The Politics of Editing Bishop’s 1962 Brazil Volume for Life World Library


Brazilian Landscape, Eizabeth Bishop

by Angus Cleghorn

After a decade in Brazil, Elizabeth Bishop was offered a $10,000 advance “to provide the text for the Life World Library Brazil, but famously disliked how the editors changed what she wrote” (Bishop: Poems, Prose & Letters viii) in the 1962 volume. In a letter written to her Aunt Grace while she was working on the volume in December 1961, Bishop wrote of Time-Life: “They are incredible people and what they know about Brazil would fit on the head of a pin – and yet the gall, the arrogance, the general condescension!” (One Art 403). Just this year, in 2011, the publication of Bishop’s Prose, edited by Lloyd Schwartz, enabled general readers to see Bishop’s original text of Brazil, which was previously accessible only in her typescript at the Vassar College Library Archives. There are many notable differences between Bishop’s original text and the one altered by Time-Life, such as Bishop’s final 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” (Prose viii).

When the 1962 and 2011 (original) texts are aligned, what we see consistently is that the Life editors of 1962 muted and in many cases removed Bishop’s critical views: Her critiques – whether on the U. S. or more often on Brazilian paradoxes, such as the contemporaneous establishment of Brasilia as the new capital – contain the same sort of biting and yet comic tone found in her poetry, which also shares with this prose criticism a sense of appreciation, wonder and surprise that supersedes the caustic satire. When she wrote the Life Brazil volume, she had already finished major poems of historical investigation, such as “Brazil, January 1, 1502,” which aligns conquistadores and tourists as sharing similar types of colonialism. Bishop had been reading Levi-Strauss and questioning anthropology, imperialism and tourism, and studying Portuguese while living with Lota de Macedo Soares, the ‘Chief Coordinatress’ designing Rio’s Flamengo Park (OA 398). Bishop’s poetry about Brazil is tentative because she’s engaged in the cultural history and humbled by the scope of it all.

Equally as interesting as what the editors took out of Bishop’s Brazil is what the Time-Life editors decided to insert on their own accord; “’The Editors of LIFE’ are actually credited as co-authors,” as Lloyd Schwartz notes (Prose viii). The introduction was written by John Moors Cabot, the former U.S. Ambassador to Brazil: “Traditional friend of the United States, Brazil is a fascinating and exotic country … it is a nation of the spirit…. For misunderstanding is the handmaiden of ignorance; and friendship, understanding and cooperation between Brazil and the United States were never more necessary than they are today” (7).  Is this just hot air, or perhaps Cold War pressure? In addition to serving as encyclopedia, this volume in the hands of the Life editors is an act of diplomacy, a way of making Brazil appeal to Americans. The tourist initiative presents Brazil as a golden country with an exotic past and a prosperous modern future – running through it all is the romance of utopia, a land of hope and dreams projected by the Europeans before it existed, lived by the Emperors of previous centuries, enacted by the establishment of Brasilia in 1960, and promoted to all as a land of modern advancement. While the romance of Brazil is noted in historical context by Bishop, the Life editors dramatize its prosperous nature in an effort to boost it as economic venture. This quality is emphasized in the picture essays written by Walter Karp, most of which follow Bishop’s text for half a dozen pages so that each chapter ends with a glossy upswing.

Even the chapter titles indicate the different perspectives between the 1962 Life editorial staff and the poet. In the following examples, you’ll hear bland diplomatic romance in contrast with Bishop’s satiric cut-to-the-chase titles. In Chapter 1, Life editors: “A Warm and Reasonable People”; Bishop: “Paradoxes and Ironies.” It is clear that the American Life editors found Miss Bishop to be too blunt and bitter in her social diagnoses. Is she too harsh in her imperial social critique? She felt herself to be an awkward tourist from the start in 1951, as stated in her first poem, “Arrival at Santos:” “Oh tourist, / is this how this country is going to answer you / and your immodest demands for a different world, / and a better life …?” (Bishop: Poems, Prose & Letters 71). And even though she learned Portuguese, translated major poets, Brazilian stories, and produced Brazilian poetry anthologies, she still felt like a poet-once-removed from native culture, perched on a hilltop with binoculars, as she wrote in “Burglar of Babylon,” a long poem about crime in Rio.

