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

Thursday, March 31, 2016

A view of Great Village, Nova Scotia

Going through some old files and papers, I came across this postcard that I thought was quite interesting. So, I am sharing. I will post Part 3 of my series about Bishop's letters to Aunt Grace soon. It involves a postcard that Bishop send to her aunt. Bishop would have learned about postcards in Great Village, which had a whole series of them showing views of the place, during her childhood.
This view shows the fork in the road before the bridge (down to the left). The right road is up Scrabble Hill and is the Road to Londonderry. On the right is the Elmonte Hotel. In the centre the structures seen are no longer there; it is now the location of the centotaph. This view dates probably just after the turn of the twentieth century. The Elmonte burned in 1932.
One of the fascinating things about this image is the wonderful stamp with King George. Note that it cost 1 cent to send a postcard. I love that word: "Private." There could be no more public communication than a postcard!

Friday, March 25, 2016

Elizabeth Bishop’s Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 2: A Letter from Grace to Maude, circa 1938 or 1939

Bishop pasted the letter below in a notebook that she kept during the 1930s (EBP, VII, 72A.3). It is interesting that even though this letter was addressed to her aunt, Bishop chose to claim and preserve it — and in a context that was decidedly non-rural.* Grace was living at Elmcroft in Great Village when she wrote the letter. Elmcroft was William Bowers’s big farm. William, a widower with six grown children, married Grace in 1923. By the early 1930s, Grace had her own three children, who are mentioned in the letter (Buddy, Rod, and Phyllis). Helene was Grace’s step-daughter (the only girl among William’s children). Grace had worked for the Red Cross in Massachusetts during World War I. I do not know if she found the proof she needed to get the bonus. Grace’s Red Cross pins, and a number of other items from her nursing career, are at Acadia University Archives (http://openarchive.acadiau.ca/cdm/singleitem/collection/BBHS/id/917 ). Grace continued to nurse in various ways and places until she retired in the 1960s. During the 1930s, she was known to help Dr. T.R. Johnson do appendectomies on kitchen tables in the community. Grace addresses her sister as “Maud” (without the “e”), but her name was, officially, Maude).

Dear Maud,
            Your have written about three letters to my one. It seems as if the busy days are never going to let up this fall. Even Sundays are busy, but today is an exception, Will and I and the children are alone. Helene is out to dinner. Viola and the children are down home and Tom is away to the Mountain hunting cattle. Buddy and Roddy are watching the cattle, keeping them out of the turnips and Phyllis is knitting herself a pair of bed socks. She is very industrious, always wants to be doing something. She has learned to run the machine and last week she made me four holders. I am going to get some flannelette and let her make herself some pajamas. She likes to cook too, fudge especially.
            Rod is getting along fine at school. You would laugh to hear him read. He never looks at the book at all. It is no trouble for Buddy to learn. He stays at the head of his class, the teacher puts him at the foot on Monday A.M. and he works up again. There are only four in his class so it isn’t much to brag about, but Phyllis is never at the head, she pulls in about 3rd.
            I guess I told you about the dykes breaking in the spring and it costing so much to get them fixed. Well we had another high tide and they broke again. We have had two extra men here ever since Sept. 27th, with two or three lunches every day besides the three kids. I am so sick of putting up lunches. It takes so much bread and sweet stuff. I make 16 loaves of bread every week, to say nothing of rolls, biscuits etc. I think they’ll be through this week and I’ll not be sorry. Besides that we had a well drilled at the barn. Two men were here 4 or 5 days. They went down 77 feet and finally got 30 ft. of water. It cost us $2.00 per foot, and we are paying for it with potatoes. It is such a job in the winter weather to get the cattle and horses to the brook. It will be a great help to them. Our potatoes are only a fair crop. We have quite a lot of stem rot, but they are a good price $1.00 a bag. We have a big crop of turnips but there is quite a lot of club root in there. There is always something to keep the rabbit’s tail short.
            Marie wrote me that they were paying a bonus to the nurses who had served in the Red Cross. She said she heard of one girl getting $450.00. I thought likely it was only overseas nurses, but Hazel said she didn’t think so. So anyway I wrote. I thought if they are foolish enough to pay a bonus to girls who did only home nursing I might as well have it as well as the others. I didn’t know the exact dates I was working in the Red Cross, so they answered and told me that only those enlisted between the dates of Apr. 6, 1917 and Nov. 1, 1918 and who were in the service not less than 30 days were entitled to the bonus. I have written to the Red Cross in Boston to see if I can find out when I did join. Can you remember when I joined. It is so long ago that I have forgotten all about it nearly. I still have my pin and my number 30504 so perhaps I will get something.
            P.S. – I forgot to tell you that the big busses to Monclair [sic], St. John, Boston, etc. go right by the door. It doesn’t seem as if you were quite so far away with them going by daily. You and George had better come that way for Xmas.
(l. to r. Wallace (Bud/Buddy) Bowers, Lois Bowers (his wife),
Phyllis Bowers Sutherland. Standing, Marie Lucia Martins)

