Friday, February 4, 2011

Was It in His Hand?

Elizabeth Bishop (1911–1979)
From Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters

In a 2007 interview, on the occasion of the publication of the Library of America edition of Elizabeth Bishop’s Poems, Prose, and Letters, volume editor Lloyd Schwartz remarked that Bishop was serious about writing fiction as far back as her student days. And some of her stories are every bit as good as her poems. Some are wilder than her poems, fantastical. . . . And she had an exclusive contract with The New Yorker for her poems, but The New Yorker took three of her stories.”

Schwartz noted that one of the stories included in the LOA collection was discovered and published by Bishop’s friend and editor Robert Giroux (who co-edited the LOA volume) several years after her
Collected Prose had been published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 1984. When “Was It in His Hand?” finally appeared in Grand Street in 1990, Giroux described how he found the story, which was almost certainly written in the mid-1930s:
In preparing for publication Elizabeth Bishop’s Collected Prose, I found among her papers an unfinished story with the odd title, ‘Was It in His Hand?’ It was an account of something that had happened to Elizabeth in the 1930s, an accidental encounter with a black woman who had a little white boy living with her. . . . Unable to find the conclusion, despite repeated searching (the pages I originally found got as far as the boy’s toy typewriter), I regretfully had to omit the story from her Collected Prose.

Had she abandoned it? Why had she kept these opening pages among her papers? The story must have been in some way important to her. Early this year, while leafing through my files of Elizabeth’s vast correspondence, I happened onto some handwritten pages, obviously not letters, that proved to be the missing conclusion to ‘Was It in His Hand?’
This week, on Tuesday, February 8, readers and scholars of Elizabeth Bishop will be celebrating the centennial of her birth. In honor of the anniversary, Farrar, Straus and Giroux has just reissued an expanded paperback edition of the Prose—which now includes “Was It in His Hand?”

Notes for two allusions on page 562: The lost Dauphin refers to the second son of king Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, who died in prison, although rumors persisted that he escaped. A character in Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn claims he is the lost dauphin. Little Eva was the angelic young daughter of a slaveholder who buys Uncle Tom in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

We wore two coats apiece and mittens over our gloves and Louise drove the car with all the side-curtains snapped on. The snow swept from the surface of the fields, across the bare state road in front of us in long glittering flakes, struggling as if to rise and, when the sleet hit the side of the car, tinkling like tapped glasses. The wind plucked and jerked at the top of the car, trying to pick it up and float it off the road. We hit seventy-five, eighty. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click the right button at the top of the reader to view the story in Google Docs or click here (PDF) to read it—free!

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