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Interview with May Sarton by Neila C. SeshachariThis issue comes out in time to wish May Sarton a happy 80th birthday, which falls on 2 May 1992. In a literary career that spans almost sixty years, she has produced over fifty volumes of poetry, journals, memoirs, and novels, with Endgame, her latest journal, scheduled to be published soon by W. W. Norton. It is a prodigious life—the good life.
I drove on a Sunday morning, 4 August 1991, from Saratoga Springs, NY, where I had spent four weeks at the New York State Summer Writers Institute, to interview Ms. Sarton at her home in York, Maine. As I drove east on Interstate 90 on a day that was alternately sunny and overcast with dark, moisture-laden clouds, I could not help thinking that I was on my way to visit a special sanctuary, a domain chiseled consciously by its creator.
No writer I know has lived the deliberate life as May Sarton has. Her move to Nelson was perhaps the conscious beginning of that created world. It turned out to be a cultural event of great significance especially to women, for it gave them, among others, Journal of a Solitude, which in turn brought literary credibility to the "feminine" activity of writing the "daily journal."
May Sarton is the author of over fifty books in four different genres: poetry, novel, journal, and memoir. Her latest books are After the Stroke (journal, 1988), The Silence Now (poetry, 1988). The Education of Harriet Hatfield (novel, 1989) Her latest journal, Endgame, will be published by W.W. Norton for her 80th birthday, 2 May 1992. A collection of interviews titled Conversations with May Sarton was published by the University of Mississippi Press in 1991.
May Sarton was born in Belgium, the daughter of George Sarton, the eminent historian of science, and Mabel Elwes Sarton, an English artist. The family emigrated to the United States in 1916 as refugees from World War I. May Sarton currently lives in York, Maine.
A fellow since 1958 of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Sarton has received many honorary doctorates. She has been a Guggenheim fellow, a Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholar, a Danforth Foundation Visiting Lecturer, and has been reading poems all over the country for many years. Her more recent awards include the Unitarian-Universalist Women's Federation Award for Ministry to Women, the Avon/COCOA Pioneer Woman Award, Fund for Human Dignity Award, and the Maryann Hartman Award. At Seventy: A Journal was selected for the American Book Awards in 1985.
The following interview was recorded on 5 August 1991 at her home in York, Maine. As is my wont, I had sent her a set of questions earlier. (The actual interview, of course, always takes a direction of its own.) We had planned to record the interview over a period of two days so as to not tire her out on one single day. On that beautiful Monday, however, she was in great spirits and graciously insisted that I visit her again that evening after our morning recording. We even had time to view the latest video focusing on her life and work, titled "Writing in the Upward Years," produced by Stephen Robitaille and Bill Suchy . Altogether, I spent a most pleasant time at her home set in the idyllic settings of a Maine coastline.
Seshachari: What moved me deeply in your journal featured in this issue is the way you planted lobelia. Since you cannot now bend to plant them, you say you get into your work clothes and lie on the ground to do so. It is a telling image - this hugging the Earth. It makes me think of you as Mother Earth!
Sarton: It comes naturally. I lie down very near the plant, and I don't have to disturb anything.
Seshachari: In Sanskrit there is a word called aikya, which means "oneness" and it's often used to express oneness with the sacred, the holy, the rejuvenating. When I read about your lying on the ground to plant lobelia, I thought, This is it; this is at the heart of your oneness with nature.
Sarton: You have to remember that my astrological sign is Taurus.
Seshachari: But you have felt alienated in other ways. As a writer, you are always aware that you are an "alien" in this country in spite of your admiration and affection for it. In various books, including After the Stroke, you mention how your mother felt the alienation and how you continue to do so. I am used to thinking that European immigrants assimilate quickly into this country, whereas Asian, Latin American, African, and other immigrants, because of their color and their vastly different cultures, never quite overcome their feelings of alienation. In what ways have you felt alienated? Are there any specific social and political reasons why you continue to feel an "alien" even though you grew up in this country, and both your color and name are part of the mainstream tradition of the USA?
