Tale.” Georgia Review 33, no. 4 (Winter, 1979): 933-940. An essay-review of Sleepless Nights that classifies it as a “novel-memoir” and compares it with Lillian Hellman’s Three (1979).

Faust, Langdon Lynn, ed. American Women Writers: A Critical Reference Guide from Colonial Times to the Present. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1988. Offers a biographical overview of Hardwick, with brief commentary on the thematic content of her principal publications.

Lamont, Rosette. “The Off-Center Spatiality of Women’s Discourse.” In Theory and Practice of Feminist Literary Criticism, edited by Gabriela Mora and Karen S. Van Hooft. Ypsilanti, Mich.: Bilingual Press, 1982. Analyzes Hardwick’s writing in terms of feminist literary theory.

Miller, Jane. “Resisting the Bullies.” In Women Writing About Men. London: Virago Press, 1986. In this chapter, Miller mentions Hardwick’s book Seduction and Betrayal and its reference to women who become heroes by gaining mastery over their husbands. In so doing, she places Hardwick in the genre of women writers—such as Virginia Woolf—who write about women striving for recognition in their own right.

Nobile, Philip. Intellectual Skywriting: Literary Politics and “The New York Review of Books.” New York: Charterhouse, 1974. Examines Hardwick’s role in the founding of The New York Review of Books and some of her theories about writing as they pertain to the periodical’s editorial policies.

Peters, Margaret. “Fiction Under a True Name: Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights.” Chicago Review 31, no. 2 (Autumn, 1979): 129-136. A feminist analysis emphasizing the autobiographical nature of the novel. Offers comparisons with The Ghostly Lover.

Stone, Laurie. “Hardwick’s Way.” The Village Voice, May 7, 1979, 98-100. “I have almost nothing negative to say about this book,” says Stone in this appreciative review of Hardwick’s novel Sleepless Nights. Also comments on the feminist theme in Hardwick’s work Seduction and Betrayal.