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

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Permit me a slight indulgence: An Elizabeth Bishop precedent

I have just finished reading The Dolphin Letters, 1970—1979: Elizabeth Hardwick, Robert Lowell, and Their Circle (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2019), edited by Saskia Hamilton. The correspondence presents the story of the breakdown of Hardwick and Lowell’s marriage and Lowell’s use of some of Hardwick’s letters to him in his collection The Dolphin, a still controversial book. The crux of the issue, as I read it, was, in part, that Lowell used passages from Hardwick’s letters without her knowledge (initially) and permission. As Lowell was writing The Dolphin poems, he was living with Caroline Blackwood in England. They had a son together and eventually married, after Lowell and Hardwick, who had a daughter, divorced.

This story is complex and riveting as it unfolds in these letters, not only between Hardwick and Lowell, but also among various friends (e.g., Mary McCarthy, Stanley Kunitz, Blair Clark, Frank Bidart and Elizabeth Bishop). One of the most famous letters in this saga was written by Bishop to Lowell on 21 March 1972, after she read the manuscript of The Dolphin and discussed it with Bidart. Bishop was deeply troubled and upset by what Lowell had done and her admonition to him has become almost legendary. It has been quoted in a number of scholarly books and essays. The kernel that usually appears is thus: “One can use one’s life as material – one does anyway – but these letters – aren’t you violating a trust? IF you were given permission – IF you hadn’t changed them … etc. But art just isn’t worth that much.” (252) She then paraphrased a passage from a Hopkins’s letter “about the idea of a ‘gentleman’ being the highest thing ever conceived – higher than a ‘Christian’ even.” (252) Bishop thought that what Lowell had done was “cruel.” Lowell was unsettled by Bishop’s sharp critique, but he declared to Bidart, in a letter of 10 April 1972, that “her extreme paranoia (For God’s sake don’t repeat this)” was “a wildness.” (272) For a long time, Lowell remained, more or less, unrepentant.

I was mesmerized by this trans-Atlantic back and forth between Hardwick and Lowell, and among “their circle,” in this well edited book. A fascinating story made all the more riveting because we the readers know what happened, while they, living in their moment in time, did not. They can’t fully see the ironies, the surprises, the consequences of their actions and words. The “untidy activity” of life, as Bishop concluded in “The Bight,” was “awful but cheerful,” and sometimes not so cheerful.

I have my own views about Lowell’s actions, which closely mirror Bishop’s and probably I would go even further because I do not have the decades-long friendship with Lowell that tempered Bishop’s objections, at least somewhat. In my opinion, Lowell betrayed Hardwick because, as Bishop pointedly and emphatically observed, “Lizzie is not dead, etc.” and “there is a ‘mixture of fact & fiction’, and you have changed her letters.” (252) Lowell’s actions seem irrefutable and inexcusable.

What struck me most, however, about Bishop’s letter is what this post is really about. As I mentioned, only specific, short passages from this letter, which is actually quite long (running from page 251 to 259 in the book), are quoted, which means they are out of context, considerably. Bishop clearly thought about her response for some time and felt strongly enough to write at length and in detail. What delighted me most about this detail was not the larger “moral” objections (as well-presented and important as they are); but after going through these serious concerns (which Lowell by and large dismissed and ignored), Bishop offered Lowell a list of what she called “very petty comments” about “small mistakes” (255), or “trivialities.” (258) What followed was a dozen or so issues that go on for well over a page, some complex enough to warrant a paragraph of explanation. I won’t repeat all of these issues, but will offer one example, my favourite:

“31. I am pretty sure it’s Ernest Thompson Seton – he used to be my favorite author. (I saw ‘Rolf in the Woods’ at the Coop – so I’ll check on it.)” (257)
Hamilton’s footnote for this item reads, in part: “2. Lowell: ‘What were was the lessons of the wolverine, / the Canada of Earnest [sic] Seton Thompson’ …. The poem was removed The Dolphin and added to History as ‘Wolverine, 1927’.” (257)

I do not recall ever seeing this list of issues mentioned in any reference to or discussion of Bishop’s letter/response to Lowell’s poetic actions. Lowell received her list much more positively than her moral objections (he acted on them), which reinforced, it seems, the certainty of his prerogative, about which he wouldn’t budge, much: Hardwick’s letters to him were for him to use.

On a number of occasions on this blog, I have offered my own lists of “comments,” “mistakes,” “trivialities” for various books about Bishop (by Alice Quinn, Megan Marshall and Thomas Travisano, etc.). When I read Bishop’s list about nothing less than Robert Lowell’s poems, I felt reassured by my own practice. Here was my precedent from no less than Bishop herself. Somehow, I didn’t register the significance of this letter when I first read it in Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell (NY: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2008). But that book presented a very different context for it and in 2008 there was no blog and I had not written much by way of reviews of the voluminous literary criticism and biography about Bishop being churned out in the first decade of the new millennium. Since that time, I have written more critique, mostly located on this blog. Perhaps somewhere at the back of my mind, I remembered the letter and felt my own modus operandi justified, though occasionally I felt petty, pointing out things like Bishop’s “Ernest Thompson Seton.” Reading the letter again, over a decade later, in an entirely different context, was a reassuring surprise.

As for Hardwick and Lowell: The passage of time blunted the sharpest edges of the hurt for Hardwick. One can’t tell from the letters if she actually forgave him, but with the immediate bond of their daughter, Hardwick’s determination to move on with her life, and Lowell’s increasingly poor health, Hardwick seemed to let bygones be bygones, and Lowell himself eventually managed a qualm. In a letter of 2 July 1976, he wrote to Hardwick, “I regret the Letters in Dolphin.” (435) Hardwick had the last word though, in her autobiographical novel Sleepless Nights, begun while Lowell was still living but published in 1979, two years after his death. Her achievement is best described by Mary McCarthy in a letter to Hardwick on 4 June 1979:

“When I read the first bits in the New York Review, I couldn’t see how you were going to cope with the huge fact of Cal [Lowell]; it didn’t occur to me that you could do it by simply leaving him out. That’s a brilliant technical stroke but proves to be much more than that. He becomes a sort of black hole in outer space, to be filled in ad lib, which is poetic justice: he’s condemned by the form to non-existence – you couldn’t do that in a conventional autobiography. In any case, he couldn’t patronize your book by appearing to be generous about it, though I suppose he might try.” (456-7)

1 comment:

  1. Was E.B.'s friend Gwendolyn Applebee in the story a real person and if so,was that her real name, can't find surname in sensus. .Dick Akerman