One could compose a review of Cathy Curtis’s disappointing A Splendid Intelligence: The Life of Elizabeth Hardwick just by quoting Curtis’s subject on the disappointments of literary biography. Here is Hardwick, one of the great American writers of the twentieth century, on the deadly tidying up of life’s vital messiness: “Biographers, the quick in pursuit of the dead, research, organize, fill in, contradict, and make in this way a sort of completed picture puzzle with all the scramble turned into a blue eye and the parts of the right leg fitted together.” Here she is on the biographer’s replacement of sensibility with brute industry: “Full-length biographies are a natural occupation for professors, for only they have the inclination to look at a life as a sort of dig.” Most brilliantly, here she is on a biography of Hemingway:
We have been told that no man is a hero to his valet. Professor Baker’s method makes valets of us all. We keep the calendar of our master’s engagements, we lay out his clothes, we order his wine, we pack the bags.… We get the dirty work and somebody else, somewhere, gets the real joy of the man, his charm, his uniqueness, his deeply puzzling inner life.
There is real joy in Elizabeth Hardwick’s essays, novels, and letters. There isn’t much to be found in Curtis’s A Splendid Intelligence. We keep the calendar of Hardwick’s engagements: when she went here, how she went there. We learn about her childhood in Kentucky (lazy summers and segregated movie theaters); we learn about her marriage (her husband, the poet Robert Lowell, didn’t like household chores); we learn about her early jobs (as a young woman, she “was hired to condense ‘very bad’ detective novels to about 128 pages, suitable for pulp fiction paperbacks”). But you don’t read a biography of a writer to be a valet. You read it to get access to the puzzling inner life of the writer and the writing. And we don’t get that here.
A Splendid Intelligence is not a bad book, though there are passages that Hardwick, a merciless critic, would not have let stand—for example, the biography’s final, vaporous sentence: “Spinning large and small observations out of inventive allusion and gossamer subtlety, she always required the reader to keep thinking along with her.” But Curtis does collect some excellent details. Late in life, “cable TV came to Castine,” the Maine town where Hardwick had a house. “Elizabeth had followed the cable installers in her car,” Curtis writes, “calling out, ‘Don’t forget me! I signed up early!’” Decades earlier, in 1958, Hardwick and Lowell planned a party. “Sixty-nine-year-old T. S. Eliot, now married to a woman less than half his age, was supposed to be the guest of honor at the Lowells’ dinner for eight in May, but a night of dancing with her gave him heart palpitations.” Eliot, that figure of poetic solemnity, boogying until his heart almost gives out: that’s good.
As Curtis notes, Hardwick is not interesting because of her marriage to Lowell. We care about her because of her own work: its distinctive style, its steely classicism heated by critical passion. Curtis quotes from Hardwick’s essays and summarizes their topics. But she doesn’t do what a biography of such a critic must do: tell us how the sentences work, how the intelligence becomes splendid on the page.
Hardwick had “a gift for pointed observation,” Curtis writes. But how were these pointed observations rendered? What were the particular rhythms of her mind? Curtis occasionally tries to give an account: “Elizabeth’s opinions typically rested on a series of discrete observations and unusual metaphors—the opposite of lawyerly prose that builds a case by marshaling increasingly weighty arguments.” That’s a bad description of lawyerly prose and an unhelpful explanation of Hardwick’s style. Her metaphors were unusual in what way, specifically? Well, for a writer who, in Joan Didion’s words, displayed such “exquisite diffidence” in her essays, Hardwick’s figurative comparisons were remarkably corporeal, even earthy. Take this description of Gertrude Stein: “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.” You can take the essayist out of the South, but you can’t take the South out of the essayist. Elsewhere, Hardwick describes a series of clauses “as a smug little group of atoms, homogenized and pasteurized like milk in a bottle.” Worth noting, too, is Hardwick’s distinctive syntax: no critic used commas more interestingly, marching through a series of adjectives in the hopes of getting precisely the right description. A poem by Sylvia Plath “is done, completed, perfected”; Ibsen’s character, Hedda Gabler, is “finally just a series of gestures, isolated, drifting.”
In “Reflections on Fiction,” Hardwick writes, “To assert greatness does not give us the key; it is only the lock.” A Splendid Intelligence insists on Hardwick’s greatness, but fails to provide a key that could unlock it. Its “pointed observations” yield no real insight into its subject’s genius.