Marshall, winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in biography for Margaret Fuller, takes an excursion through the life of Elizabeth Bishop (1911–1979), one of 20th-century America’s foremost poets. After surviving a troubled childhood with a sadistic uncle, a modest inheritance allowed Bishop to attend Vassar and afterward gave her the freedom to pursue poetry. Lovers led her from Paris to Key West to Petrópolis, Brazil. Bishop drank heavily and had to keep her lesbianism secret, but she also led a rich existence; she traveled the Amazon, swam naked in a lover’s pool in secluded Petrópolis, and all the while produced a small but incomparable body of art. Marshall, weaving her own encounters with Bishop in the 1970s into this biography, expertly shows this charmed and sometimes sad life in intelligent, clear, and beautiful prose. Marshall repeatedly asserts that Bishop was “shy” but never reconciles this descriptor with the woman she shows interviewing T.S. Eliot, editing the Vassar yearbook, and finding a fashionable literary clique. Likewise, how was this winsome woman “difficult,” as repeatedly claimed? But even if the poet herself remains elusive in this telling, this book is still a generous, enjoyable piece of work. Agent: Katinka Matson, Brockman Inc. (Feb.)
"I really don't know HOW poetry gets to be written," Elizabeth Bishop once lamented, proposing some combination of mystery, surprise, and hard work. In a life marked by regular loss, inspiration would prove as elusive as happiness; the verse seemed to sneak up on her when she least expected. Megan Marshall here coaxes the self-conscious poet out of her shyness, her genius into words. She proceeds as did Bishop in her best verse, by description paired with astute reflection. And Marshall is daring, stepping out from behind the biographical curtain, effectively, ingeniously, and with a lovely twist at the end. A sure-handed, beautifully constructed book that captures the color of Elizabeth Bishop's life–melancholy and ecstatic, anchored by whiskey and words, by turns New England grim and toucan-vibrant–on the page. Megan Marshall performs her own miracle: Here is how poetry gets written.”
—Stacy Schiff, author ofThe Witches, Cleopatra, and Véra
"Elizabeth Bishop, the quietest, most elusive, and among the greatest of modern American poets, has since her death become a cultural icon, much studied, much quoted, and even a character in films and fiction. Now we have a remarkable book—part biography, part memoir—by a writer whose life actually intersected with hers. Megan Marshall, like her subject, has an unerring eye for the telling detail and the illuminating story. She succeeds in bringing Elizabeth Bishop vividly to life in all her poignant complexity.”
—Lloyd Schwartz, Pulitzer Prize-winning critic, co-editor of Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters “[An] elegant, moving biography . . . [It] has more to recommend it than shocking revelations. It is a shapely experiment, mixing memoir with biography . . . [Marshall’s] experience as a young woman and aspiring writer casts Bishop’s struggles in fresh light . . . This new biography fuses sympathy with intelligence, sending us back to Bishop’s marvelous poems.” —Wall Street Journal "Marshall’s account is lively and engaging, charged with vindicating energy . . . [A] compelling structure . . . the reader watches the two women’s lives converge, and it allows for some closeup glimpses of Bishop as a teacher. Marshall seems still sensitive to having given up poetry, the one great thing that Bishop, for all her losses, never let go. There’s an emotional undertow even in Marshall’s treatment of poetic forms . . . and in her unwavering reverence for the magic that form cannot explain. The book is ultimately about how words ordered on a page may supply some order for one’s life, may assuage and even redeem tragedy."—The New Yorker "A sharp portrait of the tragedies and other influences that shaped Bishop’s life and career . . . . Best of all are Marshall’s analyses of Bishop’s poems . . . This fine biography demonstrates the magnitude of Bishop’s achievements without ignoring her flaws."—Kirkus Reviews "Marshall expertly shows this charmed and sometimes sad life in intelligent, clear, and beautiful prose . . . A generous, enjoyable piece of work."—Publishers Weekly "Marshall brings the sometimes elusive writer . . . to life, offering a cohesive and novel look at the ways in which subject and biographer are intertwined and the value of understanding a poet's biography while reading their work. VERDICT: This study opens up a new way of looking at Bishop's life and her place in American letters."