Discussion Topics (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
How can women maintain a creative life in the context of the requirements of domesticity? May Sarton writes, “Women’s work is always toward wholeness.” Use this response as a starting point for a discussion of women and creativity.
Examine some of the distinctions that one can make between loneliness and solitude. What are the relationships between solitude and creativity?
Sarton wrote numerous journals in her career. What does the journal require of the writer? What are the possibilities of journal writing for all ages—young, middle-aged, and old?
Sarton was interested in working out the gestalt of her life, the integration or structure of all the separate aspects of her experience and values. How is her goal—of finding an integrative self—relevant to people’s lives today?
Consider the garden as a metaphor for the creative individual’s life. What does the garden require of the individual? How is gardening akin to the individual working to perfect the self throughout life?
In what ways is Sarton a mentor or guide for individuals facing their old age? What evidence does she provide in her journals, novels, and poems to support others in their aging process?
Other literary forms (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
A poet as well as a novelist, May Sarton published a considerable number of volumes of verse. Her Collected Poems, 1930-1973, appeared in 1974 and Collected Poems, 1930-1993, appeared in 1993. She also wrote a fable, Miss Pickthorn and Mr. Hare; an animal fantasy story, The Fur Person: The Story of a Cat; several volumes of autobiography, including I Knew a Phoenix: Sketches for an Autobiography (1959), Plant Dreaming Deep (1968), and A World of Light: Portraits and Celebrations (1976); and several journals of her life in Nelson, New Hampshire, and York, Maine.
Achievements (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
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.
Other literary forms (Critical Survey of Poetry: American Poets)
Although May Sarton considered herself to be first of all a poet, she is also well known for her fiction and her journals and autobiographical writings. Her first novel, The Single Hound (1938), received critical acclaim for its sensitive portrayal of the relationship between a troubled young writer and the elderly woman who serves as his mentor. Alluding to Emily Dickinson’s image of the soul attended by “a single hound—/ Its own identity,” this novel’s title suggests a central theme of Sarton’s fiction: the struggle of a vulnerable individual, often an artist, for creative autonomy and self-knowledge.
Important subsequent novels include Faithful Are the Wounds (1955), a work based loosely on the events surrounding the suicide of the Harvard English professor and author F. O. Matthiessen; The Small Room (1961), an exploration of teacher-student relationships in a New England women’s college; and Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing (1965), a fictional rendering of Sarton’s poetic theory through the reminiscences of the poet-protagonist Hilary Stevens. Three later novels treat with sensitivity the problems of aging: Kinds of Love (1970), As We Are Now (1973), and A Reckoning (1978). Sarton continued to publish novels until 1989, with the last being The Education of Harriet...
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Achievements (Critical Survey of Poetry: American Poets)
May Sarton was among the most prolific and versatile of modern American writers. During a career that spanned more than six decades, she published many novels, volumes of poetry, works of nonfiction, and children’s books. With the exception of the period during World War II, she produced virtually a book a year. Much of Sarton’s popular acclaim came through her novels and journals, which inspired hundreds of letters from readers moved by her painstaking accounts of her solitary existence or by her frank treatment of aging—of friendship, sexuality, and anger among the elderly; of dying with dignity.
She received many grants and fellowships throughout her career, including a Guggenheim Fellowship in poetry (1954), a Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholarship (1959-1960), a Danforth Visiting Lectureship (1960-1961), and a National Foundation of the Arts and Humanities grant (1967). Honorary degrees flowed from more than a dozen American colleges and universities, as did numerous prizes and awards: the New England Poetry Club Golden Rose (1945), the Bland Memorial Prize awarded by Poetry magazine (1945), the Reynolds Prize from the American Poetry Society (1953), The Johns Hopkins University’s Poetry Festival Award (1961), the Emily Clark Balch Prize (1966), the Sarah Josepha Hale Award (1972), the Alexandrine Medal from the College of St. Catherine (1975), a Ministry to Women Award from the Unitarian Universalist Women’s Federation (1982), an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation (1985), a Maryann Hartman Award from the University of Maine (1986), a lifetime achievement award from the Women’s Building/West Hollywood Connexxus Women’s Center (1987), the Northeast Author Award from the Northeast Booksellers’ Association (1990), and the Levinson Prize from Poetry magazine (1993).
Although Sarton has been labeled—sometimes pejoratively—an “old-fashioned” poet, a “sentimental” novelist, and a “lesbian writer,” her work is far richer and more varied than such categorizations would suggest. Universal themes pervade her writing: the power of friendship and passionate love, the unique bond between parent and child, the quest for identity and inner order, the responsibility of art and the artist in modern society, the conflicts of the elderly. Sarton is also concerned with the unique dilemma of the female artist, who struggles to be both woman and writer in a male-oriented society. Her exploration of the woman poet’s relationship to her creativity, found primarily in Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing and in her poems and journals, is perhaps Sarton’s most significant literary contribution.
Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Evans, Elizabeth. May Sarton, Revisited. Boston: Twayne, 1989. Updates the 1973 Twayne series volume on Sarton by Agnes Sibley. A revaluation of Sarton’s lifetime achievement, offering careful analysis of her work in four genres. Includes a chronology of Sarton’s life and accomplishments.
Fulk, Mark K. Understanding May Sarton. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001. Consciously avoids assuming that Sarton is of interest only to students of feminist or lesbian writers, attempting to come “closer to the spirit of Sarton’s work as she saw it.”
Hunting, Constance, ed. May Sarton: Woman and Poet. Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, 1982. Twenty-four essays on Sarton’s novels, journals, and poetry, including analysis of Sarton’s journals and memoirs and of French influences on Sarton’s writing style.
Kallet, Marilyn, ed. A House of Gathering: Poets on May Sarton’s Poetry. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993. Written in honor of Sarton’s eightieth birthday, these essays assess Sarton as a poet and woman writer. Bibliographical references, index.
Peters, Margot. May Sarton: A Biography. New York: Knopf, 1997. In this first full-length biography, Peters assesses why Sarton inspired such a devoted following among readers and discusses her uncertainty about the literary value of much of her work.
Sarton, May. May Sarton: Selected Letters. Edited by Susan Sherman. New York: Norton, 1997. A collection of correspondence which offers invaluable insight into Sarton’s life and work. Includes an index.
Sibley, Agnes. May Sarton. New York: Twayne, 1972. An early book-length treatment of Sarton’s poetry and novels through the 1960’s. Groups the novels under two themes: “detachment” for the early novels and “communion” for the later ones.
Swartzlander, Susan, and Marilyn R. Mumford, eds. That Great Sanity: Critical Essays on May Sarton. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992. Thoughtful essays on Sarton’s works. Bibliographical references, index.
Tillinghast, Richard. Review of Coming into Eighty, by May Sarton. Poetry 166, no. 5 (August, 1995). A brief review of Sarton’s last collection, as well as a eulogy.