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May Sarton (May 3, 1912 – July 16, 1995) born Eleanore Marie Sarton, was an American poet, novelist, and memoirist. Born in Belgium, her family moved to Boston, Massachusetts in 1915 after briefly living in England. Her mother was the English artist Mable Elwes Sarton, and her father, George Sarton, was a science historian.
Sarton began writing poetry when she was in her teens. After graduating from high school, she moved to New York City with notions of becoming an actress. She joined the New York’s Civic Repertory Theater and even tried her hand at starting and running such a venture, launching Associated Actor’s Theater in 1933. After the company folded, she continued to write and frequently traveled to Europe , where she became acquainted with many literary figures, including Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Bowen.
Early works of poetry and fiction
May Sarton’s writing began to take off in the 1930’s. Encounter in April, Sarton’s first published poetry collection (1937), contained vivid erotic female imagery. Her first novel, The Single Hound, was published soon after, in 1938. To support her art, she wrote book reviews and taught creative writing.
In 1945, Sarton met Judy Matlack in Santa Fe. The two women developed a deep connection and fell in love, though it wasn’t until 1965 that she revealed her relationship with Matlack in one of her best-known works, Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing. She said of this work:
“The fear of homosexuality is so great that it took courage to write Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing,; to write 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 …”
Despite coming out as a lesbian during a time when very few others did, the popularity of her work wasn’t affected. In fact, it brought high recognition and respect, later to become staples in women’s studies classes. She preferred, however, for her work to be appreciated for its exploration of what is universal in love, rather than as lesbian literature.
Writing across genres
In 1952, Sarton’s book A Shower of Summer Days was published, inspired by Elizabeth Bowen’s house. Sarton’s love for Elizabeth is a highlight of her 1976 nonfiction piece, A World of Light.
When asked in a 1983 Paris Review interview about her ability to shift among different forms of writing, from journals to poetry to novels, Sarton responded:
“Sometimes the demon of self-doubt comes to tell me that I’ve been fatally divided between two crafts, that of the novel and that of poetry, but I’ve always believed that in the end it was the total work which would communicate a vision of life and it really needs different modes to do that. The novels have been written in order to find something out about what I was thinking, questions I was asking myself that I needed to answer.
Take a very simple example, A Shower of Summer Days. The great house that dominates the novel was Bowen’s Court. What interested me was the collision between a rich nature, a young girl in revolt against everything at home in America, and ceremony, tradition, and beauty as represented by the house in Ireland.”
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Self-Searching Quotes from Journal of a Solitude
Journals and memoirs
Sarton’s journals, particularly Plant Dreaming Deep and Journal of a Solitude, are considered among her best works. Published in 1973, Journal of Solitude would later become a key text in women’s studies courses. The books deal honestly with isolation, solitude, love, relationships, sexual orientation, success, failure, gratitude, love of nature, the seasons, and the struggles of a creative life. She deals with aging and illness in her memoirs Recovering, At Seventy, At Eighty Two, and After the Stroke.
Through her various journals, Sarton inspired readers to recognize the sweetness in purposeful solitude and its role in healing and reflection. She wrote: “Loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is richness of self.” She encapsulates the experience pleasure as well as pain of solitude in this line from Journal of a Solitude:
“There is no doubt that solitude is a challenge and to maintain balance within it a precarious business. But I must not forget that, for me, being with people or even with one beloved person for any length of time without solitude is even worse. I lose my center. I feel dispersed, scattered, in pieces. I must have time alone in which to mull over my encounter, and to extract its juice, its essence, to understand what has really happened to me as a consequence of it.”
Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing was reissued in 1974 with an introduction by Carolyn Heilbrun that reconsidered Sarton’s work and contribution to feminist literature. A few years later, A Reckoning (1978) was published, foreshadowing Sarton’s battle with breast cancer.
After Judy Matlack passed away in 1982, Sarton wrote Honey in the Hive (1988), reflecting on their loving relationship. The piece consisted of poems and writings by Matlack, with Sarton’s comments peppered throughout.
Now I Become Myself is one of Sarton’s most beloved poems
Teaching and reflecting
Ms. Sarton taught at both Harvard and Wellesley; her books have been taught in college courses throughout the country. In 1990, while living in Maine, Sarton suffered a stroke that made concentrating and writing a great challenge. She dictated her remaining journals and gained some comfort in being able to reflect on her life.
Death and legacy
May Sarton died of breast cancer on July 16, 1995, at the age of 83. She said of her work: “It is my hope that all the novels, the poems, and the autobiographical books may come to be seen as a whole, the communication of a vision of life.” She has an extensive and impressive legacy’, with over 50 published works.
More about May Sarton on this site
- Now I Become Myself (poem)
- Introspective Quotes by May Sarton
- Self-Searching Quotes from Journal of a Solitude
Below is a modest sampling of May Sarton’s novels. In addition to the list of memoirs that follow, for which she is arguably even better know, Sarton was also a prolific poet. Her poetry is collected is nearly twenty volumes.
- The Single Hound (1938)
- A Shower of Summer Days (1952)
- The Fur Person (1957)
- The Small Room (1961)
- Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing (1965)
- As We Are Now (1973)
- Crucial Conversations (1975)
- A Reckoning (1978)
- Anger (1982)
- The Magnificent Spinster (1985)
- The Education of Harriet Hatfield (1989)
Memoirs and journals
- Plant Dreaming Deep (1968)
- Journal of a Solitude (1978)
- The House by the Sea: A Journal (1977)
- Recovering: A Journal (1980)
- At Seventy: A Journal (1984)
- Endgame: A Journal of the Seventy-Ninth Year (1992)
- Encore: A Journal of the Eightieth Year (1993)
- At Eighty-Two: A Journal (1996)
- I Knew a Phoenix: Sketches for an Autobiography (1959)
- After the Stroke: A Journal (1988)
Biographies about May Sarton
- The Poetry Foundation
- May Sarton: Poetry.com
- Reader discussion of May Sarton’s books on Goodreads
Articles, News, Etc.
- May Sarton’s Grave – Nelson Cemetery, New Hampshire
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