- Finding Bliss at McFarlin: The Papers of Eliot Bliss
I had been studying and teaching English literature for years but had never heard of a writer named Eliot Bliss (1903–1990) until one hot July afternoon in 1998, while in New York City on sabbatical from my position at the University of Trieste. Sitting on the floor of a dusty second-hand book store on Fourth Street, I came across a book, Saraband (1931), which carried on the dust jacket a brief quote from the book: “There was a long mirror in the room, and she went to it. Stood in front of it. And very slowly she saw her soul emerge out of the flesh. Smiling; more so. A truer edition of herself. A light, intensely delicate thing.”1 I went on reading the dust cover information and found that the writer, Eliot Bliss, had been born in Jamaica and been a good friend of Jean Rhys (a writer on whom I was planning to write an article), Anna Wickham, and Dorothy Richardson. Wickham was a talented British poet, also known for the tragic loss of one of her sons during World War II and for her connection with the modernist literary circle headed by feminist activist Natalie Clifford Barney. Richardson was an influential and admired writer who used to surround herself with young promising writers.
The description of the book created the impression that it was a bildungsroman, which was not exactly what I was interested in at the time. Also, I usually do not go for sentimental, romantic novels. But there was something in it that intrigued me. I opened the book, turned to the first page and found myself immediately in modernist territory. Following the style of the best modernist authors I had been working on, the first paragraphs lead the reader into the story without traditional exposition and without making clear who is talking or what the story is about:
All along the road from the river the frost made patterns on the ground, and how beautifully the air smelt . . . The sharp air hung over one’s head like the blade of a knife, she imagined it saying “Behold, you shall be cold, behold, you shall be cold . . .” Winter had a most exciting smell, it made one think of people whom one knew and yet had never met, places where at some time or other one felt sure one must have lived and yet could not remember.(p. 5; ellipses original) [End Page 411]
So how was it possible that after studying modernist authors most of my academic life, I had never come across Eliot Bliss? Where had she been hiding? And so began my search for Bliss, a journey that would be full of unexpected findings.
I thought it would be easy to find references about an author who had lived in the middle of the most exciting literary period of the twentieth century (I was wrong). I wondered whether she knew Natalie Clifford Barney or Vita Sackville-West or Virginia Woolf, writers who populated the London scene in those years (she did).
At the time of my first encounter with Bliss’s work, I could not find any mention of her name at the New York University Library nor in the Modern Language Association bibliography, not even on the Internet nor in the Encyclopedia Britannica. Today researching is a bit different; you just google the name of Eliot Bliss and something is certain to come up, but back then I had no luck. I consulted with a discussion group of book lovers and librarians, the Book People mailing list, which was at the time the best source of information regarding books. I had been a member of the list for quite some time and enjoyed its members’ vast knowledge of and love for books, either printed or digital, and especially its moderator, the invaluable John Mark Ockerbloom. Sadly, the list closed in 2007, ten years after its creation. It was striking to me that in spite of the vast collective expertise of its members, nobody had heard of Bliss. I decided to write to some librarian friends all over...