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

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 22: Politics and Property

Bishop tends to be seen as an a-political or non-political artist. Perhaps hard-core “politics” and the ideologies and activism around it are relatively absent from her poetry; but she does speak of subjects, such as poverty and war, property and prejudice, class and commerce, which have deep political elements and implications. Bishop wasn’t much of an “ism” person or poet. She tended to steer clear of overt ideologies (e.g., feminism, socialism, conservatism, liberalism). Even in her art, she is difficult to place in any “ism”: modernism, post-modernism, confessionalism, surrealism. In spite of this elusiveness where labels are concerned, most critics identify a strong moral centre in her work. If there is any “ism” that might identify her, perhaps it is a kind of “humanism.” Being a very private person, Bishop practiced whatever beliefs she held (and much ink has been spilled trying to identify and describe these beliefs) in a low-key, gradualist sort of way. The work she released to the public was, in essence, her primary statements. Being art, they hold and express these beliefs in highly complex, often puzzling, always affecting ways.

Yet Bishop could also be an opinionated person, about all sorts of things, including politics. In her Brazilian letters generally, and also in her letters to Aunt Grace, Bishop often made comments on and observations about “P”olitics, meaning governments and politicians and world events that involved public actions. In her 2 December 1956 letter to Grace, she mentions several such subjects and offers brief assessments.

First, she declared she was “very disappointed” that Adlai Stevenson lost the US election; he “would have made a fine President, I think.” She supposed that Grace had been able to get “all the excitement on your T.V.,” noting “that kind of thing is fun to watch — for a while at least.” All that Bishop could do was listen to world events on “our friend and neighbour” Mary Morse’s radio. Bishop was still waiting, she said, to get “a small battery one from the U.S.” [Ed. Note: One wonders what she would have thought of the current election campaign in the US!]
 (Adlai Stevenson)
Even with these communication restrictions, Bishop was aware, for example, of the dramatic events unfolding in Hungary, which was in the midst of a revolution against Communist oppression. “At least we get the latest fearful news from Europe….Aren’t those Hungarians magnificent and brave.”
(Hungarian Revolution of 1956)
Turning her world events commentary to Brazil, she remarked, “Everything is an awful mess, here, too.” Though just what she meant by “threats of a new dictatorship” are curious because in 1956 Brazil elected Juscelino Kubitschek President. His Presidency brought in a period of economic development and increased relevance for Brazil on the world stage. Bishop reassured Grace, lest she think her niece was in danger of being caught up in some violent coup, that “Brazilians aren’t very blood-thirsty, thank goodness.” The last “‘revolution’ was all over in a few hours” and the joke was “how no one saw it, because it was a rainy day and no one went out.”
 (Juscelino Kubitschek, President from 1956-1961)
Having succinctly dispatched current events, Bishop tells Grace that her local “business” venture “hasn’t got under way yet.” Her “partner” was due that day “to discuss developments.” She felt quite sure that in six months, “I should think, I’ll really know more what my prospects are here.” Grace must have mentioned that she was now receiving an Old Age pension from the Canadian government and might even be eligible for some Social Security in the US for all her years working there. Bishop noted that “‘writers’ just became eligible for it two years ago.” But in her estimation, because it was based on “earnings or something,” she would “probably be able to collect about $2.50 a month in my old age!”

Finally, prompted by Grace’s inquiry, Bishop wrote that she had “decided to let the land — near Providence — go” because “it was over $300 back taxes, and worth less,” This decision was made after her old friend Dorothy Coe had kindly gone “to see it [the land] for me, called the tax-collector, etc.” It isn’t clear if Bishop actually recouped the $300, but she concludes this update by saying, “For $300 I could buy a piece of land here that would be worth ten times that much in ten years probably — so I let it go.” Perhaps her “business” ventures involved real estate.

One has to wonder why Bishop would be involved in business ventures in Brazil if the political and economic situation was a “mess,” as she had declared. It really is a rather curious aspect of her life, these dealings, especially for someone who claimed to have no head for business.

The next post will be wrap up 1956.

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