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Just How Good Was She?

MAY SARTON: Selected Letters, 1955-1995, Edited by Susan Sherman, W.W. Norton: 448 pp., $39.95

June 30, 2002|REGINA MARLER | Regina Marler is the author of "Bloomsbury Pie: The Making of the Bloomsbury Boom."

For May Sarton's devoted readers, the real story since she died seven years ago is not the continued sales of her best-known books or the recent independent shoot of "Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing" but the shock and insult of Margot Peters' 1997 biography. Sarton, who warily handed over boxes of letters to her chosen biographer, had worried that the finished product would be less than flattering. But she could not have predicted how deeply unsympathetic Peters would become toward her in a book that gave new bite to the term "critical biography."

Now the defenders of Sarton, and her self-searching poems and novels, are rallying. Close friend Susan Sherman has just edited the second volume of Sarton's "Selected Letters," a warm and animated collection that is like the arm a mother throws out to protect the child sitting beside her in a car.

The Sarton of the "Selected Letters" is roughly the Sarton of her journals ("The House by the Sea," "After the Stroke"): a wise old woman standing by a rose bush. In these 200 unabridged letters, Sherman documents Sarton's passion for civil rights, her openhandedness, her joie de vivre, her loyalty--even to old friends who disliked her writing or who sent homophobic responses to her later books.

Sherman does not exactly whitewash Sarton, but in reading the biography and the letters in tandem, it becomes clear how selective the "Selected Letters" really are. The bratty, blaming side of Sarton, so effectively documented by Peters, is not to be found here. There are very few letters to her muses--the women, often heterosexual, who inspired her poems and who so bitterly disappointed her--and almost none to her good friend Carolyn Heilbrun, whose severe criticisms of Sarton's later books are quoted in the biography. We also know from the biography that she was prone to tantrums, one of which resulted in an eight-year break in her friendship with artist Bill Brown: again, unexplained in Sherman's volume. The collected letters and the biography are so polarized, in fact, that it is hard to assemble from them a plausible image of Sarton.

Sarton would not have been surprised by the battle over her posthumous reputation. Although delighted by her growing readership, especially after the watershed of "Journal of a Solitude" in 1973, she was all too aware of her tenuous foothold in the literary world. Despite being nominated for the National Book Award, she felt that the big rewards eluded her.

Friend Louise Bogan, longtime poetry critic for the New Yorker, barely mentioned Sarton's old-fashioned lyrical verse in print. Poet Karl Shapiro apparently spoke for many when he blurted out, in a 1961 review: "She is a bad poet.... Her poetry is lady-poetry at its worst." At one point, Sarton wrote that reading her reviews was "like swallowing glass after glass of poison."

Although Sherman's Sarton may be a more benign figure than Peters', these are still lovely, generous letters--the best of Sarton, some may feel--and beautifully annotated. Some were written to such writer-friends as Elizabeth Bowen, but many are in response to the heaps of fan mail she received in her later years.

The most enjoyable may be a tart letter to a local woman minister who had failed repeatedly to deliver comforting sermons: "I do not speak for myself alone," Sarton complained. "You must know that your lack of compassion is notorious." On the Peters biography, Sherman has restrained herself to a single footnote: " ... though [Sarton] wanted and tried to like Peters, she remained ambivalent to the end." Sherman's real answer to Peters is the loving enterprise of the "Selected Letters."

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