Thursday, May 03, 2012

May Sarton

Born May 3, 1912, in Wondelgem, Belgium, and a naturalized U.S. citizen from the age of two, she remained something of an outsider, which no doubt made her a better observer. That's probably one of the reasons I have always appreciated her: a perpetual outsider, not always a happy one, occasionally caustic, but with an eye for detail that missed little of what was around her. Nobody sees what's actually there better than a stranger. Her poems were usually compressed lyrics, often reflective of the universal within the particular, often full of those details that an outsider sees. Sarton didn't follow any poetic fashions or schools, and was not a self-conscious literary experimenter like many of her generation. In her novels, which I would also call lyrical, she had a fine ear for the subtleties of relationships and human family drama. Some of her very best fiction is about love, insightful and funny and harrowing and profound all at once.

Sarton considered herself first and foremost a poet, with more than a dozen volumes of poetry published, but she also published nine volumes of journals and nineteen novels. It seems likely that her journals and memoirs will be what she is most remembered for, as they remain her most popular books. They continue to inspire new generations of readers. There is an honesty, even in edited form, about the difficulties of reconciling life and art. Journal of a Solitude is still one of the most often read of the journals, a story of living alone on the Maine coast, mostly cut off from others, with the occasional visitor: such an occasion as makes an artist go within and examine one's own darknesses and shadows.

In 1965 she published her tenth novel, Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, which describes a woman’s quest to belong in the world as an artist and a lesbian. After that novel was published, to some controversy even though her reputation as a novelist was already well-established, her later journals were more revealing about her own love for women. In Journal of a Solitude she wrote, "The fear of homosexuality is so great that it took courage to write Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing . . . a novel about a woman homosexual who is not a sex maniac, a drunkard, a drug-taker, or in any way repulsive, to portray a homosexual who is neither pitiable nor disgusting, without sentimentality. . . ." Eventually she admitted what many readers believed, that this novel was autobiographical in spirit, if not literally so in every detail.

Nonetheless, she always insisted that she wanted to known as a poet and novelist, not a lesbian novelist. Some of that of course was the more circumspect times, and the generation she belonged to. There was some critical backlash against Sarton after that, but she has always had a devoted and dedicated fan following. I find this interesting because it means she was always a success to her readers, even if some of the critics were not supportive. What artist doesn't feel sympathy with that?

That double assessment continues to this day. Every so often I still get comments on my blog post here about the day I spent in Nelson, NH, where Sarton lived before Maine, and where she is buried: May Sarton at Nelson, NH. Yet two years after Sarton died in 1995, Margot Peters published May Sarton: A Biography. I read it a few years ago. It's thorough, discusses her entire life, her most important friendships, the places where she lived, and what she wrote. It's also a hatchet job, a biography that is biased towards depicting Sarton as an impossible person who was hard on her friends and angry all the time. Well, she was indeed restless, tempestuous, and strong-willed—but to be a woman artist in her times, one needed to be strong-willed. She doesn't paint herself as perfect in her journals, she doesn't pretend to be without fears or hard times. Nonetheless the journals contain moments of exceptional beauty, of near-awe, of pathos. Any artist who struggles with making a living and making art can sympathize; that many readers do just that speaks highly for her relevance. Plant Dreaming Deep, her first mature memoir, a series of short pieces about her house and friends in Nelson, set a new standard for memoir and journal writing; it remains a lucid and engrossing book, in some ways exceptionally brilliant. So I didn't like Peters' biography very much; it felt quite unbalanced. I think we're still waiting for a more balanced, definitive biography.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for this thoughtful appraisal of May Sarton and for your views of the Peters biography. May Sarton would be grateful.

3:57 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks very much for stopping by. I appreciate the comment.

11:32 PM  

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