What makes the letters so darkly compelling, and such uneasy, thrilling company, is a different concern — the very one, in fact, that Hardwick pursued in all her writing, whether on Ibsen’s heroines or on the civil rights movement. It is the elemental question of motive. Why do people do what they do? How much do they understand their own impulses and responsibilities?
Lowell had always gobbled up and repurposed his poetic influences; he’d already tested his relationship with Bishop by rewriting one of her poems and, later, filching a few lines from one of her letters. But why do it at this time and at this scale? Why cause such damage? And Hardwick, who suffered through two decades of marriage — seeing Lowell through 10 major hospitalizations, among other tribulations — why did she stay so stalwart, even traveling to England when Lowell was taken ill, to help him get his hair cut and his clothes cleaned? “I worry about your teeth,” she wrote in a letter. “Keep your pills straight.” She did his taxes, arranged the sale of his papers, kept his clothes mothballed and his typewriter in good shape, begged money for the care of his daughter, while he sent along the breezy, occasionally penitent note. Where did their drives overlap? Hardwick was eventually to take Lowell back, explaining to her daughter: “Everything I have — you — is his, everything.”
There’s been a resurgence of interest in the circle of late. Kay Redfield Jamison’s recent biography, “Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire,” is the first to draw on all the poet’s medical records, and offers the fullest portrayal yet of his manic depression. Jeffrey Meyers’s “Robert Lowell in Love” examines his three marriages and nine of his affairs. There’s a new biography of Susan Sontag and a collection of Adrienne Rich’s groundbreaking essays. Even Jean Stafford, a brilliant, neglected writer often remembered, if at all, as Lowell’s benighted first wife, has had her work reissued; three novels have just been handsomely republished by the Library of America.
Hardwick seems uniquely ascendant. Her “Collected Essays” and a selection of her short fiction have been reissued, and she’s rightly been elevated to the highest ranks of American stylists, with her slashing pronouncements and high-plumed prose, her jagged rhythms, the combination of her earthiness and glittering scorn. “I think she writes the most beautiful sentences, more beautiful sentences than any living American writer,” Sontag once wrote.
Hardwick is the heroine of this collection. And we see how that much-praised style, especially of her novel “Sleepless Nights,” its obsession with abandoned women, is a response to “The Dolphin” — and a critique, in its tact and care with the living. “I think if it hadn’t been for feeling that as a woman you owe it to yourself to preserve dignity and honesty and integrity I couldn’t have stood what has happened to me.”