Wednesday, December 5, 2007

A Lost Ideal

Elizabeth Hardwick (1916-2007) died last Sunday evening, December 2, 2007, in Manhattan. A frequent contributor to Partisan Review, Hardwick was well known as an essayist, novelist, and reviewing. Along with her husband, Robert Lowell, Hardwick was one of the founders of The New York Review of Books in 1963, after an 114-day newspaper strike in New York City. An acclaimed novelist and short story writer, Hardwick is most well known for her insightful, passionate essays. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt described her as, "credited for expanding the possibilities of the literary essay through her intimate tone and her dramatic deployment of forceful logic." Hardwick was also a frequent contributor to The New Yorker, The New Republic, and Harper's, where she published one of her most mentioned essays, "The Decline of Book Reviewing." Published in 1959, this essay criticized what Hardwick saw as a lack of criticism in book reviewing--everyone instead all too eager to pass around praise for even the most minor achievement. (Photo at right is of Hardwick in 1983; image from the New York Times.)

Here is a long excerpt of the essay (copied from the Harper's website): "In America, now, oblivion, literary failure, obscurity, neglect—all the great moments of artistic tragedy and neglect—still occur, but the natural conditions for the occurrence are in a state of camouflage, like those decorating ideas in which wood is painted to look like paper and paper to look like wood. A genius may indeed go to his grave unread, but he will hardly have gone to it unpraised. Sweet, bland condemnations fall everywhere upon the scene; a universal, if somewhat lobotomized, accommodation reigns. A book is born into a puddle of treacle; the brine of hostile criticism is only a memory. Everyone is found to have 'filled a need' and is to be 'thanked' for something and to be excused for 'minor faults in an otherwise excellent work.' 'A thoroughly mature artist' appears many times a week and often daily; many are the bringers of those 'messages the Free World will ignore at its peril.'"

[Here is Hardwick in a 1985 Art of Fiction interview in The Paris Review.]

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