May Sarton's life: defining a place


"May Sarton: A Biography," by Margot Peters. Knopf. $30. 452 pages.

As a young poet in the late '70s, I was the opening act for a reading by a small group of celebrated lesbian poets. May Sarton was the headliner. A small, white-haired woman, she was strong and imposing. A gifted reader and a glib talker, she held thrall over the hundreds of (mostly) women who filled the hall.

There are two things I remember vividly from that evening: Sarton's suede shoes were stunning and she was remarkably rude.

There's not much about Sarton's shoes in Margot Peter's well-crafted biography, but tales of her legendary ego abound.

Curiously unremarked

Two years after her death in 1995 at the age of 83, Sarton remains curiously unremarked as a writer, despite a body of work that includes 15 books of poetry , 19 published novels, 13 memoirs and journals, several plays, numerous short stories and essays and enough letters to fill not a steamer trunk but the steamer itself.

Extraordinarily prolific, Sarton wrote till the last weeks of her life, when she was dying of metasticized breast cancer, which had also killed her mother. Despite remarkable productivity, Sarton never achieved true critical success. Peter's vivid examination of Sarton's life and times offers some explanation of why.

May Sarton was the child of parents (the Belgian scholar George Sarton and the English decorative artist Mabel Elwes) who loved the idea of a child more than the child itself. Sarton spent her childhood living haphazardly among her parents' friends - first in Belgium, then later when her parents fled Europe during World War I. Sarton's life-long search for love and approval - from her parents, friends, lovers and readers - was the driving force in her life, supplanting even writing.

Yet love she had. Sarton's passion and talent lit fires in both sexes wherever she went. Attractive, audacious and bratty Sarton assumed she could have whatever - and whomever - she wanted.

Her love life was as prolific as her art. From Eve Le Gallienne to Julian (and Juliette) Huxley to Elizabeth Bowen to Muriel Rukeyser to a host of lesser knowns, Sarton left a passionate wake across two continents and never tried of chase and conquest. Spouses were deserted for her, lovers set adrift for her. It was a complex and fascinating life, described vividly by Peters in rich and readable prose, with subtle ironic nuances.

Important, not great

Peters' thorough research shines. She truly understands Sarton, never condescends to her subject. Peters renders fair and insightful critiques of Sarton's work, delineating why her poetry and novels elicited mixed response while the memoirs and journals garnered acclaim, and determining (accurately) that Sarton's work though not great, is important.

Peters tackles the complexity of the lesbianism that defined Sarton's personal and professional life. Contextualized within the confines of her era, her complicated relationships and later, the feminist and queer movements , Peters explores how Sarton's lesbianism impacted her work.

Mercurial, passionate, generous and demanding, Sarton charmed lovers throughout her life. Peters has written a lucid and feisty biography of this dynamic writer, defining her literary place and bring her to life for a new generation of admirers.

Victoria Brownworth, author and editor of several books, has had criticism published in MS., The Nation, the Village Voice, LRB, Lambda Book Report and other journals. She is at work on a history of women and social reform movements. Her "Film Fatales: Profiles of Women Directors," will be published by Seal Press this Fall.

Pub Date: 3/02/97

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