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

Saturday, February 25, 2017

A Response to Megan Marshall’s Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017)

Bishop and Biography

The first full-dress biography about Elizabeth Bishop was Brett Millier’s ground-breaking Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It, published in 1993. She established the complex chronology, the full arc, of this remarkable life (no easy feat), and revealed some of the troubling and secret aspects of what Bishop called an “untidy activity.”

In 1994 Peter Brazeau and Gary Fountain’s Remembering Elizabeth Bishop appeared. This mosaic of memory provided a unique perspective on Bishop’s life through the reminiscences of 115 people who had known her.

Not everyone was happy about this surge of biographical reveal, even though it was already fifteen years since Bishop’s death. In 1994 I attended a symposium about Bishop at Vassar College. During a keynote address, Robert Giroux, Bishop’s publisher and friend, more than hinted that biography was an unwelcome intrusion into Bishop’s privacy. An odd view since Giroux himself edited the first collection of Bishop’s letters, One Art: Elizabeth Bishop Letters, also published in 1994. The issue at that time with Bishop and biography was, I suspect, about who controlled it.

For the next two decades most writing about Bishop was literary criticism, that is, the focus was on the work, especially the poetry. Biography was, more or less, out of favour.*

After nearly twenty-five years, a new biography about Elizabeth Bishop has appeared, Megan Marshall’s Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast (2017)** — an important event.

While I deeply admire and respect the work done by Millier and Brazeau/Fountain, and have referred to their books many times in the past two decades, my issue with their work and that of most American Bishop scholars is a lack of understanding and, at times, a dismissal of Bishop’s Nova Scotia connections.***

I came to Bishop, in the early 1990s, from this point of view: a Nova Scotian seeking to clarify and restore the Nova Scotia aspects of Bishop’s life and art. Such has been my mission ever since. I have followed this path in many ways, including writing what I refer to as a “biographical study,” Lifting Yesterday: Elizabeth Bishop and Nova Scotia, a lengthy manuscript for which I have not found a publisher (not for want of trying). It is from this perspective and context that I write what follows.

[*Note: I explore this subject in “Elizabeth Bishop and the Biography Bogey,” an essay I wrote a couple of years ago for a collection I was to edit with Nova Scotia writer Alexander MacLeod. Alas, that collection never materialized. Some of the literary critical books about Bishop in the past two decades have included significant elements of her biography — for example, Victoria Harrison’s and Lorrie Goldensohn’s — but they are not conventional biographies.]

[**Note: Carmen Oliveira published a biography of Lota de Macedo Soares and Elizabeth Bishop, Flores Raras e Banalíssimas in Portuguese in 1995. This book was translated by Neil Besner and published in English in 2002. Its focus was primarily Bishop’s life in Brazil.]

[***Note: Millier and Brazeau/Fountain came to Nova Scotia to learn about it and meet Bishop’s family and friends. Brazeau/Fountain interviewed seven Nova Scotians, including Bishop’s first cousin Phyllis Sutherland. They did not dismiss Bishop’s Nova Scotia connections per se, but neither did they give them adequate weight or attention.]

In the Interests of Full Disclosure

In the fall of 2014 I offered my network an electronic version of Lifting Yesterday. In November of that year Megan Marshall, whom I did not know, contacted me and requested to receive it. I sent it to her. We exchanged a few emails, mostly related to Bishop’s time in Revere, MA (which has been discussed in print by Michael Hood, whose contact information I passed on to Marshall). I did not hear from her again until December 2016, when she wrote requesting my mailing address because she wanted to send me a copy of her book. Upon receipt of this copy, with its kind inscription, in early February 2017, I noticed I was in the acknowledgements. She cites Lifting Yesterday eight times in the notes, and at one point refers to me as “Sandy,” (313) a nickname I haven’t used since my teens, and is reserved only for very old friends.

I began immediately to read it and the reviews that John Barnstead posted in the NEWS section of this blog. What follows is not a “review,” but a response to a subject about which I feel strongly.

Before I get to that response, I need to write something about my views on biography.

My views on biography

I have read many biographies. Indeed, biography is a favourite genre. Bishop liked reading biography, too. Like her, I have read more than only biography, but it is safe to say, it is a preference. What does this preference signify? At the very least, I suppose, an interest in the lives of others, especially artists.

