By Ronald D. Patkus, Head of Special Collections and Adjunct Associate Professor of History
Discovering Elizabeth Bishop will be on display from August 30th to December 15th, 2011 in the Vassar College Main Library.
Watch video of Vassar professors reading & responding to selected Elizabeth Bishop works:
2011 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Elizabeth Bishop, one of the leading poets of the 20th century, and a member of the Vassar College Class of 1934. Events have been taking place in a variety of geographical locations in honor of this occasion. The Poetry Society of America sponsored a special birthday celebration in February in New York City; the Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia also had a birthday celebration, highlighted by a week of events, and a number of other activities; Boston University and other academic institutions marked the birthday with readings and related programs. Vassar's celebration of Bishop's centenary coincides with events marking the sesquicentennial of the college. The celebration provides an opportunity to showcase an amazing collection of materials relating to Bishop that are housed in the Archives & Special Collections Library.
How did the Elizabeth Bishop papers come to Vassar? When the poet died in 1979, she left behind a large collection of personal effects and papers. The papers were made up of a wide variety of material, such as correspondence, manuscripts, notebooks and diaries, printed matter, photographs, artwork, and memorabilia. Of special note were hundreds of letters from Bishop's friends and fellow poets and more than 3,500 pages of manuscripts. Because of her achievements in the field of literature (during her lifetime she had won nearly every major literary prize in the United States, including a Pulitzer) and the substantial amount of documentation of her life and work, it was clear that the poet's papers would be of interest to scholars and other researchers. But at first there was little clarity about exactly where the papers would be deposited. Over the course of several decades Bishop had taught at a number of American universities, including Harvard (where she taught for seven years), MIT, New York University, and the University of Washington; any of these institutions would have been logical choices to receive the papers. But Vassar had "a profound effect" on Bishop, and she had always been fond of her alma mater. It too was a very logical choice.
For some time there was no agreement about the disposition of the papers between Alice H. Methfessel, the literary executor of Bishop's estate, and an institution of higher learning. In December of 1981, however, it was announced that Vassar College had purchased the papers from the estate. The acquisition was made possible through the generosity of the Charles E. Merrill and Pew Memorial trusts and also the gifts of three Vassar alumna: Julia Blodgett Curtis '62, Suzette Morton Davidson '34, and Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller '31. When the purchase was announced, Ms. Methfessel said that she was "extremely pleased to have Elizabeth's papers in the Vassar manuscript collection." She was especially happy that the college administration was dedicated to "the preservation of manuscripts" and that it knew "their value to scholars and students."
Virginia B. Smith, president of Vassar from 1976-1986, played an important role in bringing the papers here. She saw it as a way to build on Vassar's tradition of "going to the source." The acquisition of the Bishop papers, and other key collections, helped turn a small department of the library into a major center for undergraduate learning and scholarly research.
The 1981 acquisition was a major event for the college, but in retrospect we can see that it was really just the beginning. Since that year, the college has added significantly to the Bishop collection through donations, bequests, and purchases. In fact, during the past 22 years, there have been more than thirty additions to the holdings. These additions have been both significant and sizeable. As in the original acquisition, they include a variety of materials, but especially correspondence with friends and fellow poets, such as James Merrill, Emmanuel Brasil, and Lloyd Frankenberg. One of the most important additions came in 2002, when the college acquired a collection from the Portinari family in Brazil, which contained among other things Bishop's baby book; letters to friends around the time of her partner Lota's death; two watercolors; and an annotated copy of the book Brazil, edited by Bishop and first published in 1962. Apart from the manuscript materials, Vassar is also fortunate to have a substantial portion of Elizabeth Bishop's library. These books provide a sense of the reading material that surrounded Bishop, and in some cases reveal her response to particular works. In addition, Vassar possesses some books which were given by Bishop to her friends and acquaintances. Many of these are inscribed as well.
Of course we must also note that during this same time period other institutions (Harvard, Princeton, the University of Washington, etc.) have come into possession of letters, books, and other items of Bishop. These other holdings are important, and add to our understanding of the poet, her life and work. Still, the Vassar collection remains a starting point and the most significant resource for anyone interested in Bishop; the collection now ranks as one of the most highly used resources among Vassar's special collections. Each year parts of the collection are examined by a number of classes on campus, and also by graduate students, literary scholars, journalists, and others from around the world. The collection also supports programming, such as exhibitions, special conferences, and dramatic performances.
