Sarton, May, 1912-1995

Alternative names
Birth 1912-05-03
Death 1995-07-16
English, French

Biographical notes:

American poet and author; b. Eleanore Marie Sarton in Belgium; was taken to U.S. in 1916; naturalized in 1924; also known as Eleanor May Sarton; d. 1995.

From the description of May Sarton collection, 1950-1976. (Boston University). WorldCat record id: 70969541

American author.

From the description of As we are now [manuscript], 1973. (University of Virginia). WorldCat record id: 647818543

May Sarton was an American poet and novelist.

From the description of May Sarton collection of papers, 1915-1993 bulk (1928-1974). (New York Public Library). WorldCat record id: 122615571

Poet and novelist May Sarton was born in Belgium. With her parents, she immigrated to the U.S. in 1916. She attended Shady Hill School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and graduated from Cambridge High and Latin in 1929. Sarton went on to pursue a career in theater as an actress, and published her first book of poems in 1937. In 1957-1958, Sarton taught The Art of the Short Story at the Radcliffe Seminars.

From the description of Papers of May Sarton, 1957-1992. (Harvard University). WorldCat record id: 773709923

May Sarton wrote in a remarkable array of genres and themes, but it is as a poet that she will be remembered. Born in Belgium, her family emigrated to the United States in 1916, but her work richly reflects the European tradition.

From the description of May Sarton letters and poems, 1939-1982. (Pennsylvania State University Libraries). WorldCat record id: 49919250

(Eleanor) May Sarton was born May 3, 1912, in Wondelgem, Belgium to Eleanor Mabel (Elwes) Sarton and George Sarton, an historian of science. May Sarton arrived in the U.S. in 1916, settling in Cambridge, eventually becoming a naturalized citizen in 1924. She attended the progressive Shady Hill School and later Cambridge Latin and High, graduating in 1929. Turning down a scholarship to Vassar, Sarton became an apprentice to Eva Le Gallienne's Civic Repertory Theatre until 1933 when she formed her own Associated Actors Theatre which failed in 1935. Subsequently Sarton turned to writing full time. Her first volume of poetry, Encounter in April, (1937) and first novel, The Single Hound, (1938) mark the beginning of Sarton's rich oeuvre, resulting in over fifty books of poetry, fiction, journals and memoirs. Although not fully appreciated by the scholars, Sarton's writing appealed to the "common reader" who has kept her literary legacy alive. Major themes in Sarton's work include the importance of solitude, the vicissitudes of love, nature and the sanctification of everyday life. During the 1940s and 1950s Sarton produced some of her most important poetry including The Lion and the Rose (1948), The Land of Silence (1953) and In Time Like Air (1958) considered by some critics to be one of Sarton's better works. Her fiction included the family saga novel The Bridge of Years (1946), Faithful Are the Wounds (1955) and Birth of a Grandfather (1957) nominated for a National Book Award. In the next decade, with the publication of Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, (1965) now acknowledged as her "coming out novel," Sarton's work began to receive critical recognition among "feminist" scholars in spite of the impact of Karl Shapiro's negative review of the book of poetry, Cloud, Stone, Sun, Vine (1961). According to Sarton this review kept her work from being included in major college anthologies, denying students the opportunity of studying her works. The impact of this negative review contributed to major changes in Sarton's life: the move from Cambridge, Massachuseetts to Nelson, New Hampshire and the purchase of an old farm house which Sarton would memorialize in the memoir Plant Dreaming Deep (1968). In essence she turned her back on the critics and sought solitude in which to write. To counterbalance the benign picture presented in this memoir Plant Dreaming Deep, Sarton composed the Journal of a Solitude, (1973) a book representing some of Sarton's strongest prose and one which professor and literary critic Carolyn Heilbrun would credited as a "watershed in women's autobiography." These two books dramatically increased Sarton's reading public as well as significantly contributing to the art of journal writing. After fifteen years of living in Nelson, New Hampshire, Sarton sold the house and moved to Wildknoll, her "house by the sea" in York, Maine where she would live for the next twenty years until her death. Here she experienced increasingly more serious health challenges including cancer, strokes and heart problems yet her writing continued strong resulting in the publication of the volumes of poetry Halfway to Silence (1980) and Letters From Maine (1984) and the journals Recovering (1981) and At Seventy (1984). But by the 1990s May Sarton admitted to feeling like a "stranger in the land of old age." With serious health issues her physical abilities became increasingly diminished, yet her desire to write and stay engaged in the world around her continued. Unable to type or write she dictated three more journals over the ensuing five years. After a long absence, poetry returned as well, albeit a radically different style resulting in poems written in terse free verse. Many of these poems appeared in her last volume of poetry, Coming Into Eighty (1994). Having previously received Poetry magazine's Levinson Prize for several of these poems, Sarton's life had come full circle. From the early sonnets published in Poetry magazine at the age of eighteen to the poems published in this magazine in 1993, it was a life which began and ended with poetry. May Sarton died July 16, 1995 and is buried in the cemetery on the hill above Nelson, New Hampshire.

From the description of May Sarton collection, 1860-1994. (University of New England). WorldCat record id: 182519178

May Sarton, American poet, novelist and memoirist.

Sallie Simons Gottfried (Smith College Class of 1930). She worked at Time magazine from her graduation until her 1932 marriage to Manfred Gottfried, co-editor of Time. In later years they maintained homes in New York City, on Cape Cod and in Jamaica. She died in 1990.