Sarton: Curiously enough, I don't think I feel alienated in the sense that you imply and never did. But I always felt that Europe was there, as Eva Le Gallienne called it, the "old nurse." I always went back. But also you must remember, we were not refugees like Russians driven out by the government or the Nazis later. We were driven out by the Germans. We were in Wondelgem, Belgium, when the 1914 war broke out. We were refugees from there.
Seshachari: You give a fine account of those times in I Knew a Phoenix.
Sarton: I felt at home in Europe and with the intelligentsia there far more than I did in America for many reasons. One reason is that men in Europe like powerful women; they don't like them in America. I was accepted and loved by all kinds of people in Europe, men like LugnZ-Po' when I was in Paris, Julian Huxley, S.S. Koteliansky - all the people I've written about. And here there never were those kinds of friendships. Secondly, I am a lesbian and this [way of life] was totally acceptable in Europe and not, at that time, in America. I came out with Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing and it took courage. I lost two jobs immediately.
Seshachari: Mrs. Stevens surely is a landmark in your novel-writing career. It deals with difficult, taboo questions. However, when I first read Mrs. Stevens, I noted that Hilary's relationships with Phillippa Munn and Willa MacPherson both end in traditionally sanctioned ways. I found no "celebration" of their relationship. Why did Hilary's relationship with Willa have to end after their first ecstatic encounter? Why was there no "celebration" of their relationship even if the relationship was doomed socially?
Sarton: It is not the sexual experience of a series of lesbian relationships that is the theme of Mrs. Stevens. The theme is - "For a woman poet, who is the muse?" And Hilary's answer is, "Always a woman." Very often the sexual side of this journey in the imagination is not sexually fulfilled. The poems Hilary writes are the fulfillment. That is why the book you suggest I should have written, the great lesbian novel, I shall never write. Mrs. Stevens is autobiographical. I made the protagonist, Hilary Stevens, twenty years older than I was when I wrote the book, hoping it would help give me some distance, detachment, and I believe that did work.
Why did Hilary's relation with Willa end so abruptly? Because that is what happened with the real Willa, Edith Forbes Kennedy. She had a heart attack and never really recovered. The Dorothy of the novel was in reality a famous cultural anthropologist. It was a passionate relationship, but we fought like tigers, poetry against science, and that is what the sonnet sequence "A Divorce of Lovers" is all about.
Seshachari: The novel is a compelling narrative.
Sarton: Now twenty-six years after it was published it has become something of a classic and is used a great deal in Women's Studies courses. But in 1965 I was determined to be known as a writer before I published a lesbian book and could be labeled as that alone.
Seshachari: Yes. I think that it is important to be known as a writer rather than a "lesbian writer." We don't think of Gertrude Stein, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, and others as labeled writers. They are writers, and so are you.
Sarton: When Mrs. Stevens came out, a reviewer in the Herald Tribune stated: "Since 1938 May Sarton has given us a succession of simple, richly composed novels graced with a clear-hearted feeling and a penetrating respect for reality . . . . She has been publishing good poetry even longer . . . an aristocrat whose patent is clarity of mind." And it is a mixture of very strong feeling, the height of feeling with intelligence, which is my mark.
Seshachari: What strikes me is that when you went to Nelson, you did something you had not done before. You started writing your journals. And I think the journals forged a new, totally new way to appeal to everybody.
Sarton: I had no idea of "appealing to everybody" of course. I started Journal of a Solitude to come to terms with myself and was not even sure I would publish it.
Seshachari: One thing I love - and I am sure many of your other readers do too - about your journals is the way you are honest with your feelings. You "celebrate" all the little things of life that constitute the anchor and hope of us all: your pets Tamas and Bramble, who became everybody's pets; the flower beds and flowers in your garden; the squirrels and jays and other birds. And yet you refer obliquely to your intimate friends as only K and Z and X. Why did you not celebrate these friendships? I know so much about your pets Tamas and Bramble, and even Pierrot now, from reading your journals, but oh so little about Judy Matlack who influenced you perhaps even more than these pets did. As a reader, I feel a little deprived of the richness that lurks right there behind the other delights but never was brought out.
