Love Unknown: The Life and Worlds of Elizabeth Bishop

Love Unknown: The Life and Worlds of Elizabeth Bishop

by Thomas Travisano


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An illuminating new biography of one of the greatest American poets of the twentieth century, Elizabeth Bishop

"Love Unknown points movingly to the many relationships that moored Bishop, keeping her together even as life—and her own self-destructive tendencies—threatened to split her apart.” —The Wall Street Journal

Elizabeth Bishop's friend James Merrill once observed that "Elizabeth had more talent for life—and for poetry—than anyone else I've known." This new biography reveals just how she learned to marry her talent for life with her talent for writing in order to create a brilliant array of poems, prose, and letters—a remarkable body of work that would make her one of America's most beloved and celebrated poets. In Love Unknown, Thomas Travisano, founding president of the Elizabeth Bishop Society, tells the story of the famous poet and traveler's life.

Bishop moved through extraordinary mid-twentieth century worlds with relationships among an extensive international array of literati, visual artists, musicians, scholars, and politicians—along with a cosmopolitan gay underground that was then nearly invisible to the dominant culture. Drawing on fresh interviews and newly discovered manuscript materials, Travisano illuminates that the "art of losing" that Bishop celebrated with such poignant irony in her poem, "One Art," perhaps her most famous, was linked in equal part to an "art of finding," that Bishop's art and life was devoted to the sort of encounters and epiphanies that so often appear in her work.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780525428817
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 11/05/2019
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 641,439
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Thomas Travisano is the founding president of the Elizabeth Bishop Society and the author of Elizabeth Bishop: Her Artistic Development and Midcentury Quartet: Bishop, Lowell, Jarrell, Berryman. He is principal editor of the acclaimed Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell and served as co-editor of Elizabeth Bishop in the 21st Century and the three-volume New Anthology of American Poetry. Travisano’s work on Love Unknown was supported by a Guggenheim Fellowship and awards from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Philosophical Society. He is Emeritus Professor of English at Hartwick College.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


Between Two Worlds


When Elizabeth Bishop was three years old, she witnessed the Great Salem Fire-an event that took place on the night of June 25, 1914, and that she would remember for the rest of her life. The fire raged in the darkness, sweeping through nearly 250 acres of the historic Massachusetts harbor town of Salem and reducing to charred ruins the homes of more than twenty thousand inhabitants. The flames forced hundreds of Salem's residents to flee in small boats across Palmer Cove toward the relative safety of Marblehead on the opposite shore.


It was there, near the beach at Marblehead, that Elizabeth was sharing a summer house with her recently widowed mother, Gertrude Bulmer Bishop, and her father's family. In the posthumously published poem "A Drunkard," Bishop recalled that as the flames across the bay grew higher, "the sky was bright red; everything was red: / out on the lawn, my mother's white dress looked / rose-red; my white enameled crib was red," and she watched as boats filled with escaping people arrived on their beach. Yet the residents of Marblehead themselves felt anything but safe, for "the red sky was filled with flying motes / cinders and coals," and many citizens were hosing their roofs to prevent their houses, too, from bursting into flame.


In the midst of this chaotic scene, the child, in search of her mother outdoors, found Gertrude and various neighbors giving coffee and food to Salem's refugees. Her own cries for attention and reassurance went unnoticed. All Bishop could later recall receiving from her mother was a stern reprimand early the next morning, when the two were pacing the shoreline. As the child out of curiosity picked up a fragment of a woman's long black cotton stocking from a beach "strewn with cinders, dark with ash- / strange objects . . . blown across the water," her mother responded sharply, "Put that down!" This rebuke for her inquisitiveness provoked deep embarrassment and guilt, feelings that would echo through the decades in her memory, only to reappear in a profoundly self-exploratory poem-linking this experience with her problem with periodic alcohol abuse-that Bishop still had on her desk at the moment of her death.


Bishop's mother, Gertrude, was in fragile psychological health when the Great Fire occurred in 1914. Her bouts of emotional disturbance had become acute following the death of her husband three years earlier, when the infant Elizabeth was eight months old. Two years after the fire, when the child was five, Gertrude would suffer a mental breakdown from which she never recovered. Bishop would continue to be haunted by her mother's disturbing outcries: "a scream, the echo of a scream" that, as she discloses in her 1953 story "In the Village," signaled her mother's mental collapse. This was the scream that became a part of Bishop's inner world and "came there to live forever-not loud, just alive forever." Bishop would continue to suffer from these and other traumatic early losses-losses so extreme and so well remembered that she once told her friend and fellow poet Robert Lowell, "When you write my epitaph, you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived."


