(The following is a story written by Audrey Fischer for the March/April 2015 issue of the Library of Congress Magazine, LCM. You can read the issue in its entirety here.)
A romance that began at the Library of Congress in the 1930s led to the creation of a national poetry prize.
Several years before former president Lyndon Baines Johnson’s 1937 election to the U.S. House of Representatives from the state of Texas, his younger sister Rebekah was pursuing a Washington career of her own. While in graduate school, she worked in the cataloging department of the Library of Congress. Her co-worker, Oscar Price Bobbitt, had also come to Washington from Texas–on a train ticket bought by the sale of a cow. A romance blossomed between the two.
Speaking at the Library in 1998, their son, the author Philip C. Bobbitt, provided some background on his parents’ courtship, which culminated with their marriage in 1941.
“I discovered a cache of old index cards, apparently used as surreptitious notes passed by my parents to each other under the eyes of a superintendent who supposed, perhaps, that Mother was typing Dewey decimals. … On each was typed an excerpt from a poem. The long campaign by which my father moved from conspiratorial co-worker to confidant to suitor was partly played out in the indexing department of the Library.”
Following her death in 1978 at age 68, her husband and son decided to endow a memorial in her honor.
“Owing to the history I have described,” Bobbitt added, “the Library of Congress was suggested as a possible recipient of this memoriam.”
Thus, the Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry was established at the Library in 1988, and awarded biennially since 1990. The $10,000 prize recognizes the most distinguished book of poetry written by an American and published during the preceding two years, or the lifetime achievement of an American poet. Charles Wright, the current Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry, was awarded the Bobbitt Prize for lifetime achievement in 2008. Poet Patricia Smith recently received the 2014 Bobbitt Prize for her work, “Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah.” (She will receive the award and read selections from her work at the Library on April 6.)
“The Bobbitt family’s relation to the Library is a great love story and it is too good not to want to savor, commemorate and celebrate,” said Librarian of Congress James H. Billington.