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

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Elizabeth Bishop’s Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 3: In the beginning

According to Vassar’s register of the Elizabeth Bishop Papers, the first file in the correspondence to “Aunt Grace [Bowers]” contains “2 postcards 1950–52.”  The first of these, however, is clearly from a much earlier time. The stamp says “Mexico.” The cancellation indicates it went through the U.S. Censor, a wartime measure. Bishop went to Mexico in 1942. In the very brief note this format allowed, Bishop acknowledges a letter from her aunt and describes the image of a family of potters on the verso, “they…have been doing it exactly the same way for 1,000 years or so.” Brett Millier discusses Bishop’s sojourn in Mexico at length (165–69) and quotes a passage that echoes this note, probably from a travel diary Bishop kept from 1938 to 1942 (EBP, VII, 77.3): “Elizabeth…contemplated the town’s primitive pottery works: ‘They have been making it for thousands of years the same way...’.” (169)
(the verso of the postcard Bishop sent to Grace)

Bishop was keenly interested in what she called “primitive” art, what we would now call “folk art,” of various forms and genres. This emerged early in her life, undoubtedly in her childhood, through experiences in Great Village. While this postcard might be dismissed as mere “tourist” gaze, there is a context for Bishop’s choice. She engaged with these artists and wanted to share that encounter with her aunt.

What this seemingly slight document also reveals is that Bishop corresponded with Grace for a very long time. Bishop made a visit to Great Village in December 1929–January 1930. That fall she entered Vassar. She did not return to Nova Scotia for sixteen years. Grace was fully ensconced at Elmcroft by that time, raising her own family. It is safe to assume that their correspondence began in earnest from that point, when separation and distance made writing a necessity.

Postcards are perhaps the most unrevealing of all correspondence, partly because they are public, their messages viewable to all who handle them. So, the correspondent is circumspect. Combined with limited space, what is generated often seems trivial. However, Bishop chose to send her aunt an image of people doing the work they had done for centuries. To herself, in her diary, she commented that while the pottery had some redeeming qualities, “It seemed to me to be the dreariest artistic tradition I’ve ever seen.” To Grace, however, she noted that the father made her two figures, a nanny and billy goat. Well, one might ask: Are these the parents of the baby goats in “Crusoe in England”?

Bishop went to Mexico with Marjorie Stevens. Grace eventually met Marjorie, when she and Elizabeth returned to Nova Scotia in 1947. Grace not only corresponded with Marjorie but also connected with her in Florida years later, when Grace spent winters there with her niece Hazel.

Thus, one tiny postcard should not be dismissed as slight. I am sure I have gleaned only part of its significance.

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