Bishop and Lota de Macedo Soares used to joke about crazy Brazilians. So what kind of opinion do readers have of a chapter entitled “A Warm and Reasonable People”? The chapter title is accompanied by an elegant photo with the following caption: “Under a blazing sun, visitors to Brasilia stroll on a rooftop promenade in the new inland capital. A large number of them trek many miles from surrounding scrubland areas to admire the magnificent city the federal government has planted in their midst” (Life 8-9). Bishop’s original text repeatedly mentions Brazilian public skepticism of Brasilia, while the Life editors instead promote it as the latest and greatest modern utopian dream built of concrete, steel and glass. Notice that Walter Karp’s captioned rhetoric has the government organically “plant” it. Bishop’s notes in her chapter outline for “Paradoxes and Ironies” state: “The paradox that illustrates the general contradictoriness of Brazil: population explosion versus high infant mortality. Wide variety of paradoxes great and small: Vast sources of wealth; appalling poverty; luxury; asceticism; snobbery: “familiarity”; pride: national inferiority complex; vitality; “laziness;” And alteration of corrupt & extravagant regimes with occasional puritanical reform regimes” (Prose 164). Bishop’s actual text for chapter one ends with “Brazil has not fought a major war for almost a century. It has rarely wanted more land, already having more than it knows what to do with” (173). Then she attaches this pacifism with Brazilian masculinity:

Jokes tell even more. There is an old favorite, perhaps not even Brazilian originally, about a man walking down a street with a friend. He is grossly insulted by a stranger, and says nothing. The friend tries to rouse his fighting instincts, “Didn’t you hear what he called you? Are you going to take that? Are you a man, or aren’t you?” The man replies, “Yes, I’m a man. But not fanatically.” This is the true Brazilian temper.” (173)

Where Bishop chose to end “Paradoxes and Ironies” with a subtle expression of masculine gender in Brazil – one that would strike Americans as interesting for its reluctance toward cowboy machismo, the Life editors followed Bishop’s subtlety with the big caption, “The Magnetic Force Exerted by Cities,” and eight pages of pictures, including a Brazilian model in taffata dress captioned “DEMURE BEAUTY,” accompanying text reading: “URBAN STYLE of life has all the modern trimmings of elegant display, high fashion and bustling commerce” (Life 19). And in addition to long- settled cities such as Belem and Bahia, there’s a two-page spread of the ‘CREAMY ARC’ of Rio de Janeiro’s world famous Copacabana Beach.

The Life editors’ agenda promotes modern urban prosperity at the expense of historical tradition; their picto-text minimizing indigenous traditions, natural environment and colonial context. In fact, the Life volume continues colonial traditions by making Brazil appeal to the U.S. as an “Undeveloped Land of Legend,” this being the chapter two title, replacing Bishop’s “The Land of Dye-Wood”; her excised first paragraph reads:

At least as early as the 9th century a land called ‘Brasil’ was already a legend in Europe. It was wherever bresilium came from, a wood obtained in trade with the Far East, much in demand for dyeing cloth red. (Perhaps all the red woolens the peasants wear in the paintings of Breughel were dyed with ‘brasil’ wood?) The Medici Atlas of 1351 shows an island labeled ‘Brazil,’ and this imaginary island keeps re-appearing for several centuries, sometimes in one part of the world, sometimes in another, even after the present Brazil had been discovered.” (Prose 174)