Sarton: But dear Neila, why do I not name my lovers? Because Judy was a professor at Simmons College. If it had been known that she was living with me, a lesbian, she might have been fired. You have to think back 30 years. Let me say this too that people don't read the journals to discover me; they read the journals to discover themselves. I can give you just hundreds of examples of letters where this is said. You see, it's most interesting, a letter came yesterday [4 August 1991] from a woman who said that she was reading Journal of a Solitude: "I found you had comforted me, enlightened me, and helped direct me toward a new stage of personal growth." That's what the journals are doing.
Seshachari: And how delightfully. I couldn't put away your Journal of a Solitude when I first read it about ten years ago.
Sarton: It's the best I think.
Seshachari: I agree. You say "Begin here," and you really did begin afresh. It strikes me that solitude is the one thing that every woman needs . . .
Sarton: And knows . . .
Seshachari: . . . and wants, because it provides the only environment in which she can grow. It doesn't matter what her sexual persuasion is - or whether she is a mother, or young, or old. Women are too hemmed in with social responsibilities of all kinds.
Sarton: That's why I am called the Mother of Us All by the lesbians.
Seshachari: You are the mother of us all women.
Sarton: Oh good. That's lovely. Lovely to be the mother of everyone.
Seshachari: In your journal [published in this issue] you quote a thought on empathy from Piero Ferucci's Inevitable Grace - that empathy enables an artist to feel and express the most concealed needs, pains, dreams, of a whole society. I think you have done that significantly in your novels in that they express the needs and fears of women.
Sarton: The novels were to answer a question that was in my mind. "What do I really think is the price of excellence such as my own?" That there is a very high price to be paid for it. Edward Cavan in Faithful Are the Wounds was driven over the edge by being overpressured. "How can a man be right and wrong at the same time?" Cavan in the novel was based on F. O. Matthiessen, of course.
Seshachari: Yes, he was a brilliant man.
Sarton: Well you see Matthiessen believed that communists and socialists would be able to get together in Czechoslovakia and he was wrong. And I think he committed suicide partly because of that. But he was right in the deepest sense because we must all try to work together.
Seshachari: If I were to ask you which three novels of all you have written would you hold as most representative and dearest in terms of this empathy, which would you name?
Sarton: Well A Reckoning would be one of my favorites. And As We Are Now certainly.
Seshachari: And Mrs. Stevens?
Sarton: That would be a natural. Yes, Mrs. Stevens.
Seshachari: What about The Education of Harriet Hatfield?
Sarton: Hatfield I love, but I don't think it's as good a novel as one of the others. A Reckoning, As We Are Now, and Mrs. Stevens. Mrs. Stevens has helped a great many women recognize what they were feeling.
Seshachari: In Hatfield, you voiced a social concern that's close to your heart and of many women too.
Sarton: Yes, that's true.
Seshachari: In Hatfield there is this Carolyn who is dying. You remember?
Sarton: Yes indeed.
Seshachari: Is she Laura Spellman of A Reckoning with another name?
Sarton: No, she really isn't. Carolyn was based on a real person, whom I knew and who was dying. And who was such a lifegiver while she was dying. Laura was in a way myself I suppose. Not myself really. I don't know.
Seshachari: As you might have felt had you been in her situation?
Seshachari: If you had named her Laura Spellman in Hatfield you might have achieved an interconnectedness in the two novels - the kind that Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., for instance, loves to do. Did you think about that?
Sarton: No, I didn't. I never have. The novels have been separate one from another. I do not want interconnectedness among the characters -
Seshachari: In Hatfield I noticed a different trend in your writing. You come out openly and make statements . . .
Sarton: Yes, that's right.
Seshachari: It's almost as if you say, "Out with it all."
Sarton: But I am nearly eighty and feel free now to be "out with it all" - and why not?
Seshachari: Let me ask you about your personal myth making. In your journals you have often talked of creating a myth and living by it.
