Saturday, December 22, 2007

Call for Elizabeth Hardwick Information

Elizabeth Hardwick, the doyen of the New York Review of Books, died earlier this month at the age of 91. Her literary legacy was vast, but she was best known as a critic and essayist. She descried the failings of book reviews in the late 1950s, and as a reaction to it and a newspaper strike that had knocked The New York Times Book Review out of circulation, co-founded The New York Review of Books with her husband, the poet Robert Lowell, and others.

Her marriage to Lowell was famously troubled. He was beset by manic depression, in an age when there weren't great treatment options, and he frequently took off with other women during his manic bouts. The relationship reached its low point when Lowell published The Dolphin, a collection that set many of Hardwick's anguished letters and phone calls in sonnet form.

In addition to four volumes of essays, Hardwick also published several novels, including the autobiographical Sleepless Nights in 1979. She was a common participant in literary prize juries for decades. Most notably, she championed Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow as a member of the 1974 Pulitzer fiction committee; the choice was rejected by the Pulitzer board, and no prize was given that year.

What most impresses me about Hardwick is the variety of topics that she was able to write about with great intelligence, originality and wit. She was from Kentucky, and that aspect of her personality never seems to have gotten lost, despite her time in New York. In researching this entry, I came across a wonderful article she wrote for The New York Review of Books late in her life about horse racing in Kentucky, titled Celebrities. It was the last thing I expected to find, but it all made sense given her background as a Kentucky belle.

My former college professor, advisor and mentor, Sonya Jones, who is now at the University of Kentucky, is beginning the arduous and hopefully exhilarating task of writing a biography of Hardwick. I believe that Sonya, a poet herself, is the perfect person for this task. Sonya's literary sensibilities and her shared Kentucky background with Hardwick bode well. I can hardly wait for the publication.

Alas, there is much to be done. Sonya is gathering information, and asked for my help in spreading the word. She would like to hear from writers, editors and publishers who knew Hardwick or had contact with her or Robert Lowell. Sonya Jones can be contacted at

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