(b. 3 May 1912 in Wondelgem, Belgium; d. 16 July 1995 in York, Maine), poet, novelist, and memoirist whose journals depicting the rewards and sorrows of living alone won her an enthusiastic following.
Sarton was the only child of Belgian-born George Sarton, a distinguished historian of science and founder of the journal Isis, and an English mother, Mabel Elwes, a designer of textiles and furniture. After fleeing the German invasion of Belgium in 1914, the Sartons finally settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where George taught part-time at Harvard University while also receiving financial support for his private scholarship from the Carnegie Institution. May Sarton attended the progressive Shady Hill Elementary School and the Cambridge High and Latin School. Poetry and the theater were her passions. During the summers she attended the Gloucester School of the Little Theatre and, managing to meet Eva Le Gallienne backstage in Boston, so impressed the great actress that she invited the seventeen-year-old Sarton to join an apprentice group connected to her Civic Repertory Theatre in New York. By 1932 Sarton was managing the apprentices, an effort that failed in 1935, defeated both by the Great Depression and Sarton’s keener interest in writing poetry.
During these New York theater years, Sarton fell in love with Grace Daly, the first of many lesbian lovers who were crucial to her poetic creation, because for Sarton the loved one served as muse. Her love for Daly, as well as for her adored mentor, the Belgian poet Jean Dominique, inspired Encounter in April, published in 1937. Visiting England shortly after the appearance of this first collection, Sarton made friends with the novelist Elizabeth Bowen, the biologist Julian Huxley and his wife Juliette, and S. S. Koteliansky, a reader for Cresset Press in London, which (as did Houghton Mifflin in America) published Sarton’s first novel, The Single Hound (1938), and her second book of poems, Inner Landscape (1939). Reviews were mixed in England and few in America.
Back home, her beloved Europe torn by World War II, Sarton lectured at colleges across the United States, promoting her own work and writing the poems that were eventually published in The Lion and the Rose (1948). Back in Cambridge, however, money was a constant problem; she was still dependent on her father and was living at home. Through the influence of the poet Muriel Rukeyser, Sarton got a job with the Office of War Information in New York City, but by 1944, dissatisfied, she returned to Cambridge to finish her novel The Bridge of Years (1946), an homage to family friends in Belgium with whom she had lived during a year of study abroad, when she was twelve.
Meanwhile, Sarton met Judith (“Judy”) Matlack, a teacher and the only woman with whom the volatile writer would ever establish a home; they shared a small house at 14 Wright Street in Cambridge. Her love for Matlack, however, did not prevent Sarton from leaving for frequent trips to Europe and engaging in even more frequent love affairs during their twelve-year union. Her novel Shadow of a Man (1950), for example, explores in the guise of a male protagonist her passion for Juliette Huxley; A Shower of Summer Days (1952) her relationship with Elizabeth Bowen; The Land of Silence (1953) an affair in Belgium with Eugéenie Du Bois. This latter collection of poems was blasted by John Ciardi in a review in the Nation that devastated Sarton.
Mabel Sarton died in 1950. With new seriousness Sarton undertook Faithful Are the Wounds (1955), a novel about the intellectual liberal as a scapegoat (based on the actual suicide of a Harvard professor) that was nominated for a National Book Award. George Sarton died in 1956, leaving his daughter the family home at Channing Place and a modest inheritance that meant Sarton was no longer forced to supplement her writing income with lecture tours and part-time teaching.
Shortly after the publication of Faithful Are the Wounds, Sarton began a liaison with Cora DuBois, a Harvard professor of anthropology, that ended her union with Matlack. In 1958 Sarton sold her parents’ home in Cambridge and bought and moved into a house in the village of Nelson, New Hampshire, hoping to be alone with DuBois; the affair, however, ended in mutual recrimination. From 1960 to 1968, commuting back to Massachusetts, Sarton taught for one-year appointments at Wellesley College, an experience recreated in the novel The Small Room (1961). Her next novel, published in 1965, proved far more important to her career. Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, Sarton’s coming-out novel about a bisexual writer who celebrates her androgynous creativity, brought her a new readership, establishing her as a literary voice in the growing feminist, gay, and civil rights movements.
But the town of Nelson proved perhaps her best inspiration. In Plant Dreaming Deep (1968), an idealized version of her everyday existence, Sarton described the spiritual riches of living alone in an isolated village. The journal won her a legion of fans that multiplied with the publication of the franker Journal of a Solitude in 1973. Nelson was also the setting for the novel Kinds of Love (1970), though a series of love affairs as well as the turmoil of the 1960s inspired the poems of Grain of Mustard Seed (1971) and A Durable Fire (1972). Her increasingly chaotic private life finally drove Sarton to seek the help of a psychiatrist, Marynia Farnham. But she fell in love with Farnham, and the relationship ended so disastrously that Sarton fled Nelson in 1973 to Wild Knoll, a rented house near the sea in York, Maine.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Sarton’s popularity as a performer of her own poetry grew; standing ovations became the norm. Meanwhile, in response to her journals, fan mail poured in. Complaining of the burden, she nevertheless drove eagerly to the post office to collect her mail and answered every letter. Sarton continued to write poetry to new muses—Halfway to Silence (1980), Letters from Maine (1984), The Silence Now (1988)—and novels, among them As We Are Now (1973), Crucial Conversations (1975), A Reckoning (1978), The Magnificent Spinster (1985), and The Education of Harriet Hatfield (1989). But in these later years she won her broadest and most enthusiastic audience through her journals: The House by the Sea (1977), Recovering (At Seventy (1984), After the Strode (1988), Endgame (1992), Encore (1993), and At Eighty-two (1996). Sarton died at home in York of metastasized breast cancer on 16 July 1995; she is buried in Nelson Cemetery.
Besides short stories, magazine articles, and children’s books; May Sarton wrote fifteen books of poetry, nineteen novels, two memoirs, and nine journals. Love was often her theme—”to be in love is to be alive,” she said—yet solitude, loneliness, frustration, the quest for identity, and the struggle to achieve spiritual balance are equally important subjects. She persistently refused to identify herself as a “lesbian writer,” correctly arguing that her work had universal appeal. Sarton is an important writer because her best work had, and has, the power to change lives.
Norton published Sarton’s Collected Poems: 1930–1993 in 1993 and continues to keep her work in print. Her writing has been collected in Selected Poems of May Sarton (1978), Writings on Writing (1980), Sarton Selected: An Anthology of the Journals, Novels, and Poems of May Sarton (1991), and May Sarton: Among the Usual Days (1993). Susan Sherman, ed., May Sarton: Selected Letters, 1916–1954 (1997) is the first volume of a projected multivolume set of Sarton’s collected letters. Sarton wrote two memoirs, I Knew a Phoenix (1959) and A World of Light (1976). Margot Peters wrote the authorized May Sarton: A Biography (1997). Obituaries are in the Boston Globe and New YorkTimes (both 18 July 1995). Sarton talks about her life and work in World of Light: Portrait of May Sarton (1980), a documentary film produced and directed by Marita Simpson and Martha Wheelock.
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