A biographer's biographer: Marshall prepares for third visit to The Mount

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LENOX — Biographer Megan Marshall has devoted her career to examining how smart, ambitious women navigated societies that didn't welcome their aspirations. In 2005, she published her first book, "The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism," which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Biography or Autobiography the following year. In 2013, she published her second major work, "Margaret Fuller: A New American Life," which won the Pulitzer in 2014.

And earlier this year, she published her latest biography, "Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast," which explores the life of a highly regarded — and just plain guarded — New England poet who taught Marshall at Harvard University during the 1970s before dying in 1979. Marshall will discuss the book at The Mount's 25th summer lecture series opener on Monday, July 10, and in an encore appearance the next morning, a new addition this year after last year's traditional Monday afternoon slots sold out in approximately three hours, according to executive director Susan Wissler.

It will be Marshall's third time participating in the program, previously coming to Edith Wharton's Lenox home in 2006 and 2013. Wissler said Marshall's prowess goes beyond her writing.

"She's a great speaker, first and foremost," Wissler said during a telephone interview.

Wissler also cited Marshall's subject matter as a reason for her repeat invitations to Lenox; her biographies have been dedicated to major female figures in the New England literary scenes from bygone eras, just as The Mount is devoted to one.

"I think that the Mount's support for that kind of life's storytelling is really significant and important," Marshall said during a telephone interview.

Marshall's history in the Berkshires began when she was an undergraduate student at Bennington College. Before dropping out after two-and-a-half years at the Vermont school, Marshall would often travel down Route 7 to Lakeville, Conn., for harpsichord lessons, taking in the beautiful surroundings.

"Those stops along the road, to me, through Williamstown and Pittsfield and Stockbridge and Great Barrington were really laid down in my consciousness," she said before noting that her fear of driving a roommate's stick-shift car also cemented the journeys in her memory.

Marshall moved to Cambridge after leaving Bennington, ultimately finishing her degree at Harvard after a one-and-a-half year break. During that period, she enrolled as a special student in a poetry workshop with Robert Lowell in 1975, which eventually led to her meeting and being taught by Bishop.

"I always felt that the poetry workshops that I'd taken at Harvard taught me how to write, taught me how to pay attention to language and specific words and the rhythm of a sentence," Marshall said.

The classes also gave Marshall glimpses into the lives of extraordinary people, something she said later encouraged her to pursue a career as a biographer. At the end of one semester, Bishop invited Marshall and the rest of her students to her home on Boston's Lewis Wharf. They met her partner, Alice Methfessel, though she was not introduced as such. Bishop kept their relationship private.

"One of the things that she was known for was not going all the way the way that confessional poets did, not bearing her soul in explicit detail even though her poems are very full of feeling and are quite autobiographical," Marshall said.

Bishop's love for Methfessel and other secrets the poet suppressed are now illuminated by letters to her psychiatrist and lovers, which serve as the foundation for Bishop's book. They were unavailable until Methfessel's death in 2009.

"What I've been hearing from poets in general, and sometimes gay poets, [is] that it's just a liberation kind of [for] them vicariously to see Elizabeth Bishop as a full human being," Marshall said.

The book's other guiding force is Marshall's insertion of personal anecdotes.

"I wanted to keep the memoir aspect in it because I just felt it would be dishonest not to let the reader know that I had known her," she said.

While she said biographers have enjoyed the book because her personal narratives and lyrical style pushes the genre's conventions, Marshall is aware that breaking away from these standards may lead some readers to be skeptical.

"A risk of writing the way I do is that you get caught up in the story, and you kind of lose track of the fact that this really all was very well-researched, and I'm proud of that," she said. "I'm proud of writing in the way that I do, but I think sometimes people don't appreciate all that's gone into it. Every little detail comes from somewhere. It's not just made up the way a novel could be."

Ultimately, her colleagues' words will resonate the most.

"John Ashbery said Elizabeth Bishop was a poet's poet's poet," Marshall said, "and I think that I would like for this biography to be a biographer's biography."

IF YOU GO

WHAT: The Mount lecture series: "Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast" by Megan Marshall

WHEN: Monday, July 10, 4-6 p.m.; Tuesday, July 11, 11 a.m.-1 p.m.

WHERE: The Stable at The Mount, 2 Plunkett St., Lenox

TICKETS: Monday is sold out; Tuesday tickets are still available (as of July 5) for $30 ($25 for Mount members)

INFORMATION: 413-551-5100; edithwharton.org


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