May Sarton May 3, 1912–July 16, 1995
(Born Eléanore Marie Sarton) Belgian-born American poet, memoirist, novelist, autobiographer, author of children's books, and dramatist.
For further information on Sarton's life and works, see CLC, Volumes 4, 14, and 49.
A prolific author respected for her poetry, fiction, and autobiographical writings, Sarton examined such issues as the joy and pain associated with love, the necessity of solitude for creativity and identity, the conflict between body and soul, lesbianism, aging, and the role of women in American society. Sarton considered herself first and foremost a poet. Her earliest verse collections, Encounter in April (1937) and Inner Landscape (1939), evince her skill with various poetic forms. The collections Land of Silence, and Other Poems (1953), A Private Mythology (1966), Halfway to Silence (1980), and Letters from Maine (1984) reflect her travels around the world and are known for their attention to physical landscapes, spirituality, and domestic life. Sarton is also a respected novelist. In Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing (1965), which many critics consider Sarton's most accomplished novel, acclaimed poet Hilary Stevens prepares for and gives an interview about her career. Throughout the novel, Sarton considers the difficulties women face trying to balance a writing career with raising a family. Most recently, Sarton has garnered critical acclaim for her various journals and memoirs. I Knew a Phoenix (1959) relates events from Sarton's childhood and early adulthood, while Plant Dreaming Deep (1968) recounts her purchase of a farmhouse in rural New Hampshire. Her more recent autobiographical works focus on her daily life and failing health. Recovering (1980) and After the Stroke (1988) recount Sarton's emotional and physical recovery from cancer and a stroke. Endgame (1992) and Encore (1993) are similarly focused but deal as well with her fear of dying alone. Sarton was extremely popular with women and feminists—an acknowledged lesbian, she championed the rights of women in her writings—but suffered a certain measure of critical neglect. Nevertheless, as Mel Gussow observed: "[Sarton] was a stoical figure in American culture, writing about love, solitude and the search for self-knowledge."
Encounter in April (poetry) 1937
The Single Hound (novel) 1938
Inner Landscape (poetry) 1939
The Bridge of Years (novel) 1946
Underground River (drama) 1947
The Lion and the Rose (poetry) 1948
Shadow of a Man (novel) 1950
A Shower of Summer Days (novel) 1952
Land of Silence, and Other Poems (poetry) 1953
Faithful Are the Wounds (novel) 1955
The Birth of a Grandfather (novel) 1957
I Knew a Phoenix: Sketches for an Autobiography (autobiography) 1959
Cloud, Stone, Sun, Vine: Poems, Selected and New (poetry) 1961
The Small Room (novel) 1961
Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing (novel) 1965; revised edition, 1974
A Private Mythology (poetry) 1966
Plant Dreaming Deep (autobiography) 1968
A Grain of Mustard Seed (poetry) 1971
A Durable Fire (poetry) 1972
As We Are Now (novel) 1973
Journal of a Solitude (journal) 1973
Collected Poems 1930–1973 (poetry) 1974
Punch's Secret (juvenilia) 1974
Crucial Conversations (novel) 1975
A Walk through the Woods (juvenilia) 1976
A World of Light: Portraits and Celebrations (autobiography) 1976
The House by the Sea (journal) 1977
A Reckoning (novel) 1978
Selected Poems of May Sarton (poetry) 1978
Halfway to Silence: New Poems (poetry) 1980
Recovering: A Journal, 1978–1979 (journal) 1980
Writings on Writing (essays) 1981
Anger (novel) 1982
At Seventy (journal) 1984
Letters from Maine (poetry) 1984
The Magnificent Spinster (novel) 1985
As Does New Hampshire, and Other Poems (poetry) 1987
After the Stroke (journal) 1988
The Education of Harriet Hatfield (novel) 1989
∗Sarton Selected: An Anthology of the Journals, Novels, and Poems of May Sarton (anthology) 1991
Endgame: A Journal of the Seventy-ninth Year (journal) 1992
Collected Poems (1930–1993) (poetry) 1993
Encore: A Journal of the Eightieth Year (journal) 1993
Coming into Eighty (poetry) 1994
At 82 (journal) 1995
∗This work was edited by Bradford Dudley Daziel.
May Sarton with Deborah Straw (interview date September 1990)
SOURCE: An interview in Belles Lettres: A Review of Books by Women, Vol. 6, No. 2, Winter, 1991, pp. 34-8.
[In the interview below, originally conducted in September 1990, Sarton discusses various aspects of her career, life, and writing process.]
May Sarton has written several novels, poems, and journal entries about aging. She has taken her readers into a world of physical breakdown, the letting go of activities, the acceptance, in peace, of the inevitable. She has written much about re-prioritizing. With her transparent style, she has shared both her joy and her anguish.
Now in her seventy-ninth year, Sarton feels she has been "catapulted into" old age. After a stroke five years ago, from which she entirely recovered, she has suffered a fibrillating heart and various internal problems. She has lost much of her immense physical energy.
