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Washington Diarist


It is like the tulip craze, this primary season, except that nobody knows which ones are the tulips. The Clinton panic, his even more than hers, the cracking of their feeling of entitlement to power, is delightful to witness (if she loses the nomination or the election, she will not have lost, she will have been denied); and the Obama question--isn't he lovely?--has an increasing number of people wondering whether loveliness, and a loamy reiteration of the enduring American fantasy about the transcendence of politics, is a sufficient qualification to rule. Meanwhile an unprecedented number of Americans are typing and hyping their opinions about the contest: the barricades are down, the punditocracy is dead, the technology has killed it, the people are their own commentators. So the temptation to add one's own incandescence to the din is easy to resist. Anyway, I have something better--more primary, if you will--to write about. Another wristwatch has been taken from another wrist.

I adapt those words from Robert Lowell, because the wrist this time was Elizabeth Hardwick's--his wife, but enough of that, she was abundantly more. The obituary in The New York Times reported her remark that "everything I know I learned from him," but I do not believe her. Lizzie's temperament, her angle of perception, her lordship of language: these could not have been acquired, even from Lowell, even by love. The story of her accomplishment should not be made to fit into the story of her marriage, not least because it obscures her blazing untheorized womanliness. Not since Jean Rhys has the experience of existing as a woman been so truthfully and so freshly rendered in English prose, or so it seems to this thankful man. Lizzie's great subject was not the eternal feminine, it was the temporal feminine; and to call this feminism, though she was certainly a feminist, is to dull it, to pummel art into a mere position. The force of her accounts of the womanly life (about which there was nothing ladylike) was owed finally to the fact, plain to all who knew her, that there was something even more essential than Lizzie's sex, and it was her individuation. Nobody spoke or wrote like Lizzie--no other woman, no other man.

She was a paradoxical creature: Southern curves, Northern lines. When she went from Kentucky to New York, "the holy city," in 1939, she did not subtract, she added; and so her mind became an enchanting union of delicacy and asperity. In her criticism, Lizzie knew how to be devastating without being militant. She had all the brains of the Partisan Review crew but none of the sacerdotal sureness. She never needed to think of herself as the smartest person she knew. Instead there was a spinning intelligence wickedly applied. Lizzie's wickedness was rightly legendary. ("History assaults you and if you live you are restored to the world of gossip.") She could be even more virulently funny about people she loved than about people she hated, which consoled me when I would wonder about the jokes she made when I left the room. Sometimes the wildness of her observations about our mutual friends shocked me, though she was always pointing to something that was really there, and the playfulness almost always kept pace with the malice. The epicene pleasures of her conversation, especially when we were drinking, were for me one of the keys to the city. (And of her letters, too: "Dear Cottonhead," she would begin.) She made you feel like the other member of a conspiracy of two.

And yet she was not only, or mainly, wicked; and she was not another slave to metropolitan wit. Lizzie was an inexhaustibly magnanimous woman: "Public assistance, beautiful phrase." She had a skill for lightening your load without lying to you about it. She was the most masterful of readers: she read people as strenuously as she read books, and in Sleepless Nights, one of the most beautiful blues ever sung in Manhattan, what Lizzie read was life. She never left a book as she found it; I will always remember the rainy evening in which she unmade and then remade Middlemarch for me. She possessed the "greed for particulars" that she admired in the women poets of her time. ("It is Saturday and people with debts are going to restaurants.") As for her intimacy with the language, it really does remind you of the sorcery of Lowell, this certainty that a particular word is being used in a particular way for the very first time. Lizzie was one of those writers whom other writers read enviously. I used to worry that the glittering example of her style, the voluptuousness that she knew how to confer upon her every apprehension, was partly responsible for the rampant preciosity, the cult of the sentence, in the American writing of her day--for that cursory New Yorkerish pseudo-aestheticism that responds to, say, The Fire Next Time, or even to The Birth of Tragedy, by declaring it to be a fine piece of writing; but there were other culprits, too. Like those painters who make you forget the difference between abstraction and representation, Lizzie made you forget the difference between poetry and prose.

One afternoon Lizzie made me forget something else. We were in her apartment, in the atrium of her sensibility, and she was leafing through an album of photographs. I noticed an old picture of her, black and white, standing in a doorway in perfect vitality, a flowing skirt and a tight sweater, a cigarette in her hand and an exalting look of self-possession in her eyes. I will say only that I was immediately reminded of a certain cheesy Christopher Reeve movie that had played in the theaters not long before. The sting of belatedness was sugar-sweet, and I count it now among what she once called "the antiquarian interests of middle age." Lizzie knew nothing of it, of course. She kept merrily turning, and interpreting, the pages. The double-tied knot of memory and desire: it was her own theme, after all.

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.

By Leon Wieseltier