A Splendid Intelligence: The Life of Elizabeth Hardwick by Cathy Curtis - review by Richard Davenport-Hines

Richard Davenport-Hines

Sleepless in New York

A Splendid Intelligence: The Life of Elizabeth Hardwick


W W Norton 376pp £27.99

Lexington Public Library was the saving of Elizabeth Hardwick. Born in 1916, eighth of the eleven children of a chain-smoking plumber, she grew up in a multiracial district of Lexington, Kentucky. Derelict people and building plots surrounded her as a girl; ‘the debris of hope’, she called the rubbish tips and human renegades. The Lexington librarians’ shelf classification of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice as a mystery led her to discover classic literature. She became an avid reader and began her self-propelled flight from provincialism.

When, at high school, she was voted the ‘best-natured member of the class’, she cried herself to sleep with mortification. At the age of eighteen, in 1934, she entered the University of Kentucky. Its émigré European professors, the poetry of Auden and Eliot, and political activism all thrilled her. She wanted to write but did not wish to be pigeonholed as a Southern writer. In 1939 she started doctoral research on 17th-century English poetry at Columbia University in New York, but she grew impatient with the finicky textualism of her work. She underwent real privation as she tried to establish herself as a writer.

The urban wild of New York

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