A new biography of one of the most celebrated American poets of the 20th century.
Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) wasn’t prolific—she published only 100 poems during her 40-year career—but she had a lasting impact on American letters. Pulitzer Prize winner Marshall (Writing, Literature, and Publishing/Emerson Coll.; Margaret Fuller: A New American Life, 2013, etc.) was one of the aspiring poets Bishop taught in her final “verse-writing” class at Harvard in 1977. The experience was so profound that, upon discovering a trove of letters after Bishop’s “close friend” Alice Methfessel died in 2009, Marshall set about to write this biography. The result is a sharp portrait of the tragedies and other influences that shaped Bishop’s life and career. Bishop was only eight months old when her father died. After her mother was hospitalized for mental illness, Bishop was shuttled between her maternal grandparents in Nova Scotia, a place she loved, and her paternal grandparents in Worcester, Massachusetts. After these early scenes, Marshall documents Bishop’s maturation as a writer; her struggles with alcoholism; her 17 years living in Brazil with her partner, architect Lota de Macedo Soares; her many affairs; and her relationships with such writers as Robert Lowell and Mary McCarthy. Best of all are Marshall’s analyses of Bishop’s poems, including “Song for the Rainy Season,” “In the Waiting Room,” and the book’s subtitle. The interludes in which Marshall tells her own stories may be a distraction to some readers, but the chapters on Bishop are written with often chilling exactness, as when Marshall describes the uncle who drew young Elizabeth’s bath and gave her “an unusually thorough washing” or the polio-stricken admirer who killed himself after Bishop rejected him. His suicide note read, “Elizabeth. Go to hell.”
Bishop shared with Marianne Moore a “near obsession with accuracy of detail and precision of language.” This fine biography demonstrates the magnitude of Bishop’s achievements without ignoring her flaws.