Not so her psychic energy. For this interview, held over a weekend last September, she was full-spirited and gracious. After walking through her light-filled house (The House by the Sea), with its profusion of flowering plants and stuffed animals (many sent by friends and fans) and its piles of books stacked on all available chairs and tables, I came to sit facing her. A passionate woman, she answered my questions thoughtfully, and her occasional fullbodied laughter resonated through the old house.
Sarton is still writing, actually taping a new journal, which will appear on her eightieth birthday next spring. Poems come less often these days, but she had just completed one on friendship. This spring Norton is issuing Sarton Selected, an anthology that includes the entire As We Are Now and selections from the journals, poems and essays on her work. The Single Hound, her first novel (originally published in 1938) will also soon be reissued.
During the hours we talked, Sarton often stopped to answer the phone or to let her elusive cat, Pierrot, in or out, as we reflected on a life of literature.
[Straw]: You first started publishing poetry when you were about seventeen, but you have said you were always writing. Why did you begin?
[Sarton]: For the same reason I've always written. Those early poems were mostly for my first muses, who were my teachers at Shady Hill—Anne Thorp, who is later The Magnificent Spinster, and especially Katharine Taylor, the head of the school, who taught English in the ninth grade and was a good critic. I recited poetry when I was very young because Agnes Hocking believed in everybody learning poetry. We knew so many poems by heart, and I loved reciting them.
In fact, I think I must have been impossible. We were taken up by Boston because of my father and invited to Sunday dinners, where I would always say a poem. I would force myself on those poor ladies. One I particularly loved was Byron's "Greece"—it was quite dramatic.
Did your parents read a lot in the house, and did they read to you?
Yes, my mother read to me every night. George Sarton, the historian, was very much interested in the arts, and so was my mother. It was a rich environment from that point of view. I miss them terribly because I miss the conversation. I didn't always agree, but I certainly always wanted to listen.
Did your early experience in the theater influence your later writing?
It more influenced my ability to communicate with audiences, to project. The other thing it taught me was, (it's kind of arrogant to say but true) that I have charisma, so large audiences respond to me. Not that I had so many large audiences in the theater; I was an apprentice.
Have either of your two plays been produced?
No, but one won a prize.
Would you like to see them produced?
Well, I think they're old fashioned. One is a social commentary called The Music Box Bird. It's about the dividing up of the family's belongings. They all want an eighteenth century music box with a bird that emerges and sings. It's got quite a plot, and it's got good dialogue. But now it would have to be much more avant-garde in its actual production. It's an old-fashioned play with a regular old-fashioned set, a big library in a big house on an estate. The children all come together to fight over the things.
The second play is called The Underground River, and that's about the French Resistance. Its point was that socialists and communists could work together, but that was not the fashion. Nobody wanted it. That's the one that won the prize, and I'm really fond of it.
After graduating from high school, did you take any writing courses? What do you think of the increase in creative writing programs?
Never. I never went to college. I don't like all the writing programs. I don't think you're taught how to write. I think you learn by reading other people. There's so much loose ambition, so little self-criticism. So much that comes out of these courses is second rate. People have illusions. They have no idea of the competition. They have no idea about how stern you have to be with yourself, how critical.
When I taught at Wellesley, a two-hour seminar course in short stories, the first hour was always given to a great writer. The students had been assigned a story by Chekhov or Hemingway. And in the second half of class, we would critique a story of theirs. They always had a great writer with whom they could, to some extent, compare themselves.
Were there ever times in your life when you could have given up writing and done something entirely different?
No, I think I was born a poet. There are three things you are born with—music (composing), mathematics, and poetry. You don't choose; you're chosen. We know it so well about mathematics. Children will appear, even from very poor backgrounds, who have this genius.
Poetry is harder because if language has not been important in your childhood, early on, I think it may never happen. I think of poetry as my main thing, which I hope will be seen as time goes on.
You seem to be one of the most disciplined people I know. You're written almost fifty books in as many years.
Yes, I have written a lot, and I had to earn my living as well. I wasn't earning my living as a writer until I was sixty-five.
And I know you haven't gotten as much critical acclaim as you would have wished. How have you sustained that inner discipline?
Well, it kept me alive. And also I love doing it. It was obviously my gift, and I feel happy when I'm doing it.
But so many people would have felt discouraged.
You've got to be awfully tough. Anybody who's been through the attacks that I've been through has to be. Kinds of Love was reviewed in The Times by a former editor of Harper's Magazine, who wrote, "This novel should have been privately printed. It has no interest for the general reader." And more damming than that. I was so angry I resigned from The Times, for whom I had been reviewing. I wrote to the head and said, "I'm sorry, but I can't review for you anymore because I felt this was really dishonest." That book could have been a best seller, and it was killed. That's very hard to take. The poems were well-reviewed up to the collection Cloud, Stone, Sun, and Vine. Karl Shapiro wrote, "May Sarton is a bad poet." What can you do?