Bishop’s original text stresses long, slow, deep time occurring through historical events over and over again so that readers can understand Brazil through the patterns of history, as inscribed on maps. This diachronic approach is fundamental to Bishop’s geo-poetics of mapmaking. The poem “Brazil, January 1, 1502” begins with the word “Januaries” so that the river of Januaries runs through the centuries into the mid-1900s when the poet herself floats in among the historical detritus. Likewise, chapter 2 in both versions has this observation: “In one of the parks of Rio stands a fine, flamboyant example of Latin American park-sculpture, a much-bigger-than-life-size man dressed in a costume-pageant outfit with wide fur-trimmed sleeves and a skirt, holding onto a ton or so of undulated bronze banner. One side of the pedestal says “1900” and the other, “1500.” The statue was set up to commemorate what authorities believe to be the 400th anniversary of the discovery of Brazil by the Portuguese navigator Pedro Alvares Cabral. As the city has grown, this statue has been shunted about, and in somewhat the same way historian have shuffled the problem of whether Cabral should be called the discoverer of Brazil or not. But they all agree that he at least was the first to claim it – in 1500, shortly after Easter” (Life 25). A map follows with the caption: “A STRANGE NEW WORLD for Europeans, Brazil appears on this section of a 1502 world map as a tree-fringed area containing macaws. Brazil’s jagged coastline is mostly guesswork” (27). Those of you familiar with Bishop’s poetry likely hear “The Map,” and its theory of inscribed historical landscapes and populations, as well as the specific history of “Brazil, January 1, 1502” and Bishop’s complicity in historicizing the country as a strange colonial tourist, as depicted also in “Arrival at Santos” and “Questions of Travel,” the latter being the title of her 1965 published volume. “Questions of Travel” ends with the question, “should we have stayed at home, wherever that may be?” The poet questions the concept of home in the 1960s as this contemporary world opens and she drives to the interior of Brazil. The Life edition photo-essay is here called “The Untamed World of a Vast Interior” with eight pages of photos culminating with two pictures of anthropologist Orlando Villas Boas among natives and the caption: “PROTECTOR of Indians, a white man tries to keep their tribal customs intact,” and also says that an “EASY COMRADESHIP exists between the Indians and … Boas …(38).

This is not the anthropological perspective Bishop offers in “12 O’Clock News.” This poem is published much later in the 1976 volume, Geography III, but I refer to it as an indication of Bishop’s increasing critical linkage between historical domination and media rhetoric. This experimental poem posits the writer’s materials on the left side of the page, beside descriptions of colonized territory on the right, together making up “12 O’Clock News.” So “envelopes” are set beside this text: “In this small, backward country, one of the most backward left in the world today, communications are crude and ‘industrialization’ and its products almost nonexistent. Strange to say, however, signboards are on a truly gigantic scale” (Bishop: Poems, Prose & Letters 163). While Brazil is not a small country, the ethnocentric view that criticizes lack of industry in ironic juxtaposition with its gigantic signboards resembles the “Paradoxes and Ironies” Bishop found in Brazil. So from the retrospective view of this 1976 poem, I infer that what disturbed Bishop most about her association with the Life World Library Brazil was that she was co-opted into an American ethnocentric project full of mid-century sales pitches. In “12 O’Clock News” she exhibited the violence of such rhetoric: “ashtray” is set in text beside: “From our superior vantage point, we can clearly see into a sort of dugout, possibly a shell crater, a ‘nest’ of soldiers. They lie heaped together, wearing the camouflage ‘battle dress’ intended for ‘winter warfare.’ They are in hideously contorted positions, all dead. We can make out at least eight bodies. These uniforms were designed to be used in guerilla warfare on the country’s one snow-covered mountain peak. The fact that these poor soldiers are wearing them here, on the plain, gives further proof, if proof were necessary, either of the childishness and hopeless impracticality of this inscrutable people, our opponents, or of the sad corruption of their leaders” (164). Bishop’s satire brings to mind American governmental rhetoric from Vietnam, or the Persian Gulf with its accompanying video-images of bombs targeting military compounds, or George Bush’s war against the axis of evil. Bishop would have despised the 1962 editorial description of the anthropologist who “tries to maintain peace by moving tribes away when white settlers arrive” (Life 38): putting indigenous people out like cigarette butts.

