May Sarton

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May Sarton
File:May Sarton.jpg
Born Eleanore Marie Sarton
(1912-05-03)May 3, 1912
Wondelgem, Belgium
Died July 16, 1995(1995-07-16) (aged 83)
York, Maine
Resting place Nelson, New Hampshire
Occupation Novelist, poet, memoirist
Nationality Belgian, American
Genre Fiction, non-fiction, poetry, children's literature
Notable awards Sarton Memoir Award
Partner Judy Matlack

May Sarton is the pen name of Eleanore Marie Sarton (May 3, 1912 – July 16, 1995), an American poet, novelist and memoirist.


Sarton was born in Wondelgem, Belgium (today a part of the city of Ghent). Her parents were science historian George Sarton and his wife, the English artist Mabel Eleanor Elwes. When German troops invaded Belgium after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, her family fled to Ipswich, England where Sarton's maternal grandmother lived.

One year later, they moved to Boston, Massachusetts, where her father started working at Harvard University. She went to school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, graduating from Cambridge High and Latin School in 1929. She started theatre lessons in her late teens, but continued writing poetry. She published her first collection in 1937, entitled Encounter in April.[1]

In 1945 in Santa Fe, New Mexico, she met Judy Matlack, who became her partner for the next thirteen years. They separated in 1956, when Sarton's father died and Sarton moved to Nelson, New Hampshire. Honey in the Hive (1988) is about their relationship.[2] In her memoir At Seventy, Sarton reflected on Judy's importance in her life and how her Unitarian Universalist upbringing shaped her.[3] She was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1958.[4]

Sarton later moved to York, Maine. In 1990, she suffered a stroke, severely reducing her ability to concentrate and write. After several months, she was able to dictate her final journals, starting with Endgame, with the help of a tape recorder.[5] She died of breast cancer on July 16, 1995, and is buried in Nelson, New Hampshire.[6]

Works and themes

Despite the quality of some of her many novels and poems, May Sarton's best and most enduring work probably lies in her journals and memoirs, particularly Plant Dreaming Deep (about her early years at Nelson, ca. 1958-68), Journal of a Solitude (1972-1973, often considered her best), The House by the Sea (1974-1976), Recovering (1978-1979) and At Seventy (1982-1983). In these fragile, rambling and honest accounts of her solitary life, she deals with such issues as ageing, isolation, solitude, friendship, love and relationships, lesbianism, self-doubt, success and failure, envy, gratitude for life's simple pleasures, love of nature (particularly of flowers), the changing seasons, spirituality and, importantly, the constant struggles of a creative life. Sarton's later journals are not of the same quality, as she endeavoured to keep writing through ill health and by dictation.

Although many of her earlier works, such as Encounter in April, contain vivid erotic female imagery, May Sarton often emphasized in her journals that she didn't see herself as a "lesbian" writer, instead wanting to touch on what is universally human about love in all its manifestations. When publishing her novel Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing in 1965, she feared that writing openly about lesbianism would lead to a diminution of the previously established value of her work. "The fear of homosexuality is so great that it took courage to write Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing," she wrote in Journal of a Solitude, "to write a novel about a woman homosexual who is not a sex maniac, a drunkard, a drug-taker, or in any way repulsive, to portray a homosexual who is neither pitiable nor disgusting, without sentimentality ..." [7] After the book's release, many of Sarton's works began to be studied in university level Women's Studies classes, being embraced by feminists and lesbians alike.[1] However, Sarton's work should not be reduced to 'lesbian literature' alone, as her works tackle many deeply human issues of love, loneliness, ageing, nature, self-doubt etc., common to both men and women.

Margot Peters' controversial biography (1998) revealed May Sarton as a complex individual who often struggled in her relationships.



  1. 1.0 1.1 May Sarton: A Poet. Harvard Square Library.
  2. Pobo, Kenneth (2002). "Sarton, May". Chicago. Chicago: glbtq, Inc. Retrieved 2007-08-29.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. "May Sarton". Unitarian Universalist Historical Society.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter S" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved July 25, 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. May Sarton: A Poet's Life. University of Pennsylvania.
  6. "May Sarton". Academy of American Poets. Retrieved 2009-05-10.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Journal of a Solitude, 1973, pp. 90-91.

External links