Elizabeth Bishop once told an interviewer that surprise is the one quality every poem should have. I have been chronicling Bishop’s life and art for more than 40 years, and she has never lost the power to surprise me. Soon after I began conducting research for Love Unknown: The Life and Worlds of Elizabeth Bishop, I was astonished to discover a cache of nearly 50 intimate, brilliant letters that Bishop began writing at the age of 14 to a talented fellow summer camper and aspiring poet named Louise Bradley—letters that had been carefully preserved and were now tucked away in a little-known archive. I had already read thousands of Bishop’s letters and served as principal editor of Words in Air, her acclaimed complete correspondence with fellow poet Robert Lowell. But here was something entirely new: an unexpected window onto Bishop’s development both as a woman and an artist, from adolescence into youthful maturity.
The Artist as a Young Woman
The outlines of Bishop’s traumatic childhood are already well known. Her father died when she was eight months old; her mother suffered a permanent mental breakdown when Bishop was five. More recently we learned that, after the loss of both parents, Bishop was repeatedly abused by a maternal uncle. To Bradley, a young Bishop wrote, “I haven’t any family whatever—excepting a few aunts and uncles who are all trying to bring me up a different way.” And, she added, “I think I lead a double life—school and camp—and the in between times are only the periods of interment while I await the latest resurrection.” She also confessed, “I would give everything I own for one hour of complete—understanding .”