A Moment with May Sarton

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IN APRIL 1984, when a call came asking if I would do a tribute speech to May Sarton (1912–1995) at the annual awards dinner of the Fund for Human Dignity, I hesitated. This was not only because I wasn’t a huge fan of Sarton’s writing—which I fully realized back then was tantamount to blasphemy in some lesbian circles—but also because friends had spoken of her world-class temper. I thought she published altogether too much, and also that she complained a lot. With all of this in mind I wondered if I could do her justice.

         But I love to give speeches (probably because I was in love with my high school speech and drama teacher, Mrs. Doherty) and I was curious to see if I could manage it gracefully. Could the hair-raising stories about Sarton’s temper be true? Before declining the invitation I decided to reread two of her too-many books that I remembered having liked—somewhat. Well, on second reading I found them, Journal of a Solitude (1973) and Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing (1965), quite wonderful. So I accepted the invitation and then proceeded to read systematically through all of her work. It was a laborious task. I almost gave up at The Fur Person (1957).

         Here’s the tribute speech I gave. I’m speaking before one thousand gay and lesbian activists at a black-tie, $100-a-plate dinner in New York City’s Plaza Hotel, sponsored by the Fund for Human Dignity. It is May 14, 1984. At the time, the Fund was the educational arm of the National Gay Task Force (which had not yet added “& Lesbian” to its name). Every year the Fund gave an awards dinner to honor lesbians and gay men who had contributed in some important way to raising awareness about gay and lesbian issues. That year, along with Sarton and others, the Fund was honoring Gerry Studds, the first openly gay member of the U.S. Congress, a Democrat from Massachusetts who was up for re-election. As the applause for Rep. Studds died down, I began my speech:

 

May Sarton was 72 years old a few days ago. These days, people tend to call her a survivor, and certainly any producing artist in our society is a survivor … as is any living lesbian. However, as she writes in her recently published journal, At Seventy, she doesn’t think of herself as a survivor so much, but rather as a “person still on her way.”

May Sarton has written a lot of books. At last count they numbered a flat forty. There are seventeen novels, thirteen books of poetry, two children’s books, and eight nonfiction titles, many of the latter her famous autobiographical journals. There are, to name just a few, and to reminisce a bit, The Fur Person, Journal of a Solitude, Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, and, more recently, A Reckoning and Recovering.

She writes of the life of the artist, she writes of love, she writes of solitude. As she has said, “Nobody reads me for plots.” She writes of ideas, of values. She deals with the demons of anger and despair; she doesn’t shun the not-so-nice subjects. She is lyrical, brooding, crotchety. She’s an explorer, an outsider, a bridge. And in recent years, she has written openly of homosexuality.

Sometimes, by the standards of those of us who have labored in the lesbian and gay rights and feminist movements, she has seemed to be, on the subject of homosexuality, politically incorrect. However, she has certainly heard the mermaids singing, and I for one am willing to forgive artists almost anything, for they sometimes have a hard time with political correctness.

Listen to how she has written of love. This is from her novel Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing. Mrs. Stevens, a seventy-year-old poet, is talking to a young interviewer about her past loves. She says of these lovers:

I loved them in the way one loves at any age—if it’s real at all—obsessively, painfully, with wild exultation, with guilt, with conflict; I wrote poems to and about them; I put them in novels (disguised of course); I brooded upon why they were as they were, so often maddening, don’t you know? I wrote them ridiculous letters. I lived with their faces. I knew their every gesture by heart. I stalked them like wild animals. I studied them as if they were maps of the world—and in a way, I suppose they were.

Here she is writing about the artist. This is from the nonfiction work Journal of a Solitude, written in 1973:

My own belief is that one regards oneself, if one is a serious writer, as an instrument for experiencing. Life—all of it—flows through this instrument and is distilled through it into works of art. How one lives as a private person is intimately bound into the work. And at some point I believe one has to stop holding back for fear of alienating some imaginary reader or real relative or friend, and come out with personal truth. If we are to understand the human condition, and if we are to accept ourselves in all the complexity, self-doubt, extravagance of feeling, guilt, joy, the slow freeing of the self to its full capacity for action and creation, both as human being and as artist, we have to know all we can about each other, and we have to be willing to go naked.

And here she is on solitude, in another passage from the novel Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing. Mrs. Stevens is describing to the interviewer a house in the south of France: “When the light was fading through the branches of the fir trees outside, there was a moment of rather terrifying poignancy. The purity of it all made me feel dreadfully lonely then. There is a difference between solitude and loneliness, as I need not tell you, and people who live alone come to know them both intimately.” The young interviewer then asks Mrs. Stevens to define the difference. “Well,” she says, “loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude the richness of self. Will that do?”