Lack of respect for nativity is addressed in Bishop’s chapter three entitled, “The Only Western Empire,” which was modified by life editors to “Century of Honor and Pride,” accompanied by a picture of the Emperor of Brazil, Dom Pedro II, who “looks like a model Victorian” on an 1876 visit to Niagara Falls. Bishop describes “the nation’s schoolmaster” at Niagara in ironic juxtaposition to his Brazilian “waterfalls three or four times greater and more magnificent than Niagara, but inaccessible, and with all his curiosity and traveling, he never laid eyes on them. (To this day, upper-class Brazilians are amazingly unfamiliar with their own country, even its geography)” (Prose 191). Dom Pedro’s significance as a well-educated leader ignorant of his own country makes it possible to read Bishop’s tourist poems simultaneously from a Brazilian vantage point. I had always assumed that “Questions of Travel” came from the traveler’s perspective, which it does, but Bishop’s poetry also makes use of her view of Dom Pedro II: “There are too many waterfalls here; the crowded streams / hurry too rapidly down to the sea, / and the pressure of so many clouds on mountaintops / makes them spill over the sides in soft slow-motion, / turning to waterfalls under our very eyes. / — For if those streaks, those mile-long, shiny, tearstains, / aren’t waterfalls yet, / in a quick age or so, as ages go here, / they probably will be” (Bishop: Poems, Prose & Letters 74). The signified geographical features of Brazil overwhelm their descriptive signifiers such that their abundance remains almost nameless, and therefore ignored. Dom Pedro II appears as a model Victorian beside Niagara Falls rather than the Emperor of Brazil conquering a higher precipice. Notice that Bishop’s “Questions of Travel” proclaims the “mile-long tearstains / aren’t waterfalls yet” because they’re not recognized, although she’s optimistic that “in a quick age or so …/ they probably will be.”

Life World Library does not simply portray Dom Pedro II as a Victorian Emperor; Bishop, at least, provides a complex portrait in step with his times: “However, when ennobled, he, too, took an Indian name, as did almost all the others; it was the period of Indianismo; it was considered stylish to have an Indian (a chief, preferably) among one’s ancestors” (Prose 192). The 1962 text cut out his going native, as it cut out Bishop’s careful description of other ethnic influences in Brazil: “Germans and Swiss had settled north of Rio, and later many Italians came to work on the huge Sao Paulo coffee fazendas” (193). The 1962 text tones down almost every critique and erases the controversial contrasts of history; even this praiseworthy concluding judgment of Dom Pedro II from Bishop: “the calibre of the statesmen in the first years of the Republic was still much higher than it was to be ever since” (194). Instead of the finishing point of Bishop’s essay, the Life editors insert captioned photos of “A Short-lived Empire’s Surviving Elite” with “A trio of patricians, Senhora Bulhoes de Carvalho da Fonseca and her children are part of the inner circle of the aristocracy” (Life 47), followed by four more pages of aristocratic galas.

Chapter 4’s title is “Shifting Centers for Government,” another bland description in contrast with Bishop’s “The Three Capitals,” which succinctly points to the dilemma: Bahia — discovered in 1501 becomes Thome de Souza’s capital in 1549; Rio de Janeiro is established in 1555 by French Calvinists, and made capital in 1763; then Brasilia in 1960. Bishop’s description of Rio illustrates her well-known talent for using images that make the familiar strange and the strange familiar:

The topography of Rio is fantastically beautiful, but sadly unsuited to any geometric mathematical-minded city-planning. The city has spread out and penetrated like the fingers of a hand between the towering peaks of granite and the steep hills, which were uninhabited until the fairly recent (about twenty years or so) growth of the notorious favelas, or slums. Although poor people had always lived on the morros it is only during the last twenty years or so that they have become covered with shacks, mostly inhabited by immigrants from the north and northeast. It is estimated that one million of Rio’s three million inhabitants now live in these slums, creating the worst of the city’s many problems. (Prose 198).

