Top of page

Head and shoulders portrait of woman smiling, background with lights, blurred.
Mary Oliver, photo by Molly Malone Cook, c. 1965. Box 19, Mary Oliver Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. © NW Orchard LLC with permission by Bill Reichblum.

Poet of the Natural World: Mary Oliver Papers Newly Available in the Manuscript Division

Share this post:

This is a guest blog by Barbara Bair, historian of Literature, Culture, and the Arts in the Manuscript Division

In honor of Pride Month, the recently acquired personal papers of best-selling Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, essayist, literary critic, and teacher Mary Oliver (1935-2019) are now open to researchers in the Library of Congress Manuscript Division. The Mary Oliver Papers include some 40,000 items in more than 118 containers, dating primarily from 1934 to 2019. The collection documents Oliver’s creative life, friendships, and professional writing and academic careers. It includes correspondence, prose writings, poetry, notebooks, teaching materials, drafts, photographs, interviews, and speeches representative of Oliver’s love of nature, birds, and the seaside.

One sheet of paper with two columns listing handwritten names of birds, numbered 1-40. Headed 1991.
Mary Oliver, bird sighting list, 1991. Box 28, Mary Oliver Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. © NW Orchard LLC with permission by Bill Reichblum.

The Mary Oliver Papers were received by the Library in December 2023 as a generous gift of Amalie Moses Reichblum and Bill Reichblum, NW Orchard LLC. The Reichblums, who are members of the Library’s James Madison Council, were close friends of Oliver and executors of her estate. In addition to the archival collection, they established the Mary Oliver Memorial Event Fund for Emerging Poets at the Library, in keeping with wishes expressed by Oliver. A public inaugural poetry reading and interview sponsored by the fund was facilitated by U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limón at the Library in April. The Mary Oliver Papers were processed in the Manuscript Division in spring 2024 by archivist Elizabeth Livesey with the assistance of archives technicians Shandra Morehouse and Tammi Taylor.

Prominent in this newly available collection are materials pertaining to Oliver’s creative process and the publication of her work. Also represented is her life in the artist and LGBTQ+ communities of Provincetown, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod, and her personal and professional relationship with her longtime partner, the photographer and bookstore owner Molly Malone Cook (1925-2005). Cook served as manager of Oliver’s literary career and public appearances. As a member of the Provincetown community, she promoted photography as a fine art and maintained a friendship network that included filmmaker John Waters and other local writers, artists, and photographers. Oliver praised Cook as her best and most discerning reader. She dedicated her book Long Life (2004) to Cook, and their book, Our World, features photographs by Cook and text by Oliver.

Two women holding paper cartons of popcorn, outdoors, in front of a shingled building, passersby in the background.
Molly Malone Cook and Mary Oliver eating popcorn, c. 1968. Box 27, Mary Oliver Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. © NW Orchard LLC with permission by Bill Reichblum.

Photographs of Oliver by Cook taken in Provincetown, as well as snapshots of their life together, including their dogs and home, are available in the collection, as is a 1995 issue of Provincetown Arts featuring a photograph of Oliver on the cover taken by her friend Barbara Savage Cheresh. That issue of the magazine includes a few Oliver poems and an article on her importance as a nature poet by fellow poet and Walt Whitman aficionado Mark Doty.

Oliver’s papers reveal her to be a witty and expressive letter writer. Correspondence with friends, such as dancer and potter Paulus Berensohn (1933-2017) demonstrate her closeness to those who shared her love of walking in nature, and her feelings about meadows, marshes, woodlands, and waterways, and the herons, hawks, insects, and animals who inhabited them. Like Walt Whitman, whose personal papers are also held in the Manuscript Division, and whom Oliver memorialized along with Wordsworth and Emerson as key influences in her essays, Oliver carried small pocket notebooks with her as she went about her days. She used them to jot down trial lines of poetry and descriptions of the world around her. In one notebook, created during her time teaching at Sweet Briar College in Virginia in 1991, she described the sight of brown bats flying over the quad at night. In her poem “The Morning Walk,” published in Long Life, she writes of thankfulness expressed in the peewee’s whistle, the twisting of the snake, or by the beaver who slaps his tail on the water of a pond—or by a person (such as herself) who may reach out to embrace the oak tree, or take out a notebook to record what was being observed.

Sheet of paper headed "statement of plan," typed statement with square of newspring glued on.
Mary Oliver, statement of plans, Guggenheim Fellowship application, 1979. Box 2, Mary Oliver Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. © NW Orchard LLC with permission by Bill Reichblum.

An application for a Guggenheim fellowship, meanwhile, reveals Oliver’s uneasiness at being pegged only as a nature poet, when in fact she was interested in many things, including democracy in the United States and the regional variety of its people. When awarded the fellowship, she used it to work on her poetry collection, American Primitive, for which she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1984.

Spirituality and eco-consciousness are also important parts of Oliver’s orientation to living reflected in the collection. She kept a copy of the poems of the Persian poet Rumi on her writing desk. An Anglican, she also kept a Book of Common Prayer nearby and pasted times for daily prayer on her typewriter. She emblazoned the typewriter with a bold message to her writer-self, positioned just above the keyboard, that read simply “COURAGE.” In trial lines jotted in her notebooks and in her published poems, she posited that every tree, every bush, and every flower is a reason to expound, and that the gladness she felt in response to the natural world is its own form of prayer. She continued to support the importance of environmental sustainability and stewardship after moving to Florida late in her life.

Image of a poster, reading at left: "Rachel Carson Distinguished Lecture" a yellow half circle, a bird, grasses, information about Oliver's poetry reading.
Center for Environmental Sustainability Education poster, Mary Oliver poetry reading, Sanibel Island, Florida, February 2013. OV 4, Mary Oliver Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

On June 14, 2024, United States Poet Laureate Ada Limón dedicated a tribute to a Mary Oliver poem titled “Can You Imagine” at the Cape Cod National Seashore, Massachusetts. The event inaugurated her “You are Here: Poetry in the Parks” site-specific poetry installation initiative focused on poetry of the natural world, cosponsored by the National Park Service  and the Poetry Society of America.

Photograph of an electric typewriter, printed sign with Courage in caps taped above the keyboard.
Mary Oliver’s typewriter with note “COURAGE.” Mary Oliver Papers, OV 7, Mary Oliver Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

As Mark Doty observed in his Provincetown Arts article, Mary Oliver teaches us that “the created world is something to cherish” and the central part of her “art is … to return us to wonder.”

Do you want more stories like this? Then subscribe to Unfolding History – it’s free!

“The created world,” Mark Doty, “Natural Science: In Praise of Mary Oliver,” Provincetown Arts 11 (1995), 27.

Comments

  1. I am thrilled that Mary Oliver’s collection will be available at the Library. Many, many thanks to the Reichblums and to everyone at the Library who helped make it possible — Barbara Bair not least among them.

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *