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Guide to the May Sarton Collection
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Collection Details
Table of contents What's This?
  • Descriptive Summary
  • Access
  • Publication Rights
  • Preferred Citation
  • Acquisition Information
  • Biography / Administrative History
  • Scope and Content of Collection
  • Indexing Terms
  • Processing Information

  • Descriptive Summary

    Title: May Sarton collection
    Dates: 1945-1989
    Bulk Dates: 1957-1967
    Collection number: D1955.1
    Creator: Sarton, May, 1912-
    Collector: Divelbess, Diane
    Collection Size: 1.83 linear feet (4 manuscript boxes).
    Repository: Claremont Colleges. Library. Ella Strong Denison Library.
    Claremont, California 91711
    Abstract: May Sarton, 1912-1995, was a writer best known for her published personal journals, including Journal of a Solitude; she also published several acclaimed novels and volumes of poetry. This collection includes correspondence, manuscripts, articles, clippings, photographs, and ephemera relating to May Sarton's life and work. The material range in date from 1945-1989, with the bulk of the material from 1957-1967.
    Physical location: Please consult repository.
    Languages: Languages represented in the collection: English


    Collection open for research.

    Publication Rights

    All requests for permission to publish must be submitted in writing to Denison Library.

    Preferred Citation

    [Identification of item], May Sarton collection. Ella Strong Denison Library, Libraries of The Claremont Colleges.

    Acquisition Information

    Gift of May Sarton, 1959-1967. Gift of Diane Divelbess, 1959-1989.

    Biography / Administrative History

    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)

    Scope and Content of Collection

    May Sarton spoke at Scripps at two convocations, in 1957 and in 1959. Scripps published her speeches as special editions of the Scripps College Bulletin: The Writing of a Poem (1957) and The Design of the Novel (1959). In the years after her last visit, Sarton corresponded with Dorothy Drake, librarian emerita of Denison Library, and Marion Winne, assistant to the president of the college. She inscribed copies of her publications for the Macpherson Collection, and sent manuscripts of her poems for the collection as well.
    A second gift of Sarton correspondence and published material was given to the library by Diane Divelbess, Scripps Class of 1957; these materials range in date from 1959-1989.

    Indexing Terms

    The following terms have been used to index the description of this collection in the library's online public access catalog.
    Sarton, May, 1912-
    Women writers
    Women poets

    Processing Information

    Front matter compiled by Caitlin Silberman, 2005.