While not making an in-depth study of it, I have also read a fair bit about biography — books and essays exploring the nature and practice of this ancient art form. To me, biography is an art because it is, primarily, an interpretation. From these efforts, I have come to my views on biography:

No life, even the simplest or most uneventful, can be easily or entirely contained on the page, even in a large tome. And the lives of “personages,” people with significant public aspects, are complex and, paradoxically, often elusive. The life on the page is only an approximation of the life that was lived.

All biographers come to their subjects with unavoidable, inevitable biases. Sometimes these are evident; sometimes these are hidden.

Biographers attempt to gather as much information as possible, from multiple sources. Biographers are miners. But then they must select, arrange, compress, and distill some sort of essence from the raw material, and construct a narrative. This practice alters what actually happened in ways that can be obvious, but most often in ways that are not clear at all.

The many types of records that a biographer uses hold their own ambiguity, some closer to what actually happened than others. When a record is cast adrift from its context, it can take on a meaning quite different from what it originally meant.

The idea, to my mind, is to re-construct something that sits near to what was “true” — I do not use the word “truth” (with “the” or “a”) because, in my opinion, that is nigh impossible.

As readers, we know a biography presents someone’s view of a person — a well-informed, thoughtful, good-intentioned, accurate, insightful in the guesses view; but a subjective view none the less. The biographer must earn our trust and does so not only by what she or he includes, but how he or she writes.

Those of us who have researched and written extensively about Elizabeth Bishop (whether biography or literary criticism) have our own “Bishop” — our sense of who she was based on our biases and practices. Our Bishops are, of course, not the “real” Bishop, only interpretations of her. Approximations are the best we can do. Still, it is usually worth the effort to write and to read biography.

A first impression

To date, I have read seven reviews of Marshall’s book. Four of them critical (Morris, Garner, Jollimore, Peck), three of them glowing (Treseler, Avery-Miller, Mason). What does one make of this disagreement, particularly since it splits, more or less, along gender lines (most of the male reviewers on the negative side)? “Perhaps” it only reveals, yet again, that biography is highly subjective in the telling and in the receiving.

I put “perhaps” in quotation marks because it is a word Marshall uses a number of times in her book — at least seventeen by my count, which may not seem like many for a 305 page book, but it takes on more significance when attached to sentences such as the following: “Perhaps Elizabeth had been better off without her parents.” (291, Italics Marshall)

This conditional adverb, a word connoting speculation, offers a particular approach. “Perhaps” it suggests that Marshall is cognizant of the elusiveness of knowledge and the dubiousness of interpretation, a semantics that allows the reader to make up his or her own mind. Marshall combines such speculations with many questions — indeed, her book is filled with questions (I have not counted them), some of which she answers, some she does not. Some of them she herself asks. Some of them she imagines others asked of themselves. Since Bishop is a poet of an oeuvre filled with qualification and questioning, such a biographical practice is, arguably, appropriate. I wish I could say it convinced me, made me trust her when she ventured into conclusions; but I am so puzzled by her overall approach, which, I confess, unsettles me, that I am not sure how I feel about such particulars.

The approach

One of the main issues addressed in the reviews I have read is this overall approach. This book, one could argue, is comprised of two books: a biography and an autobiography. The chapters alternate between Marshall’s connection to and memories of Bishop (the book begins and ends with such chapters) and Bishop’s own story. Indeed, what emerges is a remarkable or strange (depending on your bent) parallelism. Marshall not only knew Bishop (she was a student in Bishop’s last writing class at Harvard in the 1970s), she also sees distinct similarities between their lives. The reviewers find this approach either distasteful or compelling.

I am a writer of what I call hybrid genres (in the academy, the label is multi-disciplinary). Indeed, ten years ago I wrote a collective “biography” of the McQueens of Sutherland’s River, N.S., as a book-length narrative poem, what I call a “domestic epic.” Even Lifting Yesterday is a meld of biography, history, genealogy and literary criticism. So, in principle, I cannot object to another writer taking an unconventional path, which is certainly what Marshall has done. I have never read anything quite like her book.

