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

Friday, August 30, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 124: The Lowells arrive

Bishop next wrote to her aunt on 31 July 1962, two months after her previous letter of 31 May. The long gap was occasioned by the visit of Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick, which was still happening at the time of this epistle, an event that caused Bishop all manner of stress. The first paragraph of what was, for Bishop, “a very hurried note,” outlined this reason, so as to “explain why I haven’t written before.” 
(Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick)
First, Bishop acknowledged receipt “your letter of the 24th of June.” She wanted to reassure her aunt that she hadn’t “forgotten you, & shall write at length when I have time.” Even though Bishop clearly was in a rush, she still took time to sketch the basics of the main cause of the delay.

She vaguely remembered that she “may have told” her aunt about this visit when she last wrote, and confirmed that “my friends the Lowells came, around July 1st.” Already a month into the visit, Bishop reported that it “has kept us awfully busy.” She quickly qualified, “ — though a great pleasure to see them and to be able to talk to him about writing, etc.” She noted that both Lowell and Hardwick had already “given several talks,” and she and Lota “had them up for week-ends.” But her concern about the cooking that she had mentioned in passing in the May letter had come to pass. She noted that they had “no cook — she ran away again, for good this time.” One has to observe that it might not be so surprising that Maria would vanish, given the criticism that Bishop often expressed in her letters to her aunt — even as patient as Bishop perhaps tried to be, Maria would grasp the issue. That said, Maria was also married, yet the husband stayed, and Bishop noted that “the husband and I manage somehow!”

They had also taken the Lowells “to Cabo Frio for 4 days,” trying hard to find things to do because “the organization that invited them did absolutely nothing in the way of publicity, entertaining, arranging, etc.” As a result, “Lota and I had to do it all.” Amid this doing, Bishop tossed off: “plus a ‘revolution’ now over.” Just what she is referring to is unclear. Brazilian politics in early 1962 were nothing if not volatile. In July, the Prime Minister changed, but President Goulart remained in power. Whatever this event was, it registered only as a glancing reference for Bishop.

The element that made this extended visit the most problematic was not politics or too much cooking, it was “the fact that they brought their 5½ year old child with them.” In addition, there was “a college girl to look after” this child. Bishop scribbled: “(now left)” in the margin next to this line. Five extra people were rather a lot when all Lota and Bishop had for transportation was “a tiny Volkswagon [sic] car.”

At the time Bishop wrote this hurried letter, Lowell was “off now seeing a few places on his own.” Bishop so wished that she “could have gone with him, but couldn’t.” The reason for this confinement was “the wife alone at the hotel with the child.” Bishop felt she couldn’t leave them, partly because “the child [is] a horribly behaved little girl — poor thing.” Bishop readily asserted that her behavior was not “her fault.” She laid the blame at the feet of the parents: “they are just too ‘intellectual’ … to know how to treat a small child.” This “complicated” situation meant that “we suffer.”

Bishop had enough experience with other children to have some perspective on this little visitor. She noted that Monica, Mary Morse’s adopted child, “is such an angel and so happy compared to her [Harriet Lowell].” Further, “so are E’s little girls.” She noted that “Suzanne [was] the same age,” so she was “trying to get them together to play.” The problem with this plan was that “E has been up in “Terezopolis [sic] for 2 weeks,” because of “school holidays.” But they were returning that very day, so perhaps the plan could manifest.

Based on what happened during this visit, Bishop’s account is the barest outline. She offered a much more detailed explanation in her last extant letter to Grace in 1962, written near the end of September. For now, this hurried note continued with a “gossipy” paragraph about Elizabeth Naudin, particularly about her parenting skills, and then a concluding paragraph with a few updates and projections. The next post will tackle these bits and pieces.

Click here to see Post 123.

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