Sarton: You misinterpret me on that. I never said that you make your myth. You make your life and it becomes a myth. There is a big difference. Anais Nin made her myth. I don't. She places herself always in a shining light, tells her readers how wonderful she is. What my journals are about is a way of life. That's what they're really about. That's what people fasten onto. It is a way of life which is really the sacramentalization of the ordinary. Somebody wrote a Master's thesis on me and Vermeer, the Dutch painter.
Seshachari: You mention that in your journal.
Sarton: He sacramentalizes with an extraordinary light the kitchens, the simple interiors of the Dutch housewife. And in the journals that's what I do, but in a different way.
Seshachari: Let's connect this to A Private Mythology, your collection of poems. In it you write about experiences when you traveled outside your cultural terrain or your cultural anchor, if you will. And you went by yourself. You traveled to Japan, India, Greece.
Sarton: Yes, I did. This trip was to celebrate my 50th birthday - to climb the Acropolis on my 50th birthday - and I deliberately chose to approach the West from the East. I came from the old civilizations into Greece which seemed the youngest possible. The smog was not so bad then in Athens, so getting out at night, there was a brilliant light, very different from the heavy humid air of Calcutta -
Seshachari: But you reached Calcutta in the early hours of the morning. In "Approach - Calcutta," you say the city appeared like an improvised morgue.
Sarton: That's right. One of the things that ties into this I think is the mysticism of the experience, but you don't ask about my mysticism [in the questions sent earlier]. It is the religious who have recognized me as a mystic rather than the intellectuals.
Seshachari: I have some additional questions with me now which ask just that! Here, let me read a couple: Did your travels to Japan and India change your private mythology? And what lasting visions and mystic impressions did you get from your travels?
Sarton: One [impression] certainly is what I express in the poem about the God Vishnu. Let things happen, don't make them happen.
Seshachari: He is the sleeping God as well as the Preserver.
Sarton: Yes, the sleeping God. Really the whole journey was a tremendously religious experience. The month in India, then the time in Greece. The month in Japan was very, very moving. Of course I saw really a historical Japan which is already gone. Temples existed purely as tourist attractions. Tokyo is just a jumble, with people, and I think I had my luck with Kyoko, my guide. She was such a wonderful woman.
Seshachari: I was impressed to note that in your "Japanese Prints," you begin to think in Japanese mystic imagery.
Sarton: No, more in the imagery of the Japanese prints.
Seshachari: And when you come to India you get into the Indian ethos. Then there are the two poems in A Grain of Mustard Seed - "The Invocation to Kali" and "The Muse as Medusa." There is the connecting symbol between Kali and Medusa.
Sarton: Oh yes there is. That's a very good connection.
Seshachari: You have celebrated Kali; you have celebrated Medusa. You say you turn Medusa's face and see yourself. I suppose every woman has to see herself in both Kali and Medusa.
Sarton: Yes, I think she does.
Seshachari: Talk about the relationship between the two.
Sarton: This was of course the recognition of evil and in the poem to Kali I say no child is born without blood, without pain. And Kali is a terrible goddess but also one who gives life.
Seshachari: You aptly quote Joseph Campbell in the poem.
Sarton: Oh he's a marvelous man, marvelous writer. And he's a builder of bridges. I see myself as a builder of bridges - of bridges between Europe and America certainly, and between the homosexual and the heterosexual world. So many people who never understood or wanted to know anything about homosexuals now want to understand them because of Harriet Hatfield. Men are saying, "I want to go to that bookstore. I'd never understood before."
Seshachari: Is that a fictitious or a real bookstore?
Sarton: I made it up of course. But there are two or three such bookstores. There is one in Andover, one in Cambridge - in Somerville, actually.
Seshachari: It is an ingenious idea, the bookstore. That's one place where every kind of woman from a house cleaner to a psychiatrist visits and men visit too. But talk about Kali please.
Sarton: Well I don't know. I feel I've said it in the poems and of course the poems are where I am most myself. It does occur to me that there is a radical difference between Kali and Medusa. Kali is the goddess both of destruction and of creation. Medusa turns men to stone. When I thank Medusa it is for revealing perhaps how ravaged we have become, "a secret, self-enclosed and ravaged place" - and so setting me free. And if I had to choose between the poems and my work - had to choose one - it would be the poems. I mean, let everything else go but I want the poems to live, and I think they will.