Marshall is, at least, being transparent about her biases and perspective. She tells us how she felt about Bishop and what brought her to writing this book (including the “B” she received in Bishop’s class, (187) in contrast to the “A-“ she received in Lowell’s (94))  — deeply personal reasons (unlike, perhaps, the path she took to write her previous biographies about the Peabody sisters and Margaret Fuller).*

I am just not sure Marshall has done a service to Bishop or biography by setting her own story beside Bishop’s, linking them almost point for point. Marshall declares that even if “I had disappointed Elizabeth Bishop, she could never, I realized, disappoint me.” (237) But Marshall’s approach comes off, to my mind, as getting in the last word. After reading about what Marshall experienced with Bishop, I came away with a picture: the unfairly rejected student becomes the authority on the teacher.

The last page of this book records the circumstances around Marshall receiving a posthumous “apology” from Bishop, through one of her Harvard classmates. Marshall declares this apology was “unsought,” but she took it as “an invitation, a call.” (305) Marshall’s immersion in the records of Bishop’s life was extensive and sustained, but with the interjection of her own story, again and again, the information and insights she reveals about Bishop seem rather beside the point, more a means to an end, a way for the biographer to work through her own issues.

[*Note: Over the past twenty-five years, I have met dozens of people who told me their Bishop stories, their encounters with Bishop herself or Bishop’s work, told me how such encounters affected their lives. Indeed, there is a section on this blog called “First Encounters,” with some of these stories. I have my own Bishop story, which I have written about on a number of occasions; but I did not presume to include it in my interpretation of Bishop’s life.]

What this biography reveals

If I was asked to sum up in a sentence of ten words or less what Marshall’s book is about it would be: This book is about Elizabeth Bishop’s sexuality and relationships. Marshall frames the chronology along the line of Bishop’s friends/confidants, lovers and partners. The list of people is long and includes: Margaret Miller, Louise Crane, Robert Seaver, Marianne Moore, Marjorie Stevens, Robert Lowell, May Swenson, Lota de Macedo Soares, Roxanne Cummings, Lilli Correia de Araújo, Alice Methfessel. (Bishop’s mother is here, too; but I will address Marshall’s treatment of her later.)

All of these relationships were well-known before Marshall wrote her book. Millier and Brazeau/Fountain identified them back in the 1990s. What is new in Marshall’s book comes from the sources she mines, in particular, letters that until recently were not known to exist, but which are now at Vassar College — of special note are letters written to (and sometimes from) Dr. Ruth Foster, Lota de Macedo Soares, May Swenson, Lilli Correia de Araújo and Alice Methfessel. These letters, most not yet published, are Marshall’s primary sources. Even a cursory glance at her notes reveals that significant portions of her narrative are based almost entirely on the content of these letters.

Further, what is new in this book is a serious glimpse into intimacy: thoughts and feelings between Bishop and her partners/lovers, including the agonizing self-searchings when a relationship collapsed (as with Lota, Roxanne and, for at time, Alice). These things are not out of place in a biography, of course. I read these reveals with keen interest, setting them beside what I already know about these relationships from other sources.*

I have not read any of these letters, so I must accept Marshall’s use of them at face value. She has mined them, as any biographer does, not only for facts, but also for evidence to support her perspective. Here, I can only question her use of them in relation to facts and issues about which I know something from my own research.

[*Note: I did wonder if we needed to know about Bishop’s menstruation and her fear she had no clitoris (Marshall is not the first to bring the latter into print.). I am a more overt feminist than Bishop and I strongly believe women should not be ashamed of or hide their bodies. But, like Bishop, I also believe there are places where others should not be admitted, places tenderly private.]

“Alternative Facts”

The facts and issues about which I know the most are related to, but not limited to, Bishop’s Nova Scotia connections. Below are a few particulars that caught my attention:

1. My first issue is with a description: “in the center of tiny, primitive Great Village, Nova Scotia.” (10) I sighed. The next time “primitive” appears in this book is on page 145, referring to the people in an Uialapiti village in Brazil, indigenous people who walked around their community naked. The depictions of Great Village in books about Bishop have been, by and large, egregiously reductive. Marshall is in good company. It is easy to dismiss what you do not know. Marshall’s evidence for this descriptor includes a Bishop quotation, found in an essay by William Logan, describing her grandparents’ house: “a homely old white house that sticks its little snub nose directly into the middle of the village square.” And this confirms “primitive” how? When I read this quotation, I thought of “The Moose”: “homely as a house / (or safe as houses).” It seems that Marshall views Great Village this way because “there was no running water,” (10) an observation she repeats later in the book. “Primitive” was a word Bishop thought quite a bit about, especially as it related to visual art; but she understood its complexity. I can be excused, I hope, when I wonder if Marshall actually read my book, the first chapter of which is a detailed description of Great Village and Bishop’s views about it.

