Magazine article Newsweek

The Last of Her Breed

Magazine article Newsweek

The Last of Her Breed

Article excerpt

Byline: David Gates

ELIZABETH HARDWICK, 1916-2007

It is June. This is what I have decided to do with my life just now. I will do this work and lead this life, the one I am leading today. Each morning the blue clock and the crocheted bedspread, the table with the Phone, the books and magazines, the Times at the door.

This is the beginning of Elizabeth Hardwick's 1973 essay "Writing a Novel." You'll never find a more intimate account of what it's like inside a writer's head -- nor a better example of what scholar David Laskin called Hardwick's "confident, frankly personal, but unconfiding prose." Her first novel, "The Ghostly Lover" (1945), led Philip Rahv, co-editor of Partisan Review, to invite her to write for what was then America's most influential political and cultural journal -- despite a peak circulation of about 15,000. And although her Proustian-postmodernist novel "Sleepless Nights" was the book-with-buzz of 1979, her finest work is her criticism and essays. As Laskin indicates, she was never a confessional writer. You didn't get to know her as much as her witty, steely, daring voice. Here's a sample, from a 1987 essay on Gertrude Stein: "Many wires and strings went into the contraption, the tinkering -- When she is not tinkering, we can see her like a peasant assaulting the chicken for Sunday dinner. She would wring the neck of her words. And wring the neck of sentences, also."

Beginning in 1963, Hardwick published many of her essays in The New York Review of Books, conceived over dinner by Hardwick, her husband, Robert Lowell, and their hosts, Jason and Barbara Epstein. The New York Review writers -- Hardwick and Lowell, PR's Rahv (who'd introduced them), Hannah Arendt, Diana and Lionel Trilling, Alfred Kazin, Mary McCarthy, Dwight Macdonald, Norman Mailer, Norman Podhoretz, Susan Sontag, Edmund Wilson -- were canonical New York intellectuals. They wrote in vigorous, precise vernacular English for educated general readers, and spiced intellect with attitude. All of those named above are gone except Podhoretz, who turned neoconservative and took down some of his old colleagues in his 1979 memoir "Breaking Ranks."

The New York Review still thrives, and there are still public intellectuals: Helen Vendler, Salman Rushdie, Luc Sante, Camille Paglia, Henry Louis Gates, Noam Chomsky, Cornel West, Christopher Hitchens, Andrew Sullivan, Garry Wills, Paul Berman -- perhaps the purest descendant of the old Partisan Review crowd -- and of course Russell Jacoby, author of "The Last Intellectuals." They write about culture and politics, and many of them live in New York. …

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