Yet there was another side to Bishop's personality that must be understood if we are to grasp the complex persona she presented to the world both in her personal life and in her poetry. Though her frequently traumatic past was very much alive for her, Bishop was also extraordinarily engaged with the present. When, approaching sixty, Bishop arrived to teach at Harvard University in the fall of 1970, the younger poet Kathleen Spivack noted that "she had the quality of surprised youthfulness in her eyes." Spivack also found her "quite unlike the austere public persona of 'Miss Bishop'" that Spivack had come to expect from the elder poet's reputation. In her second year at Harvard, Bishop set up a Ping-Pong table in the foyer of her small apartment on Brattle Street; playing the game was supposed to help the arthritis in her hands. Spivack recalls their weekly Ping-Pong matches where "Elizabeth dashed about on her side of the table, her charming face pursed with concentration, and bursting into laughter at her tricky shots." Later in the evening, when guests arrived for dinner, they would be seated around the Ping-Pong table, now sans net and demurely graced by a tablecloth. As her friend and Harvard colleague Monroe Engel observed, Bishop didn't have space in her apartment for both her Ping-Pong table and a dining table, so she chose the former because, as she declared, "You could eat off the Ping-Pong table, but you couldn't play Ping-Pong on a dining table."


According to her student Jonathan Galassi, Bishop had, in her college classroom, "almost willfully old-fashioned manners." She addressed her students by their last names, a practice that had almost died out in American higher education by the early 1970s. However, she could also be unapologetically herself at moments where a little more decorum might have been expected. Bishop's blend of mannerly correctness and casual and cheeky unconventionality also plays out in her poetry, as does her seemingly contradictory fusing of spot-on accuracy with her uniquely homespun version of surrealism. She termed the latter quality "the always-more-successful surrealism of everyday life." These paradoxical characteristics, plus her unquenchably youthful curiosity and her capacity for wit and droll amusement-which the late Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney termed her "dry, merry quality"-helped attract a wide and distinguished body of friends, many of whom also became her devoted correspondents. These fortunate individuals became the recipients of a steady stream of Bishop's sharp and revealing letters, letters that are now widely regarded as one of the most brilliant and significant bodies of correspondence of the last century.


When Bishop began to teach writing and literature at Harvard University in 1970-and settled, the following fall, into that compact Brattle Street apartment just north of Harvard Square-she was very much a seasoned traveler. She had sojourned for most of the previous two decades in Brazil, and before and after that had lived for extended periods in Canada, France, Key West, Mexico, Washington, DC, Seattle, and San Francisco, punctuated by stopovers in locales as varied as coastal Maine, Cape Cod, Newfoundland, Spain, North Africa, Tuscany, and (most frequently) New York's Greenwich Village, where she kept for several years a "garret" on King Street as a pied-ˆ-terre. But now, in her final decade, Bishop had returned to native ground. Her apartment on Brattle Street was just forty miles east of the residence (no longer standing) at 875 Main Street in Worcester, Massachusetts, where Bishop first drew breath. The sturdy granite gravestone in Worcester's Hope Cemetery under which Bishop's ashes lie buried-alongside the remains of her Canadian-born mother and her Worcester-born father-may be found just minutes north of the place of Bishop's birth. Yet Bishop's "there and back again" had been a long, eventful journey.


The Worcester of 1911, the year Bishop was born, was a bustling, prosperous, steadily growing industrial city-the third-largest urban center in New England after Boston and Providence, Rhode Island. Worcester was a community in which the Bishop family played a prominent role, but Bishop herself would not remember it fondly. Bishop claimed in a letter to Anne Stevenson, the author of the earliest critical book about her, that she had spent only a few miserable months in Worcester with her paternal grandparents. Between the ages of eight and sixteen, she had lived most of the year with a maternal aunt in a working-class neighborhood near Boston. These long and weary months, when she was mostly housebound due to illness, were relieved by summers with her maternal grandparents in Great Village, Nova Scotia. Bishop's sense of her own national, regional, and familial identity was always complex and fluid. She was born in the United States to an American father and was thus legally an American citizen. However, Bishop described herself to Stevenson as three-fourths Canadian and one-fourth New Englander, because her paternal grandfather, like her mother's family, had been born in Canada. Yet even her Canadian roots were mixed with American; as she told Stevenson, "My maternal grandparents were, some of them, Tories, who left upper N.Y. State and were given land grants in Nova Scotia by George III."


Bishop's father's family, the Bishops of Worcester, and her mother's family, the Bulmers of her beloved Great Village, Nova Scotia, were both respected within their communities, but the Bishops of Worcester were successful entrepreneurs and far more prosperous. In fact, the fulsomely titled Historic Homes and Institutions and Genealogical and Personal Memoirs of Worcester County, Massachusetts, published in 1907, extolled Elizabeth's paternal grandfather, John W. Bishop, as a living exemplar of the American Dream, and Bishop herself would later note, "His was an Horatio Alger story." In the view of Historic Homes, Bishop's paternal grandfather was a man whose "rise from humble beginnings to a foremost place in the business world" contained "a valuable lesson" on the way to wealth and professional stature. Historic Homes records that John W. was born on Canada's Prince Edward Island in 1846, hence Bishop's claim that she was three-fourths Canadian. John W. migrated with his family to Rhode Island when he was eleven. After only a year of formal schooling, he was put to work in a cotton mill, where he labored hard until he was fourteen. He then shifted to the building trade-running away, according to Bishop, "with a box of carpenters' tools on his back." He soon relocated to Worcester and worked his way up "with tireless energy and perseverance" until, in 1874-four years after an advantageous marriage-he went into business for himself as a builder. Over the next quarter century John W.'s business grew steadily. While maintaining a center of operations in Worcester, J. W. Bishop & Co. opened satellite offices on New York's Fifth Avenue, as well as in Boston and Providence-this last, in part, for its proximity to Newport. Historic Homes attributes the success of the Bishop patriarch's business directly to "the personal factor. He worked hard and he worked late, and he never ceased to learn and apply."


