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

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 45: Money matters

Bishop’s concluding paragraph in her 19 July 1959 letter to Grace is packed with updates and observations about life in Brazil.

In a couple of previous letters, Bishop had hinted that they were planning another trip to the US, with a hope of making it to Nova Scotia this time (their last visit to the US had been in 1957 to shepherd The Diary of ‘Helena Morley’ into print).

But Bishop now had to admit to herself and her aunt that such a trip was not possible: “I DON’T think I’ll get to the U.S. or anywhere this year.” She admitted that this idea was
“a wild-day dream,” and she shouldn’t have tempted Grace with “that idea.” Bishop was pondering “applying for another fellowship of some sort for next year,” but since it, too, was just an idea, she didn’t go into details. She confessed to Grace that she would “love to get back for a while,” but the reason it was unlikely was money, “I am too broke and haven’t been earning anything for a long, long stretch, alas.”

She does report that she “just did sell one poem to The New Yorker, but poems don’t ‘bring in’ very much, of course.” This poem was “The Riverman.” Bishop received confirmation of this acceptance and payment for it two days before she wrote to Grace, in a letter from Katharine White, who wrote on 6 July: “Howard [Moss] took off just before he could put through for payment of your beautiful poem, “The River Man [sic].” At least he had the excitement and pleasure of reading and voting on it. It is your first poem since 1956, I believe, an I can’t tell you how happy we are — all of us — to have it. Worth waiting for! For me, it’s a magical poem that casts a spell — one of your very best.” (Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker: The Complete Correspondence, ed. Joelle Biele. Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2010, 210.) Bishop responded to White on 18 July.

While it was nice to sell the poem, she told her aunt that she needed to “get my two stories done soon!” I am not sure what these might be, but Millier says she was writing a lot of Brazil pieces during 1959.

The subject of income triggered some observations about Brazil’s economy, which was still in a stretch of “bad inflation,” with “prices go[ing] up and up.” Because Bishop had US currency, “some things still seem very cheap to me, food for example, and my dollar has gone up some, too.” But overall, “general life is more expensive for me here than it was.”

Mentioning food triggered yet another observation: “They have started, last year, super-markets in Rio.” Today, we can’t imagine shopping any place else. We must have a movement (“Buy Local,” for example) to shift our buying patterns, but the 1950s was the surge to consolidation of the consumer, though probably in the US this kind of shift was well underway. Interesting that it was only beginning to manifest in Brazil.
(The supermarket phenomenon, 1950s style.)
Bishop told Grace that on the day they returned to Samambaia, “we went to one [super-market] and laid in a supply of groceries.” Bishop still preferred to shop at the traditional “big covered market” in Petrópolis, saying it was “more fun.” But the down-side was having to “go to ten or twelve different places for things, and from stall to stall.” She listed the vendors: meat, fish, egg, fruit, cheese men; a bakery; a coffee bean place, and so on. The benefit of having everyone in one spot was they had done their task “all in about half an hour in Rio.” The other matter about the “street markets” was that they were “wasteful and usually dirty.”
(A glimpse of the glory of supermarket produce in 1960.)
These observations triggered yet another thought: “Times are changing here very fast.” Since her arrival in Brazil, “so many things have changed.” In keeping with the food theme, Bishop mentions a change she’d noted before: “We have pasteurized milk in Rio now — not enough of it, but you can get it.” That change had yet to make it to Petrópolis, where they “still fight every day almost with our neighbor to please put a little less water in the milk,” a practice Brazilians called “baptizing.” Scribbled in the bottom margin was the coda, “ Then it has to be boiled & boiled.”

Bishop closed her letter with her usual: “With lots of love and please write again.”

Ed. Note: I am going to take a hiatus from “Letters to Aunt Grace.” I am not sure for how long, but it will be for at least several weeks or a month or so. When I return to this series (if I do), I will take up the narrative with Bishop’s next letter, dated 25 August 1959.

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