Addendum: There is a great deal that could be annotated in this letter. For example, the buses that Grace mentions refer to the Nova Scotia Coach Lines, which began operation on 1 August 1938. So, Grace is passing on news about a recent development. The company became known as Acadian Lines in 1947. This fact is important because Bishop scholars, including myself, believe that Bishop’s famous bus ride back to Boston in 1946 (which triggered “The Moose”) was on an Acadian Lines Bus, but not quite. Her visit to Nova Scotia in 1947 would have seen her travelling on the coaches of the newly re-christened company. Perhaps it does not matter what the name of the bus company was at any point, but Bishop herself would have cared. Names were important to Bishop.

As tempted as I am to offer extensive annotation of this document, I will resist and conclude with what I think is an obvious observation: What is evident from this brief letter is that Grace’s correspondence was serious communication, filled with information and ideas and a good deal of humour. Bishop was open to all these elements, eager always to hear Grace’s news and thoughts. Even this solitary letter reveals why Bishop would value the correspondence with her aunt.
* Bishop started this journal shortly after graduating from Vassar. She spent a good deal of the 1930s in New York City and Europe. Loretta Blasko transcribed this journal in the mid-2000s, exploring Bishop’s fascination with modernism: “What It Means to Be Modern: Elizabeth Bishop’s New York Notebook, 1934–1937,” M.A. Thesis, University of Michigan-Flint, 4 May 2006.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Elizabeth Bishop’s letters to Aunt Grace, Part 1: Some Background

Around 265 letters and postcards from Elizabeth Bishop to her maternal Aunt Grace Bulmer Bowers, from 1952 to 1977 (Grace died that year), are located in the Elizabeth Bishop Papers at Vassar College (I, 25–26). Vassar purchased the letters from Bishop’s first cousin Phyllis Sutherland* (Grace’s daughter) in the late 1980s. I met Phyllis in 1990. I will confess that my first reaction upon hearing that this treasure trove was resident in the US was dismay. Vassar was actively collecting Bishop material in the decade after her death and figured out that Phyllis was the custodian of this important cache. I never asked Phyllis how much Vassar paid for the letters. She never told me. That such an important institution sought her out and wanted to buy these documents confirmed her sense of the significance of her cousin.
 (Phyllis and Grace, 1940s. Acadia University Archives)
As I thought about it, I conceded that it was vital for the letters Bishop wrote to her maternal family to be part of the vast and growing epistolary collection that Vassar was amassing, comprised primarily of the letters Bishop wrote to her famous literary friends.

During the 1990s I ordered photocopies of many of these letters and spent a considerable amount of time transcribing them. I reached only to the end of the 1960s before other Bishop projects and activities took me away from this task, one to which I have always meant to return. I mined the letters for information about Bishop’s relationship with her maternal family, which found its way into my book Lifting Yesterday: Elizabeth Bishop and Nova Scotia, but my great hope was to edit and annotate these letters and find a way to publish them.

