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

Sunday, March 3, 2024

“My Permanent Home Some Day”: Elizabeth Bishop in Key West by Brian Bartlett

The kind of travel called literary pilgrimage has been around for a long time. We perform it to honour beloved writers, get closer to their experienced worlds, or sharpen our feelings for specifics of particular poems or novels. Many have travelled from afar and watched plays in the Globe Theatre, stood (or knelt) by Baudelaire’s grave in the Montparnasse Cemetery, or toured Katherine Mansfield’s childhood house in New Zealand. To cite personal examples, I’ve visited Willa Cather’s house in Red Cloud, Nebraska, Jack London’s forest retreat north of San Francisco, Hawthorne’s seven-gabled house in Salem, Marianne Moore’s address in New York, Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage, the homes of Keats and Dickens in London, John Muir’s origins in Scotland, multiple statues of Dante in Italy, and Pessoa’s house and favourite bar in Lisbon. Some day I’d like to breathe the air of the one house Emily Dickinson knew intimately, and follow routes Basho and Issa took through Japan. 

It would be easy to mock literary pilgrimages, and to consider them superficial, tempting travellers into boastfulness of the I-was-there-where-they-walked sort, with no bearing on the real substance of reading and re-reading. Yet I’ve found that spending even an hour in the wind and dampness on the Haworth moors impressionistically enhanced my next reading of Wuthering Heights; and having a meal in Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, Johnson’s favourite pub—despite many changes since the eighteenth century—helped evoke the atmospheres of his many lively conservations there, including ones put on paper by Boswell. Still, because I’ve often felt an inward need to defend writer-based tourism, it seems clear that I also wonder if it’s self-indulgent and sentimental. Lived experience, however, and a desire not to belittle the pleasures of other travellers, help me take a more tolerant view.


When Elizabeth Bishop first visited Key West in December 1936 shortly before her twenty-sixth birthday, she and Louise Crane made the trip by charter boat. Bridges and motorways didn’t connect all the hundred-mile length of the Florida keys curving south-westward into the Gulf of Mexico. A year earlier the Flagler Railroad’s bridge had begun providing chances to reach the final, most southern of the keys by train, but late in 1935 a severe hurricane walloped Key West and dismantled the bridge. When I travelled to Key West for the first time in early 2024, at the age of seventy, it was along a highway overseen by seabirds such as Magnificent Frigatebirds silhouetted high in the sky and—closer to the cars, trailers and RVs—Brown Pelicans (“whose delight it is to clown,” Bishop wrote in her poem “Florida”). If she’d lived long enough to see Key West in the twenty-first century, Bishop would’ve recognized many of the area’s creatures, architectural beauties and prismatic water-and-light colours, yet the city’s growth might’ve estranged her. In an interview she recalled of the Key West she first observed: “The town was absolutely broke then. Everybody lived on W.P.A.”  The inexpensiveness of living there was part of is appeal; her first rent room cost only $4.00 a week. Now Key West is so expensive that my wife, a friend of ours and I stayed for two nights a few islands away on Sugarloaf Key, and drove a half hour to the much more famous key during the day.


Bishop lived in Key West much of the time between 1938 and 1949—before, during and after World War II, and especially in winter. Those years helped develop her fondness for tropical climates and locations away from unrestful cultural mainstreams; Thomas Travisano has suggested a link between Bishop’s cherished, much smaller childhood community in Nova Scotia and the Florida city, “a warmer and more bohemian Great Village.” Attracted to maps and considerations of longitudes and latitudes (see her early poem “The Map” and the introductory quotation beginning Geography III), Bishop might’ve found it apt to choose the extreme southern tip of the continental United States as a place for exploration, relaxation, friendship and writing. She also valued southern Florida for the abundant opportunities to fish and swim, and for the relief she felt from her chronic asthma—but also for its death-haunted, unfamiliar phenomena, such as dozens of vultures circling “like stirred-up flakes of sediment / sinking through water” and dead mangrove roots that “strew white swamps with skeletons” (images from “Florida”). Though Bishop was far from the most gregarious of people, Key West also served as a writer-friendly place to her, since Hemingway and John Dos Passos were well-known residents, and in the winter of 1935 both Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens had begun spending winters there. Stevens had written one of his greatest poems, “The Idea of Order at Key West,” in the same year Bishop first set foot on the key. 

Over seventy years after Bishop’s Key West era ended, I spent a mid-January afternoon tracking down the locations of her residences there, with the brochure Key West Homes of Elizabeth Bishop (text by Kay Bierwiler) in hand. The addresses were within walking distance of each other in that comfortably walkable city. The first stop on the route was 529 Whitehead Street, where Bishop roomed during her first Key West winter, in early 1938. I couldn’t tell whether the building where she roomed had been torn down and replaced, or radically renovated. The address now is for IVs [I.V.s] in the Keys: Essential Hydration Therapy (which specializes in intravenous treatments injecting liquids containing minerals, nutrients and antioxidants). Across the street from Bishop’s room was a courthouse and a jail. Her first Key West residence and its surroundings fuelled her writing: “I am doing absolutely nothing but work,” she wrote to Marianne Moore, “scarcely even read.” She wrote her first Key West poem, “Late Air” (“the radio-singers / distribute all their love songs / over the dew-wet lawns”) and encountered her second landlady’s memorable bossy servant, Cootchie (inspiration for a 1941 Bishop poem named after her; Key West initiated Bishop’s interactions with racially mixed communities). A block away stands the Green Parrot Bar, inviting with its colourful exterior paintings of its namesake. With origins as far back as 1890, the bar began as a grocery store and continued so until nearly mid-century; Bishop must’ve shopped at it for local food such as grapefruit, lemons and oranges.


