Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
May Sarton notes in her preface to A World of Light: Portraits and Celebrations that she carried this book in her mind for twenty years. Its purpose is to fill the gap in her autobiography between I Knew a Phoenix (1959), which covers her life from childhood to age twenty-six, and Plant Dreaming Deep (1968), which begins when she was forty-five. Sarton knew all the people described in the book by the time that she was forty, but by the time that she came to write the book, all but one were dead. The book is a joyful celebration of those deep and enduring friendships that shaped Sarton as a woman and as an artist. Its importance lies as much in what it reveals about her as in what it reveals about the friends whom she “celebrates.”
The twelve portraits, each introduced by a photograph, are divided into four sections, based on a loose chronology. The first section contains descriptions of Sarton’s parents, whom she had already sketched in I Knew a Phoenix. The most significant difference between the portraits is Sarton’s acceptance of and reconciliation with her father, which came only late in her life. Significant friends from her early womanhood, Celine Dangotte Limbosch and Edith Forbes Kennedy, are the subjects of the second section. The third section groups together friends from different times in Sarton’s life but is unified by the sense of place that rooted all four, a sense which Sarton acquired only...
(The entire section is 541 words.)
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Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
May Sarton has often been criticized for her sentimentality and laxity of style. A World of Light has not escaped such censure. She suffers, too, from her essential readability in a literary climate that prizes the difficult and obscure. Her output, nevertheless, has been prolific; she published almost a volume a year for more than fifty years. Throughout her career, she has been one of the few self-supporting women writers of her time. Indeed, one aspect of her significance to women’s literature is that she has persevered in the face of almost overwhelming obstacles.
In A World of Light, what some have seen as self-indulgence and self-pity can also be seen as the understandable self-doubt of a serious writer who had courageously given the best of herself only to be overlooked or discounted. Taken with the other volumes of her autobiography, A World of Light proves the strength of Sarton as a forthright person and a skilled memoirist. It is as much a celebration of the fulfillment possible for a solitary woman as a celebration of enduring friendships. Indeed, Sarton has persistently written of women who have chosen to face and even welcome their extraordinary feelings, their independent lives, their solitude.
Although a political liberal, as seen in her journals, Sarton has refused to align herself with any particular movement. She has written courageously of her sexuality and of her choice to live a solitary life...
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A World of Light (Magill's Literary Annual 1977)
In Plant Dreaming Deep (1967), May Sarton remarks that, like Yeats, she wants her works, (a formidable collection of poetry, novels, articles, and autobiography, published at a rate of almost one volume per year since 1937) “to be seen as a whole ... a vision of life, which, though unfashionable all the way, has validity.” Her works before and since that time seem to fulfill that criterion through recurring themes that bind them together. That her vision of life was “unfashionable” is easily attributed to the fashionable despair and skepticism about the nature of man, of his relationship with nature, with others, with himself, and the ultimate fate of the civilization that he had created—ideas prevalent in major writers following World War I and World War II. With these attitudes, nearly every one of Sarton’s books has taken issue.
Conscious as she is of the dual heritage of Europe and America, Sarton finds her roots in humanism and romanticism, pointing the way back to an older tradition. For her, the “true tradition” of American Romanticism is that of Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman—a tradition which, while acknowledging the imperfection of man and this world, still emphasizes the potentials and joys of man’s journey to self-awareness, the significance of the individual, the importance and complexity of man’s relationships with...
(The entire section is 2677 words.)
Bibliography (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Anderson, Dawn Holt. “May Sarton’s Women.” In Images of Women in Fiction: Feminist Perspectives. Bowling Green, Ohio.: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1972. While this essay analyzes only three of Sarton’s novels—The Small Room (1961), Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, and Joanna and Ulysses (1963)—the entire collection offers a variety of interesting background essays on various aspects of feminist literary criticism, many of a general nature such as those in the section “Feminist Aesthetics.” The lengthy annotated bibliography includes sections on women writers before the twentieth century, twentieth century women, and works about literature.
Evans, Elizabeth. May Sarton, Revisited. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1989. A useful study organized by the genres in which Sarton has worked, the book includes an entire chapter on the journals and memoirs. The discussion of the influential friendship of Louise Bogan is particularly interesting. Evans includes an annotated bibliography.
Heilbrun, Caroline. Hamlet’s Mother and Other Women. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990. This fascinating study by a foremost feminist critic contains two essays on Sarton, one a study of Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing and the other of her memoirs, including A World of...
(The entire section is 277 words.)