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

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 104: 1962 & Back in Brazil

The next letter Bishop wrote to Grace is dated 3 January 1962, from Rio. The fraught, exhausting time in New York City was past and with the start of another year, Bishop settled herself at her typewriter and began what would be one of her longest letters to her aunt. Actually, it was a long letter to “My dear Aunties.” As Bishop explained at the top, she was “going to do something I really think is very impolite — write you both a letter at the same time.” The other auntie in question was Mary. Bishop used “carbon paper.” (Does anyone remember this device? One had to be a good typist to manage it, as making corrections was difficult. I wonder which one got the carbon copy.)

Bishop reasoned that since she had “the same things to tell both of you, more or less” and since she owed “you both letters,” she opted for this less than ideal approach. She also noted, perhaps with a bit of frustration, that she had not “written any [letters] to speak of since last October,” at least since she and Lota had arrived in New York. In addition to all of these circumstances, she returned to Brazil to find “stacks of mail.” Everything combined caused her “shortcut methods,” for which she wrote, “please forgive me.”

Her claim that she had not written any letters was not actually true, at least in terms of her aunts (and perhaps for others as well), which she corrected at the start of the next paragraph: “I DID, however, write you each a letter shortly after I got to New York.” Upon that arrival, Bishop still believed she might “still make it to either Montreal or Nova Scotia.” Quickly, the amount of work on the Brazil book made her realize that plan was unlikely. Bishop tried to recall just when those letters were written: “around November 15th, I think” (It was actually 10 December for her last letter to Grace in 1961.) As if she needed to defend her claim, she added, “I’m positive about this.” As a rule, Bishop did not make copies of her letters, which went off into space-time never to be seen by her again. With all the frustrations and the need to leave the US quickly in December, it is little wonder Bishop lost track in her mind about when she had written.

After all this avowing, Bishop got to the crux of her frustration, the fact that she had not heard from her aunts, “Apparently neither of you received these letters.” Bishop’s endless complaints about “the Brazilian mails” being “the worst,” had to be rethought in light of these missing letters. But in fact, Grace had received her letter. Perhaps her own busy “Christmas rush” prevented her from writing. Having been told they would be immediately returning to Brazil, perhaps Grace felt it best just to wait until Bishop was settled again. Bishop speculated on what could have happened to her letters: “maybe they still haven’t got to you,” because of that “Christmas rush”; “maybe they got lost”; “or, even more likely — they are there somewhere in that apartment on Perry Street, under the table or something.” Bishop was sure she had given her aunts the Perry Street address, more than once. She clearly had an expectation that she would hear from them at some point while in the US.

When she arrived in NYC, she fully intended to try to see one or both of them, that she would be done with the “Time, Life, Inc.” book by “the end of November.” She never did finish the work on the book and the IRS forced her out earlier than planned, “December 15th or was it 17th, finally.”

Those final weeks and days in the US were rather chaotic for Bishop and she came back to Brazil with the book unfinished: “and I am STILL working on” it. One can hear the exasperation when she moaned, “I don’t think it will ever end.” If Bishop learned anything in this process it was that she “wouldn’t work for them again for $50,000.” She had “never worked so hard in my life” on something that she felt, in the end, “was an absolute waste of time.” The stress had taken a toll physically. She reported she had “lost ten pounds and have had bronchitis ever since I came back!” She was so exhausted by the experience, she also reported that she “slept from the time we got back until Christmas, I think.” Well, an exaggeration, but to make a point.
This “poor little book” was still filling her mind, even as a new year was getting underway. She was sure it “isn’t going to please anyone — me, LIFE, nor the Brazilian friends I did hope to please.” She stated again that both aunts would receive copies. As displeased as she was, she needed her family and friends to see the evidence of all that hard work, fraught and unsatisfactory as it was. She reiterated that even as relentlessly ongoing as the process felt, there was an end in sight: “it will be out around the end of February I think.” She pleaded with her aunts not to “judge my prose style by it, for heaven’s sake.” Bishop was even “awfully disappointed in the photographs.” The Time-Life editors had, apparently, boasted about this part of the book, but Bishop reported that “they had almost none [photographs] when I got there.” She concluded this final chapter of a dreadful saga declaring that she “fought a blood fight for every one you will see,” ending this long paragraph with a hand-written scribble, “— that is any good at all.”

This long letter is just getting started and will require many posts to work through. Before getting to new topics, there was yet one more long reiteration about their time in NY and its impact on her and why she was unable to see either of them, as she so desperately wanted to do. It will comprise the next post.

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