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.)

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Journal of a Solitude, an illustrated account of May Sarton’s life at Nelson in New Hampshire between 1970 and 1971, is Sarton’s debunking of what she calls “a myth of a false Paradise” that she inadvertently created in her memoir Plant Dreaming Deep (1968). Sarton hoped, through Journal of a Solitude, to correct a false view of the ease of her life and to “come to terms with a depression.”

Though a number of people appear fairly often in the journal, Sarton successfully shows readers that her life is “often frightfully lonely” and that she corresponds and works with many people she does not “know and will never know.” Countless letters from readers show Sarton that the myth in Plant Dreaming Deep needs to be destroyed. She concludes, “If I should wear the mask of that mythical person Plant Dreaming Deep has created in readers’ minds, I would be perpetuating a myth, not growing . . .”

The journal begins with the words “BEGIN HERE. It is raining.” According to critic Carolyn Heilbrun, Sarton lets readers into “the rages, the assaults from critics, the despairs.” Intertwined with these emotions are some of the flaws in Sarton’s mythical paradise. Early in the journal, for example, she describes the death of Perley Cole, her “dear old friend,” who is dying a lonely death in a nursing home. Later, Sarton offers a poignant sketch of the captured, half-wild cat that she sends to be euthanized. She speaks of her despair in breaking its trust, of the cat’s final snarl, of the pain and practicality of her decision to prevent the overpopulation of cats on her property. Finally, Sarton relates the fading of her love relationship with the unidentified X. The journal concludes with Sarton’s half-lament, half-resignation: “Once more the house and I are alone.”


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Sarton, a novelist, poet, memoirist, and journalist, has used her writing to explore issues central to women. For example, in her novel The Bridge of Years (1946) Sarton depicts a marriage in which the wife earns the income from a business that she inherited from her mother. Sarton explores another controversial relationship with Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing (1965), a novel that Sarton calls a gentle introduction to the theme of homosexuality.

In Journal of a Solitude, Sarton explores women’s lives and issues through nonfiction. She says in the journal that, during the time of writing the journal, she thought “a lot about the lives of women, their problems and conflicts.” She voices her awareness that “now we are increasingly aware that women must fight a difficult and painful war for their autonomy and wholeness.” Sarton’s work, including more than seventy books, has become an integral part of women’s and gender studies, and her books are read internationally by a diverse audience. As Elizabeth Evans says in her critical analysis May Sarton, Revisited (1989), Sarton’s journals have “spoken the unspoken for women who could not express anger, deal with regret, welcome the love of women, risk passion in middle or in old age.” Sarton has become a role model for women of all ages.

Sarton, who has received many awards and honors, maintained, in a 1988 interview, that she has never won “the great prizes” for her work. She believes that her literary statement, rather than being embodied in a specific work, is a cumulative vision of life. Among Sarton’s work, however, Journal of a Solitude has had particular success. Sarton has said that it has sold two thousand copies a year for twenty years. In speaking of the many letters from readers who say her books have changed their lives, Sarton concludes, “I feel loved by so many people. Let’s face it, that’s better than money.”


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Bailin, George. “A Shining in the Dark: May Sarton’s Accomplishment,” in May Sarton: Woman and Poet, 1982. Edited by Constance Hunting.

Evans, Elizabeth. May Sarton, Revisited. Boston: Twayne, 1989. Sketches Sarton’s early years and focuses on the development of themes in her writing. Contains a chronology, notes, an index, and a series of letters to Sarton from her editor, Eric Swenson, to whom Sarton dedicated Journal of a Solitude.

Frank, Charles E. “May Sarton: Approaches to Autobiography,” in May Sarton: Woman and Poet, 1982. Edited by Constance Hunting.

Heilbrun, Carolyn G. “May Sarton’s Memoirs,” in May Sarton: Woman and Poet, 1982. Edited by Constance Hunting.

Kallet, Marilyn, ed. A House of Gathering: Poets on May Sarton’s Poetry. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993. Gives close attention to Sarton’s work in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Contains not only poets’ reviews of Sarton’s poetry but also Sarton’s comments on her work. An introduction, a bibliography, a list of Sarton’s works, a chronology, and an index are also provided.

Nishimura, Kyoko. “May Sarton’s World,” in Kyushu American Literature. XX (1979), pp. 35-41.

Owens, Suzanne. “House, Home, and Solitude: Memoirs and Journals of May Sarton,” in May Sarton: Woman and Poet, 1982. Edited by Constance Hunting.

Sarton, May. At Seventy: A Journal. New York: W. W. Norton, 1984. Beginning on May 3, 1982, and ending on May 2, 1983, this journal focuses on Sarton’s views on solitude and aging, reflecting upon her seventy years of life.

Sarton, May. Conversations with May Sarton. Edited by Earl G. Ingersoll. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1991. This series of interviews is organized chronologically from 1972 to 1990. Contains an introduction, a chronology, and an index.

Sarton, May. The House by the Sea: A Journal. New York: W. W. Norton, 1977. This illustrated journal is set in Sarton’s house on the seacoast of Maine and covers the time from November 13, 1974, until August 17, 1976.

Sarton, May. I Knew a Phoenix: Sketches for an Autobiography. New York: Rinehart, 1959. A series of Sarton’s memoirs, arranged chronologically, from childhood in Massachusetts to her early twenties, when Sarton left the theater for poetry.

Sibley, Agnes. May Sarton. New York: Twayne, 1972. The first chapter is a biographical sketch of Sarton, and the remaining four chapters explore her poetry and novels. Contains notes, an index, and a chronology.

Woodward, Kathleen. “May Sarton and Fictions of Old Age,” in Women and Literature: Gender and Literary Voice, 1980. Edited by Janet Todd.