May Sarton was the pen name of Eleanore Marie Sarton[1] (May 3, 1912 – July 16, 1995), a Belgian-American poet, novelist and memoirist. Although her best work is strongly personalised with erotic female imagery, she resisted the label of ‘lesbian writer’, preferring to convey the universality of human love.

May Sarton
May Sarton.jpg
BornEleanore Marie Sarton
(1912-05-03)May 3, 1912
Wondelgem, Belgium
DiedJuly 16, 1995(1995-07-16) (aged 83)
York, Maine
Resting placeNelson, New Hampshire
  • Novelist
  • poet
  • memoirist
NationalityBelgian, American
GenreFiction, non-fiction, poetry, children's literature
Notable awardsSarton Memoir Award
PartnerJudith "Judy" Matlack


Sarton was born in Wondelgem, Belgium (today a part of the city of Ghent),[1] the only child of historian of science George Sarton and his wife, 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.[citation needed]

One year later, they moved to Boston, Massachusetts, where her father started working at Harvard University. Sarton started theatre lessons in her late teens but continued writing poetry throughout her adolescence. She went to school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, graduating from Cambridge High and Latin School in 1929.[citation needed]

Sarton won a scholarship to Vassar but felt drawn to the theater after seeing Eva Le Gallienne perform in The Cradle Song. She joined Le Gallienne's Civic Repertory Theatre in New York and spent a year working as an apprentice. However, Sarton continued to write poetry. When she was seventeen, she published a series of sonnets in December 1930, some of which were featured in her first published volume, Encounter in April (1937).[2][3]

When she was nineteen, Sarton traveled to Europe, living in Paris for a year. In this time, she met such literary and cultural figures as Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bowen, Julian Huxley and Juliette Huxley, Lugné-Pöe, Basil de Sélincourt, and S. S. Koteliansky. Sarton had affairs with both of the Huxleys.[4] It was within this environment and community that she published her first novel, The Single Hound (1938).[3]

In 1945 in Santa Fe, New Mexico, she met Judith "Judy" Matlack[5] (September 9, 1898 – December 22, 1982), 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.[6] In her memoir At Seventy, Sarton reflected on Judy's importance in her life and her (Sarton's) Unitarian Universalist upbringing.[7] She was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1958.[8]

Sarton later moved to York, Maine. In 1990, she was temporarily debilitated by a stroke. Since writing was difficult, she used a tape recorder to record and transcribe her journal Endgame: A Journal of the Seventy-Ninth Year (1992). Despite her physical difficulties, she maintained her sense of independence. Endgame was followed by the journal Encore: A Journal of the Eightieth Year (1993), a celebration of Sarton's life. She won the Levinson Prize for Poetry in 1993. Her final book, Coming Into Eighty (1995), published after her death, covers the year from July 1993 to August 1994, describing her attitude of gratitude for life as she wrestled with the experience of aging.[9]

She died of breast cancer on July 16, 1995, and is buried in Nelson Cemetery, Nelson, New Hampshire.[10]

Works and themesEdit

May Sarton wrote 53 books, including 19 novels, 17 books of poetry, 15 nonfiction works, 2 children's books, a play, and additional screenplays.[11][12] According to The Poetry Foundation, Sarton's style as defined by critics is "calm, cultured, and urbane."[11] In much of her writing, Sarton maintains a politically conscious lens, but what is considered May Sarton's best and most enduring work 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 aging, 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 endeavored 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: "The vision of life in my work is not limited to one segment of humanity...and has little to do with sexual proclivity".[13] Rather she wanted 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 ..."[14] 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.[2] However, Sarton's work should not be classified as 'lesbian literature' alone, as her works develop many deeply human issues of love, loneliness, aging, nature, self-doubt etc., common to both men and women.

Margot Peters' controversial authorized biography (1998) revealed May Sarton as a complex individual who often struggled in her relationships.[15] Peters' book was often scathing ("People who had the misfortune to become her intimates almost universally came to regret it. On the slightest of pretexts, Ms. Peters has it, Sarton subjected them to 'terrible scenes, nights of weeping, rages, blowups.' She was expert at emotional blackmail, and behaved badly in restaurants. Self-absorbed and insensitive, May Sarton wooed others with extravagant attentions, only to betray and humiliate them later -- 'with scant regard,' Ms. Peters observes, 'for the chaos left in her wake.'"[16]), but the biography was considered "thoughtful, even-handed, [and] well-written."[17] A selected edition of Sarton's letters was edited by Susan Sherman in 1997[4] and many of Sarton's papers are held in the New York Public Library.[18]



  1. ^ a b Poets, Academy of American. "About May Sarton | Academy of American Poets". Retrieved March 10, 2022.
  2. ^ a b May Sarton: A Poet Archived February 3, 2012, at the Wayback Machine. Harvard Square Library.
  3. ^ a b "May Sarton: A Poet's Life". Retrieved November 30, 2018.
  4. ^ a b Sarton, May, 1912-1995. (1997). May Sarton : selected letters, 1916-1954. Sherman, Susan (Susan Jean), 1939-. London: Women's Press. ISBN 0-7043-4535-8. OCLC 43125718.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  5. ^ "May Sarton, Novelist, Poet, and Memoirist | LiteraryLadiesGuide". Literary Ladies Guide. June 2, 2018. Retrieved March 10, 2022.
  6. ^ Pobo, Kenneth (2002). "Sarton, May". Chicago. Chicago: glbtq, Inc. Archived from the original on August 15, 2007. Retrieved August 29, 2007.
  7. ^ "May Sarton". Unitarian Universalist Historical Society.
  8. ^ "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter S" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved July 25, 2014.
  9. ^ "May Sarton: A Poet's Life". Retrieved November 30, 2018.
  10. ^ "May Sarton". Academy of American Poets. Retrieved May 10, 2009.
  11. ^ a b "May Sarton". Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation. November 30, 2018. Retrieved November 30, 2018.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  12. ^ "May Sarton Selected Bibliography". Retrieved November 30, 2018.
  13. ^ Sarton, May (1992). Journal of a Solitude. WW Norton & Company.
  14. ^ Journal of a Solitude, 1973, pp. 90-91.
  15. ^ Peters, Margot. (1998). May Sarton : a biography (1st ed.). New York: Fawcett Columbine. ISBN 0-449-90798-8. OCLC 39440918.
  16. ^ Goreau, Angeline. Late Bloomer. The New York Times. April 6, 1997. Retrieved August 28, 2021.
  17. ^ May Sarton: A Biography. Kirkus Reviews. February 15, 1997. Retrieved August 28, 2021.
  18. ^ " -- May Sarton Papers". Retrieved January 13, 2020.

External linksEdit