Thomas TravisanoProfessor of English
Thomas Travisano’s face lights up at the mention of Elizabeth Bishop, and with good reason. The Hartwick Professor of English has been studying the poet’s work since before she was the subject of the doctoral dissertation he completed in 1981. Since then, he’s published extensively on Bishop and further explored her relationship with close friend and artistic peer Robert Lowell.
In April 2013, Travisano became the first Hartwick faculty member to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship. Recommended by his peers, Travisano was selected from among 3,000 applicants to receive the prestigious award.
Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, an edition of more than 800 pages published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux for which Travisano served as principal editor, received glowing reviews from such publications as The New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, The New Republic, The Wall Street Journal, O (Oprah) Magazine and The Boston Globe, among others. The Washington Post named the book to its Best of 2008 list, as did UK papers The Guardian and The Spectator. In addition, Travisano's book was the subject of a lengthy segment on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered: Weekend Edition." (Visit this page for a collection of reviews, raves, and links.)
John Leonard introduces the poets in his Harper’s review of Words in Air with this observation:
"Helplessly lyrical till death did them part, Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell wrote so many wonderful letters and postcards to each other from 1947 through 1977 that it’s amazing they ever found the time to publish their poetry."
Travisano, whose other Bishop-related works include "Elizabeth Bishop: Her Artistic Development’’ and "Mid-Century Quartet: Bishop, Lowell, Jarrell, Berryman and the Making of a Postmodern Aesthetic,’’ is co-founder and first president of the Elizabeth Bishop Society.
On sabbatical during the fall of 2008, he continued work on the third volume of "The New Anthology of American Poetry,’’ published by Rutgers University Press. At Hartwick, he teaches modern and contemporary American literature.
Bishop and Lowell are widely considered to be among the greatest American poets of the latter half of the 20th century. Some of the letters between these close friends have appeared in previously published volumes, but more than 300 of the 459 letters in Words in Air are new.
“Their correspondence has already been discussed in some detail,” Travisano explained. “People know it’s coming, but they may not realize how good it is yet.” The connection between the two began in 1947, when they were introduced by a mutual friend. Bishop and Lowell were New Englanders with complicated childhoods, and what may have begun as a mutual attraction quickly blossomed into a deep and abiding personal and professional admiration.
“Lowell was extremely handsome and six years younger than Bishop, but Bishop was also gay, and that made things a little complicated,” Travisano said. “A lot of their friends thought they were going to get married, but that didn’t happen. Both of them needed someone to support and take care of them, and neither could be that for the other person.”
Indeed, this broad book was nearly a decade in the making. Travisano and a slew of Hartwick students worked for years to accurately transcribe and order each of the letters, and the book is extensively annotated. Travisano describes the resulting volume as an “enormously entertaining” collection.
As work began on the book, Travisano sought out particularly engaged Hartwick sophomores to transcribe the letters, since this would give them time to learn and develop in their work. Working in tandem–with one student transcribing Lowell, the other Bishop–allowed them to become familiar with the often obscure or illegible handwriting of the authors, and to become familiar with their style and tone over consecutive years of work. This sort of intimate relationship with great literary figures is a key example of undergraduate scholarship unique to Hartwick College.
“This is the sort of work that graduate students would usually do,” Travisano noted. “But because we’re at Hartwick, these undergrads had the opportunity to do this work. Some of them have gone on to jobs in editing and publishing, and I think this experience was valuable for them.”
“Working with Dr. Travisano was a great experience for me,” said Robert “Zach” Sanzone ’04, who now teaches 10th grade English at Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, VA. “I learned much about publishing, using primary and secondary sources and incorporating them into my own research, and the challenges that come with marketing a book when it's ready for publication. More importantly though, Dr. Travisano taught me a lot about how to use primary and secondary material in the classroom and teach it in a way that can motivate my own students to connect to it.”