If one is the kind of person who takes pleasure in intelligent meanness, then Hardwick is certainly one of his master practitioners. She is sharp in her satire, icy in her judgments, cunning in her takedowns. She’s what Janet Malcolm once called “fearless charity” and what the Partisan Review editor called “one of our sharper minds.” Take, for example, her description of Monica Lewinsky: “Monica, who is still very much lacking in discretion, as nurses call it when describing stroke victims.”
An invigorating and refreshing aspect of Hardwick’s work is that she does not spare herself from her own critical rigor and fierceness. She pins herself just like she pins other people. At one point she confesses, “As a writer, I feel an almost inexplicable attraction and hostility to the work of other female writers. Envy, competitiveness, contempt sometimes taint my judgment, and indifference is strangely hard to find in this case.” Her deeply charged attitude towards other female writers will not have escaped the attention of close readers of her work, but there is something about her open struggle with this inclination on the page that is disarming.As a critic, she does not shy away from the complications, ambiguities and self-accusations. which many other people would simmer but leave unmentioned.
In these pages, she does not directly address the pain of the messy end of her marriage to the poet Robert Lowell or the excruciating public humiliation of his use of her letters in his poetry collection. †The Dolphin.” But she eloquently writes of the collapse of one’s life in middle age: “Nothing is more pitiful than an elderly woman cast into ‘freedom,’ lying like a wounded dragon in a paralysis of rage and bitter nostalgia.” The disorientation and recalculation that come with the breakdown of a marriage seems to seep into her essays on culture in general. There is a personal urgency, a sense of a world ruptured, that finds its way into many of her interrogations of the climate of the 1970s and her more philosophical investigations into the difficulties of life.
In a curious and remarkable essay, “When to Cast Out, To Give Up, To Let Go,” she speaks in general or ruminating terms of personal disasters like her own. “In love, the despair that comes from loss, from hardship casts us into the desert. Sometimes it is only through stark and magnificent renunciations that wounded people can find water in the sand.” She struggles on the page with the ability to accept the loss of love. She writes that “affection then is not the strange, ambivalent manipulation of the death of love, but a sort of salute to its happier beginning.”
Her unpredictable, wildly contradictory, bewildered views on feminism are perhaps this edition’s greatest revelation. In a series of essays on contemporary femininity, she writes about the burdens of the new freedoms women experience, the new pressures they cause, and the new problems created by the loss of domestic scripts. Is the modern, liberated world better for women? Hardwick isn’t sure. Elsewhere she has commented on Simone de Beauvoir’s “brilliantly confused” mindset, and we see some of her own here. In some of her essays on the women’s movement, she seems rather lost; the authority and trust we associate with her falter in confused thoughts and wistful musings. She writes in 1971: “I look at little girls with wonder and fear. I don’t know if they will be free – the only certainty is that many will drift.”