Academic journal article The Hudson Review

In the Village and Other Stories

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

In the Village and Other Stories

Article excerpt

When Elizabeth Bishop sent her long story "In the Village"- which she felt was her best story ever-to The New Yorker in July 1952, she wrote to a friend, "they probably still won't like it."1 How right she was. It took almost a year of argument with the editors before they could be persuaded to accept a somewhat revised version of it. Still, after a fallow period in Brazil when she wrote almost no poetry at all, Bishop felt good about the story and about story writing in general. She told her Yaddo friends Ilse and Kit Barker, "To my great surprise-I hadn't finished a story in ten years, I think-I suddenly started writing some and have done three. . . ." The notion that she might think more seriously about the form, and even publish a collection of stories, started to take shape. A week after "In the Village" was accepted, she wrote to the Barkers again:

I am really getting interested in what I now think is the Art of story writing. I just wrote off some prose-poetry from time to time before. I am afraid "In the Village" is pretty much that, too-but now I am taking it more seriously and thinking about people., balancing this with that, time etc.-and I'm hoping whatever I write will be a little less precious and 'sensitive,' etc., in the future.

Despite the usual Bishop self-deprecation (her best work just tossed off, mere "precious" prose-poetry), this was bold and ambitious. So too was her declaration in a letter to Marianne Moore, a week before "In the Village" was published: "... I'll have a book of stories out in another year. (There is to be one, I think, in the Dec. 19th New Yorker... At first I thought it was my best, so far-now I have doubts . . .)"

But when does Bishop ever not have doubts? The story received widespread, richly-justified praise, epitomized by the words of an editor at Rnopf: "I'd like to tell somebody at The New Yorker that I think Elizabeth Bishop's story a few weeks ago is the best story I've ever read in the magazine." A similar view-it became the author's favorite-was voiced by the president of a ball-bearing rolling pin company, who told The New Yorker irritably that at last they had published a story that made some sensei Yet within two months Bishop's story-writing ambitions had all but collapsed. She told the Barkers, "I'm not really a story writer, you know-never meant to be at all. Writing stories is just much better for one, when one can't write poems, than dissipation, say." Three weeks later she used the same disclaimer in another letter about "In the Village": "I know I'm not a story writer, really-this is just poetic prose. And completely autobiographical (although not in the usual New Yorker manner). I've just stuck a few years together." When Robert Lowell extracted a poem from the central images of "In the Village," calling it "The Scream," (published in The Kenyon Review, Autumn, 1962), Bishop was not entirely pleased. She wrote to him sardonically,

I don't know why I bother to write "Uncle Artie" [her memoir-inprogress that became "Unde Neddy"], really-I shd. just send you my first notes and you can turn him into a wonderful poem-he is even more your style than the village story was. The Scream really works well, doesn't it-the story is far enough behind me so I can see it as a poem now. The first few stanzas I saw only my story-then the poem took over-and the last stanza is wonderful. It builds up beautifully, and everything of importance is there. But I was very surprised.2

Surprised but not quite offended. It is striking to see how readily Bishop abandoned her story to Lowell's aggressive takeover. Never mind that her story was already a poem, or that she derived her own far more "wonderful poem" "Sestina" from it, as Brett Millier jusdy argues in her Bishop biography.3 For his part, Lowell felt some "misgivings" when he sent Bishop a copy of "The Scream." He admitted it was "probably a travesty, making something small and literary out [of] something much larger, gayer and more healthy. …

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