With my two travelling companions that morning I’d already spent an hour a few blocks away on Whitehead St., at 907, the most famous address in Key West. Its basic structure built in 1851, Hemingway House is an example of French Colonial Architecture. In differing accounts, I’ve read that Pauline Pfeiffer Hemingway, Ernest’s second of four wives, once a writer for Vanity Fair and Vogue, bought the house; or she persuaded her uncle to do so and give it to her and Ernest as a wedding present. Husband and wife lived together there between 1931 and 1939; by the time of their divorce in 1940, Ernest had moved to Cuba, but Pauline remained in the house for eleven more years. Bishop’s time in Key West was mostly a decade later than Hemingway’s. While 529 Whitehead was her first address in the city, 907 was one of her last residences, for the winter of 1947-48. She was friends with Pauline (“the wittiest person I’ve ever known, man or woman”), but Pauline was away during Elizabeth’s stay. The poet enjoyed many aspects of the property, including the unusually large, expensive swimming pool, which featured underwater lights (as quoted in Bierwiler’s brochure, Bishop wrote that friends in the pool “looked like luminous frogs”). Years before her brief sojourn in the Hemingway House, in another Key West house Bishop had written “The Fish,” a poem she was pleased Hemingway praised. Though Bishop and Hemingway both honoured piscine strength and struggles, her descriptions of an old fish are far more lavishly detailed than anything in adjective-avoiding Hemingway’s later novella The Old Man and the Sea, and her poem ends with an unHemingwayesque line: “and I let the fish go.”


A now legendary Key West spot, Sloppy Joe’s Bar, opened in 1934 on the day Prohibition was repealed, then moved to its current location in 1937, less than a year before Bishop’s first Key West winter. The bar’s and Hemingway’s names are forever linked, yet young Bishop also spent evenings with friends there, chatting and drinking and dancing the rumba. We can choose to accept or question James Merrill’s report or belief that the often subdued poet would “jot a phrase or two inside the nightclub matchbook before returning to the dance floor.”  

The Key West address most associated with Bishop is 624 White Street. In spring 1939 Bishop and Crane bought the handsome nineteenth-century clapboard house there. Bishop wrote to Moore: “…seems perfectly beautiful to me, inside and out.” Then the house was isolated, with a yard enlivened by many kinds of trees—banana, avocado, sour sop, lime and mango. Years later it would be recognized as one of the three “loved houses” alluded to in Bishop’s villanelle, “One Art.” Its initial calm helped Bishop concentrate to finish most of the manuscript of her first collection, North & South, by the end of 1940 (though the book didn’t appear in print until 1946). In mid-century, Key West was a quieter location than it is today, yet even by 1941, Bishop had grown so annoyed by nearby construction and traffic noise that she moved away and began renting the house; five years later she sold it.

The White Street house is the one Key West Bishop location explicitly identified as such for passers-by. A “Literary Library Register” bronze plaque of Friends of Libraries USA spells out the historic significance of the building, and quotes Bishop’s lines, “Should we have stayed at home, / wherever that may be”?  On a larger scale, a much more complicated sign announces: “The non-profit Key West Seminar acquired the property in 2019, and is now restoring the house to its historic condition, drawing upon Bishop’s private papers and photographs.” For that reason, the house is now closed to visitors. The sign also includes reproduced images of the house: a photo of it from Bishop’s time, and a painting of it by local folk artist Gregorio Valdes (1879-1939). Bishop commissioned Valdes to do the painting. Soon after his unexpected death in the next year, she wrote an affectionate essay about him and his art (found in both Collected Prose and Prose.) The sign in front of the house is misleading in one respect: it speaks of Bishop “living in this house between 1938 and 1946,” but she lived elsewhere between 1941 and 1946.


After her time with Crane on White Street and months of living in New York, in spring 1941 Bishop met Marjorie Stevens, into whose apartment at 623 Margaret Street she soon moved. Bishop’s alcoholic lapses had intensified; she spoke of “New York troubles,” and wrote that she was “very glad to be back” in Key West. She and Stevens lived on Margaret Street all that summer, and for much of the next three years. Between March and September of 1942, partly due to their growing disenchantment with the mounting military presence in Key West, they travelled around Mexico. In the following summer, sounding bored and guilty over her inactivity, Bishop got a job grinding binoculars for a U.S. Navy optical shop, but eyestrain “made me sea-sick, & the acids used for cleaning started to bring back eczema,” so the job ended after five days. The Margaret Street house was very close to the city’s spacious, tree-shaded cemetery (which I walked through after finding the street). Much later Bishop wrote affectionately of the Great Village cemetery of her childhood; first, while living in Florida, she painted at least three watercolours of spots in the Key West Cemetery (reproductions of them are in the book of her art edited by William Benton, Exchanging Hats: Paintings). 

