A writer who has worked successfully in many forms of expression, including poetry, the novel, essays, and the journal, May Sarton was born in Belgium on May 3, 1912. Her father, George Sarton, was a historian of science. Her mother, Mabel Sarton, was a designer and an artist. The family moved to America when Sarton was two years old.
Sarton first published poetry when she was still a teenager. As a young woman, she joined Eva Le Gallienne's Civic Repertory Theatre Company. Subsequently, she created her own theater company, which failed in the Great Depression. Sarton felt that this failure helped steer her toward a literary career. Encounter in April, her first book of poems, was published in 1937. Over forty more books in various genres followed.
Sarton's achievements in any of her chosen genres would assure her a place of respect in American letters. For example, women's groups all over the world study her nine journals for their insights into women and the creative process. She wrote often about her work as a writer and the tasks of shaping everyday life. Perhaps the most famous of such books is Journal of a Solitude (1977) in which Sarton explores both the joys and terrors of living alone.
Her poetry often invites the same kind of intimacy with a reader that her journals do. Many of the settings and characters in the poems are those of her journals.
In the journals, Sarton sometimes examined her lesbian relationships. The late journals are the most open about her lesbianism. The subject, however, was central to her work throughout her career. For many years, she lived with Judith Matlack, and she remembered this relationship in Honey in the Hive (1988). Sarton wrote with great honesty and charm about this and other relationships as well.
The persona who emerges from the journals is feisty, joyous (particularly in Nature's changes and beauty), and dedicated to keeping her craft alive, often despite hostile critics.
Of twentieth-century poets, Sarton is somewhat of an outsider in that she often preferred metered, rhymed verse to free verse. Her last three collections, however, suggest a greater interest in free verse. Sound, for her, was not a minor consideration as she built a poem; it largely determined the line.
Her Selected Poems was published in 1978, arranged by theme rather than chronology. In 1993, a new collected poems appeared, including many poems that had been out of print for many years.
Sarton said that for her the Muse was always female. In her tale The Poet and The Donkey, her main character Andy Lightfoot becomes inspired only through the presence of a female Muse. The donkey becomes the missing Muse; Nature brings a Muse to the poet when the poet is ready (perhaps without knowing it) to write.
The poem is not the only element of experience illumined by the presence of a creature. One of Sarton's most beloved books, The Fur Person (1957), portrays two women who live with a cat who, essentially, adopts them as his owner. While the owners are referred to as "old maids," this book suggests a subtle re-evaluation of the role of the spinster in society. As Andy Lightfoot needs the donkey, these two women need their "fur person" to complete their family. Sarton never patronizes the animal world; such a world gives beauty and definition to the lives of her characters.
Sarton's fiction, like her poetry and journals, became more lesbian-identified with the passing years. Of her nineteen novels, perhaps The Education of Harriet Hatfield (1989) and Mrs. Stevens Hears The Mermaids Singing (1965) most closely focus on the awakening of a lesbian identity.
The Education Of Harriet Hatfield is particularly frightening; the opening of a woman-centered bookstore leads to violence--and difficult questions for the protagonist. Here Sarton confronts homophobia dead-on.
In interviews, Sarton expressed anger at critics who derided her novel A Reckoning (1978), which contains a memorable portrait of a gay male son, by marginalizing it as a "lesbian novel."
Sarton's work in nonfiction extends from her journals to twelve portraits of significant figures in her life in A World Of Light (1976). Subtitled "Portraits and Celebrations," this book gives a glimpse into the lives of her father, her mother, some friends, and some literary figures such as Elizabeth Bowen and Louise Bogan. The anecdotal style creates an intimacy, as if one is listening to Sarton speak personally with the reader about these people. The settings and milieu in which she met or knew these people emerge as she probes their characters.
Works such as Writings on Writing (1980) collect essays and interviews Sarton gave over the years. In the film May Sarton: A Self-Portrait (1982), Sarton discussed issues such as poetry, romantic love, Nature, her parents, and "inner space." In this film, Sarton discussed aging and its effects on her as a woman and as a writer.
She read "Gestalt at Sixty," a poem that evokes the hard struggles of a watershed year. The house becomes, for the poet, a sanctuary, a safe space where questions are both welcome and scary. Another film, May Sarton: Writing in the Upward Years (1991), further explored her feelings about aging.
In both films and in her writing as well, the symbol of the phoenix shapes and centers the work. The bird that rose out of its own ashes parallels Sarton's own career. The journals inform us of a woman who often had to fight for publication, let alone recognition. All of her career, she claimed to want an inclusive readership, one that was not limited to any group, but to which she was free to speak and to give an honest reflection of her life.
Her poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have one word in common: courage. One of her best journals, entitled Plant Dreaming Deep (1968), may be as much of a reminder for its writer as for its readers: Dreams need time to clarify and grow. In the deep places, the seed emerges.