The Importance of Letter-Writing

Elizabeth Bishop Greeting Card to Louise Bradley
Greeting card sent by Bishop to Bradley in the winter of 1943

...I would like so very much to hear from you sometime
if it wouldn't be too dreadful an effort...

—Elizabeth Bishop to Louise Bradley, 1943

Letters have long been an important source of biographical information, and a powerful tool for historians of all kinds.  They allow the reader to peek behind the curtain and can provide a sense of intimate knowledge of historical subjects, even if this intimacy is borrowed or stolen.  The letter takes on a unique liminal status when its writer's major historical contributions are literary; the letters of poets and other writers allow their readers to straddle the line between contextual research and artistic interpretation.  Elizabeth Bishop in particular left behind a vast body of correspondence that has proven essential to her establishment as an influential figure in the American literary canon.

In the Bishop-Bradley correspondence, a different side of Bishop is on display.  Not yet the award-winning writer, Ivy League professor, or world traveler she would later become, she expresses doubt about ever writing anything of note, bemoans her poor performance in primary school (she allegedly flunked Algebra several times), and endearingly signs her letters with her nickname, "Bishie."  Despite her tender age and inexperience, these letters betray the poetic imagination and restless ambition that would serve her so well later in life.  Surprisingly, given her extreme sense of privacy, Bishop saw letter-writing as a kind of art, and later in life she taught a course at Harvard entitled "Letters—Readings in Personal Correspondence, Famous and Infamous, from the 16th to 20th Centuries."  It is only appropriate, then, that her own letters would prove to be such a valuable resource for Bishop scholars and admirers of her work.

The Importance of Letter-Writing