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Elizabeth Hardwick, 1916 - 2007

New York Review of Books co-founder

December 05, 2007|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

Elizabeth Hardwick, a critic, essayist and fiction writer whose wry, poetic and sometimes acerbic style helped set the tone for the New York Review of Books, the literary magazine she co-founded, has died. She was 91. Hardwick, whose best known novel is the autobiographical "Sleepless Nights," died Sunday at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital in New York City, according to Catherine Tice, associate publisher of the New York Review of Books. She had been hospitalized for a minor infection, Tice said.

"Elizabeth Hardwick was one of the finest writers of prose in post-war America," Robert B. Silvers, editor of the New York Review of Books, said in a statement Tuesday. "Subtle, uncompromising, original in her insights, she was the conscience of the paper."

Hardwick's friend and colleague Jason Epstein, a co-founder of the magazine, said, "Elizabeth helped create the style, the tone and the standard we aimed at. She was a brilliant stylist, a scrupulous critic and she had read everything. She was a model of what we wanted for the paper."

Another friend of Hardwick's, novelist Diane Johnson, referred to her as "part of the first generation of women intellectuals to make a mark in New York's literary circle. She was a true woman of letters," Johnson said in a 2006 interview with The Times.

Hardwick co-founded the book review in 1963 with poet Robert Lowell, who was her husband at the time, Epstein and his wife, Barbara Epstein. Silvers became co-editor with Barbara Epstein, who remained in her position until she died last year.

Hardwick was as outspoken and opinionated as any of the early contributors, including Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer. Her themes, however, were close to those of novelist Mary McCarthy, another early contributor.

She often wrote about women, in her literary criticism and her fiction. Her best known book of essays, "Seduction and Betrayal: Women in Literature" (1974), offers unconventional critiques of famous literary heroines, "whose fate is defined by adulterous love," Hardwick wrote in the book's title essay.

The collection reflected Hardwick's major theme as a writer, Joan Didion noted in a 1979 review of the book for the New York Times.

"In certain ways the mysterious and somnambulistic 'difference' of being a woman has been, over 35 years, Elizabeth Hardwick's great subject," Didion wrote. She is drawn to "women adrift," who "indulge a fatal preference for men of bad character," Didion observed.

"Perhaps no one has written more poignantly about the ways in which women compensate for their relative physiological inferiority," Didion wrote.

One essay in the collection considers Emily Bronte and her 1847 novel, "Wuthering Heights." Hardwick contrasted Bronte's personal life as a "penniless intellectual" living with her lonely sisters and her explosive father, to her treatment of the novel's tormented main characters, Cathy and Heathcliff.

The harsh fate for the novel's unrequited lovers indicated that Bronte was "in every way indifferent to the need for love and companionship" in her own life, Hardwick argues. " 'Wuthering Heights' is a virgin's novel," she concludes.

While Hardwick was concerned about women's roles in society and the injustices against them, "she was not really a feminist writer," said critic Helen Vendler in a 2006 interview with the Los Angeles Times. "She was an original thinker not a group-think writer.

"She reflected on women's condition," Vendler said of Hardwick. "Intelligent reflection can have a greater impact than polemics."

Hardwick began writing essays in the 1940s for the Partisan Review, a literary quarterly that also featured social criticism. It was "the very peak of my ambition at that time," she wrote in an autobiographical essay for "World Authors" in 1975.

"I was very interested in intellectual matters, tended to be opinionated about politics, social problems and the general cultural scene in America," she wrote. "These considerations led me inevitably to the essay."

However, "it took me a number of years to get anything like a voice in my critical writing," Hardwick said in a 1979 essay in the New York Times. A good essay should be "full of personality, eloquence and daring," she said.

Hardwick also wrote essays about current events, some of which are collected in "Bartleby in Manhattan and Other Essays" (1983).

Political violence in the 1960s, including the assassinations of President Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald, Kennedy's alleged assassin, are among her subjects in the book.

"As these essays of the past 20 years show," critic Richard Eder wrote in a review for the Los Angeles Times, "Hardwick's concerns have two qualities that make her one of our finest critics: a heart that wants to be moved and a critical intelligence that refuses to indulge it."

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