2. “Gertrude in a sanatorium fifty miles away in Dartmouth, across the narrow bay from busy Halifax.” (13) Great Village is 117.9 kilometres from Dartmouth, that is, just over 73 miles. The body of water between Dartmouth and Halifax is Halifax Harbour, and in spots is anything but “narrow,” its “Narrows” being but one feature of what is, arguably, the largest ice-free harbour in the world. Immediately after these incorrect facts, Marshall asks: “Was it imagining that distance, the land and water to be crossed by carriage or automobile…that made Elizabeth love the two glossy maps…that hung on her classroom wall…?” Marshall should have consulted a map.

3. Marshall states on page 14 that Bishop’s time “ended abruptly” when her paternal grandparents appeared in Great Village and took her back to Worcester. Temporally, this claim is incorrect. The Bishops arrived in the village in September of 1917 and stayed for nearly a month before departing with Bishop (and her Aunt Maude) for New England. It might have felt abrupt to Bishop, but that is not how Marshall writes it.

4. “Elizabeth’s aunts Maud and Grace thrived on another kind of sentiment — the verse epics of Longfellow, Tennyson, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning…they had come to cherish in village reading circles.” (19) Let us diminish the accomplishments of people you don’t know, dismiss whole swathes of canonical nineteenth century poetry, and dwindle serious amateur study of literature: Great Village had a long-standing literary society the president of which, for many years, was a well-known Nova Scotia poet, Alexander Louis Fraser. Gertrude was also a member of this society.

5. “Gwendolyn Patriquin, a frail, beautiful girl she had played with in Nova Scotia, who died of untreated diabetes….” (20) Gwendolyn died on 1 September 1922. If Marshall had checked Wikipedia she would have learned that the revolutionary breakthrough in diabetes treatment — insulin — had only just been achieved in 1921 (by two Canadian doctors) and was still very much in the experimental stage. Thus, all diabetes was “untreated” at that time.

6. “Uncle Jack [Bishop]…established a $10,000 trust fund for Elizabeth.” (21) This trust fund came to Bishop from John Bishop Sr.,  her grandfather, through his will, when he died in 1923, just days after his wife, Sarah Bishop.

7. “The Nova Scotia Bulmers knew nothing of such camps [Chequesset] or schools or colleges for women.…” (21) Grace Bulmer graduated from Acadia Ladies Seminary, part of Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S. Indeed, Grace’s uncle William Bernard Hutchinson became the first graduate of Acadia to be its president. His brother George W. Hutchinson was a graduate of the Royal Academy in London, who became an accomplished illustrator, not an ancestor with “dubious talent.” (44) I think the Bulmers knew a little more than Marshall credits.

8. “‘Apoplexy,’ the result of a cerebral hemorrhage or stroke, was the cause recorded on her mother’s death certificate, with ‘Chronic Psychosis’ listed as the ‘contributory’ factor.” (45) As it goes, this is correct, except there is nothing at all about “cerebral hemorrhage or stroke” on the certificate. This is an example of a record taken out of context. “Chronic Psychosis” is a real winner of a term for those who seek to reduce Gertrude Bulmer Bishop to “madness.” Gertrude Bulmer Bishop’s hospital file offers a much more complex account of her final days, but Marshall is not interested in the context, only the sensation of the bureaucratic label. Marshall says it is uncertain if Bishop attended any service for her mother. I learned from Phyllis Sutherland that Grace, her mother, accompanied Gertrude’s body back to Worcester and saw Elizabeth at that time, which does not prove Bishop attended any service; but she was certainly told more than only “the fact of Gertrude’s death.” (45)

9. “By age thirty-six, Elizabeth’s own existence was painfully linked to a number of faults — shyness, dependence on alcohol, chronic asthma — that…seemed possible to ease, perhaps even cure, through psychoanalysis.” (77) Perhaps Marshall means that Bishop saw these issues in her life as faults, but it does not read like that to me. Faults imply things that are chosen, “dubious” actions one takes though you know better. Ignorance is a fault. Alcoholism is a disease. Asthma is a physiological condition. Shyness can be overcome, but it is a state of being that a child does not choose, especially an introverted child. Perhaps there are psychosomatic elements, which Bishop explored, but she never entirely overcame any of these conditions. I found this assertion rather badly put. On page 84, Marshall qualifies this point, but suggests that Bishop’s shyness, “her extreme self-consciousness — may have been the ‘fault’ her existence as a poet depended upon.”

