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

Friday, June 17, 2016

Elizabeth Bishop’s Letters to Aunt Grace Part 13: Getting down to business

Even Elizabeth Bishop knew she was “no business-woman.” Her relationship with money was complex and fraught. She was a fortunate writer in some ways because she had inheritance from her father, mother and paternal grandfather. This inheritance provided at least some income for a good part of her adult life. But she had little interest in managing her finances, perhaps because she professed to have little ability to do so. Indeed, from her earliest childhood, until she came of age, her inheritance was managed by her mother, then her grandfather and then her paternal uncle.

Even with money in hand, and increasing success as a writer (being published, receiving awards, fellowships and other prizes), Bishop always seemed to worry about money, about having enough to live on. Her life-long health issues and their attendant costs were certainly enough to keep her at least concerned about finances. Though, as she admits in her Depression era memoir “The U.S.A. School of Writing,” she didn’t really have to work in a conventional way, until much later life.

Bishop disliked teaching, but in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, she taught because she needed the money. She did readings, an activity she disliked even more than teaching, for the money. She sold the Robert Lowell and Marianne Moore letters in her possession in the 1970s because she needed the money. She was always very direct about this motivation. In her letters to Grace in the early 1970s, worry about money is a regular theme, especially as she approached retirement.

Money is even a subject in her poems and stories. Perhaps her first awareness about money as a force in daily life came in Great Village during her early childhood. Her memoir “In the Village” contains several fascinating references to money.

For example, it refers to a five-cent piece Bishop receives as a gift, with the image of King George V on it. The above image is not of a nickel, but this gives you the idea. This coin dates 1916, the year of “In the Village.”

And much later in her life, one thinks of “Poem” where art and money are directly linked, the little painting having never earned any money in its life, even though it is the size of an old-style dollar bill.
The "old-style dollar bill" painting by Bishop's Great-uncle George W. Hutchinson.

In her own letters to friends and colleagues, money is a not infrequent subject. As much as artists want and need to be outside the crass realm of business and commercialism, unless they are independently wealthy, artists are often, reluctantly, obsessed with money, or the lack of it.

I have always thought a book, or at least an essay, about Bishop and money would be well worth the effort and quite revealing. It is a subject that directly touched every aspect of her life from birth to death; but it is a subject that seems to be somewhat taboo: too private? too uncomfortable? too crude?

In her letters to Grace, Bishop wrote about her finances and business transactions, especially in the 1960s, when Brazil was going through serious economic upheaval. Such subjects were not central in their dialogue, but they were present in ways that demonstrates how these issues mattered to Bishop.

In the 5 July 1956 letter to Grace, Bishop tells her aunt that she is “investing some money here.” She had borrowed from her bank in the US (I don’t know if anyone has ever figured out what bank(s) Bishop dealt with — perhaps not much of an issue, but it would be interesting to know) and invested it in Brazil. The nature of this investment is not revealed in the letter, but Bishop tells Grace that “interests are fantastically high.” Bishop had help in this endeavour from “a friend of mine who’s supposed to be a great money-maker.” The idea was to make “enough to live on here” and “send some more $$$ back to the U.S.” Bishop seemed quite sure this plan would work, even though she had “never thought of doing anything like that before.” She declared that it must be “the ‘Bishop side,’ as Aunt F would say, — the grandpa B side!”
 “Grandpa B”: John Wilson Bishop
The Bishop side of her family was decidedly all business. Her paternal grandfather, John W. Bishop, was a self-made man who had created a solid construction company in New England, building landmark buildings such as the Boston Public Library. Grace herself knew the Bishops well enough and understood their inclination. In her letter, Bishop declared, “Anything artistic I feel positive couldn’t come from there, even if my father did do well in high-school.” Bishop’s father, William, might very well have been the most “artistic” of this family, a well-read, gentle and thoughtful man, who clearly cared about more than just making one buck and then another.

Perhaps Bishop’s aversion to dealing with money and finances came from seeing these forces dominate her paternal side. But even as she lacked a business acumen, she did have to deal with her “living” at every stage of her life, and especially so as she aged. I do not know if Bishop's investment paid off as well as she hoped.

The next post will deal with more health and medical matters.

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