Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

In 1970, May Sarton, poet, novelist, and writer of two volumes of memoirs— I Knew a Phoenix: Sketches for an Autobiography (1959) and Plant Dreaming Deep (1968)—began to write a journal that would eventually cover a year of her life, from September 15, 1970, to September 30, 1971, and would be published in 1973 as Journal of a Solitude. Sarton deliberately chose the form of a journal intended for publication as opposed to that of the polished essays that had comprised her previous memoirs. Her rationale was twofold: The journal form accommodated purposes both private and public. Writing for herself, Sarton was able to use the journal to express momentary insights that were vivid and intense, to explore, reflect upon, and give order to her ideas and experiences and to take a deep and honest look at her own personality in an attempt to address unresolved anger, recurring depression, and a perpetual conflict between her deeply felt need for friendship and love and for solitude. Writing with her readers in mind, Sarton conceived Journal of a Solitude as a corrective to the “false view” of herself, the “myth of a false Paradise,” that she believed that she had created in her previous memoir, Plant Dreaming Deep. In that volume Sarton had written of her struggles, after the deaths of her parents, to put her life back together when she moved to the isolated village of Nelson, New Hampshire, where she purchased and restored an old, dilapidated house. Plant Dreaming Deep created a striking portrait of a productive writer who had deliberately chosen a solitary life. It evoked many admiring responses from readers, which disturbed Sarton: “The anguish of my life here—its rages—is hardly mentioned. Now I hope to break through into the rough rocky depths, to the matrix itself,” she announces in the first entry in the journal.

The eighty-five entries in this volume range in length from a brief paragraph to seven printed pages; the average entry is two to three pages long. Interspersed throughout the volume are photographs of Sarton and her world. Predominant in the photographs is her home in Nelson, where all the entries were written. Sarton’s very special relationship with her home is one of the prevailing concerns of the journal. This theme is intimately related to her self-analysis, to her reflections upon the lives of women in her day, and to solitude, her principal subject.

The journal is full of reflections on and reactions, both positive and negative, to solitude, and it was written exclusively in solitude: When there...

(The entire section is 1065 words.)