A Little Known Collection and a Famous Poet!

Elizabeth Bishop at Camp Chequesset, Cape Cod

(Written by Richard Larimer, student intern)

In our archives we have several personal, archival collections related to the Wylie Family. One particularly unique collection is a box of letters from Elizabeth Bishop, the famous poet and writer, to Louise Bradley. Louise Bradley (1908-1979) was the great-granddaughter of Theophilus and Rebecca Wylie. Louise grew up and lived a majority of her life in Arlington, Massachusetts. As she got older she briefly attended Indiana University before transferring to Radcliffe College. Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) was a prominent poet and author of short stories. Her career is marked with many prestigious awards such as the Pulitzer Prize of Poetry and the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. She even served as the Poet Laureate, was a professor at Harvard, and was close friends with famous writers like Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell. For an individual who seems to have had so much success, Elizabeth’s life was plagued with tragedy. At a young age her father died and her mother, suffering from mental illness, was committed to an asylum. With no parents, she was raised by a succession of family members and at one point was molested by her uncle. Throughout the rest of her life she experienced loss, alcoholism, and depression.

Elizabeth and Louise first met in the mid 1920’s at a summer camp in Massachusetts. Their friendship would last for many years; the collection’s letters date from 1925, right after the two girls first met, to 1950. This collection shows fascinating insight into the mind of a young Elizabeth Bishop and spans the course of many events including Louise’s time at IU to which Bishop writes, “I know you can’t ever enjoy yourself there, but I hope you don’t mind it so much. (Dec. 5, 1926)” and, “Someday the whole of Indiana U. may blow up. If so you will know that it is only me taking my revenge on it for hurting you (Nov 26, 1926)”.

It is clear from Elizabeth’s writing that the two girls grew very close. Often Elizabeth wrote Louise to share poetry and fantasize of a future where they ran away together. “Louise—is it right for a young woman to trail off to the ends of the earth—Norway—India—alone? And live in strange places and do strange things—or two young women. You come with me. When my — — — education is finished. Lets. And then retire to Ireland and raise bees and live by the ocean in a stone cottage and write poetry for a living. Oh!! Will you! I have given up caring what people think about me…(August 29, 1926)”.  It is well known that Elizabeth was a lesbian and throughout her young life crushed on the girls close to her. It is not entirely unlikely that Elizabeth viewed Louise in a romantic way. Because there are no letters from Louise, and Elizabeth never explicitly admits any romantic feelings for her, we cannot be certain. This does however raise a question: how can the Wylie House, or museums in general, do a better job of interpreting the histories of LGBTQ figures? It can be difficult as their stories are sometimes not told, but it is a topic we hope to explore more in the near future.

In honor of National Poetry Month here is one of Elizabeth’s early poems that she sent to Louise. It was written in March of 1926. To our knowledge this poem, and many of the other poems within this collection, were never published.
The night’s fingers tapped on the window
And beckoned me out to the darkness,
To sing in the splotches of star-dust,
To dance in the intricate shadows
But ah! She has darkly betrayed me,
I am caught in a spell of her brewing.
I can never return for she bound me
By a witchery the moon leaned to tell her.
The cold moon has turned to my mother
And the wind is a brother beside me.
I am part of the earth and the blackness
Until the gray dawn of the morning.

Louise Bradley at Camp Chequesset, Cape Cod

Louise Bradley and Elizabeth Bishop Correspondence, 1925-1950


African-American History Month at Wylie House

In honor of African-American History Month, Wylie House is pleased to feature two notable African-Americans who made history in Bloomington, Indiana and lived with the Theophilus A. Wylie family in the last half of the 19th century.

Lizzie Breckenridge

Elizabeth “Lizzie” Breckenridge was an African-American woman born in Bedford, Indiana on July 5, 1843. In 1856, the Theophilus A. Wylie family employed Lizzie at the age of 13 as their domestic servant, where she stayed for nearly 45 years.

While living with the TA Wylie family, Lizzie learned to read and write. She developed a rich taste in literature and took special interest in astronomy. Lizzie never married, but she eventually saved enough money to purchase her own home, an important accomplishment for an African-American woman in her day. Lizzie’s home was located on S. Washington Street.

We know from an article published in the Indianapolis News in 1903 that Lizzie attended the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Bloomington, the same church attended by the Wylie family. This article, found on Page 7 of the newspaper, provides background information about Lizzie’s family.

Covenanter Presbyterians who left southern states in favor of Indiana’s position against the practice of slavery formed the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Bloomington. The church was originally located on land adjacent to the Covenanter Cemetery, where Lizzie is buried. She passed away on September 25, 1910 at the age of 67.

Harvey Young

Harvey Young came to Bloomington from Indianapolis in 1882 to enroll at Indiana University and was the first African-American to do so. Theophilus A Wylie, in a journal entry dated August 20, 1882 wrote, “Harvey Young, graduate of Indiana High School came last Thursday intending to enter the Freshman class. He is well recommended has a good appearance – Intelligent & neat – will be a pioneer colored student in the College – Hope he will do well –”. Harvey Young boarded with the Wylie family for at least his first semester in 1883.

We know from a journal entry that on at least one occasion Harvey attended church with the Wylie family. In another entry dated November 11, 1883 Theophilus writes, ““Friday night Athenian Society had the opening of its new Hall. Harvey Young (Aithiops) one of the speakers. – Such a thing would not have been tolerated 25 yrs ago. – The world moves. –”  Note: Aethiops – antiquated term used to denote the dark complexion of an individual from Ethiopia.

Harvey did not graduate from Indiana University, but rather returned to Indianapolis after three semesters to become a public school teacher in the Indianapolis Public School system. We know from articles published in the Indianapolis News that Harvey taught at IPS schools #19, #23, and #24 from 1885 to 1895. Census records were unable to determine his whereabouts following 1895.

The Underground Railroad and Wylie House

Visitors to Wylie House sometimes ask if the home was part of the Underground Railroad. We cannot verify that it was, but accounts from older local area residents lend support to the idea that it could have been.

According to VisitBloomington.com, “The Covenanters, a group of Scotch-Irish Presbyterians from South Carolina, had settled just outside Bloomington by 1821.  Believing that slavery was a moral evil, the Covenanters acted on their principles and during the Civil War provided a way station for escaped slaves traveling north on the Underground Railroad.” Both Andrew and Theophilus A. Wylie were active members of the Bloomington Reformed Presbyterian Church, so it is reasonable to believe they also held these views.

An article published in the September 1917 issue of Indiana Magazine of History entitled, “The Underground Railroad in Monroe County” identifies local individuals, church members, and contemporaries of the Wylies who are believed to have been active participants in the Underground Railroad.

Additional Resources:

Wylie House is happy to assist with reference requests. Please contact us at libwylie.indiana.edu.

Quick Links:

IU Archives Online

Monroe County Historical Society

Monroe County Public Library

National Archives Census Records

Indiana Newspaper Online Archive

Indianapolis News Online Archive