This Day In Writing History
On July 27th, 1916, the famous American writer and literary critic Elizabeth Hardwick was born in Lexington, Kentucky. She was eighth in a family of eleven children. Her father ran a plumbing and heating business. Although he and his wife brought up their children in a strict Protestant household, they also held leftist views, and Elizabeth inherited their deep compassion for the poor.
In 1939, Elizabeth moved to New York City to do graduate work at Columbia university. Two years later, she dropped out to become a freelance writer. As a literary critic, she reviewed books for highbrow publications such as the Partisan Review, whose editor, Philip Rahv, became her lover for a brief time. She would later describe her life in Manhattan as being comprised of "love and alcohol and clothes on the floor." She embraced the bohemian lifestyle of writing, free love, and jazz nightclubs.
Elizabeth Hardwick's first novel, The Ghostly Lover, was published in 1945. A year later, she attended a party given by poet Robert Lowell and his wife at their Greenwich Village apartment. Elizabeth and Robert would meet again at Yaddo, a famous retreat for writers in upstate New York. By this time, Robert had completed his messy divorce from his wife Jean Stafford, a hardened alcoholic who had given up writing to spend more time with the bottle.
Elizabeth and Robert dated for a couple of years, then married in 1949. The marriage would prove to be both long and tempestuous. Robert was mentally ill; during their honeymoon, he had to be committed following a severe manic-depressive episode. At the hospital, he received shock treatment. After he recovered and was released, he and Elizabeth traveled to Europe, where Robert took a job as a teacher in Salzburg.
Robert Lowell's struggle with mental illness continued. In addition to manic depression, he suffered from psychotic episodes. While teaching in Salzburg, he engaged in an affair with one of his students - an affair that existed only in his mind. He had another breakdown, received treatment, and was released. It would be a recurring pattern for him. Elizabeth Hardwick struggled to keep her marriage together. When her husband engaged in real life affairs with other women, she forgave the casual flings.
Meanwhile, in 1956, (at the age of 40) Elizabeth gave birth to their only child, a daughter named Harriet. She continued with her writing career. In 1955, her second novel, The Simple Truth, was published. Four years later, in 1959, she published her famous essay, The Decline of Book Reviewing, in Harper's Magazine. It was a scathing critique of the book reviews currently being published in American periodicals - including The New York Times Book Review. Though she and her husband had parted and reunited several times, by 1961, the marriage finally seemed solid and stable.
In 1963, Elizabeth Hardwick, along with her friends Jason Epstein, Barbara Epstein, and Robert B. Silvers, founded the legendary literary magazine, The New York Review of Books. For many years, she served as editorial adviser and creative consultant, and also published numerous essays in the magazine. Her last, published in 2oo3, was about Nathanael West, the legendary author of the classic novels Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) and The Day of the Locust (1939) whose brilliant writing career and young life were cut short by a car accident.
Elizabeth Hartwick's 21-year marriage finally came to an end in 1970, when instead of a casual fling, her husband fell in love with another woman - novelist Lady Caroline Blackwood. By 1972, Elizabeth and Robert Lowell divorced, and he married Caroline. Elizabeth returned to her writing career. When she wasn't working or writing for The New York Review of Books, she worked on her third novel, Sleepless Nights, which would be published in 1979.
In addition to her novels and short fiction, Elizabeth published several non-fiction books, including a biography of Herman Melville and a true crime book about the Caryl Chessman case, which was one of several cases that led the Supreme Court to ban capital punishment as unconstitutional in 1972. Chessman, a career criminal, had been convicted of being the "Red Light Bandit," a serial robber who sometimes raped his female victims after robbing them.
Chessman was sentenced to death because a law on California's books (passed as a result of the Lindbergh baby case) made kidnapping with bodily harm a capital offense. Acting as his own attorney, Chessman appealed his conviction vigorously, claiming that it was due to mistaken identity. He won eight stays of execution. On his ninth date of execution, the governor's office called the prison with another order to stay it, but the call came in too late - Chessman was already in the gas chamber, choking to death.
Elizabeth Hardwick's account of the Chessman case was included in the Library of America's 200-year retrospective of American true crime writing. She died in 2007 at the age of 91.
Quote Of The Day
"The greatest gift is a passion for reading. It is cheap, it consoles, it distracts, it excites, it gives you knowledge of the world and experience of a wide kind. It is a moral illumination." - Elizabeth Hardwick
Today's video features a panel discussion of how three great writers - Elizabeth Hardwick, Henry James, and Edith Wharton - chronicled life in New York City in their short fiction. Enjoy!