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May Sarton: A Biography; book review by Sarah SchulmanAt her best, famed lesbian poet and novelist May Sarton (1912-1995) was a lyrical, touching writer. At her worst she was banal. Regardless of the limits of her talent, though, Sarton managed to serve as a National Book Award judge, teach at Wellesley, and win Guggenheims. She also found time to write a total of 47 novels, poetry collections, and journals.
Biographer Margot Peters relies on Sarton's wild personal life for excitement, as the poet makes love with everyone from Muriel Rukeyser to her own shrink. Even after numerous breathless dashes chasing skirts across the ocean, Sarton seems never to have grown up. She was always wiring her professor father, begging for ship tickets for her girlfriends or rent on romantic apartments A deux.
Peters is Sarton's authorized biographer, yet she seems to dislike her subject: She throws in Sarton's drunken brawls, fistfights, and mediocre reviews but does not fully give the writer the credit she deserves for publishing an openly lesbian novel (Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing) in 1966.
In the end it is Sarton's integrity about her homosexuality that redeems her, not the quality of her writing. The biography is sprinkled with snippets of cloying, indiscriminate love poems that Sarton produced daily and shipped to whatever female had most recently looked her way. In Peters's version these poems become an all-too-fitting metaphor for Sarton's literary and romantic life.
The Advocate, March 18, 1997