“I have never been homesick but just at present I feel awfly campsick,” wrote Elizabeth Bishop, the summer she was fourteen. She had just finished a month at the sailing camp on Cape Cod where she spent her teenage summers, a camp where she found respite from the families engaged in a tug-of-war over her upbringing (it would be too much to say her affections), her father’s in Worcester, Massachusetts, and her mother’s in Revere and farther away in Great Village, Nova Scotia. For much of her childhood, this shy and sickly girl had been carted from one set of relatives to another like a piece of luggage.
Bishop was born in Worcester in 1911. When she was still a baby, her father, William Bishop, died of Bright’s disease (the term a century ago for acute or chronic nephritis). After his death, her mother’s grief slowly hardened into suicidal despair, and she tried to take her life by leaping from a hospital window. At last, having for five years dressed in mourning clothes, Gertrude Bishop became delusional, afflicted with imagined illnesses, convinced that she was being “watched as a criminal.” In 1916, she was permanently confined to a mental hospital. Her doctors must have felt there was no hope of recovery, because her little daughter was “taught to think of her as dead,” according to the poet Frank Bidart. Having been dragged about by her nervous and overwrought mother, now to Boston, now back to Nova Scotia, Elizabeth found a home with her mother’s family in Great Village, where she was enrolled in the village primary school. When her father’s parents visited a year and a half later, they were shocked to find the barefoot six-year-old racing wild through the village lanes.
Her Bishop grandparents “kidnapped” her—at least it felt that way, she later said—and carried her off by overnight train. Her father’s father was a wealthy New England contractor, the founder of J. W. Bishop Company, which built mills, stores, churches, hospitals, gymnasiums at both Brown and Harvard, the Boston Public Library, the Museum of Fine Arts, and numerous mansions for private clients. The firm, which had been in business since the 1870s, was a nineteenth-century example of vertical integration, owning quarries as well as a woodwork and ornamental-iron mill.
The Bishops were already elderly (her grandfather seventy-one, her grandmother sixty-eight) when Elizabeth was spirited away to Worcester. Most of their nine children were already dead. Her grandparents lived outside the city in a dark, spraddling farmhouse behind a white picket fence, one block before the end of the trolley line, though John W. Bishop Sr. was driven to work each morning by a chauffeur. The Bishops never mingled in Worcester society. Though distant, austere presences to this frail young girl, they were apparently kind and thoughtful. Her grandfather, who showed off numerous gold teeth when he laughed, once carted home, all the way from his company’s Providence office, three Golden Bantams— pets for his little granddaughter.
Bishop found life in her home country difficult. Separated from her mother’s parents, whom she adored, she “didn’t want to be an American.” (As she told a critic, “I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander.”) According to her memoir “The Country Mouse,” saluting the American flag made her feel “like a traitor”—in the Great Village school, she had been taught to sing “God Save the King” and “The Maple Leaf Forever.” Her grandmother in Worcester, whose most violent oaths were “Pshaw” and “Drat,” tried to make her memorize “The Star-Spangled Banner,” every verse.
Often severely ill with bronchitis, asthma, and eczema, Elizabeth spent nine miserable months with the Bishops. After that disastrous winter, she was dispatched, no doubt by chauffeur, to a drab neighborhood in working-class Revere to live with her mother’s eldest sister, Maude (always spelled “Maud” by Bishop). The girl spent the rest of her childhood with Maude and her husband in their dingy second-floor apartment, frequently missing school because of her illnesses. She later said that during those years, “I was always a sort of a guest.”
Bishop may have felt close to Aunt Maude at first; later, when she was in prep school, she tried to avoid staying in Revere during the holidays. Her favorite aunt, Grace Boomer, another of her mother’s sisters, shared the apartment but moved back to Nova Scotia in 1923, when Bishop was twelve. That same fall, her Bishop grandparents died, first her grandmother and then, five days later, her grandfather. Their son Jack, who became head of the family firm, took charge of her schooling. Whatever Uncle Jack’s failings as a businessman (under his management, J. W. Bishop Company soon fell on hard times), as her guardian he sought an education for her beyond that available in public schools—or perhaps he was just shooing her out of the way. Though Bishop felt no fondness for him, he seems to have responded to his young ward. He knew that in Revere she had few friends.
Her cousin Kay claimed that the move to Revere was suggested by Bishop’s doctors, who thought her asthma would improve if she lived by the sea, a common prescription of the day. Perhaps the “saltwater camp” on Cape Cod was chosen to get her to the shore, the fees no doubt paid by her guardian—they would have been beyond the means of Maude and her husband. The July after her grandparents died, Bishop was packed off to summer camp for the first time. She returned every summer for the next five years.
Camp Chequesset overlooked the shellfishing fleet in Wellfleet Harbor, in the 1920s still the main source of the town’s economy. The camp stood across the bay from the town pier, on some forty acres of ground once inhabited by Chequesset Indians, whose shell heaps could still be found along the beach. There were two main camp-buildings. Big Chief Hall contained the dining hall, a wardroom, and craft shops. On the mantel above its massive open fireplace stood a ship’s clock and a pilot wheel, the symbol of the camp. There were more craft shops in the Bungalow, which also had a library of some five hundred books and rooms for visiting former campers—”Old Chequesset girls,” as they were called. Though a fair amount of swimming and sailing was required, the camp offered archery, tennis, baseball, dramatics, and dancing, interrupted by walks to the Cape’s backshore or a clambake on Jeremy Point. The camp navy consisted of a clutch of sailboats and canoes, a few rowboats and dories, and a forty-foot sedan-cabin cruiser, the Mouette, with her famously unreliable engine. The name was French for “seagull.”
The campers’ “lodges” were scattered in the pines, each with room for three or four girls and a counselor (a “skipper,” in the camp’s nautical slang). These cabins, screened on all sides, with shutters for bad weather, had been given whimsical names like the Look-Out, the Hopp-Inn, the Kennel, and the Nursery. An early photograph in Cape Cod Magazine shows a “cosy dormitory corner” with simple cots covered in what even in black-and-white look like colorful blankets. The Mary Louise, the cabin where Bishop berthed for the summer of 1926, was a forty-seven-foot sloop marooned in a cradle nearby. Forty girls, the youngest twelve years old, spent July and August at this “Nautical Camp for Girls.”
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