"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Elizabeth Bishop’s letters to Aunt Grace, Part 1: Some Background

Around 265 letters and postcards from Elizabeth Bishop to her maternal Aunt Grace Bulmer Bowers, from 1952 to 1977 (Grace died that year), are located in the Elizabeth Bishop Papers at Vassar College (I, 25–26). Vassar purchased the letters from Bishop’s first cousin Phyllis Sutherland* (Grace’s daughter) in the late 1980s. I met Phyllis in 1990. I will confess that my first reaction upon hearing that this treasure trove was resident in the US was dismay. Vassar was actively collecting Bishop material in the decade after her death and figured out that Phyllis was the custodian of this important cache. I never asked Phyllis how much Vassar paid for the letters. She never told me. That such an important institution sought her out and wanted to buy these documents confirmed her sense of the significance of her cousin.
 (Phyllis and Grace, 1940s. Acadia University Archives)
As I thought about it, I conceded that it was vital for the letters Bishop wrote to her maternal family to be part of the vast and growing epistolary collection that Vassar was amassing, comprised primarily of the letters Bishop wrote to her famous literary friends.

During the 1990s I ordered photocopies of many of these letters and spent a considerable amount of time transcribing them. I reached only to the end of the 1960s before other Bishop projects and activities took me away from this task, one to which I have always meant to return. I mined the letters for information about Bishop’s relationship with her maternal family, which found its way into my book Lifting Yesterday: Elizabeth Bishop and Nova Scotia, but my great hope was to edit and annotate these letters and find a way to publish them.

There is a curious and sad puzzle around Bishop’s correspondence with Grace. Bishop loved and admired her aunt. She regarded her aunt as a very good letter writer. Indeed, she included a letter by her aunt in a course on letters she taught at Harvard in the early 1970s. Bishop would have received hundreds of letters from Grace over the years — almost each of Bishop’s letters to Grace makes reference to one or more letters that Grace wrote her niece.

“Dear Aunt Grace, Lota & I were on our way to Rio early Monday morning & stopped by the P.O. where I picked up your lovely long letter writen [sic] in the middle of the night! So I read it out loud to Lota en route, and she was so taken with it that she said ‘We must take her a nice present when we get to Boston!’” (10 January 1957)

What is troubling is that it appears none of Grace’s letters to Bishop survive. I have never been able to find out what happened to them. Bishop would surely not destroy her aunt’s letters. Indeed, in a notebook Bishop kept in the 1930s, she pasted in a letter that Grace wrote to her sister Maude (Bulmer Shepherdson, the aunt who raised Bishop). Most of the extant letters from Bishop to Grace were written during the Brazil years, so most of Grace’s to Bishop would have been written during that same time. It appears that some of Bishop’s letters were destroyed after Lota’s death and before Bishop got her possessions back to the US. But the fate of Grace’s letters to Bishop will likely never be known.

In 2009, I made an inquiry to Alice Methfessel and Jonathan Galassi** about the possibility of publishing Bishop’s letters to Grace. I was told that her correspondence with Lowell (published as Words In Air, 2008) and the pending publication of The New Yorker correspondence (2010) had “great literary interest.” I was also told that while other literary correspondences would, hopefully, be published in the future (e.g., with Moore — we are still waiting on this volume),*** Alice felt that publishing “more of Bishop’s letters doesn’t make sense” and a book of her letters to her aunt was “not a good idea.” — and not even if I could find a Canadian publisher. Why this would be so was not explained, and I did not pursue it.

It is understandable that in the academy Bishop’s letters to her literary friends and colleagues are considered the most important, the ones that carry the greatest interest for scholars and critics who explore the literary realm. These letters would also be considered the most marketable for publishers. But Bishop wrote to more people than just other writers. Her letters to Grace are, in a word, fascinating and multi-faceted. For example, I used them to write a talk I gave to the History of Medicine Society in Halifax in the late 1990s, a talk about Bishop’s views on all things medical (a realm about which Bishop and Grace shared a keen interest, for all sorts of reasons).

My intention is to write a series of posts exploring aspects of and elements in Bishop’s letters to Grace. Since the letters are still under copyright, I am not able to quote them at length. However, I will dip into them, in a limited way, and quote snippets that relate to the given aspect or element I will explore. I will post these essays as I write them, so I cannot say how frequent they will appear, but I hope to do a couple each month for the next little while. I will list them in the “Nova Scotia Connections” section, for easier access.

Before I get to Bishop’s own letters, the next post will be my transcription of the letter Grace wrote to Maude mentioned above. I think Bishop would insist that Grace’s voice be heard in some way, and this charming example of Grace’s epistolary art serves that purpose nicely. So, stay tuned.


* Around 25 letters and postcards from Phyllis Sutherland were also bought by Vassar. Bishop also exchanged letters with her aunts Maude, Mary and Mabel. As far as I know none of these letters survive, except a postcard Bishop wrote to Maude in 1928, perhaps the earliest piece of correspondence of Bishop’s that survives. It is housed at Acadia University Archives.

** Alice Methfessel was Bishop’s last partner, her heir and literary executor (with Frank Bidart). She has since died, making Bidart the sole executor of Bishop’s estate. Jonathan Galassi is the head of Farrar, Straus, Giroux, Bishop’s publisher.

*** One Art: Elizabeth Bishop Letters, edited by Robert Giroux (1994), began the program of publishing Bishop’s letters. Some of her correspondence with Kit and Ilse Barker and May Swenson have also been published in various literary journals.

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