May Sarton is the pen name of Eleanore Marie Sarton (May 3, 1912 – July 16, 1995), a prolific American poet, novelist and memoirist. She is considered an important contemporary figure in American literature, as well as a "poet's poet", and is lauded by literary and feminist critics for her works addressing themes in gender, sexuality, and universality.[1]

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
OccupationNovelist, poet, memoirist
NationalityBelgian, American
GenreFiction, non-fiction, poetry, children's literature
Notable awardsSarton Memoir Award
PartnerJudy Matlack


Sarton was born in Wondelgem, Belgium (today a part of the city of Ghent), the only child of historian of science 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. 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. Sarton won a scholarship to Vassar, but felt drawn to the theater after seeing Eva Le Gallienne perform in The Cradle Song. After The Cradle Song she felt compelled to join 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 entitled Encounter in April (1937).[2][3]

When she was nineteen, Sarton traveled to Europe in 1931 and lived in Paris for a year. In this time, she met some prominent literary and cultural figures such as Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bowen, Julian Huxley and Juliette Huxley, Lugné-Pöe, actor and founder of the Théâtre de l'Oeuvre, 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 Second Hound (1938).[5]

In 1945 in Santa Fe, New Mexico, she met Judith "Judy" Matlack (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 how her Unitarian Universalist upbringing shaped her.[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 suffered a stroke, which temporarily debilitated her writing process. Since writing was difficult, she began using a tape recorder, resulting in her journal Endgame: A Journal of the Seventy-Ninth Year (1992), which was recorded and transcribed from a cassette. Despite her physical difficulties, she always maintained a sense of her independence. Endgame was followed by the journal Encore: A Journal of the Eightieth Year (1993). Encore is a celebration of Sarton's life, with or without the limitations of old age. She won the Levinson Prize for Poetry in 1993. Sarton's final book, Coming Into Eighty (1995), published after her death, covers the year from July, 1993 to August, 1994. While still wrestling with the experience of coming into old age, Sarton maintained a similar gratitude for life in Coming Into Eighty as she did with Encore.[9] She died of breast cancer on July 16, 1995, and is buried in Nelson Cemetery, Nelson, New Hampshire.[10]

Works and themesEdit

By her passing, May Sarton had written 53 books, including 19 novels, 17 books of poetry, 15 nonfiction works, 2 children's books, a play, and additional screenplays.[11] According to The Poetry Foundation, Sarton's style as defined by critics is "calm, cultured, and urbane."[12] 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 biography (1998) revealed May Sarton as a complex individual who often struggled in her relationships.[15] A selected edition of Sarton's letters was edited by Susan Sharman in 1997[4] and many of Sarton's papers are held in the New York Public Library.[16]



  • May Sarton: Selected Letters (1997)
  • Dear Juliette: Letters of May Sarton to Juliette Huxley (1999)


  1. ^ "May Sarton". Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation. November 30, 2018. Retrieved November 30, 2018.CS1 maint: others (link)
  2. ^ a b May Sarton: A Poet Archived February 3, 2012, at the Wayback Machine. Harvard Square Library.
  3. ^ "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.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  5. ^ "May Sarton: A Poet's Life". Retrieved November 30, 2018.
  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. ^ "May Sarton Selected Bibliography". Retrieved November 30, 2018.
  12. ^ "May Sarton". Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation. November 30, 2018. Retrieved November 30, 2018.CS1 maint: others (link)
  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. ^ " -- May Sarton Papers". Retrieved January 13, 2020.

External linksEdit