NELSON, NH, THE SIGNPOST SAID, pointing off to the right of my backroads route to a bookstore event I gave in 2011. I knew it led to the former home of a favorite author, May Sarton, but there was no time to detour, at least not then. With the late Sarton’s 99th birthday looming on May 3, 2011, I took time to take a peek into her writing and life—and celebrate.
Sarton, who today is sometimes mentioned in the same breath as phrases like “women’s literature,” or covered in women’s studies curriculums, wrote more than 50 books. She actually came to my attention thanks to two men, at different times in my life. I might have missed her altogether if not for a one-two punch by Sydney Schanberg, an ex-New York Times colleague who thirty-odd years ago offhandedly said, “You would like May Sarton,” and then years later my therapist (who gave me “Journal of a Solitude”).
It wasn’t her emerging influence on feminism that provoked their decades-ago recommendations. They knew that the natural world, and specifically the garden, called to me, as it did Sarton.
“A garden is always a series of losses set against a few triumphs, like life itself,” she wrote.
SARTON, A PROLIFIC POET and author of ﬁction, also wrote memoir and journals—the latter to come to terms with herself, she said in interviews. She did not explore the journal form until her 50s.
“I wrote the first one, ‘Journal of a Solitude,’ as an exercise to handle a serious depression and it worked quite well,” she told “The Paris Review.” She sorted herself out, I see now as I reread her with an older eye, with the process of recording those reﬂections. We all need a story of ourselves—or actually a series of them each for different life stages—that we can live with, right?
“We are all myth-makers about ourselves,” May Sarton wrote in 1968 in the memoir-style “Plant Dreaming Deep,” when she was 54, the age I was when I gave up the city for a rural life, “but part of growing up is the shedding of one myth for another, as a snake sheds its skin. I have no illusions about ever becoming a true countrywoman—there is too much behind me of a different kind.”
She had left Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1958 for tiny Nelson, and later would live for 20 years until her death in York, Maine, which will honor her with a centennial event next May.
HERS WAS A LIFE marked by fresh starts and reinvention, the underlying subject of my recent memoir, “And I Shall Have Some Peace There.” Sarton had a varied career (she turned down a scholarship to Vassar to become an actress), and survived breast cancer and a mastectomy, and later a stroke, writing again afterward and taking each as a catalyst to start over.
Sarton’s first memoir was “I Knew a Phoenix,” named for a mythical bird consumed by fire that then rises again from its ashes. “That was D. H. Lawrence’s symbol,” she told “The Paris Review.” “I’ve appropriated it. I think I have died and been reborn quite a few times.”
(Photo made in 1992 of May Sarton in front of Polly Thayer Starr’s 1937 portrait of her is from Cambridge Historical Society. Also, Federal regulations require me to disclose that if you shop from any links here to Amazon, I receive a small commission, which I use to buy books for these giveaways..)
how to win the may sarton books
HAVE YOU MADE A FRESH START lately, or at some important past juncture? Fresh starts are the subject of this giveaway. I’ve bought two sets of Sarton’s “Journal of a Solitude” and “Plant Dreaming Deep” to share with you; both touch on times of transition. [Update: The giveaway is now completed.]
Simply comment below, sharing such a moment. But you know me: If you’re feeling shy, just say, “Count me in,” or “I’d like to win,” and your entry will qualify. If you’re willing to offer a short tale of a moment repechage (as they call the do-over’s in rowing and other sports, where you get another chance at a spot in the final)…all the better. Do tell.
Winners will be chosen at random after entries close at midnight Saturday, May 7, 2-011. Good luck!
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