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May Sarton: A Biography.

Before her death in 1995, the writer May Sarton assisted Margo Peters with the task of preparing a biography of her long life. Her many friends were consulted, mountains of letters were examined, and photographs were assembled to produce a year-by-year account of Sarton's turbulent, bicontinental activity. The minute detail protrudes annoyingly into the text at times, creating abrupt turns because a source has made her day-to-day activity so available. But that is an easy price to pay for a close-up portrait of a woman who fascinated thousands of admirers.

We begin with the cobbled streets of the village of Wondelgem, Belgium, where Sarton was born in 1912, and "the exquisitely stitched muslin curtains and linen tablecloths" of her first home. We close with an account of the funeral and obituaries: "May would have been pleased with her obituaries, though incensed that Stephen Spender, by virtue of his dying on the same day, got more attention in The New York Times." Margo Peters knows that the many devoted May Sarton readers will enjoy this detailed, down-to-earth, and chatty tone.

Analysis of the poetry, fiction, and journals is subordinated to an account of Sarton's relationships, yet the few moments of literary comment are of high quality. Peters agrees with most critics that Sarton "will never be considered a great writer" but that her genius was in being able "to move the hearts of her readers." The biography centers on love affairs; passionate, joyful, and excruciating emotions engendered by a succession of women lovers, helpers, and friends. The range is extreme; an early heterosexual menage a trois with Julian Huxley and his wife Juliette, the hostess Grace Eliot Dudley, Judy Matlack, Eleanor Blair, the useful factotum Marie Armengaud in Santa Fe, the Harvard professor Cora DuBois, and the president of Wellesley College, Margaret Clapp, who rebuffed Sarton through a year of ardent courting and even stalking, to name just a few.

Sarton knew she had a need to seduce and control. She sought psychiatric help for her emotional crises, yet realized that each affair fueled her creativity. The moments of falling in love were the "emotional motor" for her work. In a more mundane explanation, she realized that the pursuer has more fun, and, as Peters makes clear, May Sarton was an elegant rationalist.

Peters relies on psychoanalytic insight to explain Sarton's development. An only child who, like all only children, "can never feel adequately loved," she and her frail artist mother were rivals for affection from her father, almost totally absorbed in his work as a pioneer in the history of science. The dislocation to America to escape the German invasion and subsequent feelings of homelessness contributed to her anxieties. Yet Peters recognizes Sarton's own contribution, the social snobbism, self-glorification, and just plain egotism that led her to use and discard people, often in the name of poetic inspiration.

Doris Lessing observed that you had to have been a ravenous vulture to mature into a very wise old woman. In the end, in spite of the ravages of stormy personal relationships and the tepid critical reception of her writing, May Sarton survived to an old age rich with academic and personal honors. She left a shelf of books and memories of personal appearances that will continue to inspire a wide readership. I predict that the "warts and all" details of her life from this first biography will only whet the appetite for her words.

Doris Earnshaw University of California, Davis
COPYRIGHT 1997 University of Oklahoma
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Author:Earnshaw, Doris
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1997
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