10. “Elizabeth made her way to Halifax and the Department of  [Public] Health, where she sought out the records of her mother’s hospitalization and death two decades before. Her letters to Dr. Foster don’t say what she uncovered; a cousin Elizabeth visited while in Halifax later recalled that ‘I had the feeling that she didn’t learn a lot, but she didn’t say it had been a failure’.” (81) The person Bishop talked to in Halifax at that time was her friend Zilpha Linkletter, not a cousin. Zilpha reported the same thing to me when I spoke with her in the 1990s (Brazeau/Fountain also talked with Zilpha). Marshall then speculates: “Perhaps she had not been allowed to see her mother’s hospital records…” Gertrude’s hospital records were released to her niece Phyllis Sutherland in the late 1980s, so her daughter would have certainly been “allowed” to see them, if she had pursued it. I argue in Lifting Yesterday that she did.

11. “… ‘I was in Lockeport,’ Elizabeth wrote, a coastal town south of Halifax.” (82) The only thing south of Halifax is the Atlantic Ocean. Lockeport is west of Halifax on Nova Scotia’s South Shore.

12. “…the story about her mother, now called ‘Homesickness,’ and a poem of the same title. There was a nugget of family history at the heart of both.” (89) Beyond the mixed metaphor, the unfinished story is substantially based on what Bishop was told about her mother; the unfinished poem is based on Bishop’s own memories of her. Marshall contracts Gertrude’s teaching to “a job … a day’s ride from Great Village,” which “she could not afford to give up.” Gertrude actually taught in several schools, one as far away as Cape Breton. Gertrude did give up teaching, to venture further than any of her sisters at that point, to Massachusetts where she trained as a nurse. Marshall pans for gold selectively.

13. “The severe imbalance of rich and poor [in Brazil]…both disturbed Elizabeth and fired her imagination. Elizabeth herself was born of such an imbalance, an unusual hybrid of the extreme ends of the social spectrum: an orphan heiress who’d spent her happiest childhood years among tradespeople, a Vassar girl whose home address was a dingy working-class suburb.” (117–18) By now, dear reader, you will understand why I object to such a dichotomy, because it is more than simplified, it is untrue. “Extreme ends”! Extreme ends are Donald Trump and an out-of-work miner in Pennsylvania. Further, Marshall claims Bishop “lived among the wealthy” in Brazil “as an outsider, a dependent whose trust fund met only basic expenses.” This claim may have been more or less true in the 1950s, but when inflation hit Brazil, Bishop’s American greenback acquired much more buying power than Brazil’s currency. Tilt the lens slightly and you see things differently. In the margin of this page I scribbled, “Life is a matter of perspective.”

14. On page 142 Marshall introduces Sable Island (which, incidentally, is not in the index): “a desolate twenty-five-mile crescent of sand dunes and beach grass lodged in the Atlantic between Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and known as the ‘Graveyard of the Grand Banks’ — a place that ‘has haunted my [Bishop’s] imagination most of my life,’ with its race of wild ponies, its unique Sable Island sparrow …, and ‘wonderful ghost stories’ of shipwrecked sailors.” In my entire life, I have only ever heard Sable Island referred to as “The Graveyard of the Atlantic.” The Grand Banks are south east of Newfoundland. Sable Island is 300 kilometres (190 miles) south east of Halifax, no where near Newfoundland. Sable Island might be remote, but it is not “desolate” (there has been continuous human habitation on the island since the turn of the nineteenth century). Moreover, while it is a large set of sand dunes (yes, a 25ish mile crescent), the landscape is remarkably verdant in the summer, with dozens of species of plants from “beach grass” to orchids, from cranberries to wild roses. The equines on the island are horses, not ponies. And it is the Ipswich Sparrow.

15. “Elizabeth confided in no one her frightening sense that Lota was a different person….” (166) If so, how does Marshall know? From a journal or diary entry? She does not cite any source for this assertion. Has she read every letter Bishop wrote at this time?

