Un-perfumed letters

Catherine Nichols

December 09, 2015

Words in Air, the correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, is one of the books I’m never entirely not reading. I pick it up all the time, and it’s always better than I remembered. There is a unique effect of these writers, their letters soothe my mind, the way the exact right word can be both calming and exciting no matter the topic. Their letters make being a person seem like a reasonable way to spend time. I set out to write about another book of letters, the correspondence between Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald, but I find I can’t discuss any other letters without first describing the pleasures of Words in Air.

Any book of letters has a kind of mysterious attraction if it’s attractive — no book of letters is going to make sense the way a book that’s written for an audience will. It’s going to be full of references to people and events the reader will never know, and it won’t carry along at a pace designed to keep things interesting. The necessary information won’t come at the right time, if it comes at all. All the same, a good book of letters is the purest lesson in how voice in prose becomes character, and the clearest anatomy of real human friendship. The letters become an inside-out biography. Everything is about how life felt and looked and seemed, nothing is about the overall shape of events, the big picture, or the story.

Bishop and Lowell were introduced at the poet and critic Randall Jarrell’s house in 1947 when they were both in their thirties. Jarrell considered them the two greatest poets of their generation. That’s become more general opinion since then, particularly in Bishop’s case. When they met, Lowell’s reputation was better established and Bishop was flattered by his obviously profound respect for her work. They met in person only rarely after that day but they wrote to each other regularly till Lowell’s death in 1977. The years of their correspondence were full of personal troubles for each of them, addiction, mental illness and divorces, changes of homes and jobs. Both poets’ partners were always women, and the question of any romance between them was almost never raised. Lowell seems to accept Bishop’s lesbianism with modern lack of concern. Whether that’s a typical attitude amongst artists of the 1940s, their friendship starts with mutual respect and never seems to waver from that mode.

Here’s something Lowell wrote in 1957 after a hospitalization for mania prevented him from visiting Bishop in Brazil:

Dearest Elizabeth:

I feel rather creepy and paltry writing now to announce that I am all healed and stable again. So it is. Five attacks in ten years make you feel rather a basket-case and it’s excruciating having Brazil snatched out of my gloating jaws. Maybe when ten years have passed I’ll be a sort of monument of the norm —

We’re back in Maine, awfully tennis-playingish and beachy. Eberhart’s boat still lands, heavy with strangers and heartiness; Phil Booth still writes sea-poems. Lesley Parker is just finishing a week with us, stonelike, sleeping in the sun, full of intense unreal gossip that tries to be heroically ungossipy. I sit typing, surrounded by chintz and Cousin Harriet’s somber 19th century oils of Alpine valleys. The sun comes in the window. We are really very happy and companionable. I still click but can’t believe it.

I can’t believe somehow that you and Lota aren’t just around the corner and about to arrive here. Or maybe that we are about to disembark in Rio. Never has there been a time when we would have all enjoyed one another as neighbors—together at length and at leisure.

[He describes some of the work he did in the hospital]

Let me get this scrappy whistling little letter into the afternoon mail. I want to write you something with a little thought soon, but this is just to relieve your mind and cheer your mind toward thoughts of that long-promised return trip to North America.

All our love,

Cal

I love this letter. The way he messes around with words radiates tension, with that undercurrent of pleading, a too-hearty assurance of happiness. I think the happiness is genuine, because he’s palpably working at it, he trusts the things he can try to do more than the things that just happen to him. Bishop herself writes to him in her memorial poem “North Haven” “You had ‘such fun,’ you said, that classic summer. /(‘Fun’—it always seemed to leave you at a loss…)” He is charming, but there is that air of apology, of knowing he has to earn his space in the lives of his friends, knowing he will fail them again. He is happy but he’s not comfortable. The effort to please pays off, though: “together at length and at leisure” is such a sweet little poem by itself it’s hard to believe it’s not a common saying — but it’s not, it’s only a wish that he can’t make true.

In Lost Puritan, Paul Mariani’s biography of Robert Lowell, there are vignettes from his young life that didn’t make sense to me until I’d read these letters. He gets the nickname Cal, for Shakespeare’s brutish Caliban and for appetitive Caligula because of his lack of self-control and objectively terrible behavior. He commands his prep school friends to read book after book of poetry and report back to him about it, and beats them when their opinions aren’t sophisticated enough. He is sick with untreated bipolar disorder, but beyond that he seems to have an awful personality.

This is the part that doesn’t make sense to me: what does he think he’s doing, how does he describe any of this to himself? Why would a person like Elizabeth Bishop — or a powerful intellectual like his second wife Elizabeth Hardwick — why did they bother with him? There’s some missing center of gravity in his personality that I couldn’t feel from the biography. The missing force snaps into focus in his letters, with the sound of his voice itself — he’s wonderfully alert and interesting.

From her biography alone, a reader could draw the impression of a stiff, withholding kind of Bishop, whose unexpressed feelings beset her in the form of binge drinking — perfume when all her alcohol is gone — and affairs with married women. Her poems are so perfect they can be difficult to see as the work of a human mind, but here is the start of Bishop’s reply to Lowell’s letter:

Dearest Cal:

After our long dull months of reading, backgammon, gardening, cooking, & READING, life has been almost too teeming recently. When I get back to my MACHINA I’ll try to compose it into some kind of a letter. We came down to Sao Paulo for the opening of the Biende — 4,485 works of ART — about 400 of which I have given my attention to. The best is Francis Bacon—real horror: the others just saying BOO, mostly. We’re going back to Rio this afternoon.


