The Elizabeth Bishop Papers at Vassar College:
A Brief History
By Ronald D. Patkus
Associate Director of the Library for Special Collections
When Elizabeth Bishop died in 1979, she left behind a very 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 the 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, Mrs. Eugene A. Davidson, and Blanchette H. Rockefeller. 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.”
Without doubt 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 again, they are made up primarily of 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 Bishop collection from the Portinari family in Brazil.
Of course we must also note that during this same time period other institutions (Harvard, Princeton, and the University of Washington, to name a few) have come into possession of letters 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.
Collection building is an important function of the library. In this case, the focused and persistent interest in Elizabeth Bishop has lead to an unparalleled collection. This development supports the work of students from Vassar and other colleges and universities; the research of literary scholars here and abroad; and a variety of programming, such as exhibitions, special conferences, and dramatic performances. Truly the collection has enriched our intellectual life on campus and around the world. The items shown in the current exhibition (mounted to honor the 25th anniversary of Bishop’s death) are drawn from the original acquisition and also from more recent additions. They provide a testament to the value of wise collection building, and also provide inspiration for further efforts in the future.