OTI Online
Winter 1999

May Sarton: A biography
by Margot Peters


A good biographer can summarize a life by giving us insights into the life and work of a notable figure while avoiding the danger of overanalysis, and neither condemning nor idealizing her subject. In her biography of writer May Sarton, Margot Peters displays remarkable skill in dodging such hazards to capture the formidable spirit of a writer whose life was more complex and uneven than the work she left behind.

Peters opens with a brief account of how Sarton's parents were unprepared for demanding, energetic May, who appeared as "a tiny white windmill, little arms beating the air so restlessly and continually." As she grew older, Sarton developed a dual passion for the theater and poetry, but after years of trying to succeed in both professions, she finally acknowledged that poetry had more pull on her soul and dedicated herself to the art.

Although her parents protected her from financial destitution, it was Sarton's lovers who kept her from emotional poverty. Her coterie included poet Muriel Rukeyser, Simmons College professor Judith Matlack, Aldous Huxley's sister-in-law Juliette, and Harvard professor Cora DuBois. According to Peters, Sarton was an ardent and temperamental lover, who adored the challenge of conquest, the intricacies of pursuit, and the sweetness of an encouraging word. Her letters to those who resisted her charms are dramatic and overblown, filled with passionate ardor in one paragraph, scathing rebuke in the next. Believing that the dizzying highs and lows of unrequited love awakened her muse, Sarton often romanced three women at a time, in the course of her adult life leaving broken hearts scattered across two continents. With each new affair, the poetry flowed.

Although she attempted to write objectively on "loftier" subjects like democracy or war, much of Sarton's best poetry, lyric in form, often reflected a state of romantic yearning. Infatuated by Virginia Woolf, who snubbed her, Sarton wrote:

Wherever I looked was love,
Wherever I went I had presents in my hands.
Wherever I went, I recognized you. . . .
I send you love forward into the past.

Poems inspired by other love interests were less restrained, comparing paramours to flowers with "a sharp fertile perfume," or rough and bold mythical beasts. Her first book, Encounter in April, published in 1937, elicited some criticism for the high polish of the sonnets and for imitation of Edna St. Vincent Millay, but overall the work was a success. Marion Strobel, a future editor of Poetry, wrote that Sarton's "passionate simplicity is not only exciting in itself but, like the first crocus, must be a portent."

Strobel's prediction proved correct; Sarton began to write novels, more poetry, and later in her life, journals and memoirs. As her awareness of current events and interest in the motivations of others expanded, her literary subject matter, once confined to reflecting her romantic life, expanded to include politics, social issues, psychology, and academia. Her novel about a lesbian's struggle with her sexuality, Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, brought fame when women's studies departments were created, but was negatively reviewed when it was published in 1965. Three years afterward, the publication of Plant Dreaming Deep, which uses nature as a metaphor for life, brought her a new wave of admirers, as did her continued ruminations on amour in novels like A Durable Fire and Kinds of Love. Followers of her work also delighted in fanciful, fluffy tales, such as Fur Person (about her cat) and Joanna and Ulysses, based on a story of a Greek donkey. When Sarton later began to share her more personal thoughts in memoirs like Journal of a Solitude and At Seventy: A Journal, more fans began to write and visit unexpectedly, as if she were a priestess guarding the temple of knowledge.

The critics and her contemporaries were not as awed as the reading public, however. Due in part to her admitted sexuality, as well as her reputation for violent public outbursts, the betrayal of friends, and insults directed at other writers, the literary community generally shunned her, and sharply written reviews followed every work. Even Peters, who obviously admires Sarton, admits that some of the novels are weak, with too many cliches, too-easy resolutions, and over-idealized conversations. Sarton's poetry, too, often received unfavorable reviews. The London Times, for example, damned it for "lacking nuance, ambiguity or the technical mastery that might counter-balance the conventionality of her material."

As she was censured by her fellow writers but lauded by readers, Sarton's insecurities stemming from her lack of parental affection, platonic love, and professional acceptance failed to dilute her passionate nature. Despite personal setbacks, usually self-inflicted, she continued to draw insights from the world she so energetically tramped across. In photographs interspersed throughout the book, Sarton looks directly at the camera with a hungry expression, and more often than not she is looking expectantly at whoever shares the moment, as if she doesn't dare miss a glance holding meaning, or a sentence containing praise. The little windmill never stopped turning; when she died in 1995, Sarton left 15 books of poetry, 19 novels, and 13 memoirs and journals.

As Peters presents the facts of the writer's complicated life, she attempts to find patterns that affected Sarton's actions and writing. After noting that, later in her life, Sarton's chosen love interests were older and heterosexual, Peters theorizes that perhaps she was trying to recreate and refine a mother-daughter relationship, as well as disengage herself from the controversies her lesbianism stirred up during a time of so little acceptance. Peters also juxtaposes incidents in Sarton's life to show the contradictory nature of her subject, such as the writer's habit of denouncing her own work before publication, but expressing horror and recrimination when a reviewer happened to agree with her.

Yet, while detailing Sarton's worst tantrums, Peters holds back judgment, saving her editorial comments for the author's work, not her character, and displaying tenderness and respect without canonization. At the book's end, having extensively chronicled the major and minor facts of Sarton's life, Peters reserves any conclusions, leaving these to the reader. Instead, she gracefully reflects on whether Sarton's work will endure: "Her subject matter, the mysteries of the human mind and heart, will not go out of style. Time, careless of fashion, may well treat the best of her lyric poetry favorably. The ranging conflicts revealed in the journals are human conflicts and universal: durable fires."


Reviewed by Elizabeth Millard, a freelance writer living in Cambridge, MA. Her work has appeared in On The Issues, Ms., Publishers Weekly, and The Boston Phoenix.


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