Reading their letters side by side is like wandering from warm air to warm water. There’s a different feeling in each of their voices but they’re equally pleasant. Bishop only rarely describes her feelings, and when she does it’s mostly to reassure Cal. It’s very much like her that she doesn’t dwell on the fact that he was just in treatment. She is private about her interior life, but not demure — she thinks deeply and offers sound judgements about what she sees (The art that says BOO!) The subtle way one thing is unlike another is the soul of her poetry and her letters. Cal writes about the way it feels to be Cal, Elizabeth writes about the way her very precise mind perceives everything but herself.

My favorite thing about Eudora Welty is that she wrote the story “Where Is The Voice Coming From?” the day after civil rights activist Medgar Evers was murdered, from the point of view of the murderer. Welty’s understanding of the anger that would lead the murderer to act was so clear and accurate, she was asked to change details of the story before it was published in the New Yorker so as not to prejudice the jury that tried Byron de la Beckwith, the actual killer. She won a Pulitzer Prize and a Presidential Medal of Freedom for her fiction, and has had countless other honors — but it’s “Where Is The Voice Coming From?” that got me curious about her letters. I wanted to know how life felt and seemed to her.

Meanwhile There Are Letters is the book of Welty’s correspondence with Kevin Millar, who wrote under the pseudonym Ross Macdonald. Millar and Welty met when he was in his mid-fifties and she in her early sixties, and they wrote to one another till his death in 1983. He lived in Santa Barbara, California and she in Jackson, Mississippi, though they met in person several times. The relationship progressed quickly to a kind of breathless romance. Here is a passage from a letter Welty wrote, ostensibly about a book review she wrote and Millar liked:

Dear Mr. Millar,

With it all told it is a perfect thing. When your earlier letter came, and I saw the pattern begin to come out, I knew it would matter to you, as it did to me, but when your letter this morning told me in what way — all I can say after reading it is that I took it to my heart and that I feel glad that I ever happened along when I did, and the way I did, to be part of it — glad for my own sake, my own beliefs too — I believe it was bound to happen for you somehow. But thank you for telling me this, which has made me a part of some perfect occurrence.

The message between the lines goes through, though, and he signs his next letter “Love, Ken.” Whatever else they are each taking to their hearts, he is married and she signs her next letter “Love to you both. Take care. Eudora”

There isn’t much question that their attachment is more than friendly but I never found the letters particularly beautiful or revelatory. The mysterious circuit that lights the Lowell/Bishop correspondence never connected for me. They usually talk about impersonal matters — books they both like, their work, and occasionally how they miss and think of one another — but there is not much in the Welty/Millar letters to leaven the sense of polite small talk.

Dear Eudora:

That’s thrilling news about The Robber Bridegroom, Houseman being one of our very best directors. I hope it comes to Santa Barbara, but doubt that it will. We lack a theater of adequate size, though once long ago I saw The Glass Menagerie here. By the way, I read The Robber Bridegroom when it first came out, with great delight.

Didn’t see the Ross’s Gull on TV — Margaret did — but I saw a picture of it. Today’s excitement here was an escaped lapis lazuli finch. Can that be right? It’s the way I heard it, anyway.

Thank you for the NYTBR clipping — I get mentioned in some surprising contexts.

She replies:

Dear Ken,

—A lapis lazuli finch? It sounds like a bird that flew in out of Yeats, or fairyand. I wonder if they caught it? Should we wish they did or hope they didn’t? Maybe it got away to that lovely island out in the Channel.

That’s wonderful news that the Three Roads is going to be a film and in such good hands—Peter Glenville, and with the plan to give it such evident serious attention. I’m delighted for you and can imagine the fresh and stimulating impact it could very likely make on you when you see what comes of transposing the story for California to Quebec, all kinds of forces joining.

I start to recall that a book of letters is sort of an awkward thing to read. I don’t know any of the people they’re talking about, and I’m not eagerly tearing open envelopes because it’s not my romance. It’s not my polite small talk. Both principals seem to mirror one another’s tone, such that their voices never well-defined to my ear. What do I really know about them? They each seem like earnest people who really generally try to do the right thing, read and write a lot. In these letters I didn’t find the transports of empathy or moral understanding Welty shows in her work. Nothing Millar said made me want to read his books either. That may be the last lesson in voice that a book of letters can offer — lacking it is deadly.

Books in this review:
  • Words in Air
    by Elizabeth Bishop,
    Robert Lowell, and
    Thomas Travisano
    Farrar Straus Giroux
    March 15, 2010
    875 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound
  • Meanwhile There Are Letters
    by Eudora Welty,
    Ross Macdonald,
    Suzanne Marrs, and
    Tom Nolan
    Arcade Publishing
    July 14, 2015
    568 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writers

Catherine Nichols lives in Massachusetts.

Follow Catherine Nichols on Twitter: @clnichols6

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