16. “Ouro Prêto — with its ten exquisite eighteenth-century churches….” (177). There are thirteen such churches: http://magazin.lufthansa.com/uk/en/beat-of-brazil-en/ouro-preto-the-secret-of-the-13-churches/

17. “For Elizabeth, poetry and alcohol had long been twin compulsions….Both provided entry to an altered state, a welcome oblivion….poetry and alcohol had become organizing principles, imperatives more powerful than love….her daemon and her demon.” (197) Wow. What a stunning claim. Thought-provoking, at the very least. First alcoholism is a “fault,” now it is a “compulsion.” Marshall writes at some length about Bishop’s connection with Aldous Huxley and Laura Archera (143–46), and about Huxley’s experimentation with drugs, quoting Bishop’s observation “one sd. be able to see that much by simple concentration, absorption, self-forgetting, etc. — without eating mushrooms or taking LSD.” (290) Perhaps poetry and alcohol were not quite the joint compulsions Marshall asserts. Did Bishop really seek “oblivion” when writing a poem?

18. “For ‘The Moose,’ Elizabeth drew on memories going back to 1946, recorded in letters to Marianne Moore, who had died in February 1972,” (228) the year Bishop completed this poem. In spite of the fact that Bishop had worked on this poem off and on for over twenty years and that she dedicated it to her Aunt Grace (telling Grace in a letter that she was not the moose), Marshall concludes, “It could not have escaped Elizabeth’s notice that switching just one letter in the last name of her former mentor, whose close family members called each other by the names of woodland characters in The Wind in the Willows, would have made Marianne Moore a moose.” This curious alphabetic quirk has escaped the notice of every literary critic who has written about this poem in the past thirty years. Moreover, Marshall writes, “a bus, halted late at night on a country road deep in the Nova Scotia woods.” (229) Here is Bishop: “Moonlight as we enter / the New Brunswick woods…” — the province north of Nova Scotia. And further, Marshall claims that “eavesdropping on gossip through the nightlong journey” is the “chief subject of the poem’s irregular rhymed six-line stanzas before the animal arrives.” I would beg to differ. I suggest that overhearing the “old conversation” is but the trigger to a raft of memories the hearer evokes. Of the twenty-eight stanzas of this poem, only six relate to this “gossip” — a word, by the way, not used in the poem. Let us dismiss “Grandparents’ voices / uninterruptedly / talking, in Eternity,” as gossip.

19. “Elizabeth continued to dread a ‘decrepit’ old age, or one dimmed by senile dementia such as aunt Grace had suffered.” (288) Marshall’s source for “decrepit” is a letter to Alice Methfessel. One must assume it also includes the diagnosis for Grace. In all my conversations with Grace’s daughter, never once did she say her mother had “senile dementia.” Grace was 88 when she died on 22 August 1977, just weeks before Robert Lowell (a fact Marshall ignores). While Grace was ill and failing in the final year of her life, she was not incapacitated. Dementia, like psychosis, is a serious word and must be used with great care.

20. On page 291, Marshall’s narrative reaches the end of Bishop’s life on 6 October 1979, “dead of a cerebral aneurysm.” She writes briefly about the service that was held and who attended, as Bishop was buried in Hope Cemetery in Worcester, MA, beside her parents. Then she writes: “Within the year [1980], an inscription was chiseled into the monument…the last line [sic: lines] of the poem Elizabeth had written as a present to herself on a lonely birthday in 1948: ‘All the untidy activity continues, [/] awful but cheerful’.” I find this statement puzzling. I attended a conference about Bishop in Worcester in 1997. One of the final things that a busload of Bishop scholars did was go to Hope Cemetery to see the newly “chiseled” inscription on Bishop’s gravestone. Laura Menides, one of the conference organizers, told me the story about how she and Angela Dorenkamp had appealed to Alice Methfessel to have this inscription engraved before the Bishop world descended on Worcester. I was told that Bishop had originally wanted only “awful but cheerful,” which Alice couldn’t bring herself to do, so a compromise was made that it would be the couplet. Laura told me that they offered to pay for the inscription, but Alice in the end paid for it herself. Did I dream all of this? But I even have photographs of us all, solemnly standing there, as people spoke about this important marker being finally, properly, made.

There are other particulars about which I object, but I think I have made my point. I turn now to the depiction of Bishop’s mother and the revelations of abuse.


