“The art of losing isn’t hard to master,” begins Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “One Art,” followed by a recounting of her losses, which include “three loved houses.”
Now Key West Literary Seminar, a literature nonprofit that has championed the writer’s work, is paying $1.2 million for the first of those houses, which she lived in for nearly a decade. It plans to use the Key West house as its headquarters.
Arlo Haskell, the nonprofit’s executive director, called Bishop, who died in 1979, its “guiding spirit.” The organization devoted its 1993 seminar entirely to her writing, and more recently it has incorporated her letters, poems and photographs into its programming for young people.
Bishop bought the house, located at 624 White Street, when she moved to Key West in 1938. It has been privately owned since she sold it in 1946, and subsequently became a registered national literary landmark.
Bishop is one of many American writers associated with Key West, Florida’s southernmost island. The playwright Tennessee Williams and the novelist Ernest Hemingway, whose former home is now a museum, famously lived there. Ann Beattie, Joy Williams and Judy Blume, who runs a bookstore in the city, live there now.
The opportunity to promote Bishop’s work, Haskell said, in part feels like a “feminist response to all the Hemingway energy that goes on here.”
Bishop, who was born in Worcester, Mass., in 1911, was deeply influenced by her time in Key West and by the house itself, said Thomas Travisano, whose biography of the poet, “Love Unknown: The Life and Worlds of Elizabeth Bishop,” was published by Viking this month.
Bishop was raised by different family members after her father died when she was an infant and her mother was put in a mental institution when Bishop was only 5. Travisano called her early poems “fables of enclosure,” based on her somewhat isolated upbringing.
Those poems rarely mentioned the natural world directly, but that changed after she moved to Florida, he said.
“You suddenly have the natural world, and birds are clowning around, and you’ve got the sun and the sea and the sky,” Travisano said. “That quality carried over into all of her later work.” It was there that Bishop wrote most of her first poetry collection, “North and South,” which came out in 1946.
Bishop liked living near the ocean, a change of scenery from her upbringing in New England and Nova Scotia, where her mother’s family was from. She liked the night life and the pace of the city, Travisano said.
He added that it was also significant for Bishop to finally have a house of her own after a childhood of illness and abuse. “This was the first place that she had a home,” he said. Bishop later moved to Brazil and then back to Massachusetts, where she lived until her death at 68.
There have not been major renovations to the Florida house since Bishop sold it, Haskell said, so even in its current state, “you can see the history right away.”
But the organization plans to restore the house to the one Bishop knew, helped in part by her detailed letters, where she describes the house down to the color of the shutters and the number and types of trees in her yard. Key West Literary Seminar has commissioned a report that will excavate the house’s history, focusing on the time when Bishop lived there.
The house was constructed in 1886 in the “eyebrow” style typical of Key West, with the roof line extending to shade the second-floor windows. It has built-in bookshelves and a screened porch that were installed by Bishop. The upstairs bathroom still has the tub Bishop used, and the organization intends to honor the original floor plan.
“When you walk in,” Haskell said, “you’ll see that this is the house that Bishop loved.”
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