From the description of [Letters, ca. 1940-1980] / May Sarton. (Smith College). WorldCat record id: 433567640

Biography / Administrative History

May Sarton (May 3, 1912-July 16, 1995), poet and novelist, was born Elanore Marie Sarton in Wondelgem, Belgium, the daughter of George Sarton, a noted historian of science, and Eleanor Mabel Elwes, an English portrait painter and designer. Sarton moved with her parents to England, and in 1916 the family immigrated to the United States. All three became naturalized Americans in 1924, by which time Sarton's name had been Americanized to Eleanor May.

Sarton attended Shady Hill School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, an open-air school that encouraged creative and intellectual development. Her experiences there, particularly her relationship with several remarkable female teachers, greatly influenced both her life and her writing. After graduating, Sarton left home to become an actress in Eva Le Gallienne's Civic Repertory Theater rather than attending college. When that theater disbanded in 1933, the young actress formed her own Apprentice Theater, forgoing any serious devotion to a strictly literary career until her company failed in 1935.

Although she avoided college (her parents had intended for her to go to Vassar), Sarton read voraciously and had begun writing poetry early in life. Her first published poems (five sonnets) appeared in Poetry magazine in 1929; likewise, a volume of her poems, Encounter in April, was published in 1937. Poetry continued as her preferred genre throughout her life, but she could write it only when inspired by what she referred to as her "Muse." Sarton filled the intervals by teaching (including a three-year stint between 1949 and 1952 as a freshman composition instructor at Harvard and another from 1960 to 1964 as a creative writing teacher at Wellesley), writing novels, and keeping journals. In all of her work Sarton treated the recurring themes of solitude, the conflict between marriage and women's freedom, relationships among women, and aging.

Sarton's first novel, The Single Hound (1938), was about an aspiring poet and represents the first of many novels about the artistic life. The Bridge of Years was published in 1946, followed by four or more novels per decade through the 1970s. Anger appeared in 1982. Faithful Are the Wounds (1955) probably received the greatest single recognition, perhaps because its protagonist was a man and the subject matter McCarthyism; certainly it differed from her usual themes.

Although widely read, Sarton's novels received little attention from scholars and literary critics, primarily because she wrote to explore her own feelings and was not always careful with style. Although ignored by the literary establishment, Sarton's reputation grew among feminists as they read and discussed her work.

Hailed by feminists but poorly rewarded by critics, Sarton jeopardized her chances for general recognition with the publication of Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing in 1965. In this novel about the difficulties of the female writer, she shocked the literary world and many of her dedicated readers by presenting a protagonist who was openly bisexual. Her agent advised against publication, and her publisher, Norton, would not advertise the book; this so angered Sarton that she bought a full-page ad for herself in the New York Times. Sarton apparently lost two jobs in 1965 after revealing that she was a lesbian. Indeed, she went on to speak openly of her sexual preferences in her journals. These revelations damaged her universal reputation but made her a heroine to many feminists.

In spite of critical neglect, Sarton continued to produce approximately one book per year, claiming it was a financial necessity to do so. Nevertheless, she received huge amounts of mail from fans, particularly in response to the journals and memoirs. Although she resented this burden of correspondence, Sarton was touched by the reader response to her work and, until her 1987 heart attack, answered each letter herself. In her journals, her greatest distress seemed to focus on the time that cancer and depression stole from her work.

Although she had no inclination to marry and usually lived alone, Sarton had many friendships. Her writing schedule usually tied her up for three hours each morning only. This gave her time to entertain, and she also maintained friendships through frequent correspondence. She wrote to and occasionally saw Virginia Woolf. In "My Sisters, O My Sisters," Sarton aligns herself with other female authors, calling them, "We who are writing women and strange monsters." She felt women were treated badly by male critics, but despite her own feeling that she was being ignored, the author received many fellowships and honorary doctorates.

Sarton died in York, Maine. An interviewer for Publishers Weekly called Sarton's literary recognition "one of the most interesting and long-overdue." In a career spanning sixty years and encompassing more than forty volumes of poetry and prose, Sarton grew gradually from an unknown to a respected and unique artist of her craft.

(Adapted from the American National Biography,

From the guide to the May Sarton collection, 1945-1989, 1957-1967, (Claremont Colleges. Library. Ella Strong Denison Library.)

Eleanor May Sarton was born May 2, 1912 in Wondelgem, Belgium and raised in Cambridge, MA. She was the daughter of George Sarton, the historian of science, and Eleanor Mabel Elwes Sarton, an artist and designer.

May Sarton began her career in theater, first as an apprentice in Eva Le Gallienne's Civic Repertory Theatre in New York (1929-34) and then as the founder and director of the Associated Actors Theatre (1934-37). She published her first book, a volume of poetry entitled Encounter in April, in 1937 and her first novel, The Single House, in 1938. Her works also include journals and film scripts.

Throughout her career Sarton taught, read and lectured extensively across the United States. She received awards and grants from the Poetry Society of America, The Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Unitarian Universalist Women's Federation. In addition, she received the American Book Award and honorary doctorates from Bates College, Colby College, the University of New Hampshire, the University of Maine, Bowdoin College, Union College and Bucknell University among others.

She died on July 16, 1995.

From the guide to the May Sarton Papers, 1846-1995, 1920-1995, (The New York Public Library. Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature.)


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  • Women poets, American
  • Women authors, American--20th century--Correspondence
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  • Fiction--Study and teaching
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  • Women poets, American--Archives
  • Women poets
  • Women authors, American--20th century--Poetry
  • Women authors, American--Archives
  • Women authors
  • Authors, American--20th century
  • American literature--Women authors


  • Women authors, American
  • Women writers
  • Women poets
  • Women poets, American
  • Authors


  • Massachusetts--Cambridge (as recorded)