Gertrude Bulmer Bishop

Marshall begins Bishop’s story with a description of Bishop’s baby book, which contains the title “The Biography of our Baby.” She says that Bishop treasured this document “all her life.” (1) Almost immediately, however, Marshall uses this document to establish the parameters for Gertrude Bulmer Bishop as not just absent, but abandoning, by quoting a line from the book: “Mother had to go away with Father & leave Elizabeth for three months.” (Italics Marshall)

While conceding that Gertrude was “a nurse,” was “beautiful” (10) and was “a lithe skater,” (8) she quickly becomes a “wraithlike” creature with an “unending maternal scream,” (12) who “hit [Bishop] sometimes” (10), who “left her for weeks or months — repeatedly” (11), and who forgot her while helping people fleeing the Great Salem Fire. (11) I would suggest that “unending” (Marshall’s word) is qualitatively different from the “echo of a scream” “not even loud to begin with” that “hangs” above the village “a slight stain” “forever,” which Bishop describes in “In the Village.”

Curiously, Marshall also describes Gertrude’s body as remembered by Bishop (based on the unfinished poem “Homesickness” and a letter to Ruth Foster) as “pretty curves, the vulnerable defenseless, naked white body.” (10) It is necessary for Marshall to state that Gertrude stood “shivering in the washbasin…with water from a pitcher” because “there was no running water in [‘primitive’] Great Village.” (10) I try to imagine someone standing “in” a washbasin.

Gertrude’s “mental illness,” (11, 130) her “insanity,” (186) becomes her defining feature for Marshall, who confidently asserts that Bishop came “to view her mother more as one of the Bulmer aunts, and the least reliable of them,” (12) suggesting, to my ear, that the others also had reliability issues. Marshall is certain that what Bishop primarily felt was “maternal neglect and abandonment” (130) of a mother who “had never protected her,” and who “had shown her death up close and offered no words of comfort or explanation” (as evidenced in “First Death in Nova Scotia”). (165) So damaged was Bishop’s childhood that she could “scarcely imagine” “parental love.” (165)

Well into this account, Marshall reveals that her main source is letters Bishop wrote to Dr. Ruth Foster, a psychiatrist Bishop saw in 1946–1947. After reading Bishop’s letters, Marshall states that Foster “told…Bishop she was lucky to have survived her childhood.” (14) This childhood is subsequently characterized as “oppressive” (129) and “harrowing.” (303)

Of all the un-mined letters from which Marshall quotes, these are the ones I would like to see most of all. Based on Marshall’s notes, it appears there are two letters, one dated 24 February 1947 and another designated “Sunday morning, February 1947” (later in the notes a third reference is cited, “February 1947” — I assume it is just a shortened version of the second citation). Much of what Marshall writes about Bishop’s childhood is based on these letters that were prompted by Foster’s request — thus, written at a particular point in time for a particular purpose. Important? Absolutely. Definitive? I’m not so sure.*

Marshall quotes mostly phrases or isolated sentences from these letters. For the most part, she paraphrases them. One of the longest quotations refers to Bishop believing that she had been bottle-fed: “Heavens do you suppose I’ve been thinking of alcohol as mother’s milk all this time and that’s why I pour it down my throat at regular intervals? Or bottle feedings, or what?” (80)** Bishop’s poem “A Drunkard” directly explores this idea, but Marshall does not offer any substantial read of it. The poem Marshall does associate with this observation is “At the Fishhouses,” particularly its closing lines, a read that is, actually, quite interesting. Bishop knew well enough, as Marshall later writes, that “drinking ran in the family,” (85) among her male relatives on both sides.

Assessing Gertrude Bulmer Bishop’s life and illness, and their impact on her daughter, is a major undertaking, but one most Bishop scholars ignore. In Elizabeth Bishop At Work (2016), Canadian academic Eleanor Cook repeats the numbingly common refrain: “Her father had died when she was eight months old, and her mother had been confined to a mental hospital when she was five; she had not seen her mother since.” (16)*** To Marshall’s credit, she gives more attention to Gertrude, but the result is, unfortunately, a judgmental caricature.

[*Note: Marshall cites “Reminiscences of Great Village” only once in her notes, as far a I can see. This substantial manuscript, written when Bishops was in her early 20s, is an important source of information about her mother and family, as are letters to Anne Stevenson, written in the 1960s, which Marshall cites only about a half-dozen times.]

