The Value of Juvenilia

Bishop's "brain-child" from letter to Louise Bradley, 17 July 1928
"...After which vulgar limerick how can you refuse me?
Damn it! — I can't write!"
— Letter sent by Bishop to Bradley, 17 July 1928

I’m not grown up enough to stop laughing but I am grown up enough to wonder why I do it; and sometimes I want to kick them all into the bay and let the wind blow things clean and sometimes I want to hold on to someone’s finger. Well, this is all very confused and unpleasant….

—Elizabeth Bishop to Louise Bradley, 1928

There is a wealth of information to be gained from resources that shed light on a writer's life before publication and celebrity—not only about their influences and early artistic development, but also about the attitudes and circumstances that inform their later work.  Bishop's early letters fill in vital and interesting biographic information about her early life, and, more importantly, they make it possible to better read her work.  We learn that Walt Whitman's poetry "makes [her] feel like singing and shouting," but we also come to better understand the deep alienation she felt at home and at school.  In this way, the Bradley letters quietly humanize Bishop without compromising her reputation as a towering figure of mid-century poetic realism.

Bishop's letters to Bradley, which contain some of Bishop's earliest poetry, speak to her ambition and love of verse, which she would foster and refine throughout her life.  Equally interesting is the modesty with which she would present these early attempts.  In one letter, she meekly asks if Louise would "mind if I sent you another piece of something meant to be poetry?"  She also writes: "I could never show it to anyone else and I do want to know if I am improving."  These humble exchanges establish the two young women's shared interest in poetry and serve as a testament to the intimate strength of their friendship.

The Value of Juvenilia