There is a curious and sad puzzle around Bishop’s correspondence with Grace. Bishop loved and admired her aunt. She regarded her aunt as a very good letter writer. Indeed, she included a letter by her aunt in a course on letters she taught at Harvard in the early 1970s. Bishop would have received hundreds of letters from Grace over the years — almost each of Bishop’s letters to Grace makes reference to one or more letters that Grace wrote her niece.

“Dear Aunt Grace, Lota & I were on our way to Rio early Monday morning & stopped by the P.O. where I picked up your lovely long letter writen [sic] in the middle of the night! So I read it out loud to Lota en route, and she was so taken with it that she said ‘We must take her a nice present when we get to Boston!’” (10 January 1957)

What is troubling is that it appears none of Grace’s letters to Bishop survive. I have never been able to find out what happened to them. Bishop would surely not destroy her aunt’s letters. Indeed, in a notebook Bishop kept in the 1930s, she pasted in a letter that Grace wrote to her sister Maude (Bulmer Shepherdson, the aunt who raised Bishop). Most of the extant letters from Bishop to Grace were written during the Brazil years, so most of Grace’s to Bishop would have been written during that same time. It appears that some of Bishop’s letters were destroyed after Lota’s death and before Bishop got her possessions back to the US. But the fate of Grace’s letters to Bishop will likely never be known.

In 2009, I made an inquiry to Alice Methfessel and Jonathan Galassi** about the possibility of publishing Bishop’s letters to Grace. I was told that her correspondence with Lowell (published as Words In Air, 2008) and the pending publication of The New Yorker correspondence (2010) had “great literary interest.” I was also told that while other literary correspondences would, hopefully, be published in the future (e.g., with Moore — we are still waiting on this volume),*** Alice felt that publishing “more of Bishop’s letters doesn’t make sense” and a book of her letters to her aunt was “not a good idea.” — and not even if I could find a Canadian publisher. Why this would be so was not explained, and I did not pursue it.

It is understandable that in the academy Bishop’s letters to her literary friends and colleagues are considered the most important, the ones that carry the greatest interest for scholars and critics who explore the literary realm. These letters would also be considered the most marketable for publishers. But Bishop wrote to more people than just other writers. Her letters to Grace are, in a word, fascinating and multi-faceted. For example, I used them to write a talk I gave to the History of Medicine Society in Halifax in the late 1990s, a talk about Bishop’s views on all things medical (a realm about which Bishop and Grace shared a keen interest, for all sorts of reasons).

My intention is to write a series of posts exploring aspects of and elements in Bishop’s letters to Grace. Since the letters are still under copyright, I am not able to quote them at length. However, I will dip into them, in a limited way, and quote snippets that relate to the given aspect or element I will explore. I will post these essays as I write them, so I cannot say how frequent they will appear, but I hope to do a couple each month for the next little while. I will list them in the “Nova Scotia Connections” section, for easier access.

Before I get to Bishop’s own letters, the next post will be my transcription of the letter Grace wrote to Maude mentioned above. I think Bishop would insist that Grace’s voice be heard in some way, and this charming example of Grace’s epistolary art serves that purpose nicely. So, stay tuned.


* Around 25 letters and postcards from Phyllis Sutherland were also bought by Vassar. Bishop also exchanged letters with her aunts Maude, Mary and Mabel. As far as I know none of these letters survive, except a postcard Bishop wrote to Maude in 1928, perhaps the earliest piece of correspondence of Bishop’s that survives. It is housed at Acadia University Archives.

** Alice Methfessel was Bishop’s last partner, her heir and literary executor (with Frank Bidart). She has since died, making Bidart the sole executor of Bishop’s estate. Jonathan Galassi is the head of Farrar, Straus, Giroux, Bishop’s publisher.

*** One Art: Elizabeth Bishop Letters, edited by Robert Giroux (1994), began the program of publishing Bishop’s letters. Some of her correspondence with Kit and Ilse Barker and May Swenson have also been published in various literary journals.