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Bishop, Elizabeth (1911-1979)  
 
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Widely acknowledged as one of the finest twentieth-century American poets, Elizabeth Bishop encoded a lesbian identity in her poems.

Bishop was born on February 8, 1911, in Worcester, Massachusetts, the only child of Gertrude May Boomer Bishop of Great Village, Nova Scotia, and William T. Bishop, eldest son of a wealthy Worcester family. When Elizabeth was eight months old, her father died of Bright's Disease. Her mother, stricken by the shock of his death, over the next five years was intermittently hospitalized for nervous breakdowns, until she was committed in 1916 to a public sanitarium in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, where she remained until her death in 1934.

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Elizabeth was cared for by her mother's parents in Great Village until 1917, when her paternal grandparents, believing that she would benefit from the material and social privileges they could offer, brought her to live with them in Worcester. The stress of her sudden displacement from congenial village life to the isolation and cold propriety of the Bishop house caused Elizabeth to develop severe asthma, eczema, and bronchitis, and after only nine months she was taken in by her mother's sister, Maude, who lived in a south Boston tenement. Maude's care, along with summer visits to Nova Scotia, considerably improved Elizabeth's health though she had little formal education until high school because of her illnesses, and she suffered from chronic asthma for the rest of her life.

After attending the Walnut Hill boarding school in Natick, Massachusetts, from 1927 to 1930, she matriculated at Vassar College, where she majored in English. While at Vassar, she discovered the poetry of Marianne Moore, and in the spring of her senior year she met Moore, who became her close friend and mentor, a relationship Bishop later documented in her essay, "Efforts of Affection."

After graduation in 1934, Bishop lived off an inheritance from her father's estate and traveled so incessantly that she rarely stayed in the same place for more than a few months. Between 1935 and 1937, she made two trips to Europe; when in the United States, she lived in New York City boarding hotels, a cottage on the Massachusetts coast, and with friends in Florida.

In 1938, she bought a house in Key West, but still spent time in New York, and from April to December 1942, she visited Mexico with a Key West lover, Marjorie Stevens. After their return, Bishop rented her house and moved in with Marjorie, yet periodically retreated to New York over the next several years.

Neither Marjorie's devotion nor the publication of North and South in 1946 could assuage the depression and alcoholism from which Bishop suffered--nor could trips to Nova Scotia in August 1946 and in the summer of 1947. Having sold the house and ended her relationship with Marjorie, during the next two years, Bishop spent time in New York, Maine, Key West, and Haiti and was hospitalized for depression in the summer of 1949.

In September 1949, she moved to Washington, D.C. to serve as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress--a position secured for her by her new friend Robert Lowell. After her year-long tenure, she went to the Yaddo writer's colony in October 1950 where, except for a Christmas hospitalization for alcohol-related problems, she stayed until March 1951, when she learned that, on Moore's recommendation, she had won a Lucy Martin Donnelly Travelling Fellowship from Bryn Mawr College.

The trip that Bishop embarked on with her prize money changed her life. Intending to travel around the world, she sailed for Rio de Janeiro in November 1951, but after her arrival had a severe allergic reaction to the fruit of the cashew. She was nursed back to health by a Brazilian friend, Lota de Macedo Soares, who soon became her lover. Bishop's initial postponement of her trip turned into a sixteen-year stay with Lota, who, wealthy, energetic, and nurturing, provided the emotional security she craved and helped her control her alcoholism.

Brazil also appealed to Bishop because there she could live more openly as a lesbian than in the United States, escape the U.S. literary milieu that she dreaded, and re-experience village life at Lota's house in Petrópolis and, later, in the eighteenth-century house that she purchased and renovated for herself in Ouro Prêto.

Bishop was quite productive during her years with Lota. A Cold Spring, which contains her great landscape poems and a number of lesbian love poems, was published in 1955 along with a reissue of her first book as Poems: North and South--A Cold Spring; the volume won the Pulitzer Prize in 1956.

She translated Minha Vida de Menina, the diary of an adolescent girl who lived in Diamantina, a Brazilian diamond mining village, in the 1890s; the book appeared in 1957 as The Diary of "Helena Morley." As Brett Millier observes, "Bishop's access to the child-consciousness of Helena helped give her access to her own," for in poems such as "Manners," "Sestina," and "First Death in Nova Scotia" and prose such as "The Country Mouse," "Gwendolyn," and "In the Village," she adopts a child's-eye-view of the world and writes about her childhood with devastating clarity.

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