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May Sarton was born Eléanore Marie Sarton, the daughter of George Sarton, an eminent philosopher and author of a four-volume history of science, and Mabel Sarton, an artist and designer. Because she was born on May 3, she was called May. In 1916, her parents emigrated from Belgium to the United States because of the events of World War I. The Sartons settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where George taught part time at Harvard University.

May was a precocious child; she wrote poetry from the age of nine, and some of her poems were published when she was seventeen. She attended an innovative high school in Cambridge known as Shady Hill School. Her future path was set: She would attend Vassar College and then marry a prominent man. After seeing the renowned actress Eva La Gallienne star in Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler (pb. 1890, pr. 1891; English translation, 1891) in 1928, however, Sarton became devoted to the theater. She became a member of the Civic Repertory Theater in New York City, then the founder and director of her own theater company in New York City from 1933 to 1935. Although her company failed, partly as a result of the Depression, she found a new direction in her life when she drew upon one of her many strengths and reinvented herself as a writer.

Sarton’s first book was a collection of poems, Encounter in April (1937), which explored themes related to the differences between physical passion and love. In order to support her career as a writer, she began a cycle of almost forty years devoted to teaching, lecturing, and reading from her works. She taught creative writing, was a poet-in-residence, and lectured at several colleges and universities over the next forty years, including Harvard University and Bryn Mawr College, and the prestigious Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference. At her death, she was the author of more than fifty books—novels, books of poetry, nonfiction works—including her journals, children’s books, essays, and other writings.

Her first novel, The Single Hound, was published in 1938, and her second book of poetry, Inner Landscape, was published in 1939. After World War II, she continued to write novels and poems. She was unusually close to her parents. She was an only child, and she never married. Her mother died in 1950, and her father died in 1956. Her move to Nelson, New Hampshire, in 1958 marked a turning point in her life. There she wrote the memoir I Knew a Phoenix: Sketches for an Autobiography (1959), which examined her childhood, parents, early education, work in theater, and early years as a writer. At her home in Nelson, May Sarton settled into middle age as a woman who lived alone, who no longer had family ties, and who had no part in the traditional roles of wife and mother.

Her record of her life from the ages of forty-five to fifty-five is found in Plant Dreaming Deep (1968), a journal of her middle age. The book inspired numerous readers because it showed the possibilities of the solitary working woman’s life. She balanced this enthusiastic response to her life alone in rural New England with the 1973 book Journal of a Solitude, which drew upon her frustrations with celebrity. By then, she was a world-famous author and literary personality. She often felt confounded by the pressures of fame and the tendency of people to expect her to live up to their ideal of “May Sarton.”

As We Are Now , a novel about an old woman who suffers harsh treatment after she is placed in a...

(This entire section contains 889 words.)

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rural nursing home, also appeared in 1973. That year, she moved again, this time to her house Wild Knoll in York, Maine.Collected Poems, 1930-1973, appeared in 1974, and a journal about her new home, The House by the Sea, appeared in 1977. Although she had reached retirement age, she gave little consideration to retiring from her writing. Twice she made use of experiences related to illness or disability and found a means of resolving her traumas through the process of writing journals. In 1980, she wrote Recovering: A Journal, after suffering from breast cancer, and in 1988 she wrote After the Stroke, a journal about her recovery from a debilitating stroke. Her achievements as a literary figure were celebrated by her receipt of honorary degrees from eight colleges and universities—a remarkable accomplishment for a woman who never attended a college or university.

In the 1980’s, she also wrote two novels, Anger (1982) and The Magnificent Spinster (1985), the latter based upon the life of one of Sarton’s former teachers; three books of poetry, Halfway to Silence (1980), Letters from Maine (1984), and The Silence Now (1989); and At Seventy (1984), a journal that examined the vitality of her old age. In the 1990’s she wrote two other journals which explored her experiences as an older adult. In Endgame: A Journal of the Seventy-ninth Year (1992), Sarton shared the emotional and psychological pain associated with chronic illness and physical disabilities, but the following year, chronicled in Encore: A Journal of the Eightieth Year (1993), was more hopeful. Although she continued to experience recurring bouts of chronic pain and depression, Sarton found ways to overcome them by gardening, maintaining longtime friendships, and writing poetry. She died in 1995 at the age of eighty-three.

Additional works by Sarton have been published posthumously. They include At Eighty-two (1996) and several volumes of her letters, edited by Susan Sherman.


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May Sarton’s public and private lives were not separate and distinct, as is the case for most writers and celebrities. Through a lifetime of writing memoirs, journals, novels, and poems, Sarton shared the details of her childhood, her relationships to her parents, significant friendships, love affairs, and aspects of her daily living in the context of a solitary life. She triumphed as a writer because she maintained freshness and originality and avoided repeating narrow formulas. In her journals, she strove to discern a synthesis of her overall experience by devoting herself to a rigorous examination of what all of her moods and experiences meant to her on a particular day, as well as in the larger context of her life’s work. Readers—particularly women—have identified with her struggles to adapt to a life of solitude. In effect, she distilled the meaning of her own life through her writings and uncovered universal themes for her readers.