In good fiction, every sentence and detail is necessary. The same is true of these impeccably economical essays, which, collected here with a wise introduction by Pinckney, offer a rich immersion in both her brilliant mind and the minds of so many others ... As these essays demonstrate, criticism should be commensurate with its subject ... This collection is also, then, an education in 20th-century American literature; a book to send a reader to other books ... A mind delighting in itself on the page is not always palatable, but Hardwick, in doing so with such restraint, is irresistible ... Astringent and unsentimental, these essays span over half a century and, as such, constitute a monumental, if unwitting, autobiography. There is indeed a pathos in that. The literature has primacy over the life, yet the truest and most vital life is not in the facts, but the fictions.
Hardwick could do more in six words than any Hemingway type, including Hemingway. Her feats of compression were exactly that, special, not habitual, because she was not really laconic and liked words better than she liked choosing between them ... It was because she could traipse and trip up and take a second to recover, then seem only to have feinted and come arcing unusually back, that her performances on the page are so captivating. She wrote more best sentences than can possibly be good for the ego ... her writing still elicits the jitter and awe of watching a favorite figure skater take to the ice, too quickly, with a new routine ... Forty-one of the fifty-five essays in The Collected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick were written for one of three magazines (the Partisan Review, the New York Review of Books, Harper’s Magazine) and yet, whether they are about hating Boston or trusting in Massachusetts transcendentalists, they are heterodox and differently mannered, with a feeling of occasional verse.
As this new anthology of her work demonstrates, she had fresh eyes, quick wits, good feelers and was murderously well-read ... To move one’s way through Hardwick’s essays is to bump into brightness on nearly every page ... This collection is a miscellany, but potent themes emerge. Hardwick took a special interest in the literature of New York City. She was incisive on Wharton and Henry James in New York, and also on the see-saw lives of the novelists and critics of her own generation ... I undervalued her. This book put me straight. Hardwick was a landmark American critic, with a George Orwell-like gift for candor. Like Orwell, her cardinal humors were essentially tolerant. Her dudgeon rose only when something vital was at stake. Her essays have novelistic density; they are a thoroughgoing pleasure.