A woman of mercurial temperament and a dedicated artist in both poetry and prose, Elinor Wylie (WI-lee) emerged as one of the “new traditionalists” of American literature in the 1920’s. In a space of eight years, she wrote four books of poems and four novels in which her tragic vision of life is portrayed in fantasy and satire. Dead at forty-three, she had achieved recognition as an eloquent and picturesque writer whose work revealed the frustrations of a woman oppressed by society’s dictates.
Born Elinor Morton Hoyt in Somerville, New Jersey, on September 7, 1885, she was the oldest child of Henry Martyn and Anne (McMichael) Hoyt, both descended from old Pennsylvania families distinguished in society and public affairs. Her education was as fashionably correct as her family background. She attended private schools in Bryn Mawr and Washington, where her father, appointed to the post of assistant attorney general of the United States in 1897, became solicitor general in 1903. During her schooldays her interests were divided between art and poetry, the latter chiefly through her discovery of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Following her social debut and a brief, unhappy love affair, she married Philip Hichborn in 1905. For the next five years she lived the life of a fashionable young matron according to the standards of Philadelphia and Washington society. In 1910, to the surprise of family and friends, she abandoned her husband and small son and eloped with a married man, Horace Wylie, a cultivated scholarly man fifteen years her senior. Two years later Hichborn committed suicide. The elopement created a scandal kept alive by gossip and the press for years; it was even noted in the headline of her obituary.
When Horace Wylie found it impossible to obtain a divorce, the couple went to England and lived there under an assumed name. Incidental Numbers, Wylie’s first book of poems, was privately printed in London in 1912. Published anonymously, for presentation only, it holds only occasional promise of her mature powers as a poet. Unable to remain in England under wartime conditions, she and Wylie returned to Boston in 1916. His divorce having been granted, they were married the next year. After several years of restless travel from Maine to Georgia, Horace Wylie secured a minor government post, and they returned to Washington in 1919. Cut off from most of her former friends, Elinor Wylie became one of a literary group that included William Rose Benét and Sinclair Lewis, and with their encouragement she continued to write poetry. In 1921 she left Washington to make her home in New York.
She came late to the literary scene but with the manner of one whom no disastrous circumstance could subdue. The disillusionment Wylie felt when reality never quite measured up to her ideals resulted in poignant and...
(The entire section is 1159 words.)