Seshachari: But for some time at least I see your journals stealing the limelight. I mean many people have written journals, but I think there is something in your journals that was said at the right time and in the right way, and there was a waiting readership. Like what happens when the Earth is parched and waiting, and the firmament pours rain.
Sarton: I don't think the journals "stole the limelight." Rather they opened the door into poetry for some readers. They were a connecting link. I started producing . . . started writing journals when I was fifty. I too evolved as a person when I started writing them.
Seshachari: That's when you struck gold. You forged a new direction.
Sarton: Yes, that's true in a way.
Seshachari: Wordsworth said every poet has to create the taste by which he (or she) is to be judged. And I think your own personal dimension, where you went out on a limb, was journal writing.
Sarton: Yes, maybe so. But the funny thing with the poems is really that of the times. I should have been born ten years earlier; then I would have been one of the women poets like Edna St. Vincent Millay, who was writing in form. When I came, form had become unfashionable, so I was pushed aside as derivative and not interesting, as one critic says. Actually I was dealing with material which was often radical like the use of psychiatry in "Divorce of Lovers." But they didn't get that; they just saw me as old-fashioned. And they were wrong.
Seshachari: Let's talk about the treatment of your subject matter. You write very lyrically and you write about radical topics, but in your love poems, for example, I did not feel a concrete person.
Sarton: Oh surely you did.
Seshachari: I caught a glimpse here and there.
Sarton: The love poems are essences, metaphysical not physical. Do you feel a concrete person in John Donne? To me love poems have to do with transcendence - transcending the physical to get to essence, transcending rejection even. (I have often had to!) A Durable Fire, written when I was fifty, and Halfway to Silence, written when I was sixty-five, both are books of love poems in this sense, and The Collected Poems too, for that matter.
When I am asked to appear at colleges and universities it is always to read my poems. On my last tour which took me to Seattle and Portland, Oregon, large auditoriums were sold out three months before I came. That is what happened in San Francisco also, and happened in a large theatre at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. People like to hear me read my poems.
Seshachari: Tell me more about A Grain of Mustard Seed. Isn't that a Christian image? What is the Parable of the Mustard Seed?
Sarton: The Parable of the Mustard Seed is Matthew XVII-20. Jesus tells his disciples, "If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place, and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible to you." A Grain of Mustard Seed has more political poems than my books usually do.
Seshachari: You have a poem on a kingfisher which I like very much . . .
Sarton: In Kashmir.
Seshachari: Yes in Kashmir. Does it have anything to do with the Christian myth of the Fisher King?
Sarton: It has nothing to do with the myth of the Fisher King. It is purely descriptive of a kingfisher I watched fishing for hours off a pole in Kashmir.
Seshachari: How did your travels to India and Japan and Greece enrich your essentially Christian mysticism?
Sarton: Oh enormously. I guess I came back very much a Christian, even though I felt drawn to other philosophies. Like Gandhi, I think all religions are true. You see in a sense all great religions believe in a single God. And then there are the Goddesses. I'm a Unitarian. That's my affiliation because Unitarians don't believe in the divinity of Jesus. They believe in Jesus as one of the great spiritual leaders, like Buddha, like many others.
Seshachari: You've written volumes of poetry, you've written many novels, not to speak of your journals. If you were asked to be judged by one genre, which one would you think of?
Sarton: If you are a poet at all, you are a poet first. The poems are going to outlast everything else, I think, even though they have not had a break from the critics. I'm still in the wilderness. I'm not even in The Norton Anthology of Poetry. It's disgusting.
Seshachari: Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar include your poetry in The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women.
Sarton: Yes I know they do with the Medusa poem and a couple of others.
Seshachari: Why did they not include selections from your journals?
Sarton: Because the poetry is the more important.
Seshachari: If Gilbert and Gubar were compiling an anthology of women writing about themselves and about women impacting other women, then it seems to me your journals have as much place as your poems. But let's talk for a moment about "The Cosset Lamb," the poem we have featured here in its various versions from inception to final revision. Explain your use of the word "cosset" here.
