"A Sort of Inheritance; White":
Elizabeth Bishop and Selective
Self-Reflection on Whiteness
Poet Elizabeth Bishop was born in 1911 in Massachusetts to parents of white Canadian descent. Her father died during her first year, and her mother subsequently suffered illnesses causing her to be institutionalized. Relatives from both families raised Bishop in Massachusetts and in Nova Scotia. Educated at Vassar, she became friendly with young white writers Mary McCarthy and Muriel Rukeyser. These early friendships anticipated the close literary friendships she would maintain throughout her life with white poets Robert Lowell and Marianne Moore. Bishop wrote poetry throughout her life. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1955 and the National Book Award in 1969. She spent almost two decades of her adult life in Brazil living with her Brazilian lesbian lover, Lota de Macedo Soares. Bishop died in Massachusetts in 1979 of a cerebral aneurysm.
Bishop writes a diverse whiteness, one that differs in each discourse she undertakes. In The Body and the Song: Elizabeth Bishop's Poetics, Marilyn May Lombardi argues that each of Bishop's works contains "levels of manifest and latent meaning" and that the diary entries and early drafts are "often far more forthright than the final, enigmatic version" (4). Similarly, Bishop employs a racial discourse in her letters far different, far more overtly racist, than that used in her poetry.
Lombardi suggests that Bishop continuously directs "attention to the differences among people and the otherness of nature" ( Geography of Gender 6). However, I argue that what proves most intriguing about Bishop and her white positionality are the ways in which she directs attention to the issues of alterity in the letters and those in the poetry often without attention