How did you overcome all this?
I cried. It was Christmas Eve. Poor Judy, my friend with whom I lived. I felt so badly. It wrecked Christmas, but I couldn't help it. And I've just gone on.
Do you think it would have been as possible to be as productive if you had married or been in a full-time relationship for forty years?
Well, I lived with Judy for fifteen years. I did a great deal of work during that time. She was gone all day, so I was alone. Yes, I think it would have been possible. But what I think would not be possible, probably, is to have had a large family. I saw a very good show on PBS about teenage mothers. And one of the things that several of them said was, "I never thought it would be so hard."
I think I wouldn't have had it in me. I can imaging wanting to strangle a baby when it cried, but I hope I wouldn't have. And you're never out from under. You can't say, "We're leaving the baby for twenty-four hours. He'll be all right." You have to do all that arranging. It's bad enough with a cat.
To get to the question of how much can you have. I think one of the dangers in America is that we're brought up to think that we can have everything. You can be a politician, a mother, a wife, all these things, to be a good cook, a good hostess and put on dinners for twenty people, to look wonderful. But if you decide to do all that, you probably couldn't be a writer.
How much of your writing goes on in your head?
Not a lot. I've cast aside, I think, two novels, which I wrote about fifty pages each on. They just weren't going; they hadn't gotten their claws into me. You have to be so seized by it. It's such hard work. It's that invention over a long period of time. It's very much harder than writing a poem; there's no comparison. Because a poem you can finish. It may take a week or even more. But novels, you have to give that supreme effort day after day for a year or more.
How many drafts do you usually do of the poems and of the novels?
With the poems, sometimes fifty, but not so many now. I'm using free verse more. With the novel, I don't revise very much. I plan very carefully. Every day I do five pages. I've thought it out quite hard before I begin. That's the hard work. You spend an hour chewing pencils, and you're thinking, "What really is going to happen now? Why?" You have to think all the time.
But I also miss it when I'm not writing a novel because it's such an obsession. It's like a love affair. You think about it all the time. All these characters are with you, when you go to bed, when you wake up. You have an idea, "This should be done." I enjoy it, but it is very hard work.
You don't know how a novel will end, do you?
No, my novels are predicated on a question that I need to answer by writing the book. For example, with Faithful Are the Wounds, the question was, "How can a man be right and wrong at the same time?"
You write four of five hours a day on a novel. How is that time spent?
Three hours, mostly writing. But it is the thinking beforehand that is the hard work. You've got to get down to it each day. It sometimes keeps me awake at night. Inspiration comes with getting started. In other words, you think, "I can't write a line today. I'm too tired, too dull." And then you make yourself write a few lines.
And that's what I miss in saying this new journal. I miss the pen on the paper, scratching things out. I have an old Olivetti, which I love. It has such a light touch. Carolyn Heilbrun almost persuaded me into a computer, but I do think at nearly eighty, it's a bit late. And especially since I'm not a mechanical person at all. But using a tape recorder was a triumph. I didn't think I could do it.
You said once that the thing that destroys art is self-indulgence. Do you...
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Mel Gussow (obituary date 18 July 1995)
SOURCE: An obituary in The New York Times, July 18, 1995, p. B12.
[In the obituary below, Gussow surveys Sarton's life and career.]
May Sarton, poet, novelist and the strongest of individualists, died on [July 16, 1995], at the York Hospital in York, Me., the town in which she had lived for many years. She was a stoical figure in American culture, writing about love, solitude and the search for self-knowledge. She was 83.
The cause of death was breast cancer, said Susan Sherman, a close friend and editor of her letters.
During a remarkably prolific career that stretched...
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Valerie Miner (essay date 1991)
SOURCE: "Spinning Friends: May Sarton's Literary Spinsters," in Old Maids to Radical Spinsters: Unmarried Women in the Twentieth-Century Novel, edited by Laura L. Doan, University of Illinois Press, 1991, pp. 155-68.
[Miner is an American novelist, short story writer, editor, critic, and educator. In the essay below, she examines the ways in which Sarton represents lesbians and single women in her writings, noting in particular the relationship between her fiction and nonfiction.]
In the mirror she recognized her self, her life companion, for better or worse. She looked at this self with...
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Sue Halpern (review date 21 June 1992)
SOURCE: "From a Cocoon of Pain," in The New York Times Book Review, June 21, 1992, p. 18.
[Halpern is an American novelist. In the review below, she discusses thematic and stylistic aspects of Sarton's journal Endgame.]
May Sarton, the 80-year-old author of more than 30 volumes of poetry and fiction, is perhaps best known for the journals that have chronicled her life of solitude on the coast and in the interior of New England, her passionate love for other women and her wrestle with the demons of creativity. Ms. Sarton's journals are consciously public documents. There is nothing secret about them. Her...
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