"We demand nothing but fresh conception." Thus began the manifesto of Con Spirito, the rebel literary magazine Elizabeth Bishop and some of her fellow students started at Vassar in February 1933. "Frankly we are more interested in experimental than in traditional writing," they continued on the front page of their first issue. "Anything--politics, science, art, music, philosophy--anything that is spontaneous, that is lively" (Editorial 1). Bishop's co-conspirators were an impressive group of women, including Mary McCarthy, Eleanor and Eunice Clark, Frani Blough, Margaret Miller, and probably Muriel Rukeyser.(1) According to McCarthy, Bishop had come up with the name Con Spirito for the magazine, "a pun joining the musical notation meaning `with zest' to the announcement of a conspiracy" (226). The original intent of Con Spirito was to provide an alternative to the college's established literary magazine, The Vassar Review. Or, as Bishop had put it somewhat more strongly in a letter to Donald Stanford, Con Spirito's aim was "to startle the college and kill the traditional magazine" (One Art 13). Betsy Erkkila has mentioned Con Spirito in passing as a "striking" example of a successful collaboration among women who are positioned in competition with other women in a "struggle" for literary territory (Wicked Sisters 100). Paying attention to struggles such as these, Erkkila argues, provides a richer reading of literary history, one that can account for the differences among women (4). The editorial in the first issue of Con Spirito, however, also aligns these women in collaboration against a male-dominated literary tradition and particularly challenges the stereotypes of college-educated women put forward by the literary press.
Con Spirito was also a conspiracy, a clandestine and anonymous meeting of literary minds, in an attempt to create a space of freedom for the imagination within the boundaries of the women's college community and the larger literary world. Although it was short-lived (the magazine folded in November 1933 after only three issues), Con Spirito provided an important forum for the developing talents of its writers. Two of Bishop's Con Spirito pieces, "Then Came the Poor" and "Hymn to the Virgin," became her first professional publications when they appeared without significant changes in The Magazine in 1934. McCarthy took issues of Con Spirito to impress Malcolm Cowley at The New Republic when she was looking for review assignments (McCarthy 262). T. S. Eliot praised the magazine when he came to the Vassar campus in May 1933 (Fountain and Brazeau 51). Of the seven co-conspirators, four went on to establish successful literary careers: Bishop, McCarthy, Eleanor Clark, and Rukeyser. But beyond its importance as a professional vehicle, Con Spirito provided a space of possibility for Bishop, who had not yet come to terms with her lesbian sexuality or her literary ambition. In a limited sense, I will argue, Con Spirito allowed Bishop to "come out" as both a writer and, perhaps much more provisionally, a lesbian. Moreover, the Con Spirito writers seemed to share a fantasy of a productive female community, an idea of community that I will argue in the last part of my essay remained a powerful structuring fantasy in Bishop's work. Hence the idea of literary community that I pursue through my reading of Bishop's experience at Vassar allows me to suggest new ways to see the enclosure fantasies that have long been noted by critics as an important feature of Bishop's work. These enclosure fantasies--among them the boarding house, the prison, and the island--serve as spaces of "possibility" in Bishop's work that provide a challenge to the fixed ideas of both gender and literary identity that she found constrained the artist in the 1930s.
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Bishop's fantasy of female community (expressed throughout her Con Spirito writing in terms of literary ambition, fear of a feminine taint, sexual perversion, and cross-dressing) continued to be part of her work throughout her career, attesting to the persistence of the discourse of perversion surrounding literary ambition and lesbian sexuality. Bishop's 1938 story "In Prison," for example, brings together ideas of gender ambiguity, literary influence, female community, and lesbian sexuality. Langdon Hammer has suggested that "In Prison" is a metaphor for life in the closet ("New Elizabeth Bishop" 144).
