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

Friday, August 12, 2016

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 19: Television

Bishop’s letter of 19 October 1956 begins with the birth of her cousin Phyllis’s second son, David Alexander, and also the birth of a new grandchild for Aunt Mary, by Mary’s oldest daughter, Elizabeth Ross Naudin. But with these dutiful acknowledgements dispatched, she turns to a quite different subject: “If you really enjoy having TV like that, why not get one?” Television technology had been around for some time, and during the post-war baby boom years, televisions were becoming more common and the broadcast industry expanding rapidly. Even so, these “devices” (as we now call such things), this “platform,” remained expensive enough that they were still subjects for serious discussion. And in Brazil, television was “just in its infancy,” as Bishop observed. (Now our discussions are about television’s irrelevance, with expanding, exploding electronic social media and online broadcasting. One wonders what Bishop would have thought of YouTube!)

Bishop declared to her aunt, “I have seen so little television that I really don’t know anything about it.” There was television in Rio, she notes, “but I’ve never even seen it.” Her friends judged “the sports things … the best,” but “they say the programs are dreadful.” A few people “have sets in Petrópolis,” some with “big enough aerials” that could pick up Rio broadcasts.
 (1956 cabinet tv)
Bishop noted that Lota was trying to convince a neighbour “to get one [a television] for himself and his elderly sister — 4 elderly people living together, and he has plenty of money.” But he was balking at the idea of this new-fangled technology. Lota’s motive was not entirely disinterested because, as Bishop observed, if these neighbours got TV, “then we could go to see things on it we wanted to see!” Lota’s house at Samambaia was “up against enormous steep high stone mountains,” meaning that they would “probably never be able to get it, even when Rio gets more powerful stations.” (This sounds like the kind of talk you still hear in rural Nova Scotia, and many rural areas, where high-speed internet {don’t even think about “fibreop”} is still not yet available.)
(View of the mountain at Samambaia, 1999. I think I took this photograph.)
For some reason, writing about television and sports made Bishop think of Marianne Moore: “My friend the poet, Miss Moore, lives in Brooklyn and is a great Dodger [sic] fan.” Moore was 69 in 1956 and had become a fixture at baseball games. Bishop tells her aunt that Moore had recently “written a song for them! — I can’t quite imagine it being sung, but anyway.” Bishop undoubtedly refers to the poem Moore wrote in 1956, “Hometown Piece for Messrs. Alston and Reece”  — which was set to music.
Even in my childhood (the 1960s), television was a particular luxury. We had a black and white television set, one of those big cabinets that took up a lot of room, and got two channels, if I remember correctly. We never missed our favourite shows. I remember my parents faithfully watching Don Messer’s Jubilee and the Red Skelton Show and as my sisters and I got older, we never missed The Carol Burnett Show or Canadian Bandstand. We also grew up watching The Friendly Giant and Mr. Dressup, both much beloved (long before the dominance of Sesame Street, a show which Bishop did watch when she returned to the US in the 1970s).
(Yours truly beside our television, 1967. Looks like the news is on.)

The next post will be about flora, fauna and weather.

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