It’s the birthday of writer and critic Elizabeth Hardwick (books by this author), born in Lexington, Kentucky (1916). She moved to New York to study at Columbia. In 1946, she met the poet Robert Lowell at a party. He was in the middle of an ugly divorce from his first wife, the writer Jean Stafford, but Hardwick and Lowell reconnected at a writers retreat and married in 1949. During their honeymoon, Lowell had a manic depressive attack, and throughout their marriage, he had frequent affairs and breakdowns. She said: “I didn’t know what I was getting into, but even if I had, I still would have married him. He was not crazy all the time — most of the time he was wonderful.”
In 1959, an editor at Harper’s named Robert Silvers put together an issue about the state of literature in America, and he asked Hardwick to write a piece. Her essay, “The Decline of Book Reviewing,” sparked a huge controversy — even the owner of Harpers wrote a letter condemning it. She wrote: “In America, now … a genius may indeed go to his grave unread, but he will hardly have gone to it unpraised. Sweet, bland commendations 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 be excused for ‘minor faults in an otherwise excellent work.'”
In early 1963, Hardwick and Lowell were having dinner with Jason and Barbara Epstein, their friends and neighbors on West 67th Street. The New York Times was on strike, and Jason Epstein joked that life was nice and easy now that they had nothing to do, with no New York Times Book Review to read. They talked about starting their own book review, and realized that it actually was the perfect time to do it, since publishers were getting desperate without the Times. The next morning, Lowell went to the bank and took out a $4,000 loan secured by his trust fund. They called Robert Silvers, the editor at Harper’s, and asked if he would be interested in working as an editor for their not-yet-existent publication; he accepted immediately. They put together the first issue of The New York Review of Books at the dining room table in Hardwick and Lowell’s apartment. It was published in February of 1963, featuring work by Norman Mailer, William Styron, and Mary McCarthy. They printed 100,000 copies, which sold out right away. Hardwick was not an official editor — that role went to Barbara Epstein and Robert Silvers — but she was an editorial advisor. She helped shape the overall content and image of the review; Jason Epstein described Hardwick as “a presiding sensibility whom everyone wished to satisfy.”
Hardwick’s books of fiction and essays collections include Sleepless Nights (1979), Bartleby in Manhattan and Other Essays (1983), and Sight Readings: American Fiction(1998).
She said, “There are really only two reasons to write: desperation or revenge.”