Curtis skillfully tracks how the Southerner became a consummate New Yorker ... Curtis recounts in resonant detail Hardwick’s demanding life in New York, Europe, and Maine, charting each phase in her passionately intellectual and artistic life, and adeptly lacing her involving and invaluable chronicle with exquisite passages from her subject’s letters and published works, ensuring that Hardwick’s etched crystal voice radiates in all its resplendent beauty, valor, and knowingness.
To be a literary biographer is to court the extravagant ridicule of the very people you write about. For all of the salutary services a writer’s biography can offer—the tracing of the life, the contextualizing of the work, the resuscitation of a reputation and the deliverance from neglect—the biographer has been derided as a ‘post-mortem exploiter’ (Henry James) and a ‘professional burglar’ (Janet Malcolm) … Curtis, whose previous subjects include the midcentury painters Grace Hartigan and Elaine de Kooning, has written the kind of straightforward, informative book that Hardwick frequently deplored—a ‘scrupulous accounting of time’ (as Hardwick derisively put it), a recitation of the facts that stretch across Hardwick’s long life, with scarcely little that truly captures the compressed intensity of the work itself. Still, the book is a start … Curtis assiduously chronicles the literary panels, the gossip and the ailments of Hardwick’s later years, before she died in 2007, observing the rhythms of Hardwick’s work while never quite falling into sync with them. But then a march is different from a dance, even if each has its own choreography.”
Curtis is a keen archivist ... 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 ... Robert Lowell...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.