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

Friday, July 19, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 117: History of Great Village

Bishop’s next letter to Grace is dated 20 February 1962, two weeks after her last. It was prompted by a gift Bishop received barely a week after she’d written on 6 February: “the book about G V,” that is the History of Great Village by the Women’s Institute. It was sort of hot off the press, being published in 1961. 
By the time she wrote, Bishop had read it from cover to cover and “enjoyed it very much … and I am finding it very useful …. you’ll be surprised!” To prove this assertion, she immediately noted that she was “writing a poem about the Mill Pond, among other things.” This pond belonged to the Peppard family and was located behind the Great Village School. It was large enough that over the decades it supplied both a lumber and grist mill with water. By Bishop’s time, those businesses were gone, but still vivid in the minds and memories of all the villagers.

It appears that Bishop didn’t get very far with her “Mill Pond” poem. Her papers at Vassar do not contain even a draft of such a piece, at least as far as I know.

Bishop thanked her aunt “very much,” and added, “you couldn’t have found a present I’d like better” (it being a birthday present).

What followed were some of her direct comments about items found in this quaint but informative account of the founding and prospering of the village. As she read through it, she found her maternal family name written mostly as “Boomer.” Bishop had definite views on this choice: “I do wish everyone would go back to spelling the name BULMER.” For Bishop, ever keen about proper nouns, this spelling bespoke “a good English name.” Her feelings about the more popular spelling were categorical: “I HATE BOOMER.” For her, this spelling “could be Dutch or German.” It is quite curious that she expressed such a negative view, thinking the common spelling “very ugly-looking,” when she had chosen this exact spelling for the character, Edwin Boomer, in her fable-like story “The Sea & Its Shore,” written in 1937.

Bishop really did read this local history closely and carefully because she found even the most passing references to her ancestors. First, her great-grandfather Robert Hutchinson, who was included in a list of “Master Mariners.” Bishop expressed disappointment that the name of his “bark or whatever it was” was not listed, but then she thought that perhaps it was because he was not a “ship-owner.” Indeed, Robert Hutchinson never owned a vessel, but he worked on a number of ships out of the Port of Londonderry, and probably reached the rank of captain. But rarely did captains own the vessels they sailed. 
The next ancestor was her great-grandmother, Mary Elizabeth Black Hutchinson (later Gourley), wife and widow of Robert Hutchinson, whose name she found mentioned in an item about the merchant (and fellow Yorkshire immigrant) L.C. Layton, paying said “ʻMrs Hutchinson’ to make ‘2 coats at 40₡ each.” Bishop “bet that was your grandmother, wasn’t it?”
She was fascinated by these “odds and ends,” which she kept listing. Grace would surely have known the contents perfectly, having likely supplied information directly to the compilers, so Bishop’s descriptions are perhaps to show Grace how delighted she was with this present.

Bishop noted that she had “found the list of relatives who became school teachers and nurses,” noting it was “quite impressive!”
Having just gone through her own kind of hell with the Time-Life book about Brazil, Bishop was aware of production matters and noted, “as you said — it’s too bad whoever did it couldn’t have done it just a little better.” The History of Great Village is typical of community histories of the era, an amateur production (or in Bishop’s parlance, “primitive,” which was not a pejorative term for her, but indicative of a “home-made” quality she admired). Still, the writing is ordinary, the scholarship haphazard, the layout/design rudimentary. All this said, such a history is extremely valuable now as the generation that knew first-hand much of what it contains is gone.*

Bishop thought she knew who might have been a key person in its creation: “did ELSEE write most of it, or who?” That is, Elsee Layton, daughter of L.C. Layton, the fellow who paid Mrs. Hutchinson for the coats. Elsee and Grace were good friends and one of those teachers on the list Bishop found.

One item, in particular, intrigued Bishop: “did you see the item about the old ‘Literary Club’.” The Christophian Literary Society was a fixture in the village for several decades just before and after the turn of the twentieth century. Bishop’s mother and aunts all belonged to it at one time or another. I have written about it and one of its best-known members, Alexander Louis Fraser, elsewhere on this blog. 
Reading about the society’s wide-ranging interests, Bishop wondered “how many people in G V ever read Browning or Tennyson these days.” Another section “about ‘ARTISTS’,” also caught her eye, because it included a note about Great-uncle George W. Hutchinson. Indeed, Great Village during her childhood (the 1910s) was a highly cultured place and helped seed Bishop’s love of poetry and painting. But she concluded, “as everyone says — and it happens everywhere — culture is dying out completely in small places.” This culture was being replaced by new technology, so that “no one knows anything any more except what they see on T V, alas.” One wonders what Bishop would think of today when the argument can be made that no one knows anything any more except what they see on the internet! 
Bishop knew she could not reverse this tide, but she did “wish they’d stick to the old spellings of things, and the old names, at least.” Besides hating “Boomer,” she also declared in a scribbled addendum at the end of this paragraph, a parenthetical afterthought, “(I do HATE ‘GLENHOLME’ — UGH!)” Glenholme was the current name of what was originally Folly Village, which even I agree is a much more interesting name.

Reading the History of Great Village made her yearn to return, “I’d love to get back for a trip,” but what with life so busy, she wondered “when and how on earth” she could. Then one final note, “I see your house,” that is, her grandparents’ home, “is insulated with birch bark — that’s nice!”**
Bishop’s final paragraph of this letter shifted to quite another matter, the woes of trying to upgrade the plumbing at the apartment in Rio, which will comprise the next post.


*Note: The Great Village Historical Society reprinted the History of Great Village some years ago and added supplementary information, including a brief biography about Elizabeth Bishop herself.

**Note: During some recent work at the EB House, some of this birch bark insulation was found.

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