Sarton: A cosset is a lamb which, for one reason or another, is rejected by the mother. In this case because he was licked by a dog - the smell. So it has to be cared for at home, in somebody's arms instead. I use it in its usual meaning.
Seshachari: Let me ask another quick question. In your Journal of a Solitude you mention that Louise Bogan once said to you, "You keep hell out of your work."
Sarton: This is a good question. I have not. I mean every novel uses one form of hell or another. A woman locked up in a nursing home who commits suicide, is that not hell? Why do people say "Your books nourish me and they give me hope and they give me life?" Because they [the books] are always transcendent in some way.
Seshachari: Bogan was talking about your poetry. You have happy resolutions in your poems.
Sarton: There were all the love affairs, none of them happy, but I believe in transcendence that lies in surmounting the thing that's painful to some other level. That's what poetry is all about.
Seshachari: You say that your poetry is a dialogue between you and God.
Sarton: Not a dialogue, no. God doesn't talk to me. My poetry is between me and God, not a dialogue between me and God. That is, if I were in a concentration camp or solitary confinement rather, I would write poetry but I would not write novels or journals.
Seshachari: You remind me of Dickens, who held certain social issues very close to his heart. He voiced his social concerns in his novels, and it appears to me that you are doing the same. In your novels you keep going deeper and deeper into "hell" so that when you come to Hatfield, you are talking not only about women getting together, about house cleaners wanting communion with other women and men, and about the bookstore reuniting a long-estranged brother and sister, but you are also talking about AIDS. You talk of one woman's courage, and I think in a sense you do "celebrate." Harriet celebrates her relationship with Vickie.
Sarton: Celebrates Vickie?
Seshachari: Even though it is posthumous, she does - in her memory.
Sarton: Oh yes, yes, in a way she does. That's true.
Seshachari: Celebration comes in various forms. For instance, I feel very happy interviewing you right now, and I feel I'm celebrating this moment with you.
Sarton: Oh that's lovely. I feel it too.
Seshachari: And this kind of celebration you avoid in your novels.
Sarton: I do just that in the five novels that deal with marriages from The Bridge of Years through Anger; I have written a lot about family life and about marriages as they mature until, in Kinds of Love, the married couple are old. I have also written a lot about friendship between women. Most readers of mine feel that my novels are celebrations of life. And that is why they have proved to be helpful. How many people have written me to thank me for A Reckoning as it helped them with a dying parent or friend.
Seshachari: You deal with social issues openly in your novels, but you do not show that same comfort with your own relationships in your journals.
Sarton: In the journals I had to protect some people like Judy. I'm not a scandal monger, and it would have done great harm to people I loved. I've written a whole book about Judy.
Seshachari: Honey in the Hive. I couldn't get hold of it.
Sarton: It's not something you can buy. It was published by her nephew and given away.
Seshachari: You didn't write too many poems for Judy. Why is that?
Sarton: There are a few, however. The one that everybody loves called "The Light Left On" - that's for Judy. We were living together you see. I think you are right. For a writer, it is either wooing the muse with the poems, or it is a love affair which is going badly, or it is something you have to talk about. Inner Landscape is almost all written to one person - Edith Kennedy. But when you live with someone, as in a marriage - Judy and I were truly married for fifteen years [1945 through 1960] - then I think it's different.
Seshachari: She was with you in Nelson.
Sarton: Yes, she came to Nelson and we traveled together. Then I fell in love with someone else and it was very tragic for Judy, but it never turned into anything. It was Dorothy with whom I fought; we were lovers for five years and Judy went through hell about that. But she remained my dearest friend, came to Nelson very often. In fact we shared the two cats, Fuzz Buzz and Scrabble. She had them in the winter and I had them in the summer. And we were always very close.
Seshachari: Are there any portions in your diary that have not been published so far?
Sarton: No, no. I wanted everything to be published. What will be published after I'm dead is literally hundreds of letters which are all in the [Henry W. and Albert A.] Berg collection in the New York Public Library. There are thousands of them to me and from me.