J. W. Bishop & Co. did erect several of the summer cottages-or, as Historic Homes more precisely terms them, "costly palaces"-that line Newport's Millionaires' Row along the shores of Narragansett Bay. However, the firm was primarily focused, as Bishop would later recall, on "public buildings, college buildings, theatres, etc." These included "many in Boston, including the Public Library, the Museum of Fine Arts, etc." These distinguished and still-popular edifices are known not only for their usefulness and their aesthetic appeal, but also for the thoroughness and soundness of their construction. It was frequently said in the trade that a J. W. Bishop & Co. building stayed built.


Owing to his limited schooling, John W. Bishop became a builder, not an architect, but the Architectural Record asserts that his expertise in architecture and interior design was such that he was considered "like one of those master marble workers to whom the most eminent sculptor can entrust his plaster of Paris model with the perfect assurance that the finished marble, fashioned in its image, will need no retouching from his own hand." Although all her life Bishop reserved her warmest feelings for her Bulmer relations, in one respect she was her Worcester grandfather's granddaughter. John W. Bishop's mastery of architectural form and the details of construction would be mirrored in Elizabeth Bishop's later mastery of poetic form and verbal detail. What he learned to build with stone, she would learn to build with words.


At the time of Bishop's birth, her grandfather's company was at the height of its success and was just completing, in the heart of Worcester, one of its most singular and appealing public buildings: the home of the American Antiquarian Society. Because of the richness and uniqueness of its holdings, scholars of early American history and popular culture have been drawn for more than a century to this Colonial Revival building on Worcester's Salisbury Street, which stands just two miles from the place of Bishop's birth. The architecture of this building is so striking that it must reveal something of her father's and grandfather's minds and personalities. Its sturdy brick exterior hardly prepares one for the stately splendor of its interior, which centers on a reading room of arresting beauty. Graceful Ionic columns frame the open, octagonal atrium of this chamber, and "under its generous dome," light gently filters down on an aspiring scholar who may sit absorbing the history and popular culture of America's earliest centuries from periodicals once hot off the presses. The statement made by the Antiquarian Society's home and research library-and its remarkable reading room-is that printed words matter.


Elizabeth's father, William Thomas Bishop, served as first vice president of J. W. Bishop & Co. As manager of the company's Worcester business, he directly supervised construction of the Antiquarian Society library. Perhaps he was working so near to home because he had been recently married; during the latter stages of work on the Antiquarian project, his wife, Gertrude, was pregnant with the girl who would prove to be their only child. The Antiquarian building was completed and occupied in mid-January 1911, less than a month before Elizabeth's birth on February 8, 1911. Tragically, this would be the last building whose construction her father would see through to completion.


William Thomas, born in 1872, was the eldest of the four surviving children of John W. Bishop and his wife, the well-to-do Sarah Foster of Holden, Massachusetts. Four other siblings had died in infancy or early childhood. One of William's sisters, Marion Edith (born 1877), married Thomas Coe of Worcester and had three children. Unfortunately, she-like her brother William-died in the same year that Bishop was born. Her father's two other siblings were Florence (born 1875), who never married, and John W. Jr. (born 1880), who married but had no children. This aunt and uncle would later figure heavily-and, from Elizabeth's standpoint, not always happily - in her life.


Four days after his daughter's birth, Bishop's father wrote a genial letter addressing his Bulmer in-laws, commenting cheerfully and a little proudly that his wife "has more milk than she knows what to do with, so we shall make butter probably. We started to have twins and when we changed our minds forgot to cut off half the milk supply." Much of what Bishop knew of her father came from her mother's family. As Bishop recalled, both William's own unmarried sister, Florence, and the Bulmers "were devoted to him" and found him "very quiet and gentle." He preferred staying home with a good book to engaging in the social whirl, but by all accounts, his shyness-a trait his daughter would later share-relaxed when among intimate friends and family. Elizabeth prized the half dozen books from her father's extensive collection that were eventually handed down to her. These included "his very elegant edition of [Ruskin's] 'Stones of Venice,' with his bookplate, given him by two of his sisters for Christmas, 1898." Any lingering vestige of the father she never knew was something she would hold on to for life.

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