Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker

Harvard Review talks to Joelle Biele

July 23, 2011

Can you talk a little about The New Yorker in the 1950s, what kind of place it was to publish, and what its standing was in the larger literary world?

When Bishop began publishing regularly in The New Yorker in the late 1940s and early 50s, the magazine was trying to branch out and publish more of what lead fiction editor Katharine White called “serious” poetry. At the time The New Yorker primarily ran light verse, featuring writers like Clarence Day, Arthur Guiterman, and Ogden Nash, and the magazine itself, which was known mostly as a humor magazine, fell squarely into the “middlebrow” category. For Bishop’s circle, journals like Partisan Review, Kenyon Review, and Botteghe Oscure were the most desirable places to publish. Critics in publications like Partisan, which had published Bishop regularly before she moved over to The New Yorker, labeled the magazine “the handbook of the suburban matron” and ridiculed its “quasi-serious verse.” Bishop’s dear friend Robert Lowell looked at it with contempt, saying there was no point in publishing there. In her letters of the period, Bishop often apologizes for the association.

So, how did Bishop become part of the The New Yorker’s stable, and what was her  relationship with her editors there?

Lead fiction editor Katharine White brought Bishop over to the magazine after selecting her as the winner of the Houghton Mifflin Poetry Fellowship for her manuscript North & South. She suggested Bishop send her any poems that had not yet been published, even poems that the magazine had previously rejected. Bishop did, and the editors took “Little Exercise” and “Large Bad Picture,” which they had rejected about a year before. Soon after their publication White offered Bishop a first reading contract. White was particularly interested in nurturing women writers; she also brought over Nadine Gordimer, Elizabeth Hardwick, Mary McCarthy, and Adrienne Rich. After founding editor Harold Ross passed away and William Shawn took the reins at The New Yorker, White spent her last years at the magazine concentrating on expanding the magazine’s range.

White used The New Yorker’s contract system to attract writers to its pages. Writers agreed to give the magazine first look at whatever was covered by the contract; in exchange the magazine guaranteed a higher rate per line than that offered to non-contract writers, plus an annual signing bonus and a cost-of-living adjustment. Also, if a writer wrote over a certain number of “units,” he or she would be paid an additional twenty-five percent. So, in 1955 for example, Bishop was paid about $740 in today’s money for “Sestina” and an additional $825 for renewing her contract. She was living in Brazil at the time, where checks like these could go far. Bishop welcomed the money, but she also worried about “soul-selling” and the effect The New Yorker might have on her work, as did others who published there. Richard Wilbur and Theodore Roethke signed with the magazine at about the same time as Bishop. By the end of the decade they were joined by James Dickey, Ted Hughes, William Meredith, W. S. Merwin, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and James Wright, among many others. The transformation of The New Yorker’s poetry was well under way.

Could you share a few of your favorite tidbits from Bishop’s New Yorker correspondence and talk a little about why you like them?

My favorite letter is from William Maxwell about “The Bight.”

Our style expert says we can’t grant two of your requests on the proof of The Bight. The italic subtitle is against the style of the magazine, and the lower case “g” in the fourth line from the end is, he says, against English and would look monstrous. I don’t know what “against English” can possibly mean, and personally, I like things that look monstrous. But these two details would, it seems rock the foundations of the magazine, and I hope you won’t mind our leaving them the way they are.
(May 13, 1948)

What I love about this letter is how it shows how The New Yorker could be so charming (Maxwell) and so uptight (the style expert) at exactly the same time. It also shows how the editors would subtly, or not so subtly, insist upon their way by mocking themselves, making it difficult for Bishop to say no. The way Bishop originally submitted the poem, with the lower case g—“Click. Click. goes the dredge”—makes sense. Capping the g gives the appearance of a new sentence and throws the rhythm of the line off. The poem was published as Maxwell suggested and Bishop kept the change for her books.

