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  • The Imperial Eyes of the Outsider:Elizabeth Bishop, American Globalization, and the Cold War in Brazil
  • Eric Strand

Always highly respected and honored, Elizabeth Bishop has undergone a posthumous sea change in her reputation: displacing Robert Lowell as America's representative midcentury poet, she has become one of the most revered writers of the modern era. This has involved a reevaluation of her social consciousness, stimulated by Adrienne Rich's "The Eye of the Outsider," which argued that "the essential outsiderhood of a lesbian identity … enable[d] Bishop to perceive other kinds of outsiders and to identify, or try to identify, with them."1 Instead of seeing her as reticent or apolitical, critics now emphasize Bishop's differential gender and sexual identity, which made her not only sympathetic to lower classes and racial others but also a radical social critic. This political approach has been stimulated by the advent of the "New Elizabeth Bishop," which began with the publication of One Art: Letters (1994) and gained critical mass with Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box (2006) and the volumes of prose, poems, and letters that have followed.2 Scholars now draw on a hugely expanded oeuvre to argue that Bishop was a critic of midcentury American consumerism whose thought anticipates the Marxist theory of Fredric Jameson's Postmodernism (1991); that her letters from Brazil constitute an "epistolary citizenship" that "refuses … hegemonic discourse" by "contrasting the inaccuracies of newspaper reportage with the truth of personal witness"; and that the original draft of her book Brazil reveals that her "imperial social critique" was "too harsh" for Life World Library's editors, who "co-opted [her] into an American ethnocentric project full of mid-century sales pitches."3 Even Bethany Hicok's richly detailed Elizabeth Bishop's Brazil, which grants that Bishop could be racist in her representation of minorities, argues that she strenuously critiqued "authoritarian political systems" in Brazil while also making an "anti-imperialist critique of corporate America."4

Focusing on work from the 1950s and '60s, this essay argues that critics have overlooked the way Bishop participated in American globalization precisely as a lesbian writer.5 We tend to persist in reading [End Page 1057] her as a poet of personal trauma—at most, complicit in structures of oppression, but not enabled by them. However, if Bishop's famous villanelle "One Art" can be read not just as her elegy for a lost lover, but, as Brett C. Millier suggests, "Bishop's elegy for her whole life," the poem reveals the mobility and socioeconomic privilege that informed her life and work:

    And look! my last, ornext-to-last, of three loved houses went.The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.6

In relation to the majority of Brazilians of the time, the lines highlight exceptional privileges, ones that go well beyond Bishop's relationship with the aristocrat Lota de Macedo Soares: the ownership of a colonial-era home in Ouro Prêto; travel by car, boat, and airplane; and perhaps most of all, the capacity to represent the country to the U.S.A., as she did in poems, letters, a major article for the New York Times Magazine, and Brazil. "One Art" thus raises the question of whether Bishop's figurative ownership of "realms" and "a continent" can be criticized in the same terms as male travelers' representations—arguably a source of anxiety in Mary Louise Pratt's seminal Imperial Eyes (1992), which covers a very broad swath of travel writing and has trouble maintaining a distinction between the sovereign male traveler and the prerogatives of female travelers, especially where postwar American narratives are concerned.

I begin the essay by analyzing Bishop's memoirs and nonfiction from the 1950s, arguing that they function as accounts of the liberation offered by postwar expatriation. Bishop bravely resisted the norms of what Alan Nadel has termed Cold War "containment culture" and constructed her own transnational feminist literary network, yet paradoxically this project was enabled by American globalization.7 The next two sections attempt to...


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