ELIZABETH HARDWICK is a very smart lady, a very

witty lady, and, for that matter, a very pretty one, which never hurts. That she is a lady is not irrelevant--despite the conventions of the times and the virtual disappearance of the word itself from what, for lack of a better word, might be described as the polite contemporary lexicon. But it is not so relevant, of course, as the machinations of her mind, which she displays again in all its craft and cunning and moral resonance in this latest collection of her essays, Bartleby in Manhattan.

Most of them--there are 24, some quite brief; none more than a few thousand words--first appeared in The New York Review of Books. They are reflections on the more bizarre aspects of American life in the last 15 years (the murder and funeral of Martin Luther King, the Lee Harvey Oswald family, Billy Graham and the television evangelicals, the "revolution" of the 1960s), on works and lives in literature (Ring Lardner, Robert Frost, Thomas Mann, Simone Weil, several Russians), on the theater (Grotowski, Peter Weiss), and on various texts closely read. They are not "reviews" in the ordinary sense--not quick responses to a book quickly skimmed, an idea vaguely grasped, a play seen on the run--but true reflections, the result, as my dictionary says, "of the fixing of the mind on a subject; serious thought; contemplation." They were, of course, written on deadline but they give no appearance of having been written in haste.

Miss Hardwick is the author of two previous collections of essays, A View of My Own (1962) and Seduction and Betrayal (1974), and three novels: Sleepless Nights, a critical success of 1979, The Ghostly Lover (1945) and The Simple Truth (1955), the last two recently reprinted. A woman of letters, obviously, for which she has been amply honored (a Guggenheim, a George Jean Nathan Award, membership in the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters); and a woman with a devastatingly sharp eye for the ridiculous. She concludes her essay on current evangelism ("as far as one can go in the pursuit of faith without works") with this vignette of Ruth Carter Stapleton and her therapeutic ministry:

"To a woman not looking her best, Mrs. Stapleton advised: 'Jesus wants you to have some conditioner put in your hair. He wants you to get some make-up. He wants you to look nice.' Poor He, poor He."

On the contrary, poor she, poor she.

Mrs. Stapleton may be an easy target in those intellectual circles Miss Hardwick frequents, but it would be a mistake to think that her views were formed by mere fashion and blithely tossed out to float on whichever gust of an idea happened to be blowing through Manhattan's West Side that afternoon. In "Militant Nudes" she illuminates the "eschatological mode" of the 1960s: "Something pitiless and pathological has seeped into youth's love of itself, its body, its politics. Self-love is an idolatry. Self-hatred is a tragedy. But the life around us is not a pageant of coldness and folly to which we have paid admission and from which we can withdraw as it becomes boring. . . . In one of his last essays Adorno wrote, 'Sanctioned delusions allow a dispensation from comparison with reality. . . .' And he also said, 'Of the world as it exists, one cannot be enough afraid.' The students may have known all about the second idea, but perhaps they could not forgive him the first." This essay is, unfortunately, undated, as are all the others, but I believe it appeared in that same unreal time in which The New York Review came out with instructions for making a Molotov cocktail on its cover--and more than a few of its readers at least entertained the notion of tossing one. Fortunately, they were more disposed to thought than action.

In another later essay ("Domestic Manners"), Miss Hardwick again confronts that decade. "But how real the sixties were," she writes, "how dreadfully memorable the horrors, how haunting the alterations, everywhere, in feeling, in belief. Already the receding years have character, violently ambivalent, and beyond repeal. And how American, one is tempted to insist. In what way? Perhaps in the way destruction was created out of the pleasures of plentitude, assassinations out of the riveting excitements of leadership, diminishment out of a manic sense of expansiveness. . . . A strange decade indeed. How is one to set a value upon the sensible pleasures of 'informality' and the limited liberation of maligned groups against the slaughter of a people? And what is the historical connection, finally? The connection between the rights of personal style in dress and living arrangements, the right to homosexuality, to marihuana, and the present nightmare in Cambodia? It was a terrifying decade, anarchic, brutal--and fortunately for all of us, the absolutely saving energy of a profound protest, sustained by youth and a few older allies, a protest against dehumanization, military control, political lying, and power madness."

Miss Hardwick's interests are both varied and deep: the ways of God and the ways of men, eschatology and Auschwitz, manners and morals, love and marriage as these things are revealed to us in life and in literature, and her insights make us stop a moment as they make us smile (but wryly). She writes in "Wives and Mistresses": "In love memoirs, psychological inquiry is either missing or inadvertent; one does not usually loiter over the question of why he might be loved. It is the loss of love that arouses the speculative faculty and its rich inventions."

And, in the same essay, a typically devastating aside: "Tolstoy, after a miserable time, said about his wife: 'She offers a striking example of the grave danger of placing one's life in any service but that of God.' True--not that he meant it."

In these occasional pieces, Miss Hardwick is especially incisive on the Russian writers, both living and dead, on Nabokov and Solzhenitsyn, whom she greatly admires, on Thomas Hardy, Thomas Mann ("He was never young. Youth fascinated him as the acute, fateful moment, not only the moment of sexuality but of revelation of the threatening shape of personal destiny"). She reads Renata Adler's Speedboat and such "post-modernists" as Thomas Pynchon with sympathy and intelligence: "In Speedboat, and in the conundrums of V is the intelligence that questions the shape of life at every point. It is important to concede the honor, the nerve, the ambition--important even if it is hard to believe anyone in the world could be happier reading Gravity's Rainbow than reading Dead Souls.

Five years ago, I was reminded as I began this review, a writer said: "In reviewing, judgments are less interesting--and more dubious--than the process by which they are arrived at. . . . To suggest how a book is put together, why it works or fails to work, to demonstrate its accuracy or reveal its errors, and to bring some illuminating insight to the whole, is to say a great deal . . . . If in addition (the critic) tells us something about how the language works, how our minds work and how society works while keeping its focus on the book in question, call that man Elizabeth Hardwick."

The writer was me. I was right. I do not believe this judgment is dubious. CAPTION: Picture, Elizabeth Hardwick, Copyright (c) by Thomas Victor