Half a century has passed since the Life World Library was launched, in 1961. Today, its volumes languish in Internet bookstores, begging for takers at less than a dollar. They are cheapened by their age, their association with the mass-market Time Life brand (“Mysteries of the Unknown,” “Home Repair and Improvement”) and its suburban, middle-brow readership, though that might be too strong a term: one wonders how many people actually read these picture books. But the Life World Library was once wildly popular, and not without ambition and quality, as the author of the volume on Brazil proves.
This was no less than Elizabeth Bishop, who, by the time she came to write it, had been living in Brazil for a decade. Her eccentric aristocratic spouse, Lota de Macedo Soares, gave her entrée to the highest political and artistic circles: in the twentieth century, no foreign visitor of similar rank was as well-placed, or stayed as long (fifteen years). Because Brazil was everywhere in her work, and because the Life World Library contains her longest statement on the subject, the book has been granted a degree of scholarly attention seldom lavished on its fellows.
Making it even more intriguing are the clouds of censorship that swirl above it. These are emphasized by Lloyd Schwartz, the editor of “Prose,” a collection of Bishop’s writing, which appeared last year. Bishop “famously disliked how the editors changed what she wrote,” Schwartz says. Moreover, her original final chapter was “completely different” from the published chapter, which “deals with what the United States and Brazil have in common, and in it she praises Brazil’s more effective way of dealing with issues of race.” Schwartz therefore chose to publish a version “taken mainly from her own typescript at Vassar.”
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We will be reading and discussing the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop on September 28. See the SCHEDULE PAGE for the list of featured poems thus far.