May Sarton Essay - Critical Essays

Sarton, May May


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."

Principal Works

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...

(The entire section is 243 words.)


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.


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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...

(The entire section is 1035 words.)


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...

(The entire section is 5321 words.)

Reviews Of Sarton's Recent Work

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...

(The entire section is 2635 words.)