As for 623 Margaret, no such address appears to exist anymore. All I could find was a large tree against a background of exuberantly sprawling greenery. But I paused at its former location, moved to remember that it was where Bishop likely wrote her posthumously published, warm-hearted and richly atmospheric love poem (likely for Marjorie), “It is marvellous to wake up together.”


A beautiful house still stands at 630 Dey Street. Now lemon-coloured, white-posted-and-fenced and sky-blue-shuttered, this was Bishop’s home base for a short while in 1948. It belonged to her older friend the philosopher John Dewey, a man she felt such deep affection for that she compared him in letters to other loved persons in her life, grandfather Bulmer and Marianne Moore. (Earlier, in the summer of 1946 during a few weeks in Canada, Bishop had visited Dewey for a day at his summer house in Hubbards, Nova Scotia. For her poetry those weeks were crucial, providing material for two of her masterpieces, “At the Fishhouses” and “The Moose.”). I’m unsure whether it was Dewey or his physicist daughter, Jane, also a friend of Bishop’s, who invited her to stay in the Dey Street house  It was under its roof that she wrote her key poem (no pun intended) “The Bight.” 

Another white house still stands at 611 Frances Street; the address is by a door far back from the sidewalk. Bishop rented an apartment there in the winter of 1948-1949 and seemed pleased by its “screened porch up in a tree, & a view of endless waves of tin roofs and palm trees.” One thing had come full circle: Mrs. Pindar, the initial landlord of Bishop’s first Whitehead Street residence over a decade earlier, also owned the Frances Street house.


 A day after my self-directed walking tour, my wife and I visited the Key West bight, the inspiration for “The Bight.” That poem is of special significance in that it concludes with the lines later carved into its author’s gravestone: “All the untidy activity continues, / awful but cheerful.” During our stroll around the site, boats of many kinds rested in the water, including one emblazoned with the name FURY; palm trees shook in the wind; a gathering of uniformed police bought ice-cream cones and stared at them while talking; and a wall was plastered with hundreds of small informational items, advertisements, announcements and political pronouncements (recall Bishop’s line “The bight is littered with old correspondences”). I imagined that the kind of day Bishop described in her poem was more commercially and visually hectic than our introduction to the bight.


Many roosters roam the streets of Key West. We heard that the city appears to have something of a love-hate relationship with the birds.  A special bonus on my solo touring of the city with Bishop in mind was an encounter with an extraordinary rooster. Its feathers ranged from white to yellow and gold, from rust to red, from navy blue to paler blue inflected with purple. It was an entertaining fantasy to imagine Bishop encountering such a rooster in 1941 on that very street before writing “Roosters,” her biting satire of militarism and macho pride.


In the honeymoon phase of Bishop’s attachment to Key West, she suggested in a letter that she hoped it “will be my permanent home some day.” Her search for suitable places for her writing to thrive, her restlessness and curiosity, her economic needs, health troubles and complicated relationships prevented her from ever finding a place to settle into for decades. After Key West, she spent periods of widely varied durations in New York, Maine, Rio de Janeiro, Samambaia, Ouro Preto, Seattle, San Francisco and Boston. Even spending a few hours in Key West, however, can give a heightened sense of why she might’ve dreamt of the island as a place to stay. 

In the context of literary pilgrimages, I didn’t travel to southern Florida primarily to visit a poet’s houses. Above all, the journey was a chance to visit a friend, explore the Everglades and the area around Vero Beach, and see first-hand the breathtaking biodiversity of southern Florida, despite great diminishments in its natural environments over the past century. Our excitements included hours in the presence of palms and mangroves (multiple species of both), herons and egrets and ibises (multiple species), spoonbills and cranes, vultures and anhingas, manatees and alligators. Back home in Nova Scotia before the end of January, I found new resonances in Bishop’s “Seascape,” with its “white herons got up as angels, / flying as high as they want and as far as they want sideways,” and “the suggestively Gothic arches of the mangrove roots.” It’s easy to imagine that Bishop, so drawn to Florida’s natural spaces, would’ve been pleased that a reader of her poetry spent much more time gazing at unfamiliar flora and fauna than standing on sidewalks outside her Key West residences. 


Biographical details in this essay derive from Elizabeth Bishop, One Art: Letters, ed. Robert Giroux (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1994); Brent C. Millier, Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It (U of California P, 1993); Thomas Travisano, Love Unknown: The Life and Worlds of Elizabeth Bishop (Viking, 2019).

(Ed.'s Note: A heartfelt thank you to Brian for this fascinating look at Key West. He will be giving  a talk about this place and his visit during the EBSNS 30th anniversary celebration in Great Village in June 2024. You can click onto the images to enlarge.)