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Elizabeth Hardwick, the critic, essayist, fiction writer and co-founder of The New York Review of Books, who went from being a studious Southern Belle to a glittering member of the New York City intellectual elite, died Sunday night in Manhattan. She was 91…Known mainly as a critic, and credited for expanding the possibilities of the literary essay through her intimate tone and her dramatic deployment of forceful logic, Ms. Hardwick nevertheless resisted easy classification… “Articulate, witty, very clever, freewheeling, she became a master of the slashing critical style of the politicized literary intellectuals,” wrote William Phillips, Rahv’s co-editor, in his memoirs. “She was one of our more cutting minds, and she made us aware of our faults as well as our virtues.”

As her powers and audience grew, she reviewed all literary forms from novels to nonfiction to plays, and explored an expanding sweep of subjects.

Disdaining theory, her criticism was “predicated on a working psychology,” as the critic Denis Donoghue put it in a review. “The difference between Hedda Gabler and someone Miss Hardwick might have known in ordinary life” was “of no interest to her,” he wrote…

She wrote on every subject from Bloomsbury to Marina Oswald to Mick Jagger at Altamont, from her dislike of Boston in the buttoned-up 1950s to Svetlana Alliluyeva, Stalin’s daughter, to the murderous Menendez brothers, to what she deplored as the decline of book reviewing.

Her skepticism reached a zenith when she helped to do something about that decline — when from the intellectual loftiness of her book-laden West 67th Street duplex apartment, she helped found The New York Review of Books

In a 1984 interview in The Paris Review, the writer Darryl Pinckney asked her about her feelings about getting older. “You can always ask,” Ms. Hardwick responded. “Its only value is that it spares you the opposite, not growing older. People do cling to consciousness, and under the most dreadful circumstances. It shows you that it is all we have, doesn’t it? Waking up, the first and the last privilege, waking up once more.”

When Mr. Pinckney asked her, “Do you think it is more painful for women than for men?” she replied: “More about women and men? About something so burdensome it doesn’t seem valuable to make distinctions. Oh, the dear grave. I like what Gottfried Benn wrote, something like, ‘May I die in the spring when the ground is soft and easy to plough.’ ”

Christopher Lehman-Haupt
New York Times

A Hardwick Sampler:

On Gertrude Stein: “It is curious to learn condensation from Stein, who stripped, reduced, and simplified only to add up without mercy, making her prose an intimidating heap of bare bones, among other things.”

On oral biography, as exemplified by “Working,” by Studs Turkel, “Mailer: His Life and Times,” by Peter Manso, and “The Executioner’s Song,” by Norman Mailer: “It is often the task of the historian and the imaginative writer to discover the silences behind speech. . . . Instead, what we have here is a sort of decomposed creativity, a recycling similar to that of the obsolete ragman who turned old clothes into paper. . . . The drastic distance between gossip, the libertine loquacity of the dinner table, and print dissolves, as we would expect since the enterprise is committed to print only as a vessel of the waters of orality.”

On Eugene O’Neill: “A certain humility is necessary about the lowly, badly hammered nails if the poor house, completed, moves you to tears. If the dialogue is so cumbersome how can the drama, projected through the dialogue, make its way into our senses? . . . Sometimes literature is not made with words.”