I received a surprising notice in my electronic doohickery that Elizabeth Bishop was being celebrated while I work this weekend. The news I just learned is that at last her home where she lived in Key West before she went to Brazil to conclude an adventurous life has been purchased for restoration by the Literary Seminar. What she left behind in Key West was a home barely acknowledged as her own. In similar fashion where Tennessee Williams lived is equally unmarked and unknown were you to look for it. Well that state of affairs is changing at least for Elizabeth Bishop. I don't suppose her home will become the talk of the planet the way Hemingway's home in Key West has become such a center of attention. She was after all a woman and decidedly not a swashbuckling drinker and big game hunter and war chaser, rather a poet of sensibility who yet managed to live life very much on her own terms. I rather prefer her style in writing and in life but the good news is an enduring institution which is the Seminar has announced a concerted effort and quite some commitment to making her home the landmark it deserves to be. Great news.
This essay I wrote in 2014, so the decrepitude of the landmark is no new thing, and given land prices in this absurd town, nothing could have made the purchase of an historic home on White Street at all easy. Yet it is done. Excellent.
624 White Street
The state with the prettiest name,
the state that floats in brackish water,
held together by mangrove roots
that bear while living oysters in clusters,
and when dead strew white swamps with skeletons,
dotted as if bombarded, with green hummocks
like ancient cannon-balls sprouting grass.
The opening of Elizabeth Bishop's poem called Florida.
She lived here from 1938 to 1946, on White Street in Key West and published her poems as she gathered up her stuff and took off on a world tour. That tour stopped abruptly when she fell in love and settled in Brazil for 16 years. Those sixteen years were happier, they say, than the difficult years in Key West, a town she liked but that did not bring happiness, oddly enough. I don't think happiness in love was easy to find for a lesbian in those distant and prejudiced days, albeit a wealthy one able to ignore convention and not starve as a writer.
Bishop was born with a silver spoon in her mouth, got a good education and an inheritance so she was spared the tedium of daily work. However she also lacked the discipline of earning a living, but by way of compensation she turned out poems that are gaining in popularity and earning more respect the more time passes since she died.
Not that the famous poet gets much respect in Key West. Hemingway's home is famous and the image is sold artfully by the family that owns the business. Everyone else is on their own, their marks on the city of Key West as obscure as if they had lived on the dark side of the moon. That this home has a plaque from the friends of the library is a minor miracle, but ironically enough Bishop's former home is an embarrassing wreck.
Who knows and who cares really. Lots of people live in tumbledown homes in Key West, and lots of people who think they want to live here expect the high rents to return a decent living space. That's not very likely in Old Town. But a famous writer's home should be a landmark shouldn't it?
My last writer's home was the opposite, not recognized at all but not left to rot, far from it. Key West Diary: 709 Baker's Lane, Key West. It's not easy to be critical of people living in their homes, owned or rented but there is a sense of sadness when you see this lovely old eyebrow home not just degenerating but taking a memory we owe the world with it. Indeed the homes of writers around the world are revered, the sense of place that imparts the art to the artist. Here? Nah. What a shame.