Provisional spaces such as these can be found in Bishop's work throughout her career, but they are strikingly present in her well-known "Crusoe in England," published at the end of her career, although it is important to note that notebook entries from 1934 demonstrate that ideas for this poem are connected to the Vassar years and the discourse of the 1930s. Immediately following graduation from Vassar in 1934, Bishop stayed on Cuttyhunk Island in Massachusetts for several weeks. The landlord of her temporary home by the sea was Mr. Wuthenaur, a man who wanted to "simplify life" all the time, and his behavior led Bishop to consider writing a poem about "making things in a pinch--& how it looks sad when the emergency is over."(16) The idea was finally published in 1972 as "Crusoe in England." David Kalstone has written that the poems in Geography III, of which "Crusoe in England" is one, "revisit her earlier poems as Bishop herself once visited tropical and polar zones, and ... they refigure her work in wonderful ways" (252). Bishop's "Crusoe in England" refigures the ideas of female community found in the Con Spirito work.
"Crusoe in England," like "In Prison," narrates the fantasy of a community both found and lost during the course of the poem. Alone on the island and oppressed by solitude, Crusoe has
nightmares of other islands stretching away from mine, infinities of islands, islands spawning islands, like frogs' eggs turning into polliwogs of islands....
The images Bishop uses here are reminiscent of those I have already discussed that describe the lesbian who was supposed to be simultaneously sterile--the "desiccated old maid"--and associated with a "breeding ground" for producing more of her kind.
This is an island that repeats in one sense the representations of lesbian community that Gabriele Griffith has argued were common to the early part of the twentieth century (11). These representations create an image of lesbians "as the only one in their community, as isolated individuals ... intended to arouse pity rather than condemnation." This isolated figure is precisely the one we see as Crusoe sits dangling his legs over the edge of a volcano: "I often gave way to self-pity," he tells us:
"Do I deserve this? I suppose I must. I wouldn't be here otherwise. Was there a moment when I actually chose this?
If Crusoe is one of a kind, so is everything else on this island:
The sun set in the sea; the same odd sun rose from the sea, and there was one of it and one of me. The island had one kind of everything....
Crusoe's loneliness is alleviated temporarily, just as it is in Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, by the arrival of Friday. But while Crusoe in Defoe's colonial account is only able to construct Friday, the "savage," as a slave, even though he is clearly fond of him, Bishop's Crusoe calls Friday a "friend":
Just when I thought I couldn't stand it another minute longer, Friday came. (Accounts of that have everything all wrong.) Friday was nice. Friday was nice, and we were friends. If only he had been a woman! I wanted to propagate my kind, and so did he, I think, poor boy. He'd pet the baby goats sometimes, and race with them, or carry one around. --Pretty to watch; he had a pretty body.
The narrator's elusiveness about the nature of his relationship with Friday and the cryptic phrase "(Accounts of that have everything all wrong)" suggest that the relationship between the two men was one of mutual desire. Immediately following this parenthetical comment, however, Crusoe utters what must be the most banal sentence in the world: "Friday was nice." He then repeats it in the next line and adds, "and we were friends," as if this would somehow explain the confusion.
Bishop wrote the poem long after she had read Robinson Crusoe and only reread the novel after she had written the poem, so she relies on a hazy memory of the book to re-create her Crusoe. It was the idea of the desert island and making things do in an emergency that appealed to her. But it is clearly also the relationship between Friday and Crusoe that fascinated Bishop. In Defoe's account, Crusoe "civilizes" Friday and teaches him English. In Bishop's poem, Crusoe does not try to convert Friday. They are friends, on equal terms with each other. But immediately following these lines, Crusoe cries out, "If only he had been a woman! / I wanted to propagate my kind, / and so did he, I think, poor boy." Bishop thereby adds a new factor to this story of Crusoe and Friday, a marriage plot that legitimizes Crusoe's feelings for Friday. As in "Seven-Days Monologue," however, Crusoe ultimately rejects the heterosexual narrative. Lorrie Goldensohn suggests in her reading of this passage that it is important to pay attention to "the pressure of [Bishop's] particular experience behind and within the poem," the suicide of her Brazilian lover Lota de Macedo Soares, and the desire she expressed in numerous letters to have children that she and Soares could raise together (Elizabeth Bishop 78). I would agree with this reading in part. But this stanza, with its qualifying and hedging, also suggests other ways of reading the phrase "I wanted to propagate my kind." What Crusoe dwells on at the end of the stanza is Friday's body. Friday was, after all, "Pretty to watch; he had a pretty body." Immediately following these lines, Crusoe and Friday are taken off the island and returned to England. In the last two stanzas of the poem, Crusoe surrounded by his island possessions--is living on what he describes as "another island," England. There is no reason why he should not have found a woman in England, but the poem makes clear that he has stayed with Friday. The poem ends with the weight of loss: "And Friday, my dear Friday, died of measles / seventeen years ago come March" (166).
