Originally published in the March 2020 issue of First Things magazine.
The Dolphin Letters 1970–1979:
Elizabeth Hardwick, Robert Lowell, and Their Circle
ed. Saskia Hamilton
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 560 pages, $50
In the summer of 1970, Elizabeth Hardwick may have been the best nonfiction prose writer in America, just as Jim Hines was the fastest man alive and Joe Frazier was the heavyweight champion of the world. She was the queen mother of the New York Review of Books, one of its four cofounders and the reviewer feared even by Philip Roth and Norman Mailer. “I think she writes the most beautiful sentences,” Susan Sontag said reverently, “more beautiful sentences than any living American writer.” Isaiah Berlin called her “the cleverest woman I have ever met.”
The trouble with global superlatives is that they rarely mean anything in the real world. Breaking the 100-meter record by milliseconds could not have been of much practical use to Hines, except possibly if his wife had had her purse snatched. If someone had gotten the jump on Frazier in a dark alley, his heavyweight title would not have made him invulnerable.
For Hardwick, the test of her skill came when, after more than twenty years of marriage, Robert Lowell abandoned her for Caroline Blackwood, a flighty Irish aristocrat obviously too shallow to hold his attention. If being the best writer in the world is good for anything, it ought to be good for persuading the man you love to renounce an unworthy rival and come back to you.
She must have been the best, because it worked. It took seven years, but she persuaded Lowell to return. On September 12, 1977, he flew into JFK from Dublin after breaking things off with Caroline. He took a taxi from the airport to Hardwick’s apartment. The doorman called Hardwick downstairs, and she went outside, opened the door of the taxi—and found Lowell dead of a heart attack in the back seat.
It would be quite a story even if the people involved were ordinary. They happened to be geniuses. They wrote everything down, not afterward but as it was happening. In many ways, what they wrote down was what was happening. Saskia Hamilton has now collected it all: Hardwick and Lowell’s letters to each other as well as to friends like Mary McCarthy and Elizabeth Bishop, and even letters between third parties about the two of them. The result is a masterpiece.
The title of the book comes from The Dolphin, Lowell’s 1973 sonnet cycle, which had caused a scandal because Lowell had lifted passages from Hardwick’s letters and printed them in the book, with minor alterations. The Dolphin tells the story of a poet leaving his wife Lizzie and thirteen-year-old daughter Harriet for a woman named Caroline; Lowell did not bother to conceal anyone’s name. Suddenly thousands of people whom Hardwick had never met were passing judgment on her merits as a wife and mother. Marjorie Perloff’s review in the New Republic declared Hardwick a “Super-Bitch par excellence” and Harriet, whose letters Lowell also quoted, “one of the most unpleasant child figures in poetry.”
Everyone expected Hardwick to sue the publisher, which in the end she decided not to do, though her initial angry letter to Robert Giroux implies that she considered it. She emphasizes that she objects not just to being quoted but to being quoted inaccurately. Lowell had fiddled with her wording and altered the chronology in ways that misrepresented her.
His greatest misrepresentation was that Lizzie had spent the first six months of their separation begging to have him back. In fact, it was Lowell who had dropped hints about reconciliation that winter. He sent the fateful telegram from England announcing their break on June 20, 1970. He suffered one of his manic episodes the following month, which frightened Caroline into fleeing London. Thus it was Lizzie who flew in from New York to visit him at the hospital, cut his hair, and do his laundry.
In November, Lowell wrote to Mary McCarthy that “I think I’ll end up by returning to Lizzie and Harriet” and sent Hardwick a letter beginning “Dearest Lizzie: I wonder if we couldn’t make it up?” A three-week Christmas trip to New York was idyllic. He wrote a warm letter thanking Hardwick for the visit as soon as his plane landed in London. “Above all you stand out at the airport with your curled hair and beautiful smile that survived the long dull wait.”
Lizzie might have had her husband back then and there, after one year rather than seven—but a few weeks later, Caroline Blackwood became pregnant.
Caroline does not come off well in this book. The first words we have from her are an insipid letter telling Lowell why she abandoned him during his August 1970 breakdown: “Your sickness is so distressing to me and I am so bound up with you that I can’t help you and will break down again myself.” Later, when friends warned Lowell that he shouldn’t quote his ex-wife’s letters in The Dolphin, Caroline egged him on. The book would surely hurt Lizzie, Lowell wrote in a letter to a friend, but “as Caroline says, it can’t be otherwise with the book’s donnée.”
