John Peale Bishop 1892-1944
American poet, short story writer, novelist, critic, essayist, and editor.
Bishop's literary reputation rests upon a small body of sparse and painstakingly crafted poems, as well as his short stories “Resurrection” (1922) and “Many Thousands Gone” (1931), and his novel Act of Darkness (1935). These works readily reveal Bishop's influences: Archibald MacLeish in his poetry and William Faulkner in his fiction. Despite the seemingly derived style of much of his body of work, Bishop is admired for his depictions of romantic and sexual love in his poetry, and his renderings of sexual and spiritual awakening in his fiction. A Princeton classmate of Edmund Wilson and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Bishop probably is remembered most as a friend of these men, as well as a longtime friend of writers Allen Tate and MacLeish.
Bishop was born in what is now Charles Town, West Virgina, into an affluent and cultured family. His father was a doctor who taught his son how to paint, beginning Bishop's lifelong affinity with the visual arts. Bishop's literary talents were also encouraged. When his father died, Bishop was ten years old, and he believed this event and his mother's eventual remarriage to have precipitated a long bout of illness that caused him to miss two years of school. He attended Washington County High School in Hagerstown, Maryland, for four years, and attended Mercersburg Academy, a preparatory school, before enrolling at Princeton in 1913. Having already published his first poem in Harper's Weekly in 1912, Bishop immediately immersed himself in the school's literary milieu as a contributor to and later editor of the school's Nassau Literary Magazine. At Princeton, he met Edmund Wilson and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who fictionalized Bishop as Thomas Parke D'Invilliers, the poet character in his novels This Side of Paradise and The Great Gatsby. Bishop continued to publish his poetry, winning many undergraduate awards for his efforts. Many of these works appeared in his inaugural volume of verse, Green Fruit (1917). Graduating in 1917, Bishop enlisted as a lieutenant in the infantry during World War I. He traveled to France, but did not engage in battle. Instead he served as an escort for prisoners-of-war and, later, worked on the disinterment and reburial of American soldiers. This last experience served as inspiration for the graphic short story “Resurrection,” considered among his finest pieces of fiction. Following his military service, Bishop accepted a staff position at Vanity Fair, where he became managing editor. During this period, he collaborated on The Undertaker's Garland (1922) with Edmund Wilson, a collection of short stories and poems that presented sardonic accounts of death. Bishop married in 1922 and moved with his wife to Europe, where he met and became close friends with MacLeish. In 1924, the Bishops returned to New York. He worked at Paramount Pictures during this time and continued work on his unfinished and unpublished novel, The Huntsmen Are up in America, an endeavor that he eventually abandoned when his publisher lost interest. Bishop and his wife moved back to France, purchased a chateau outside Paris, and lived in near-seclusion. Later, Bishop and his wife moved back to the United States, lived for awhile in his father's native state of Connecticut, spent a year in New Orleans, then built a house, Sea Change, on Cape Cod. In 1940, Bishop became chief poetry editor for the Nation magazine. MacLeish arranged for U. S. government appointments for his friend, including Director of Publications of the Bureau of Cultural Relations of the Council of National Defense and Resident Fellow in Comparative Literature at the Library of Congress during World War II, but Bishop had to abandon both posts because of his failing health. He suffered a heart attack in 1944, and died two weeks later.
Bishop wrote much of his most mature work while residing in France. The poems collected in Now with His Love (1933) are romantic and erotic odes to his wife that display the influence of MacLeish, Ezra Pound, and T. S. Eliot. Minute Particulars (1935), another collection of poems, contains such critically admired pieces as “Southern Pines,” “An Interlude,” and “A Frieze.” Before he died, Bishop published his Selected Poems (1941), which was expanded by Allen Tate for the posthumous The Collected Poems of John Peale Bishop (1948). Many Thousands Gone (1931), often considered Bishop's most successful fiction, is a cycle of stories set in a fictional Southern town that inspired critical comparisons to Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County. His autobiographical novel, Act of Darkness, contains many passages admired by critics, but many commentators considered the work's shifting narrative perspectives unstructured and undisciplined. Much of Bishop's nonfiction is contained the posthumous collection The Collected Essays of John Peale Bishop (1948), edited by Edmund White, and The Republic of Letters in America: The Correspondence of John Peale Bishop and Allen Tate (1981).