Seshachari: You have so many friends and fans who write to you. You speak about your friends - your extended family members - so eloquently . . .
Sarton: There are very many of them.
Seshachari: Men and women, scholars and philosophers and bishops . . .
Sarton: And just ordinary folk.
Seshachari: Ordinary folk too.
Sarton: Yes, I'm very touched when a rather uneducated person writes me and loves the work. It moves me. In a way I prefer it to the highly intellectual response. It makes me feel it's something universal.
Seshachari: You appeal to all kinds of women - the less educated, the highly educated, the religious, and single women, and housewives - everyone finds something of value in your journals.
Sarton: Let me quickly interrupt to say that it is a mistake to believe that I'm not read by men. More and more I hear from men. For instance here is a letter from an Episcopal Bishop in Texas saying that I've done so much for him and for his whole congregation. "I have been healed and blessed and have shared your insights with many, many others." This from a male bishop. There you are. People think of me as a woman's writer but that is not really true. It's sometimes that women are apt to write fan letters and men don't. I find a letter from a man about once every week in my mail.
Seshachari: In one of your journals you mention that you avoid intimate friendships with successful writers.
Sarton: Right. There is so much jealousy between women you see. That's why I've never had good reviews from women compared to the reviews I've had from men. Men's reviews have been often wonderful, especially thirty years ago, especially when I was starting out. But women are jealous of women writers. It's very hard, but they are. There's no getting around it. It's such a struggle to be a woman poet. I'm sure Louise Bogan was jealous of me. You see she could have made me. At the time that we first met, I was nowhere, and she was a critic for the New Yorker.
Seshachari: Louise Bogan's remark that you keep "hell" out of your work does not apply to your novels even though they leave a lingering feeling that the resolutions are traditional.
Sarton: It's not traditional for a person to commit suicide at the end of a novel. I have two novels that deal with suicide. That's not traditional. I use a journal in Kinds of Love for instance. What you can say is that I've been interested in dealing with older people. That's rare. And I am interested in friendships between women, not in homosexual relations. Very few people have written about a friendship like that of Christina and Ellen Comstock in Kinds of Love.
Seshachari: True. In A Reckoning, Laura Spellman asks for Ella and she comes. But they do not face the rest of the world.
Sarton: In that book I am celebrating an ardent friendship between two women and I have done so elsewhere [Christina and Ellen in Kinds of Love]. I was not avoiding the homosexual, I was celebrating another kind of relationship, rarely described in a novel. Their friendship goes thirty or forty years before the book begins. And they were not lovers, but they certainly meant everything to each other. I have a friend who is Ella - we were never lovers. But if I were dying, she's one person I would want to come. She's like another half of me. She's married, has children, is a grandmother. She did what I might have done and didn't do. So I base that novel on that [kind of affection or love]. It's not supposed to be homosexual, it's supposed to be what I've done, which is a higher region, which hasn't been done before.
Seshachari: You deal with the subject well in Mrs. Stevens too.
Sarton: That was technically a very brilliant job even if I say so myself. Because it's got the flashbacks, the way I've handled them.
Seshachari: And the language is very lyrical and brilliant. Please talk about your novels, where you've dealt with women growing old graciously. Christina, for example, in Kinds of Love. You have forged a new dimension here for women to think about.
Sarton: I think so too. I'm glad you feel that.
Seshachari: From the moment a woman sees the first wrinkle on her face or the first crow's feet around her eyes, she begins to worry about getting old.
Sarton: Well you see, I've always loved older people, so it wasn't strange for me. Most of my great friends and even the people I've loved most have been older than I. It's interesting. Judy was fourteen years older.
Seshachari: Your own golden years have been good for you. You have been very productive.
Sarton: Yes, I still write. My latest journal, Endgame, will be published by Norton for my 80th birthday. Various university presses are bringing out books on aspects of my work. One is already published, a collection of interviews under the title Conversations with May Sarton (University of Mississippi Press, 1991). As for the novels, they want to make a movie of Kinds of Love. Also, one of As We Are Now. Yes, so a lot is still happening.
Weber Studies Spring/Summer 1992, Volume 9.2
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