Sarton, May, 1912-1995

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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, http://www.anb.org)

Archival Resources
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creatorOf Sarton, May, 1912-1995. Typed letter signed May Sarton to: Mrs. Jedrey October 29, 1991. Wellesley College
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referencedIn Padraic Colum collection of papers, 1901-1963 The New York Public Library. Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature.
creatorOf May Sarton Papers, 1846-1995, 1920-1995 The New York Public Library. Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature.
referencedIn Bogan Papers, 1930-1970 Amherst College Archives and Special Collections
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creatorOf Sarton, May, 1912-1995. Papers of May Sarton, 1957-1992. Harvard University, Schlesinger Library
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creatorOf Sarton, May, 1912-1995. Typed letter signed May [Sarton] to: "Anna dear" [Anna Seraphimidou], June 18th, 1962, Provence, Mas du Planet. Wellesley College
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creatorOf Sarton, May, 1912-1995. [Archive of letters and contracts relating to subsidiary rights of publications / May Sarton]. Western Michigan University, Dwight B. Waldo Library
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creatorOf Sarton, May, 1912-1995. Typed letter signed May Sarton to: Miss King May 16, 1952. Wellesley College
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referencedIn Correspondence, 1860-1979. Houghton Library.
referencedIn Lewis Gannett papers, 1681-1966 (inclusive) 1900-1960 (bulk). Houghton Library.
creatorOf Sarton, May, 1912-1995. Typed postcard signed May Sarton to: Miss Brown March 9, [1954]. Wellesley College
referencedIn Letters and documents. Hollins University, Wyndham Robertson Library
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creatorOf Sarton, May, 1912-1995. Typed letter signed May [Sarton] to: "Anna dear" [Anna Seraphimidou], Feb. 16, [1963], R.F.D. Munsonville, N.H. Wellesley College
referencedIn James Stephens collection of papers, 1908-1939, 1911-1938 The New York Public Library. Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature.
referencedIn Valerie Taylor collection, 1973-1997. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.
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creatorOf Sarton, May, 1912-1995. As we are now [manuscript], 1973. University of Virginia. Library
creatorOf Fenninger, P. Edward. To the living / music by P. Edward Fenninger ; text by May Sarton. Duke University Libraries, Duke University Library; Perkins Library
referencedIn Nancy Hale Papers 251., 1908 - 1989 Sophia Smith Collection
creatorOf Sarton, May, 1912-1995. Correspondence, 1946-1949. Mount Holyoke College, Williston & Miles-Smith Library
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creatorOf Catalano, George. Invocation : a choral invitation to worship / music by George Catalano ; words by May Sarton. New York Public Library System, NYPL
referencedIn A Visit to the house by the sea in the snow, 1985 Feb. Maine Historical Society Library
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creatorOf Sarton, May, 1912-1995. Typed letter signed "M" to: Eleanor dear June 18, 1969. Wellesley College
creatorOf MacLeish, Archibald, 1892-1982. Archibald MacLeish collection of papers, 1923-1981. New York Public Library System, NYPL
creatorOf MacGillivray, Arthur. Arthur MacGillivray Papers, 1930-1987. Boston College, Thomas P. O'Neill Library
creatorOf Moore, Marianne, 1887-1975. Marianne Moore collection of papers, 1887-1975 bulk (1921-1969). New York Public Library System, NYPL
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
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associatedWith AGNES (GOLDMAN) SANBORN, 1887-1984 person
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associatedWith Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. corporateBody
associatedWith Alfred, Bill. person
associatedWith Allen, Don Cameron, 1904- person
correspondedWith Allen, Gay Wilson, 1903- person
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associatedWith Ames, Evelyn Perkins. person
associatedWith Ames, Evie. person
associatedWith Andrews, Betty. person
correspondedWith Angoff, Charles, 1902-1979. person
associatedWith Apprentice Theatre corporateBody
associatedWith Apprentice Theatre. corporateBody
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associatedWith Associated Actors Theatre, Inc corporateBody
associatedWith Associated Actors Theatre, Inc. corporateBody
associatedWith Atherton, Susan. person
associatedWith Auden, W. H. (Wystan Hugh), 1907-1973. person
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associatedWith Brown, William Theo, 1919- person
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correspondedWith Burack, A. S. (Abraham Saul), 1908- person
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correspondedWith Bynner, Witter, 1881-1968 person
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associatedWith Childe, Paul. person
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associatedWith Church, Peggy Pond. person
associatedWith Churchyard, Constance. person
associatedWith Chute, Marchette person
associatedWith Civic Repertory Theatre corporateBody
associatedWith Civic Repertory Theatre. corporateBody
associatedWith Clapp, Margaret. person
associatedWith Clark, Jean. person
associatedWith Clark, Margot. person
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associatedWith Closset, Marie, 1875- person
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associatedWith Conrad, Sherman. person
associatedWith Constantinople, Anne. person
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associatedWith Dominique, Jean, translator. person
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correspondedWith Du Bois, Cora Alice, 1903- person
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associatedWith DuBois, Rochelle. person
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correspondedWith Evans, Elizabeth, 1935- person
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associatedWith Flanagan, Hallie, 1890-1969. person
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associatedWith Florence Hope Luscomb, 1887-1985 person
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correspondedWith Garrett, George P., 1929-2008 person
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associatedWith Harvard Art Museum Archives corporateBody
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associatedWith Hawley, Margaret Foote, 1880-1963. person
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correspondedWith Hope Hale Davis person
correspondedWith Houghton Mifflin Company. corporateBody
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associatedWith Howe, Helen, 1905-1975. person
associatedWith Howe, Helen (Mrs. Reginald Allen). person
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correspondedWith Huxley, Juliette, 1896- person
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associatedWith Jacobi, Lotte, 1896-1990. person
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associatedWith Kallet, Marilyn. person
associatedWith Kallet, Marilyn, editor. person
associatedWith Kambour, Annaliese. person
associatedWith Katharine Taylor person
associatedWith Kennedy, Edith. person
associatedWith Kennedy, Susan. person
associatedWith Kennedy, Terry. person
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associatedWith Kenney, Susan, 1941- person
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associatedWith Koteliansky, S. S. (Samuel Solomonovitch), 1880-1955. person
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correspondedWith Kramer, Aaron, 1921- person
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associatedWith LaFeuille, Germaine, translator. person
associatedWith Lamb, Dorothy Shaw. person
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associatedWith LeFeuille, Germaine, translator. person
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associatedWith Le Gallienne, Eva, 1899- person
associatedWith Le Gallienne, Eva, 1899-1991 person
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associatedWith Luscomb, Florence, 1887- person
associatedWith MacGillivray, Arthur. person
associatedWith Mackenzie, Rachel. person
correspondedWith MacLeish, Archibald, 1892-1982 person
associatedWith Macy, Gertrude. person
associatedWith Maine Women Writers Collection at Westbrook College corporateBody
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associatedWith Mayran, Camille, pseud. person