Bishop, John Peale

Bishop, John Peale '17 (1892-1944) who is remembered mainly as a friend of Scott Fitzgerald '17 and Edmund Wilson '16 deserves to be better known for his own contribution to American letters.

Having postponed entering college for three years because of illness, he was twenty-one when he came to Princeton from Charles Town, West Virginia. Dean Gauss, who came to know him from his classes in French and Italian literature as well as from Bishop's work on the Nassau Lit, said that he came with ``a more carefully thought out and more accomplished mastery of the technique of English verse'' than any other undergraduate in the talented group then writing for the Lit.

Scott Fitzgerald was drawn to the Lit group by his great admiration for Bishop, who became the model for Tom D'Invilliers, the patrician poet in This Side of Paradise. ``John looked the poet he was,'' Dean Gauss wrote. ``There was an air of distinction about all that he did. . . . Even as a freshman, he had a self-possession and a selfmastery which gave him the poise and bearing of a young English lord. Scott's unruly Irish temperament, his irresistible love of glamour made these aristocratic qualities something he would forever envy but never acquire and I feel confident they suggested that Burke's Peerage type of name, D'Invilliers, which he gave John in the novel.''

Edmund Wilson also greatly admired Bishop; he was later to call him the most distinguished poet ever graduated from Princeton. Bishop succeeded Wilson as managing editor of the Lit, and later, on their return from the war in France, brought out with him a collection of their verse and prose, The Undertaker's Garland.

In later life Bishop wrote poems for his two Princeton contemporaries, ``No More the Senator,'' an exhortation to a friend (Edmund Wilson) to give up serious political activity and to withdraw into private virtue, and ``The Hours,'' an elegy on Scott Fitzgerald.

Over a period of twenty-four years he published four books of poetry, a volume of short stories, a novel, and many critical essays, besides serving on the staff of Paramount Pictures, as managing editor of Vanity Fair, and as poetry reviewer for the Nation.

Professor Joseph N. Frank, who wrote two essays on Bishop's work, said that he was ``that rare thing in American literature, a . . . writer who, though incapable of supreme creative achievement, keeps alive a sense for the highest values.''

``It is this type of writer [Professor Frank declared] whom the French delight to honor, recognizing their importance for the continuance of a vital cultural tradition. . . . Bishop, it would appear, was quite conscious of the role his type of writer could play in American life. Asking what the example of France could mean for America, he answered, `It means that we must find a way to reconcile our own past with the vast past of Western civilization.' Perhaps the greatest praise we can give John Peale Bishop is to say that in his own devotion to the values of art, he helped American literature take a step forward in achieving that reconciliation.''

In 1948 Wilson edited Bishop's collected essays, and in the same year, Allen Tate, another close friend, edited, with a preface and personal memoir, his collected poems.


From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (1978).

Go to Search A Princeton Companion