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A biography of the critic and novelist who married poet Robert Lowell -- and paid for it dearly

by Tribune News Service | November 20, 2021 at 10:00 p.m.
"A Splendid Intelligence: The Life of Elizabeth Hardwick," by Cathy Curtis. (W.W. Norton/TNS)

A Splendid Intelligence

The Life of Elizabeth Hardwick

by Cathy Curtis; W.W. Norton (400 pages, $35)

In 20th-century American literary circles the work of Elizabeth Hardwick inspired admiration, awe and not a little fear. Critic, essayist and novelist, Hardwick was renowned for her uncanny literary insights, devastating wit and affinity for everyday people, which she learned growing up working class in Lexington, Kentucky. But Hardwick had another role, and it was onerous. She was the wife of genius poet Robert Lowell, who suffered from terrible extremes of bipolar disorder.

In his depths he tormented her with savage criticism and extramarital affairs, then relied on her to help him recover -- until the next betrayal, and the next. For years Hardwick's story has tilted toward her life with Lowell. Now Cathy Curtis, in this first full biography of Hardwick, showcases Hardwick's story, with admirable diligence and qualified success.

Curtis stumbles out of the gate with her description of Hardwick's Southern upbringing -- her text is quote-heavy throughout, and this reader longed for a more evocative sense of Hardwick's Lexington childhood. Hardwick's plumber father died relatively young. The eighth of 11 children, she maintained a steady (if prickly) relationship with her mother, but the relationship is only hinted at (Hardwick's daughter with Lowell declined to be interviewed for this book).

Curtis is on surer ground as she re-creates Hardwick's years as a brave young woman who moved north to New York and plunged into its intellectual and political life. In 1946 she met Lowell. They eventually coupled and became linked stars in the literary firmament; Lowell for his Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry, Hardwick for her critical essays and fiction. She would go on to help found the New York Review of Books.

The marriage was a love match, but she paid dearly for it.In his manic phases Lowell preyed on admiring young women, snaring then with his brilliance, abandoning them when his mania receded. He criticized and shamed Hardwick, labeling her "dumb," calling her Lexington family to say he had never loved her.

"On a deeper level he has of course been indescribably cruel," she wrote a friend, and had "torn down ... everything we have built up ... completely exposed to the world all our sorrows which should be kept secret." During his hospitalizations she continued to run their household and manage his affairs, and stood by Lowell until he left her for British aristocrat Caroline Blackwood(for more on Lowell's condition, consult 2017's "Setting the River on Fire," Kay Redfield Jamison's insightful analysis of Lowell's mental illness).

After Lowell's death in 1977, Hardwick recovered and flourished. Though Curtis continues to favor quotes at the expense of context, she conveys Hardwick's humor, glinting intellect and nonpareil prose. She had redoubtable friends (Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag) and helped a cadre of next-generation writers through teaching, mentorship and occasional piercing criticism.

The reader develops a deep regard for a gifted woman whose Southern charm masked enormous grit. Towards the end, Hardwick observed that "Writing is so hard. ... It's the only time in your life when you have to think." She kept at it, excelled and endured, and this book does that effort justice.

--Mary Ann Gwinn

Star Tribune

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