It was after World War II, with the novel The Bridge of Years and the poems collected in The Lion and the Rose (1948), that May Sarton’s reputation began to grow. Her novels met with a mixed response from critics and reviewers, sometimes condemned for awkward or imprecise style, an odd charge against a practicing poet. Even Carolyn Heilbrun, Sarton’s defender, admitted that confusing shifts of viewpoint occur in her fiction. On the other hand, Sarton’s honesty in presenting human problems, seeing them from varied perspectives, has generally been acknowledged. In some ways, novels such as Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing and Crucial Conversations are dramatized debates about art, feminine culture, interpersonal relationships, tradition, and memory.
Sarton also was accused of sentimentality and preciousness, and she tried to shift her style to a more direct, less self-conscious one after the early 1970’s, perhaps answering critics of Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, who saw it as too arch, too knowing. She tended to take current issues or fashions such as the Vietnam War, death-and-dying, feminine consciousness, and Jungian psychology as material for her novels. Autobiographical material frequently enters into her fiction, particular characters being reinvoked in various works and especially types such as authoritarian women, supportive women, and rebellious young people.
Sarton complained of the lack of serious critical scrutiny of her work and expressed disappointment as well at her failure to achieve a large popular success. She has been stereotyped as a woman’s writer, presumably creating slick plot situations, overdramatic dialogue, and conventional characters in romantic duos or trios. Some of these charges are true; she herself, noting the difficulty of supporting herself by her work even as late as the 1970’s, although she was a prolific and well-established writer, spoke of the difficulties of being a single woman writer not sustained by a family or a religious community. Nevertheless, she affirmed the possibility of self-renewal, commenting, “I believe that eventually my work will be seen as a whole, all the poems and all the novels, as the expression of a vision of life which, though unfashionable all the way, has validity.” The surge of interest in her work at the end of the twentieth century, particularly among feminist scholars, would seem to confirm Sarton’s hopes.