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The honey and the chisel

Posted by David Mehegan  December 5, 2007 02:07 PM

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Elizabeth Hardwick 1916-2007
(Marion Ettlinger/Penguin Putnam)

Our Globe colleague, Mark Feeney, offers this remembrance of writer Elizabeth Hardwick:

Elizabeth Hardwick, who died Sunday at 91, has a secure place in any history of American letters, if also a somewhat unusual place. Beside her own notable work as novelist and (especially) essayist, Hardwick was also the second wife of Robert Lowell and a founder of The New York Review of Books.

Something of a Southern belle (she was born and raised in Kentucky), Hardwick nonetheless managed to be one of the few women to flourish in that heady, cut-throat aggregation known as the New York Intellectuals. Hardwick, her friend Mary McCarthy, Diana Trilling: That’s pretty much it. (Hannah Arendt, although affiliated with the group, was both apart from and above it; Susan Sontag was a generation younger.) It’s telling about how conventional the New York Intellectuals were domestically (if not intellectually or politically) that all three women were also married to members in good standing: Hardwick, to Lowell; McCarthy, to Edmund Wilson; Trilling, to Lionel Trilling. It’s surely no coincidence that Hardwick and McCarthy, whose abilities and accomplishments far outstripped Trilling’s, retained their maiden names as she did not.

Hardwick wrote three novels: “The Ghostly Lover” (1945), “The Simple Truth” (1955), and “Sleepless Nights” (1979). The last is easily the most striking: a drifty, dreamlike, one-of-a-kind excursion into memory and her own past that lies along the lush verge between fact and fiction. It was the essay that best suited Hardwick, that best displayed a prose style that rather miraculously managed to be both honeyed and chiseled. There were four collections: “A View of My Own: Essays on Literature and Society” (1962), the memorably titled “Seduction and Betrayal: Women and Literature” (1974), “Bartleby in Manhattan and Other Essays” (1983), and “Sight Readings: American Fiction” (1998).

Perhaps this is a parochial opinion, but her finest essay is “Boston,” first published in 1959. No one has ever written more acutely of this city -- and few have written less lovingly. “Boston is defective, out-of-date, vain, and lazy, but if you’re not in a hurry it has a deep, secret appeal.” As a native Southerner and adoptive New Yorker, Hardwick felt doubly alien here (she and Lowell lived on Marlborough Street, in Back Bay, when he taught at Boston University). She brought to bear an outsider’s scrutiny on both Boston and -- what’s not quite the same thing -- its reputation. The city has changed enormously in the past half century, but not so much that Hardwick’s evisceration of it seems either irrelevant or particularly outdated.

Hardwick served several terms on the board of the National Book Critics Circle, as did I. Our membership overlapped by one term. This was in 1985. I have met more intimidating people (V.S. Naipaul and Toni Morrison come to mind) but never have I been so actually intimidated. Perhaps it was just the knowledge of how hard, and shrewd, she had been on Boston -- and the likelihood of so unblinking a gaze being trained on anything, or -one, in its vicinity. Whatever the reason, this grandmotherly-looking woman hunched over a pad of paper and pile of books sitting at a long table in a conference room at the Algonquin scared me silly.

Hardwick said little during any of the three or four meetings we both attended, but her Southern drawl made whatever she did say memorable. One of the nominees in the biography category that year was Art Spiegelman’s nonfiction graphic novel about the Holocaust, “Maus,” in which Jews are portrayed as mice and Germans as cats. The winner proved to be the first volume of Arnold Rampersad’s biography of Langston Hughes. For a while, though, it looked as though Spiegelman might win (he got my vote). I will never forget the magnolia-scented sound of Hardwick’s voice as she looked up from her scratch pad: “You mean we’re going to give this award to a book about a . . . mouse?” I can’t imagine that scorn and gentility have ever been so voluptuously folded together. Or so effectively: As I said, “Maus” did not win. -- Mark Feeney

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About off the shelf News about books, authors, and publishers from The Boston Globe.
Nicole Lamy is editor of the Globe's Books section.
Jan Gardner writes the "Shelf Life" column for the Globe's Books section.

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