Reviews — From the December 2017 issue

The Cost of Living

Elizabeth Hardwick’s political conscience

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She came from the South. Born to a large Kentucky family in 1916, “Lizzie” was the daughter of a Lexington plumbing contractor. After completing her undergraduate degree at the state university, she enrolled in — and dropped out of — graduate school at Columbia. New York pleased her. With just a few interruptions, she lived there for the rest of her life, allowing Kentucky to recline into the distant, wistful past. The young heroine of an early short story, “Evenings at Home,” from 1948, visits her family down South and notes how even the warmth and solidity of her old world grates against the fantasy of the literary life: “It is awful to be faced each day with love that is neither too great nor too small . . . each smile is a challenge, each friendly gesture an intellectual crisis.”

Better to be striking and severe. Hardwick installed herself boldly among the New York Intellectuals, a largely Jewish group of writers preoccupied by modernism and riveted by politics. The Family, as the group was sometimes called, was a pit of erudite vipers, many of the members lapsed Marxists who snapped into a compulsory anticommunism at the start of the Cold War. The journal Partisan Review provided the perfect stage for their postures and disputes: in its pages Philip Rahv, Irving Howe, Edmund Wilson, Hannah Arendt, and Lionel Trilling sharpened their reputations as critics and polemicists, gong-banging arbiters of literature and the left.

Among them Hardwick was considered a pretty, gentile sophisticate with a taste for le mot juste. But as a literary critic she proved herself a master of articulate contempt. “The Decline of Book Reviewing,” her 1959 essay for this magazine, would come to serve as a sort of declaration of independence for The New York Review of Books. The whole literary press, waddling behind The New York Times Book Review, had allowed criticism to grow polite and “listless,” and that listlessness, to Hardwick, was a crime: “Sweet, bland commendations fall everywhere upon the scene; a universal, if somewhat lobotomized, accommodation reigns.” Books themselves, no longer written about with rigor, were fated for their own decline. The whole arrangement was successful only in “denying whatever vivacious interest there might be in books or literary matters generally” as the culture slouched toward banality.

Hardwick’s approach to the literary essay has a charming particularity. On the page, she’s less an exegete than a portraitist, lavishing attention on the writer’s suffering, attitudes, environs, and fate. Origins obsess her, as do landscapes: literature, especially American literature, matters because it’s part of the unfolding experiment of a specific place, in a specific time — with its ironies and cruelties.

“America and Dylan Thomas,” an essay from 1956, presents the poet as a British tchotchke, praised for his genius and fetishized for his demons. He is portrayed as a rude, brilliant, womanizing alcoholic. In the end, “his drinking had made him, at least superficially, as available as a man running for office.” A sick romance attends his final years, as American audiences lap up his “fabulous difficulty” and, “sinking sensuously into their own suspicious pity, flattered and allowed and encouraged right to the brink of the grave.” Thomas in America was a poète maudit, martyred by our cynical love.

Loss transfixed her. In her criticism, Hardwick displays a fondness for elegy, so that even at her most cutting or incorrigible there is a tender appreciation of the ambivalences and compromises that plow through human life. The role of literature seemed to be to slow down the pain, to pore over it in a kind of wise, excruciating delectation. George Eliot once described Macbeth as a play that pits the “clumsy necessities of action” against the “subtler possibilities of feeling” — a battle Hardwick wages with conviction in her work. Fitting, then, that Eliot, with her moral patience and rolling, virtuous sentences, is given the most sensitive portrayal in this collection:

She was melancholy, headachy, with a slow, disciplined, hard-won, aching genius that bore down upon her with a wondrous and exhausting force, like a great love affair in middle age.

But that genius wasn’t enough for her peers: she was considered dowdy and provincial, pitifully incapable of glamour. In assessing the attitudes of contemporaries such as Leslie Stephen and Edmund Gosse, Hardwick lands on a word that conveys the weakest, dreariest, most grudging kind of admiration: “respect.”

How, Hardwick wants to know, does a person freeze into a persona? And what, precisely, is the relation between the inner torment and the public self? Her studies of writers — both her predecessors and her contemporaries — confront the question of reputation, of celebrity: that is, of the place and purpose of the writer in the world. For all his private suffering, Robert Frost was marked by “the clamorous serenity of his old age,” his aura of bucolic wonder. Nathanael West, who after his death enjoyed “an impressive stream of recognition,” was so in love with his failures that he put the “critics in the position of a crusading doctor reviving the moribund.” Whereas Sherwood Anderson “brought to literature almost nothing except his own lacerated feelings,” Henry James wrote removed, stately works of fiction that “do not have the atmosphere of autobiography, do not hint at the author’s life.” This is a disappointment. James’s novels, replete with ornate effects and sparkling refinement, are cast as extended exercises in detachment, “a bachelor’s cool eye on the common sentiments.”

His foil is Philip Roth. Hardwick sees Roth’s raging flourishes in novel after novel as a boyish need to broadcast his assaults on convention. Sex, for him, has been ripped away from love, becoming “a penitential workout on the page with no thought of backaches, chafings, or phallic fatigue.” But Hardwick is wry in the face of all this naughtiness. She finds Roth’s jarring American Pastoral to be “rated PG,” nostalgic as it is for an idyllic vision of family. The book isn’t a flaming prediction of our brave new world but a tender tribute to a vanished one. Her review is titled “Paradise Lost.”

lives in Connecticut.

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