That is half of the paragraph cut by the editors at Life. Their description begins: “Rio is a city of surprises. A busy street turns into an endless flight of steep steps” (Life 56) and then more physical features. Middle of the road blandness takes the place of Bishop’s operatic wide range: at one extreme is the beautiful poetic image of the city spread out like the fingers of a hand penetrating the peaks and hills; her other register criticizes the city’s impractical urban planning and details the poverty. While both ends of her spectrum are absent from the Life edition, the editors allow a humorous anecdote:

Upper-class dwellers on the upper floors of apartment houses often look straight into favelas only a few yards away. Sometimes the intimacy can be chaotic. A couple returning one night to their eighth-floor apartment on the Morro da Viuva (Widow’s Hill) heard a terrific bumping and crashing going on inside and naturally thought, ‘Burglars!’ But when they opened the door they found only a panic-stricken horse in the living room. So close are the buildings to the peaks and slabs of native rock and vegetation that the horse had managed to fall from his oblique, minute pasture straight onto their terrace” (Life 56).  

Funnily enough, the editors cut this half sentence from Bishop’s narrative: after “favelas only a few yards away,” Bishop wrote “[they] are awakened by roosters crowing, at the level of the 10th floor, or babies not their own crying. One story, told as true, illustrates the intimacy of this chaotic mixture” (Prose 198-9). Bishop’s roosters and babies increase the funny chaotic juxtaposition, which she also qualifies as just a story, true or not. The editors state it as truth, and explain away the couple’s burglar inference as “natural.” Time-Life hadn’t caught on to positional relativism, a hallmark of Bishop’s poetry that indicates postmodern perspective.

Bishop then details Rio’s history from the arrival of the Portuguese court in 1808, skipped in the Life edition, which sums up: “Today Rio is no longer the capital of the country. The actual drive to move the seat of government to the interior began in 1956, but the idea of establishing such a utopian capital city had existed for more than a century” (Life 56). Both texts describe Rio as a land of Canaan, a mythic city of gold. But Bishop goes much further: “at best Rio will turn into an immense Ouro Preto, living on the memories of the past (Prose 199) … [and then] “Today Brasilia is looked on with great disfavour by many people” (200). “But it got built, even at the cost of over a billion dollars and the devastation of the national budget, at the expense of everything else. It also became a symbol to the Brazilian people and such a strong one that even politicians opposed to it (as the next candidate, Quadros, was known to be) did not dare speak of abandoning the whole project and returning to the government of Rio” (201). Both texts conclude that “Rio continues to be the heart and soul of the country” (Life 58, Prose 201). However, the Life edition again follows with a pictorial brochure of Brasilia captioned, “A Frontier Capital’s Jet-Age Splendors.” The remarkable photos of Oscar Niemeyer’s built city overpower the textual criticism of Brasilia such that Bishop’s admiration of Rio is virtually erased.

Chapter 6 in the Life edition is called “Graceful and Popular Skills”; Bishop wanted to call it “The Unselfconscious Arts.” It opened this way before being edited: “The Brazilian of the interior owns almost nothing and has little cash income. He is not a ‘consumer’; he still makes most of the things he wears and uses” (210), whereas the edited version begins like a boring documentary: “Popular arts and handicrafts are still flourishing in rural Brazil ….” (Life 83). The next chapter, 7, “The Selfconscious Arts” was edited into “A Merited Respect for the Arts.” Merit over self-consciousness? This reverses the arts backwards out of modernism into the Victorian age of royal patronage. Bishop’s chapter 8, “Individuals and Groups” became “A Changing Social Scene”; her chapter 9, “The New Republic” became “The Struggle for a Stable Democracy.”

And finally, Bishop scratched out her chapter 10 title, “A New Hopefulness” and the life volume came out with “A Nation Perplexed and Uncertain.” Again, the thesis cast by Bishop to start the chapter is taken out. This introductory paragraph says a lot about the poet’s concern for the diplomatic politics projected by Time-Life:

The United States and Brazil have many things in common …. It is time we got to know and appreciate each other better; time that the United States gave more to Brazil than loans and those less attractive features of our culture that are thought to be ‘Americanizing’ the world. The United States and Brazil have more in common than coffee and Coca-Cola, although we now have a great deal of both of those.

