Article abstract: Despite a modest education and her lifelong struggle with mental illness, Anne Sexton became a poet who was celebrated by critics, academics, and the public as a new voice in literature and the cause of feminism.
Anne Gray Harvey was born on November 9, 1928, the youngest of three daughters born to Ralph Harvey and Mary Gray Staples Harvey. Although Ralph Harvey had only a high school education, he did well in the New England wool business and opened his own firm shortly after Anne was born. Anne’s mother, Mary Gray Staples, was born into a Maine family whose members held important positions in state politics and journalism. An adored only child, Mary Gray was sent to boarding school and completed three years at Wellesley College.
The three Harvey daughters were never close, and Anne grew up a lonely child. Ralph Harvey was fastidious of appearances, and Anne’s messy clothes and loud voice failed to please him. Years after her sisters were permitted to join their parents at the dinner table, Anne continued to eat in the breakfast room with the nurse. Her parents went out most nights, threw large parties, and drank constantly. Anne’s only happy memories were of summers at the Squirrel Island, Maine, vacation home with her mother’s extended family. A great-aunt, Anna Dingley, who had lived abroad and later become a reporter for her father’s newspaper, provided Anne’s greatest family affection. Despite her full life, Dingley, called “Nana” by the children, played the family spinster. She moved in with the Harveys when Anne was eleven, and Anne remembers her as the only person who provided a parent’s unconditional love.
Anne bloomed during her teenage years. Her mother, hoping to remedy her “boy-crazy” behavior, sent her to Rogers Hall, a girls’ boarding school in Lowell, Massachusetts. Although she was an indifferent student, Anne published early poems in the school yearbook. She went on to Garland School, a finishing school in Boston, and became engaged. While still engaged, she met Alfred Muller Sexton II, called “Kayo,” a young man from a prosperous Boston suburb, and eloped with him on August 16, 1948. Their first daughter, Linda Gray Sexton, was born in the summer of 1953, and Joyce Ladd Sexton was born two years later. Kayo accepted a job as wool salesman from his father-in-law, and the young family settled down near Boston, close to their childhood homes.
Despite the idealized roles of housewife and mother in the 1950’s, Anne was severely depressed after the birth of her second child. She suffered terrors and fits of rage during which she abused the children and even attempted suicide. Her family paid first for household help, then for psychiatric help. While the children lived with relatives, Anne began treatment first with Martha Brunner-Orne in 1955, and later with her son, Martin Orne. Recognizing Anne’s creative potential, he encouraged her to write. After another suicide attempt in May, 1957, Orne told her that she couldn’t kill herself; she had too much to give through her poetry. Anne Sexton, the poet, was born.
With Martin Orne’s encouragement, Anne Sexton enrolled in an evening poetry workshop and began to send her poems out for possible publication. More important, however, was the bond she formed with another student in the workshop, Maxine Kumin, which was to become the most fruitful poetic relationship in Sexton’s life. The well-educated Kumin was three years older than Sexton, also had small children, and published regularly. Her instant recognition of Sexton’s gift cemented a friendship that would comfort Sexton for the rest of her life.
By spring of 1958, Sexton was taking a new antidepressant drug and felt well enough for her daughter, Joy, to come home to live. She received occasional acceptances from prestigious magazines such as Harper’s and The New Yorker. Her poetry was developing in new directions, partly as a result of her encounter with “Heart’s Needle,” a poem by W. D. Snodgrass which was seminal in what was to become known as “confessional” poetry. This poetry addresses the “unpoetic” themes in a person’s life: domestic struggles, personal failure, and mental illness. At its best, it is well crafted and formally polished. Sexton attended the Writer’s Conference at Antioch College in Ohio, where Snodgrass led a week’s workshop. This marked the start of a long correspondence in which Snodgrass helped her find an authentic voice and encouraged her tendency to use poems as vehicles of autobiography and self-analysis. Her connection with Snodgrass led to an acceptance in Robert Lowell’s famous writing seminar at Boston University, where she became friendly with poet Sylvia Plath. It was here that Sexton started her first major poem, “The Double Image,” which established her among the new...