Authors: Elizabeth Hardwick

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American essayist, novelist, and editor

Author Works


A View of My Own: Essays on Literature and Society, 1962

Seduction and Betrayal: Women and Literature, 1974

Bartleby in Manhattan, and Other Essays, 1983

Sight-Readings: American Fictions, 1998

Herman Melville, 2000

Long Fiction:

The Ghostly Lover, 1945

The Simple Truth, 1955

Sleepless Nights, 1979

Edited Texts:

Selected Letters of William James, 1961

Rediscovered Fiction by American Women: A Personal Selection, 1977 (18 volumes)

The Best American Essays, 1986, 1986


Elizabeth Bruce Hardwick established a distinguished literary career through writing novels, short stories, and essays; she also became a reviewer, an editor, and–at age eighty-four–a biographer with an acclaimed study of Herman Melville. In addition to writing, Hardwick served as a professor of creative writing, and she, along with a few other literary figures, launched The New York Review of Books in 1963. Literature, the writing as well as the reviewing of it, proved the consuming interest of Hardwick’s life.{$I[AN]9810001839}{$I[A]Hardwick, Elizabeth}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Hardwick, Elizabeth}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Hardwick, Elizabeth}{$I[tim]1916;Hardwick, Elizabeth}

Hardwick was born on July 27, 1916, in Lexington, Kentucky. She came from a big family and grew up with many brothers and sisters. Her parents, Eugene and Mary Hardwick, were hardworking people of modest means. As a child, Hardwick was fascinated by books, and by the time she graduated from Henry Clay High School, she was ready to pursue her love of literature. She enrolled in the University of Kentucky and earned her B.A. degree in 1938. One year later, the university awarded her an M.A. degree.

Hardwick, like so many other literary people of her generation, went to New York City to perfect her art and seek fame as a writer. She enrolled in Columbia University to work on her doctorate in English literature. Hardwick withdrew from the program, however, after realizing that a Ph.D. would not help her get a teaching job; few women with doctorates at this time were hired for top teaching positions. When Hardwick left Columbia, she did not become idle: She devoted all of her energy to writing.

Hardwick’s first novel, The Ghostly Lover, was published in 1945. The novel, which is semiautobiographical, studies the entangled relationships and difficulties of communication within a middle-class family. Although the book received mixed reviews, it helped establish Hardwick’s reputation as a writer. Critics noted the subtle, witty quality of her novel, and magazine editors began to contact her about contributing shorter pieces.

During the ten-year interval between her first and second novels, there were several developments in Hardwick’s career and life. She began writing short stories; the best of these, “People on a Roller Coaster” (1945) and “What We Have Missed” (1946), were selected for the O. Henry Memorial Award Prize Stories in their respective years. In 1948, Hardwick also received a Guggenheim Fellowship in fiction. By 1949, she was a wife; she married the poet Robert Lowell, one of the most important literary figures of the period.

As Hardwick continued to hone her skills as a writer of fiction, she also discovered a new genre–nonfiction. Her concern about political and social matters, she later wrote in her autobiographical sketch for World Authors: 1950-1970 (1975), led her “inevitably to the essay.” This genre was profitable for Hardwick, and it is her essays, rather than her fiction, that warrant her place in American letters.

Hardwick’s second novel, The Simple Truth, was published in 1955. This book, like the first, elicited mixed critical reviews. The story, which centers on the trial of a penniless student at a midwestern college who is accused of murdering his rich sweetheart, puzzled some reviewers. Others praised Hardwick’s adept technical handling of a rather complicated plot. After the publication of this novel, Hardwick abandoned fiction writing for several years, choosing instead to concentrate on writing essays.

In 1957, Hardwick’s daughter, Harriet Winslow Lowell, was born. While being a wife and mother took up much of Hardwick’s time, she continued to write. Her interests during the early 1960’s shifted, however, from writing to publishing, and in 1963, she, along with her like-minded friends, started The New York Review of Books. This periodical, according to its editorial credo, was dedicated to presenting “reviews of some of the more important books published.” Hardwick contributed book reviews and essays about political, social, and cultural issues throughout the many years she served on the magazine’s editorial advisory board.

Though Hardwick was hard at work on The New York Review of Books, she took on another career challenge. She began teaching creative writing courses when she joined the faculty of Barnard College as an adjunct professor of English in 1964. She also began giving lectures in such prestigious institutions as Princeton University and Vassar College. In the 1970’s, her life again underwent many changes. She and Lowell divorced in 1972, and she turned once more to writing fiction. Her third novel, Sleepless Nights, appeared in 1979. This work, a fusion of autobiography and fiction, was lauded by reviewers for its incisive, condensed style.

Hardwick’s writing has been praised for its liveliness. A similar vitality characterizes her distinguished literary career. There was never a period in her career when Elizabeth Hardwick was not active, and her fiction, essays, and reviews secured a place for her in the history of twentieth century American literature.

BibliographyBranin, Joseph J. “Elizabeth Hardwick.” In American Novelists Since World War II, Second Series, edited by James E. Kibler, Jr. Vol. 6 in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: Gale Research, 1980. Includes background information on Hardwick’s upbringing in Kentucky and the effect on her writing of her move to New York. Mentions her long and successful career as a social and literary critic but notes the lack of development in her novels. A useful introduction.Caplan, Brina. “The Teller as the Tale.” Georgia Review 33, no. 4 (Winter, 1979): 933-940. An essay-review of Sleepless Nights that classifies it as a “novel-memoir” and compares it with Lillian Hellman’s Three (1979).Faust, Langdon Lynn, ed. American Women Writers: A Critical Reference Guide from Colonial Times to the Present. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1988. Offers a biographical overview of Hardwick, with brief commentary on the thematic content of her principal publications.Lamont, Rosette. “The Off-Center Spatiality of Women’s Discourse.” In Theory and Practice of Feminist Literary Criticism, edited by Gabriela Mora and Karen S. Van Hooft. Ypsilanti, Mich.: Bilingual Press, 1982. Analyzes Hardwick’s writing in terms of feminist literary theory.Miller, Jane. “Resisting the Bullies.” In Women Writing About Men. London: Virago Press, 1986. In this chapter, Miller mentions Hardwick’s book Seduction and Betrayal and its reference to women who become heroes by gaining mastery over their husbands. In so doing, she places Hardwick in the genre of women writers–such as Virginia Woolf–who write about women striving for recognition in their own right.Nobile, Philip. Intellectual Skywriting: Literary Politics and “The New York Review of Books.” New York: Charterhouse, 1974. Examines Hardwick’s role in the founding of The New York Review of Books and some of her theories about writing as they pertain to the periodical’s editorial policies.Peters, Margaret. “Fiction Under a True Name: Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights.” Chicago Review 31, no. 2 (Autumn, 1979): 129-136. A feminist analysis emphasizing the autobiographical nature of the novel. Offers comparisons with The Ghostly Lover.Stone, Laurie. “Hardwick’s Way.” The Village Voice, May 7, 1979, 98-100. “I have almost nothing negative to say about this book,” says Stone in this appreciative review of Hardwick’s novel Sleepless Nights. Also comments on the feminist theme in Hardwick’s work Seduction and Betrayal.
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