May Sarton: A Biography

Peters, Margot

Published by Knopf, 1997
ISBN 10: 0679415211 / ISBN 13: 9780679415213
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Synopsis: The first biography of May Sarton: a brilliant revelation of the life and work of a literary figure who influenced her thousands of readers not only by her novels and poetry, but by her life and her writings about it.

May Sarton's career stretched from 1930 (early sonnets published in Poetry magazine) to 1995 (her journal At Eighty-Two). She wrote more than twenty novels, and twenty-five books of poems and journals.

The acclaimed biographer Margot Peters was given full access to Sarton's letters, journals, and notes, and during five years of research came to know Sarton herself--the complex woman and artist. She gives us a compelling portrait of Sarton the actress, the poet, the novelist, the feminist, the writer who struggled for literary acceptance. She shows us, beneath Sarton's exhilarating, irresistible spirit, the needy courtier and seducer, the woman whose creativity was propelled by the psychic drama she created in others.

We watch young May at age two as she is abruptly uprooted from her native Belgium by World War I, a child ignored both by her mother, who was intent on her own artistic vision and reluctant to cope with a child, and by her father, obsessed with his academic research.

We see Sarton as a young girl in America, and then later, at nineteen, choosing a life in the theatre, landing a job in Eva Le Gallienne's Civic Repertory, and gathering what would become a tight-knit coterie of friends and lovers . . . Sarton beginning to write poetry and novels . . . Sarton making friends with Elizabeth Bowen and Julian Huxley, Erika and Klaus Mann, Virginia Woolf, the poet H.D.--charming and enlisting them with her work, her vitality, her hunger for  love, driven by her need to conquer (among her conquests: Bowen, Huxley, and later his wife, Juliette).

We see her intense friendships with literary pals, including Muriel Rukeyser (her lover), and Louise Bogan, Sarton's "literary sibling,  who at once encouraged her and excluded her from a world in which Bogan was a central figure.

We see Sarton begin to create in the spiritual journals that inspired the devotion of readers the image of a strong, independent woman who lived peacefully with solitude--an image that contradicted the reality of her neediness, loneliness, and isolation as she pushed away loved ones with her demands and betrayals.

A fascinating portrait of one of our major literary figures--a book that for the first time reveals the life that she herself kept hidden.

Review: Margot Peters had full access to May Sarton's letters, journals, and notes while she researched and wrote this biography, and the result is a book that charts Sarton's personal life as it explores her work as a poet, novelist, and feminist. Peters carefully details Sarton's many love affairs (mostly with women), portraying the writer as an insensitive and self-absorbed lover who was prone to betrayal on the slightest pretext. She attributes this behavior to Sarton's precarious sense of self-worth, developed as a result of parental neglect in her early childhood. That low self-esteem resonated in Sarton's incessant fear--despite publishing 15 books of poetry, 19 novels, and 13 memoirs and journals--that her writing might not be quite up to par. Peters draws this out and, unlike many literary biographers, allows that her subject's writing could have been better. Throughout the book, she points to Sarton's common use of cliché and her tendency toward sentimentality. She suggests that if Sarton had taken more care with her craft and had better editors to guide her, she might have evolved into a better writer. Ultimately, the blend of facts about Sarton's life and loves with the critical analysis of her writing gives readers a comprehensive view of this complex woman and artist.

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Bibliographic Details

Title: May Sarton: A Biography
Publisher: Knopf
Publication Date: 1997
Binding: Hardcover
Book Condition: Acceptable

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