We are both big countries and very much aware of our size. Perhaps number, gigantism, the ‘biggest’ this or that, mean too much to us. Culturally, too, although we have such different traditions, there are similarities. Both the U.S. and Brazil remained rather cautiously imitative for two hundred years or more, and both have suffered from (let us face it) inferiority-feelings at different periods in our histories. But we laugh at the same jokes, enjoy the same movies, and have almost the same legends of the ‘frontier,’ Indian chiefs, gold-rushes, pioneers, hunters, and savage beasts. American and Brazilians are equally quick to sympathy, on the side of the under-dog, hospitable, and kind; both have a sense of national destiny, of great things ahead, and the word ‘democracy’ can still move us deeply.

…. Brazil is coping with her Indian problem at least as well as, if not better than, we are ours. And certainly the social and racial problems left over from the days of slavery are being solved more gracefully, and with less suffering, in Brazil than in any other part of the world today. (Prose 247)

These last two sentences exist in both versions. However, Bishop’s parallel national mythos stated above was cut from the Life book. The cautious editors also took out Bishop’s diagnosis of anti-Americanism in Brazil: “The anti-American nationalist is almost always one of two types. Like the few ‘racistas’ or anti-semites in Brazil, the first comes usually from the class of ‘nouveau riche’ and is very rarely a native Brazilian but a recent or first-generation immigrant” (248)…. The other type of anti-American nationalist is, as is usual everywhere, the man who feels he must blame all his troubles on others: Jews, Negroes, or another nation” (249). Though Bishop assertively pinpoints racial issues, she concludes in this case that anti-Americanism doesn’t flourish in Brazil. The countries are allies. On the other side of the coin, from the visitor’s perspective, both texts state that the foreigner’s criticisms about Brazil can “be traced back to simple poverty … [n]ine times out of ten.”

Bishop’s final paragraph is maintained in the Life World Library Brazil. It speaks of Brazilians as “wonderful people: cheerful, sweet-tempered, witty, and patient,” willing to stand in line for hours for broken-down buses on unrepaired streets to tiny houses where there may even be no water. “It seems that there should be a revolution every month or so. They have never had the government they deserve, and one wonders how long it will be before they get it” (250). But the Life edition’s photo essay adds this conclusion: “A FUTURE POWER, Brazil must strengthen its society by humane reforms … in order to create the vigorous and informed citizenry it requires to establish an effective government and to reap lasting benefits from its great store of natural wealth” (Life 149-51). Though it sounds like a white man speaking as Indian chief, this Amer-Indian capital myth could too be from Canada. These over-arching politics are common through the Americas.

Despite the clear evidence that Life editors “massacrated it,” as Lota de Macedo Soares said (Words in Air 413), at least now in the 2011 Prose edition, readers can observe the textual (historical, cultural, political, literary – in short, rhetorical) differences that Bishop’s astute correspondent, Robert Lowell noted in a letter on April 14, 1962: “Your Brazil has lovely Bishop touches, the humor of the opening, and everywhere you seem to dampen the hollow enthusiasm of the man who comments on the pictures – two Brasilias, yours and his” (407).

Works Cited:

Bishop, Elizabeth. Bishop: Poems, Prose & Letters. Edited by Robert Giroux and Lloyd Schwartz. New York: Library of America, 2008.

Bishop, Elizabeth. One Art: Selected Letters. Edited by Robert Giroux. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994.

Bishop, Elizabeth: Prose. Edited by Lloyd Schwartz. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011.

Bishop, Elizabeth and The Editors of LIFE. Brazil. New York: Life World Library, Time Inc., 1962.

Travisano, Thomas with Saskia Hamilton. Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop & Robert Lowell. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008 

About the Author:

Angus Cleghorn is a professor of English and Liberal Studies at Seneca College in Toronto, Canada. He is editor of The Elizabeth Bishop Bulletin and co-editor (with Thomas Travisano and Bethany Hicok) of a book entitled Elizabeth Bishop in the 21st-Century, forthcoming from the University of Virginia Press in spring 2012. He has also written several essays on Wallace Stevens, and a book entitled Wallace Stevens’ Poetics: The Neglected Rhetoric published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2000.