Memento Mori — December 5, 2007, 10:20 am

Elizabeth Hardwick, 1916–2007

Elizabeth Hardwick died Sunday in Manhattan at the age of ninety-one. Between 1959 and 1969, she contributed essays and criticism to Harper’s Magazine, for a time taking over the New Books column. Her name is often mentioned lately in connection with her polemic “The Decline of Book Reviewing,” part of a 1959 special section on “Writing in America” that also featured Alfred Kazin, Kingsley Amis, and Stanley Kunitz. Hardwick tilted at “the unaccountable sluggishness of the New York Times and Herald Tribune Sunday book sections”:

In America, now, oblivion, literary failure, obscurity, neglect—all the great moments of artistic tragedy and neglect—still occur, but the natural conditions for the occurrence are in a state of camouflage, like those decorating ideas in which wood is painted to look like paper and paper to look like wood. A genius may indeed go to his grave unread, but he will hardly have gone to it unpraised. Sweet, bland condemnations fall everywhere upon the scene; a universal, if somewhat lobotomized, accommodation reigns. A book is born into a puddle of treacle; the brine of hostile criticism is only a memory. Everyone is found to have “filled a need” and is to be “thanked” for something and to be excused for “minor faults in an otherwise excellent work.” “A thoroughly mature artist” appears many times a week and often daily; many are the bringers of those “messages the Free World will ignore at its peril.”

Just as blistering, if less often cited today, is Hardwick’s “Boston: A Lost Ideal.” Hardwick had moved to Boston in 1954 with her husband, Robert Lowell, and they became, in his words, “very pretentious and sociable, sort of Poohbahs.” By October 1959 she was ready to go back to New York City:

Boston today can still provide a fairly stimulating atmosphere for the banker, the broker, for doctors and lawyers. . . . But otherwise, for the artist the architect, the composer, the writer, the philosopher, the historian, for those humane pursuits for which the town was once noted and even for the delights of entertainment, for dancing, acting, cooking, Boston is a bewildering place. There is first of all the question of Boston or New York. (The question is not new; indeed it was answered in the last decades of the last century in favor of New York as the cultural center of America.) It is, in our day, only a private and personal question: where or which of the two Eastern cities should one try to live and work in? It is a one-sided problem. For the New Yorker, San Francisco or Florida, perhaps—Boston, never. In Boston, New York tantalizes; one of the advantages of Boston is said, wistfully, to be its nearness to New York. It is a bad sign when a man who has come to Boston or Cambridge, Massachusetts, from another place begins to show an undivided acceptance of his new town. Smugness is the great vice of the two places. Between puffy self-satisfaction and fatiguing wonder if one wouldn’t be happier, more productive, more appreciated in New York the thinking man makes his choice.

Boston is not a small New York, as they say a child is not a small adult, but is, rather, a specially organized small creature with its small-creature’s temperature, balance, and distribution of fat. In Boston there is an utter absence of that wild, electric beauty of New York, of the marvelous, excited rush of people in taxicabs at twilight, of the great Avenues and Streets, the restaurants, theatres, bars, hotels, delicatessans, shops. In Boston the night comes down an incredibly heavy, small-town finality. . . . The “nice, little dinner party”—for this the Bostonian would sell his soul. . . . There is a curious flimsiness and indifference in the commercial life of Boston. The restaurants are, charitably to be called mediocre; the famous sea food is only palatable when raw. . . . Downtown Boston at night is a dreary jungle of honky-tonks for sailors, dreary department-store windows, Loew’s movie houses, hillbilly bands, strippers, parking lots, undistinguished new buildings. . . . The merchandise in the Newbury Street shops is designed in a high fashion, elaborate, furred and sequined, but it is never seen anywhere. Perhaps it is for out-of-town use, like a traveling man’s mistress.

Hardwick and Lowell moved to Manhattan in 1960. In six columns under the rubric THE NEW BOOKS in 1961 and 1962, she scrutinized and evaluated works by, among others, Aldous Huxley (“hardly anyone else writing has such a greed for experience”), John Updike (“Rabbit’s fornications are the book and the critic can only report them “well-written”), Leslie Fiedler (“the excitement of this mind, the speed of this style”), Mary McCarthy (“There is charm and vigor and an almost violent holding of special opinions”), James Baldwin (“He is not just angry and full of plain horror and pain. . . . He is quivering and yet he has unusual strength that comes from his artistic mastery of his notions and feelings”), Jane Jacobs (“There are few things more affecting than Mrs. Jacobs’ description of the desolate housing project, with no place to buy a cup of coffee or a newspaper, and only the empty halls and elevators which have become like those nightmares of threatening isolation”), Edmund Wilson (“There is an innocence about Wilson as he approaches his great themes”), and Philip Roth (“Why is everyone’s novel getting longer and longer, at just the time when the ability to create character and significant plot development seems to be getting shorter and shorter”).

Hardwick’s last essay for Harper’s, in 1969, was on the occasion of one her visits to her birthplace, Lexington, Kentucky:

A crescendo of anxiety accompanies the past, and the new is only boredom on the surface, incomprehensible to me in its true nature, its unvarying plants and shoots flowering to their fate, its structures square and double-storied or stretched out in the way acceptable to our time, acceptable everywhere, in every city, each stat, according to investment. Who can read that history—the history of now? Only some awkward boy or girl sweating in the playroom, swept on by the electrified jarrings and groanings of the house, will return to tell us what it has been—whether about Lexington or not is hard to say, for the glory of the place is a certain vault-like unreality, deadening to the lilt of the questioner’s voice, since you only have to ask to be told what the Bluegrass is all about, what Lexington means.

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