Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing is particularly significant in that it is a book about being an artist by a full-time writer, who augments her income by lecturing but who has rejected the usual academic source of income. Teaching is a position of power, May Sarton says, and power prevents poets from changing their ideas as freely as they like. Certainly Sarton’s single-minded commitment has resulted in an impressive output of novels, autobiographies, and volumes of poetry. Although her books are not best-sellers, her poetry is unusually popular in an unpoetic age, and her finely crafted novels have many enthusiastic readers, probably because they combine interesting perceptions with a clarity of presentation which is a relief from the muddle of much modern work.
Because the emphasis is on the creative process, the lesbian theme is not of primary importance in Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing. What is important is the discussion of woman as artist, a role which seems to involve sacrifices and denials greater than those of men who serve the Muse. Thus, although Sarton, like James Joyce in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), may discuss epiphanies, her female artist will have agonizing struggles of a kind not seen in Joyce.
Although some critics have regarded Sarton’s fiction as too limited to the problems and sensibilities of the cultivated, well-to-do upper classes, the steadily increasing interest in her work indicates an appreciation of her craftsmanship and of the validity and depth of her insights. She is not an important female writer; she is an important writer who happens to be a woman.