Megan Marshall and the Art of Biography
Updated: Jun 4
As a biographer Megan Marshall plays very close to the vest. She doles out her subject in single words or phrases, holds stories out of chronological order so she can insert them when they blossom into importance and by the end of the biography I feel I have a wikipedia sketch of the subject. Other biographers—Hermione Lee, Heather Clark—open a subject up, so that by the end of the book I feel I’ve walked hand in hand with the subject and with the biographer as she unveils the inner workings and evolution of this person we’ve both come to love.
By page 99 of Marshall’s biography of Elizabeth Bishop, Elizabeth is already almost 40 years old. And that’s with several chapters of Marshall’s memoirs interspersed. I don’t begrudge Marshall her memoir—those stories of Marshall’s life are actually where the juice is in this biography—but I do wish to be given a deeper sense of Elizabeth Bishop. She was a shy yet adventurous, gifted, alcoholic lesbian poet with the good fortune to find the mentors and earn the prize money that would support her craft. (With Jupiter in her 6th house, the presence in her life of gifted mentors is one of Bishop’s gifts from the gods.) There is rich material for an interested biographer and reader.
Marshall tells us that “Turning thirty alone in Key West in February 1941, Elizabeth was convinced she’d accomplished ‘nothing.’” Why bother even putting ‘nothing’ in quotation marks? The end notes cite the source as Elizabeth Bishop’s notebooks. Even if Elizabeth only scrawled “I’ve accomplished nothing” under the date February 8, 1941, tell us that. Give us the feel of Elizabeth’s dissatisfaction as she turns thirty.
Bishop spent 6 months in Mexico, staying briefly with Pablo Neruda and his second wife in Cuernavaca. This six month period is one lengthy paragraph that tells us more about Pablo Neruda than about Bishop and concludes with the information that Elizabeth couldn’t write in Mexico any better than in Key West. Six months of a poet’s life spent in Mexico, some of that time with another poet, in the place where Audre Lorde would later live briefly in a colony of American lesbians is rendered in only a paragraph.
I often marvel, in reading biographies, at how the author decides to organize the information she shares. Life isn’t linear and the seeds of a poem or a relationship are often sown while we are doing other things. Hermione Lee solves this in her biography of Penelope Fitzgerald by discussing Fitzgerald’s books in the chronological setting that inspired them. So Offshore is discussed at the time when Penelope Fitzgerald was living with her children on a boat on the Thames, even though it was written years later. The discussion of the book fleshes out our understanding of Fitzgerald’s experience at that time in her life.
Heather Clark deals with this by repeating bits of information to jog our memories or by nudging us when we need to take particular notice. A person who appears initially as a minor character in Sylvia Plath’s life will often be accompanied by a foreshadowing hint of their future importance so we know to pay attention.
Megan Marshall seems to choose a less effective presentation. In the early pages of the book, we’re left to imagine that Bishop’s mother’s mental illness and eventual institutionalization must have been traumatic. And then 100 pages later we are told, briefly, about Bishop’s sestina, originally called “Early Sorrow,” in which she describes this experience. But what may have been cathartic for Bishop, loses its ability to compel the reader. We needed to glimpse the emotion much earlier if we were to feel like anything other than a distant onlooker in Bishop’s life.
Most unforgivably to me, having just read Heather Clark’s extremely thorough and wonderful biography of Sylvia Plath, is this line. “Elizabeth Bishop was not a big name like those men [Ocavio Paz, Seamus Heaney and Robert Lowell], and not an outspoken feminist like Adrienne Rich or May Swenson—icons on campus revered by students beyond the English department. Nor was she a histrionic beauty like Sylvia Plath or Anne Sexton.” I respond to that with a disapproving Marge Simpson Hhmmmm.
Nevertheless, I was glad to learn more about Elizabeth Bishop. Every now and then Marshall shares an episode or journal entry that takes us to the heart of Bishop’s hope and vulnerability, as when Bishop writes in her travel journal on the eve of her first visit to Brazil
that the steamship will support me on the water,
& that the aeroplane will conduct me over the mountain,
that perhaps I shall not die of cancer,
or in the poorhouse,
that eventually I shall see things in a ‘better light,’
that I shall continue to read and continue to write,
that I shall continue to laugh until I cry with a certain few friends,
that love will unexpectedly appear over & over again,
that people will continue to do kind deeds that astound me.”
And where Megan Marshall excels is at endings. As with her biography of Margaret Fuller, the final 30 pages or so of this book on Elizabeth Bishop are compelling, poignant and beautiful. And the final chapter, Marshall’s description of how she came to write the memoir, brings everything full circle. My regret is that, while Marshall tells us that reading through Elizabeth Bishop's archives “brought tears,” she waits until the last 30 pages of the book to do the same for us.