Say it’s 1958, you are the wife of a famous poet, and it is your turn to have the Partisan Review gang over for drinks and barbed conversation. Maybe the line from Delmore Schwartz’s poem (“All poets’ wives have rotten lives”) runs through your head as you finish the grunt work of the hostess: emptying ashtrays, dumping half-eaten food into the trash, piling up as many glasses as you can carry to the sink. If you are Elizabeth Hardwick, your husband, Robert Lowell, is most likely passed out drunk or off having an affair-slash-breakdown with another woman. Lowell or no Lowell, there is much to do before you sleep: sweeping the floors, rubbing rings off places where coasters should have been, making a cursory pass over the upholstery, opening the windows to air out the smoke of a hundred pensive and hostile cigarettes. Thus the rhyming line of Schwartz’s poem: “Their husbands look at them like knives.” Elizabeth Hardwick as a critic was like Elizabeth Hardwick as a hostess: she did the grunt work as gracefully as the glamorous work, slipping in the plot, the theme, and her unlikely brilliant discoveries as if it were as easy as introducing two long-lost friends, in the meantime leaving no glass unwashed, no surface unpolished.
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