Another exchange I like is this one about punctuation in “At the Fishhouses”:

White writes to Bishop:

Our proofroom, which has a highly conventional idea of punctuation, had scores of punctuation queries on the Fishhouses poem, but we have eliminated the major portion of them, since your lack of punctuation is purposeful and adds to your effect. Will you please study the few commas now suggested and see whether you approve. I only left in the ones I thought would really help the reader but you may not agree. In this case it should be as you want it. (February 25, 1947)

And Bishop replies:

I think the proof looks very nice and thank you for your help with the punctuation. I have left in all your changes except the commas between “Cold dark deep” that occurs twice. For some reason or other it seems more liquid to me without them and I think in this case the sense is plain enough without them, don’t you? (February 28, 1947)

What I like about this passage is how it illustrates the way the magazine also worked with Bishop. White begins by joking about the magazine’s obsession with punctuation and shows herself to be on Bishop’s side—she got rid of most of the queries, she sees Bishop’s intent—however, she goes on to say that she left in the queries she felt would help the poem. White cushions her language with “please,” “now,” “whether,” “only,” and “really.” When she closes, she politely lets Bishop know that she has final say but also lets her know that she is making an exception. When Bishop replies, she embroiders the sentence in which she takes her stand—“it seems more liquid to me without them”— with all sorts of niceties—“For some reason or other,” “it seems,” “I think,” “don’t you?”— that are as hedging as they are insistent.

I also love these letters from Howard Moss, since he makes what could be a dull task—sending proofs, asking for new work—fun:

Since we plan to run this [“The Moose”], now, in the July 15th issue, I thought I’d ignore your warning about the Brazilian mails and send this down to you no matter, since there are a few tiny decisions to make that you would ordinarily like, I know, to be in on. But heeding your warning, on the other hand, I’ve had Xeroxes made of practically everything, including the top of my desk, so that another copy has gone to Bob Giroux in case yours is stolen by angry Indians incensed by the title, and I’m holding on to still another Xerox, in case we all have heart attacks at the same time. (June 26, 1972)

And:

Every poem of yours brightens the day for me. Like Beethoven’s father, I’d simply put you in a room and make you work all the time if I could. Of course, I wouldn’t be that strict. A little gin, a few sandwiches… (May 26, 1972)

And these from Bishop to White. They’re classic Bishop paragraphs, beginning with whatever task is at hand or responding to a part of someone else’s letter, launching into a detailed story in long sentences, and then returning to where she began.

I am up to my neck in typing and hope to send you some things by a trust-worthy friend here for the week-end who will take them to the Post Office in Rio. It is such a job to mail things here—the stamps have no glue, or not enough, and you have to stand in line at a glue-machine, and get all covered with it—if you trust the stamps to begin with; they say they are stolen in the PO often, and the mail just thrown away. (A newspaper editor friend of mine here found a cache of thousands of pieces of mail for the paper that that had happened to—imagine.) So if you don’t trust the stamps you have to go to the central office where there is a stamping machine—and in any case you have to go to one of the few post offices, since the mail boxes are never collected—haven’t been for years. No one ever dreams of writing a letter within the country—they just vanish. Fortunately air-mail in and out is considerably better…If you do receive this, it is an earnest of more. I never used that expression before & don’t think I like it—I also rather doubt you’ll be able to use this short poem [“The Shampoo”], but there are some more coming. (June 18, 1953)

Or:

I received the weekly batch of mail yesterday and I was awfully glad to hear from you but so sorry about your news. “Hepatitis”! Good Heavens—it sounds almost Brazilian, because here, as in other tropical countries, I suppose, the liver is the preferred organ. If you ask a Brazilian how-do-you-do he is apt to answer, “well, this morning my figado…” and go on and on. We have just seen the wild cook through a bout with her figado, too—but since it is located anywhere from her thigh to her sternum we really weren’t quite sure what she did have, or whether it was just an excess of artistic temperament and the fact that she is about to marry the gardener, too. But jaundice is so horrible, and Nausea is no fun, no matter what Sartre says. I do hope you are feeling better. (September 12, 1952)