Exploring Where the Novel Ends and the Person Begins in “A Splendid Intelligence” – Chicago Review of Books


Cathy Curtis’s subject in A Splendid Intelligence: the Life of Elizabeth Hardwick is mighty. A writer whose career spanned decades—a ‘literary lion’. It is a chronological account of the writer’s life. The first couple of chapters trace Hardwick’s origins. It draws a portrait of a young Elizabeth whose “bookish tastes made her an anomaly in her family”; who had a sense of herself as an ‘intellectual’ even as a young university student, and who later dropped out of her doctorate program because she felt she ‘lacked sufficient ambition’ for a PhD. These chapters illustrate how the writer gravitated towards writing, not out of any real structured inspiration, but as a result of her attachment to the written word. Her desire to see anew the ordinary, to add “…nothing grand, but a little twist’ to what was already known.” How she became a writer is perhaps one of the more elemental questions a writer’s biography can answer, and while A Splendid Intelligence indulges this question, it is not assembled around it. 

Sure, we learn the origins of Hardwick’s  condensed style. But A Splendid Intelligence seeks something more. It aspires to excavate, archive, and lay bare the life of a “famously private person”. Go beyond the “glimpses…revealed in her published writing.” Curtis is a keen archivist; she uses a variety of sources—correspondences, book reviews, author profiles, photographs, and where possible she even manages to document gossip. Her attempt to situate Hardwick’s Lexington childhood by tracking her father’s occupation using the 1927 city directory is a clarifying illustration of this keenness.  

Geographic specificity is crucial to A Splendid Intelligence. Curtis’s archive thus includes geographical landmarks; annotations of locations. For instance, at the end of the first chapter, Curtis notes that leaving the South for New York City was a “critical, defining moment”. And the chapter  “European Immersion,”that covers the early years of Hardwick’s marriage to Robert Lowell (1950-52), examines the couple’s Europe trip in great detail. Where Elizabeth was (geographically) located seems to be as important to the biography as what she was doing. While Curtis’s attention to detail indulges commotion in some places, in most others it fascinates. Specific to biographies of writers is the difficulty of filtering the written word. Surely, there is a line—however thin—between the subject as the writer and the subject as the person outside the performance. Here too it is difficult to see Elizabeth Hardwick outside her occupation as a writer. From Curtis’s account, it is easy to admire the writer and just as difficult to comprehend the person beneath. As a writer she was deeply cherished, traditional but also sought new ways of telling if that alone guaranteed authenticity. As a person outside of her words, she appears to be someone who struggled with motherhood, marriage, and love in all forms. 

Take for instance, her relationship with Robert Lowell. Appearing first in the third chapter, he crowds the biography from the moment he is introduced and long after the point he and Hardwick part ways. In these parts, it is impossible to adore Hardwick, and yet this is perhaps where she is most human. Most vulnerable. These parts made me wonder if Elizabeth Hardwick would have appreciated this exhibition of her vulnerabilities. Perhaps not, Cathy Curtis admits. Curtis has no fear in evidencing Hardwick’s lack of trust and appreciation towards the genre. So, “why would anyone want to write a biography?” Maybe, Curtis is also filled with that selfish, almost violent interest that plagues so many of us readers. We all want to know where the novel ends and the person begins. The biography is a curious genre; it demands a voyeurism, an inquisitiveness—from both its writer and its reader—for a micro-history. The genre therefore seems to demand that some very private lives be almost made a public resource— open for examination to assuage our curiosities. But to also record and to remember.

See Also


A Splendid Intelligence resuscitates an unforgotten writer. 

NONFICTION
A Splendid Intelligence: The Life of Elizabeth Hardwick
By Cathy Curtis
W. W. Norton & Company
Published November 16, 2021

Barathi Nakkeeran

Barathi (she/her) is a researcher/ writer based in New Delhi, India.



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