[**Note: Marshall adds that Dr. Anny Baumann suggested Bishop’s craving for alcohol was “a premenstrual symptom.” (80)]

[***Note: I discuss the origin and habitual reiteration of this kind of refrain in the extensive literature about Bishop, in Lifting Yesterday.]

The abuse

The other big reveal in the letters to Foster is that Bishop was abused by George Shepherdson, Aunt Maude’s husband. In August 2016, Heather Treseler wrote an article for the Boston Review, posted online (linked to on this blog), in which she discussed this revelation in these letters. I responded to it here: http://elizabethbishopcentenary.blogspot.ca/2016/08/letters-to-aunt-grace-part-21-uncle.html. Long ago, I had my suspicions, but no direct evidence. The Foster letters provide that evidence.

Marshall goes into more detail about this unforgiveable behaviour by an adult entrusted with Bishop’s care. Marshall’s adjectives for George are “sadistic” (79, 129), “brutish” (27) and “cruel.” (168) He had a “temper” that could turn into “tantrums” or “rages,” and, as Bishop told Foster, he expected everything to be done “for his comfort and enjoyment, nothing for anyone else.” (19) Marshall reports that once “he grabbed her by the hair and dangled her over the railing of the second-story balcony,” (18) an report she repeats later in the book.

Again, Marshall paraphrases, quoting only snippets. The longest quotation reads: “I got to thinking that they [men] were all selfish and inconsiderate and would hurt you if you gave them the chance.” (18) The “transgressions” ranged from inappropriate touching to threats of beatings. George was, essentially, a bully who intimidated those closest to him. In my August 2016 post, I suggested that Maude was an abused spouse, which Marshall confirms (describing Maude as “tender-hearted” (27) and “timid” (27, 129)), noting from Bishop’s letter to Foster that once George had “squeezed Aunt Maud so hard she’d broken a rib.” (25) In letters to Aunt Grace in the 1950s and 1960s, Bishop mentions George several times, alive until 1965. As awful as George was and as far away from him as Bishop went, she could still bring herself to write his name, seeing him for what he was: a hypocrite.

None of this is easy to read. Its affect on Bishop cannot be known entirely, even with her confessional letters to Foster. George deserves condemnation. I found Marshall’s handling of this matter relatively thoughtful, but I wished she had not so fully fragmented Bishop’s narrative.


In the end, one of the issues I have most difficulty with in this book is Marshall’s consistent paraphrasing of letters, poems and stories — applied to almost every document used, which asks the reader to accept her judgment, because she knows what parts are most important and relevant. Maybe this practice was done to avoid a large permissions fee — the Bishop estate charges by the line (poetry) and by the word (prose). I understand that issue. Moreover, Marshall is doing what all biographers do: selecting to achieve her aim, to write the life as she believes it was, from the sources she has gathered, the only way biography can be written. Yet, for example, I found her use of Bishop’s masterpiece “In the Village” lacking in nuance.

I did find a number of her insights intriguing. For example, she describes Bishop as “an integrationist” (292) as regarded her political beliefs, particularly related to “women’s lib.” I think she handles politics (personal, literary, national) well. She offers clarifying insights about Bishop’s relationship with Lowell. I thought her observations about the nature of Bishop’s fortitude (277) insightful. She goes into detail about changes in Bishop’s wills, a matter affecting Bishop’s legacy. I was keenly interested in her explorations of the deepest thoughts and feelings between Bishop and her partners. But the issues I outline above detract from the strengths to such a degree that I was left feeling “disappointed.”

A number of times in the autobiographical chapters, Marshall describes Bishop, as she encountered her. Of her voice: “buttery r’s of New England’s upper crust, yet given to flat inflections, the plain language of country folk” (44) and “a Vassar purr with Nova Scotia plain speech.” (137) Of her appearance at various moments in time: “coy and business like” (43); “grimmer, grayer, possibly even smaller” (95); “somber, sallow” (95); “short, soft-spoken, gray-haired, almost elfin…”(136); “stony-faced” (140); “smiling, girlish, pretty. Among friends.” (140) In end, I wondered if Marshall ever really got over getting a “B” in Bishop’s class.

Sandra Barry, Middleton, N.S., 25 February 2017

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