Lizzie, by contrast, is delightful. Hamilton gives us several months of pre-breakup correspondence between Hardwick and Lowell, showing that the charm and intelligence of her post-breakup letters were not just a stratagem. They were natural to her. She writes to Lowell that Harriet’s feud with her Spanish teacher over an assignment is dragging on “like a suit in Chancery,” and of a party at Jean van den Heuvel’s where she ran into the foreboding figure of Marian Schlesinger, whom Arthur Jr. had just divorced after thirty years of marriage. Marian looked “like a spectre, but quite a heavy one in purple satin. Arthur must have been out of town and so this moment was seized to include the poor abbandonata.”
Contrary to The Dolphin, Hardwick played it cool in the first months of their separation. “If you need me I’ll always be there, and if you don’t need me I’ll always not be there,” she writes. “I wish you a long creative life and a long life just for itself. I have contempt for your present situation, but love for you.” It is only after Caroline becomes pregnant and divorce inevitable that we see glimmers of rage, which become blinding in the letter she sent on July 3, 1971. “I really don’t know how to put into words all the strange feelings I suddenly have,” she writes.
You and Caroline have treated Harriet and me with unremitting meanness. But then, what else has she to do with herself? She drifts about, has babies, destroys lives of both men and women who are really serious and deep by her carelessness and spoiled indifference to consequence and the feelings of others. However, with you—it is a different matter. You have been a person of the deepest moral yearnings and it was that person I loved. . . . I loathe Caroline and silly little Tories like Grey Gowrie and their destruction of the dear Yankee genius they will never understand. Anyway, I hope you begin to understand Daddy Lowell better and his empty smiling and “happiness.” Sometimes it is the only way one can bear a ruined life. And I think you have ruined your life . . .
I suppose this letter will enrage you, but I am enraged today. . . . Well, be enraged in your turn. I don’t care. I believe what I say and know it to be true. You will never be free of the thing you have killed in yourself and of your ingratitude and lack of loyalty and love. And no child you produce can be more splendid than the one you abandoned.
Her previous letter of June 28 mentioned that she had just begun work on an essay about Sylvia Plath, which may have had something to do with her state of mind regarding poet husbands who neglect their gifted wives.
Feminism is a running theme in The Dolphin Letters. Their mutual friend Adrienne Rich thought that being abandoned by Lowell would finally convert Hardwick to feminism, which she had previously been too Southern to endorse. (Most of feminism was “bad writing, bald simplicity, and simple-mindedness,” she once told Lowell.) Mary McCarthy mentioned in one of her letters to Lowell that Hardwick had seemed doubtful about the possibility of reconciling with him when they’d last met and speculated that “the coincidence of Women’s Liberation with what she’s been through, with Caroline, has played, I’d guess, quite a role.” Lowell instantly wrote back to ask what she meant by “your mysterious sentence about Lizzie and Women’s Lib. What’s that? Do you mean it’s in the air or something closer?”
It was more than in the air; it was on her mind. The book of essays Hardwick published in 1974, Seduction and Betrayal, is all about long-suffering literary women, including Sylvia Plath. The Plath chapter quotes a Ted Hughes poem (published before Sylvia killed herself, incidentally) that says of wives: “Their brief / Goes straight up to heaven and nothing more is heard of it.” Hardwick made sure this would not be her fate.
Of all the wives in Seduction and Betrayal, the one Hardwick resembles most is not Plath but Jane Welsh Carlyle, wife of Thomas Carlyle, a man whose manic tantrums and selfish demands rivaled even Lowell’s. Coincidentally, Lowell’s letter in reply to Hardwick’s July 3 outburst mentions that he is reading “the best novel in English, Jane Welsh’s letters. . . . The best Victorian marriage, in a way the only one, and miserable.” Jane Carlyle, like Hardwick, was esteemed as a genius by the literary men of her day. Dickens thought she wrote better prose than any woman in England. But Jane never published anything. Her reputation was based entirely on her private letters. Ever since The Dolphin tipped us off to the letters’ existence, readers have wondered whether Hardwick, too, put her genius into her correspondence as much as her essays. Now that the letters have finally been published, we know that she did.
Hardwick continued to write after Lowell’s unexpected death, publishing thoughtful reviews in the NYRB and generously mentoring younger critics. She laughed off inquiries into the whereabouts of the Dolphin letters, which she assumed were “lost or gone . . . I suppose he was so busy cutting them up!” In fact, Caroline had found them and sent them to Lowell’s literary executor, who delivered them to Harvard with instructions that they should be sealed until Hardwick’s death. When that sad event came in 2007, there was some confusion among obituarists over how to characterize her marriage. Was it a rare love-match between intellectual equals that they should celebrate, or was she a wronged woman on whose behalf they should be indignant? Hardwick had many years in which to ponder that question, and her answer will not surprise readers of The Dolphin Letters. “I didn’t know what I was getting into, but even if I had, I still would have married him,” she told an interviewer. “Of course I suffered a good deal in the alliance, but I very much feel it was the best thing that ever happened to me.”