—Library Journal "Enlightening . . . A biography of Bishop is long overdue, and Marshall illuminates the poet’s life with fascinating and inspiring details and insights."—Booklist "In prose that reads with the intrigue of a novel, the author reveals previously unknown facets of Bishop's life, from her troubled childhood to a clandestine love affair."—Harper's Bazaar "An extraordinary book about how Elizabeth Bishop moved people in her life and her poetry."—Buffalo News “Using a wealth of new material, including the poet’s letters to her lovers and psychoanalyst, Marshall has crafted the most intimate and accurate biography yet available. Anyone interested in Bishop’s life and work will need to read this moving and often revelatory new account.... Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast is the rare sort of book that will expand the audience for contemporary poetry.”— The American Scholar "This compelling blend of biography and autobiography offers readers a portal into Bishop's life, situated among her poems and prose, friendships and geographies, love affairs and grievous losses, while also telling the story of Marshall's beginnings as a writer: the training she received in poetry - a grasp of story, careful details, the nuance of character and language - that led to dexterity as a biographer . . . A riveting account of Elizabeth Bishop's artful life, told in connection to the story of her own literary vocation, Marshall's book details two lives whose ‘precipitate and pragmatical’ intersection in the late 1970s was a windfall for American letters."—Worcester Telegram “A skillful and judicious performance . . . without any of the stiffness, the blockiness or monumentality that sometimes afflicts biography.” —TLS
Marshall, whose earlier works include Margaret Fuller (winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Biography) and The Peabody Sisters, here uses newly discovered letters by Elizabeth Bishop (1911-79) to offer a broader view of the life of the poet (who published only around 100 poems in her lifetime). Marshall, who studied with Bishop during the 1970s at Bishop's poetry workshop at Harvard University, is able to give readers both an academic view of her subject as well as glimpses into the poet's personae. Marshall brings the sometimes elusive writer, who spent significant periods of her life in Key West and Brazil, to life, offering a cohesive and novel look at the ways in which subject and biographer are intertwined and the value of understanding a poet's biography while reading their work. VERDICT This study opens up a new way of looking at Bishop's life and her place in American letters. Recommended for poetry and literature lovers and fans of literary biography.—Pam Kingsbury, Univ. of North Alabama, Florence
A new biography of one of the most celebrated American poets of the 20th century.Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) wasn't prolific—she published only 100 poems during her 40-year career—but she had a lasting impact on American letters. Pulitzer Prize winner Marshall (Writing, Literature, and Publishing/Emerson Coll.; Margaret Fuller: A New American Life, 2013, etc.) was one of the aspiring poets Bishop taught in her final "verse-writing" class at Harvard in 1977. The experience was so profound that, upon discovering a trove of letters after Bishop's "close friend" Alice Methfessel died in 2009, Marshall set about to write this biography. The result is a sharp portrait of the tragedies and other influences that shaped Bishop's life and career. Bishop was only eight months old when her father died. After her mother was hospitalized for mental illness, Bishop was shuttled between her maternal grandparents in Nova Scotia, a place she loved, and her paternal grandparents in Worcester, Massachusetts. After these early scenes, Marshall documents Bishop's maturation as a writer; her struggles with alcoholism; her 17 years living in Brazil with her partner, architect Lota de Macedo Soares; her many affairs; and her relationships with such writers as Robert Lowell and Mary McCarthy. Best of all are Marshall's analyses of Bishop's poems, including "Song for the Rainy Season," "In the Waiting Room," and the book's subtitle. The interludes in which Marshall tells her own stories may be a distraction to some readers, but the chapters on Bishop are written with often chilling exactness, as when Marshall describes the uncle who drew young Elizabeth's bath and gave her "an unusually thorough washing" or the polio-stricken admirer who killed himself after Bishop rejected him. His suicide note read, "Elizabeth. Go to hell." Bishop shared with Marianne Moore a "near obsession with accuracy of detail and precision of language." This fine biography demonstrates the magnitude of Bishop's achievements without ignoring her flaws.