Loss is registered in the person of Friday. Crusoe took Friday "home" to England, and he died there. Certainly a tenuous connection can be made here, as Goldensohn does, between Friday's death and Soares's suicide, but leaving it there would ignore some of the complexity of the idea of "home." Her "home" in Brazil with Soares was perhaps the closest Bishop ever got to a sense of real belonging, and yet when she and Soares broke up, she found it more and more difficult to make a life there. Soares was her "home" in Brazil, not the country itself or the house she had bought, however much she tried to make it so. Much like Crusoe in Defoe's account, Crusoe in Bishop's finds a sense of purpose, of "home," when Friday arrives. The original title of the poem was "Crusoe at Home" (Millier 366), which suggests that Bishop had initially thought of the poem in terms of an investigation of Crusoe's relationship to the idea of "home," or at least an ironic commentary on ideas of "home." In this sense Crusoe finds a home with Friday much in the same way that the narrator in "Then Came the Poor" finds a home with Jacob. Here again, as in that early story, an ambiguous but erotically charged relationship is represented through an investigation of the complex connections between two male personae. Joanne Feit Diehl has argued that "Crusoe in England" is "Bishop's most extreme poetic instance of gender-crossing fused with eroticism" (20). It is here within this space that the desire to "propagate my kind" is most strongly expressed.
In "Crusoe in England," as in many of Bishop's stories and poems, we are presented with a circumscribed world in which a lonely individual or a societal misfit contacts another like himself and for a brief period finds a home. The circumscribed world of the island, like the prison, the boarding house, or the communal house in "Then Came the Poor," represents a landscape in which the poet, the woman, the orphan, or the lesbian can contact others like herself and form a community. It may represent that limited but also "capacious" space of the closet that Timothy Morris has suggested "resonates throughout [Bishop's] work" (125). Hence Bishop's sense of community and influence cannot be thought of apart from the desire to "propagate [her] kind," to create a language that would begin to speak of lesbian desire. Crusoe's phrase "I wanted to propagate my kind" cannot be interpreted simply as an expression of the biological urge of a childless poet to have children. Spoken by a character created by a lesbian poet wise to the homoeroticism of Defoe's original text, Crusoe's statement becomes a challenge to the biological determinism that hindered the careers of literary women of Bishop's generation. Crusoe's statement refers not simply to reproductive power but to productive power--the power to write, to influence future generations, and to build community.
Bishop's ideas of community and her own place in it might be productively considered in light of an essay she published at Vassar. Interested in the workings of time in the novel, Bishop offers us yet another spatial metaphor. Disturbed from her studies by a sound outside, she writes that she looked out her window and noticed the birds "going South" ("Time's Andromedas" 102). They were "spread across a wide swath of sky, each rather alone" and yet connected by an "invisible thread." It was "within this fragile network," Bishop writes, that "they possessed the sky." As I have suggested throughout this essay, Bishop built this fragile network at Vassar and maintained it in suggestive ways in the poetry and prose she published throughout her life. It is by establishing this connection that I have attempted to momentarily catch hold of the "invisible thread" that connected Bishop to a larger community of writers and artists who attempted, however briefly, to "possess the sky."
From "Elizabeth Bishop's "Queer Birds": Vassar, Con Spirito, and the Romance of Female Community." Contemporary Literature 40.2 (Summer 1999).