May Sarton Biography


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 889 words.)

May Sarton Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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.

May Sarton Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

May Sarton was born Eléanore Marie Sarton in Wondelgem, Belgium, on May 3, 1912. Her mother, Mabel Elwes Sarton, a designer who worked at Maison Dangette, Brussels, was a determined craftsperson and an uncompromising seeker of high standards. Her father, George Sarton, pampered by his Belgian upper-middle-class family after losing his mother early, was an active socialist who did mathematical studies at the University of Brussels before settling into his life’s work as a major historian of science; he founded the leading journal in the field, Isis, in 1912. He was a methodical scholar who even after his day’s scholarly labors would make notes in the evening concerning recent research by other scholars. May’s mother compromised her talents for her husband’s career, but her gift of “refashioning things magically” inspired her daughter’s own verbal artistry.

One close friend of Sarton’s mother was Céline Dangotte Limbosch, or Mamie, whose home near Brussels Sarton has recalled as the one place in the world that would not change and whose traits appear in the heroine of The Bridge of Years. Mamie’s husband, Raumond Limbosch, a poet who never published his poems, also figures in that novel as a philosopher.

Sarton’s earliest years were spent in Belgium, but with the coming of World War I, the family fled to England. In 1915, the Sartons went to the United States, staying briefly in New York before settling in Washington, D.C., where the Carnegie Institute gave support to George Sarton’s projected history of science. Mabel Sarton founded Belgart, specializing in handmade fashion apparel. Sarton’s father’s somewhat informal appointment at Harvard University led the family to Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1918. There, young Sarton attended Shady Hill School, a Spartan institution run by an educational innovator, Mrs. Hocking, wife of a well-known philosopher, who combined the study of philosophy with poetry. Miss Edgett, an imaginative math teacher, inspired Sarton to be a poet, but Sarton also received encouragement from a family friend in Cambridge, Edith Forbes Kennedy. Kennedy was the inspiration for a character, Willa MacPherson, in Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, whose friendship and encouragement push young Hilary Stevens along on her poetic career. School plays also awakened Sarton’s interest in drama.

In 1919, the family briefly returned to settle their affairs in Belgium. For a short time, Sarton attended the Institute Belge de Culture Française, which she later attended for a year at age twelve. The institute was presided over by Marie Closset, who published poetry as Jean Dominique, and two other women. Literature was taught from great works, and memorization was required. Sarton spent that year with the Limbosches while her parents were in Beirut, Lebanon, so that her father could learn Arabic for his research. The literary atmosphere and general culture that she encountered there influenced Sarton greatly.

A 1926 graduate of Cambridge Latin High School, Sarton recalled...

(The entire section is 1263 words.)

May Sarton Biography

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

May Sarton was the daughter of a Belgian historian of science and an English artist and designer. The family left Belgium for England when World War I broke out, and moved to the United States in 1918. An individualist from an early age, Sarton did not go to college, instead becoming an actress, and later founding the Apprentice Theater. Afterward, Sarton traveled frequently between Europe and the United States for several years. Her first published book, Encounter in April (1937), a collection of poetry, established two of her major themes: love and individualism.

Sarton was a lesbian, a fact she publicly acknowledged in the mid-1960’s. Most of her novels have female protagonists, but the major themes are universal, touching the feelings of men and heterosexual women as well as lesbians. Sarton considered herself to be a poet first and published eighteen collections of poetry as well as nineteen novels. A citizen of the United States since 1924, Sarton’s strongest poetic influences were European, including Rainer Maria Rilke and William Butler Yeats.

Sarton’s most devoted following has come from her fourteen works of nonfiction, primarily journals and memoirs. In these personal writings, beginning with I Knew a Phoenix (1959) and ending with Encore: A Journal of the Eightieth Year (1993), Sarton deals with the need for love and the pain of its loss, the difficulties of being a writer, her many friends and acquaintances (famous and unknown), her self-imposed isolation, and aging and failing health. Sarton believed her journals show “an art of living, how to do it alone. That I’m proud of, and I think it has helped a lot of people.” Nevertheless, “if you really want to reach the inner Sarton, read the novels.” In a 1979 interview, Sarton defined her appeal by stating “the deeper you go into the personal . . . the more you hit the universal.” Poems she has written from what she thought was a unique vantage point have led readers to tell her that she had exactly described what they experienced in their own lives.

May Sarton Biography

(Poets and Poetry in America)

May Sarton was born Eléanore Marie Sarton to Eleanor Mabel Elwes and George Sarton, who had met in Ghent, Belgium, during the early 1900’s, while she was an art student and he a promising young scientist-scholar. In 1910 they married, and in 1912 their only daughter, May, was born, during the same spring that George Sarton founded the scientific journal Isis. That her father connected his daughter’s birth with that of his publication is evident from her account in I Knew a Phoenix of the dedication of one of George Sarton’s scientific works to his wife: “Eleanor Mabel, mother of those strange twins, May and Isis.”

At the outbreak of World War I,Sarton’s father decided that he could no...

(The entire section is 506 words.)

May Sarton Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

One of the most prolific and distinguished of American women of letters, Eléanore Marie Sarton was born in Wondelgem, Belgium, on May 3, 1912, to a Belgian father and a British mother. In 1916 she and her parents immigrated to the United States, settling in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she was naturalized in 1924. George Sarton, her father, was a distinguished historian of science on the faculty at Harvard University. Her British mother, Mabel Elwes Sarton, was an artist and designer of furniture and textiles. Sarton was educated at the Shady Hill School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, attended the Institut Belge de Culture Française, and graduated from the Boston High and Latin School in 1929. Preferring not to attend college,...

(The entire section is 1093 words.)