The library's fall exhibition has been devoted to the topic " From the Archive: Discovering Elizabeth Bishop." The purpose of this exhibition is to highlight the regular and ongoing use of the Bishop Collection by scholars, and to showcase some of the monographs and other works they have produced in recent decades. Unfortunately not all works could be displayed in the available space, but nevertheless the exhibition benefits from the collaboration of ten key scholars, each of whom has selected for viewing manuscripts that they have examined, and written about at some length. The exhibition therefore presents their insights and is very much their product. We see a range of materials: letters, manuscripts, visual images, and of course books. Arranged chronologically, the exhibition represents the development of Bishop studies in recent years, and reveals the diversity of intellectual inquiry that has been taking place.
The first component of this catalogue is a biographical essay on Bishop by Vassar Professor Emeritus of English Barbara Page. Page has long been a champion of Bishop and her work and has played an important role in the community of scholars over the years. She has written a number of pieces on Bishop and produced an informative website as well. Her biography of Bishop succinctly yet eloquently provides an overview of her life and literary output. Following Page's essay is an annotated checklist of items in the exhibition, written by the scholarly contributors. This section documents the captions provided in the exhibition. Images of the books and manuscripts referred to by each writer are also included. Finally, the catalogue includes a full list of the contributors, along with brief biographical sketches.
The conference that accompanies the exhibition is meant to be an important part of the Bishop celebrations that are taking place in various places around the world. Vassar is especially pleased to have the acclaimed poet Robert Pinsky participating by delivering the Curtis Lecture. A former Poet Laureate of the United States (like Bishop before him), and founder of the "Favorite Poem Project," Pinsky is a noted interpreter of Bishop. The conference also features two panels, one chaired by Thomas Travisano of Hartwick College, and the other by Barbara Page. The first panel concentrates on the editing of Bishop and the publication of her work, while the second focuses on teaching and the use of Bishop's works in the classroom. Together these panels offer a wonderful complement to the exhibition, and provide chances for attendees to discuss the place of Bishop in our culture.
Many people need to be thanked for their contributions to this programming. Sabrina Pape, director of libraries, supported the idea of an exhibition and conference and worked hard to bring it to completion. Sabrina and I are especially grateful to Thomas Travisano, who early in the planning stages met with us to discuss possibilities. For over a year Tom provided valuable advice as the exhibition and conference took shape. Barbara Page also has been deeply involved in our planning, and we appreciate her insights. We are also thankful for her opening biographical essay on Bishop. The scholarly contributors to the exhibition of course deserve great thanks and praise; the efforts of Lorrie Goldensohn, Alice Quinn, Brett Millier, Saskia Hamilton, Lloyd Schwartz, Joelle Biele, Camille Roman, and Bethany Hicok (and again, Tom Travisano and Barbara Page) allowed us to pursue what we feel is an exciting and engaging theme. We are thankful to Robert Pinsky for travelling to Poughkeepsie to be a part of our celebrations. John Mihaly '74 Sesquicentennial Co-chair and Senior Director, Regional Programs took care of all the aspects of planning for the conference, and did so in a remarkable way, as he always does. My colleagues in the Office of Communications were real partners in this project. George Laws and Janet Allison oversaw the design and production of this publication; Carolyn Guyer coordinated the production of a beautiful website; and Jeff Kosmacher and Emily Darrow provided publicity. In the library, Amy Bocko produced images for both the publication and the website, and Gretchen Lieb worked on an interesting video component for the exhibition and forged ties with the English Department. We are grateful to our faculty colleagues Michael Joyce, M. Mark, and Judith Nichols for contributing content to the video. Other faculty members, particularly English Department co-chairs Patricia Wallace and Susan Zlotnick as well as Ronald Sharp, provided helpful advice in planning. Baynard Bailey of Academic Computing Services provided technical support for the exhibition video. Conservator Nelly Balloffet of Paper Star Associates helped us prepare the materials for display in the exhibition cases. Student assistant Yannick Godts helped edit the manuscript for this catalogue.
As this exhibition shows, the Elizabeth Bishop collection at Vassar has enriched our intellectual life both here on campus and around the world. We hope the collection will continue to interest students and scholars exploring other topics in the years to come.