When I read passages I’ve just quoted, I waffle on [the question of]political correctness. May Sarton has been telling her personal truths for many years now, and, as Adrienne Rich reminds us, “When a woman tells the truth, she is creating the possibility for more truth around her.” In Journal of a Solitude Sarton writes: “On the surface, my work has not looked radical, but perhaps it will be seen eventually that in a nice, quiet way I have been trying to say radical things gently so they may penetrate without shock.”

That’s certainly one way to help a revolution along. I might add here that we sophisticated, politically aware, openly gay and lesbian people, with our high consciousness—here we are, for goodness sake, in black tie, a thousand strong, flaunting it at the Plaza Hotel at $100 a plate—often forget how privileged we are. We forget about those thousands of closeted, scared, often traumatized gays and lesbians across the country who are still struggling with societally induced self-hatred, those sisters and brothers who can’t quite hear us yet. There is little question in my mind that over the years May Sarton has spoken well and deeply to these troubled souls, and has in some cases, perhaps, paved the way for our more radical messages.

In this same section of Journal of a Solitude, Sarton says that it took courage to publish Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, tame as it is compared to today’s openness, and that her literary agent at the time advised against it. Thank the goddesses she didn’t take the agent’s advice and Mrs. Stevens was published—in 1965. It is important to point out that this was four years before Stonewall.

Since then, many books, many joys, many agonies, have filled her life. Judging from her latest book, she is still, in her seventies, falling madly in love. “Women have been my muse, they’ve inspired the poems.” She told that to The New York Times recently. In this latest journal, At Seventy, there’s a marvelous quote from Virginia Woolf. Someone had sent Sarton a Virginia Woolf calendar. Sarton writes: “This morning I opened the Woolf calendar to this.” And she quotes Woolf: “‘It is true that I only want to show off to women. Women alone stir my imagination.’” Sarton goes on to write: “I recognized that at once. And it made me feel better, less crazy and less impossible.” Years ago, when I first read Mrs. Stevens, I too felt less crazy and less impossible.

And so. May Sarton at 72 is still falling in love, still living on the seacoast of Maine and writing about it, still traveling all over the country reading her poems. (Recently, along with readings in establishment venues, she’s been reading in lesbian and gay and feminist bookstores and gatherings.) She’s still getting foot-stamping angry at the injustices of our times, still wrestling with the demons of anger and despair and with the turmoil of passionate love, still answering letters from readers, sometimes forty a week, still gardening up a storm, still writing, as she says, “complicated things very simply.” And she has continued—sometimes against all but suffocating odds—to hear the mermaids singing. As the feisty seventy-year-old fictional Mrs. Stevens said, “Damn it! They haven’t got me yet!”

Ladies and gentlemen, sisters and brothers, it is my distinct pleasure to present the Fund for Human Dignity Award of Merit—for her contribution to the education of the American public about the lives of lesbians and gay men—to May Sarton.

As Sarton approached the podium to thunderous applause, I held out my hand to congratulate her. She ignored my hand, brushed by me, and snarled “I was too political,” giving me the coldest eye I’d ever received—and in my time on the social justice hustings I’d received some pretty cold looks. Later, after the  other awards had been presented and the dinner guests were dispersing, many people came up to me with words any speech-giver loves to hear. Sarton stood alone on the dais, holding her award. I caught her eye, smiled, and waved, thinking to invite her to join a group of us who were adjourning to the Oak Room for a nightcap. She didn’t smile back and looked away. Later, I saw her at the elevator, obviously going to her room, very much alone.

On reflection all these many years later, I still wonder, had I really hurt her feelings? Should I have saved my political correctness view for an essay rather than for a tribute speech? Sarton was famous as a grievance collector. Perhaps she was entitled to a certain orneriness that can result from living a marginalized life, especially when trying to live out a doctrine of inclusion. Or was it just that her understanding of what it meant to be politically incorrect in those days differed from that of activists at the barricades? Whatever it was, I’m sorry if she was offended, unable to hear my praise. And if I were delivering the speech today, I would still feel compelled to point out, however gently, that May Sarton stopped short of becoming a hero to the aspirations of either the feminist or the lesbian liberation movements.

 

Dolores Klaich, a writer and educator, is currently writing a personal history of the early gay and lesbian liberation movements.

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