Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Review: Savage Beauty written by Nancy Milford

I began this book not having the slightest idea about Edna St. Vincent Millay other than a few poems of hers I remembered from a poetry collection, and came away from it enthralled as much with the story as I was with the care Nancy Milford took in every detail, every analysis, every description. A biography has twin hearts: the first being the story, the life itself, and the second being the biographers interpretations- of not only the happenings, but the particulars of a life in photos, cards, lines tossed onto paper, diary entries, ticket stubs, oftentimes going as far back as early childhood. It would be a blessing for any person to have Milford as caretaker of their legacy, as she takes these particulars and views them in complete context of the life and person they document, then reflecting on their meaning or truth with the light touch and piercing insight of a revered Aunt. She never scolds or allows herself to be entirely swept up into the awe beckoning when viewing the personals of a major literary figure from the past.

Milford approached Norma Millay, the surviving relative of ESVM, and eventually, with much persistence and patience, persuaded her to help Milford write the life story of Edna St. Vincent Millay. Milford had the conviction, borne of an instinctual feel for how people work, that Norma would have papers and records of her sister, never revealed. And she did. The diaries and extensive collection of letters from throughout ESVM's life, letters exchanged with lovers, friends, family and her husband, provided the foundation for this amazing biography. Intermingled with the telling of ESVM are stops in the story where we are brought back to present time, with Norma and Nancy Milford talking. Norma's sharp personality and fierce devotion to her sister bring the entire story headlong into significance, for even if we were to deny or miss the significance of the story for ourselves or our times, we cannot dismiss the meaning and relevance for this sister. The meeting of historical significance with personal seals the depth of the story.

Edna St. Vincent Millay- known as Vincent to friends and family- was born at the tail end of the 1800's and grew up primarily with her two sisters, Norma and Kathleen, ( Kathleen having a small side story throughout, as the sister who wrote and published but resented her lack of status next to her more famous sibling, eventually dying of alcoholism after fierce descent including hospitalization, divorce and financial ruin )and her mother, Cora. The story begins by poking the ashes of the family history, which is quite interesting enough to hold up on it's own, and involved the outrageous affair of Cora's mother and her eventual death, thrown from a horse. Cora eventually marries and leaves her own husband, taking care of her three girls, or as she called them, ' little women ', for they were to bear the brunt of their own caretaking as their mother traveled for long periods of time, working as a nurse to provide for her daughters. Vincent's father had moved away and had no contact with the family outside of a few letters to Vincent.

Vincent's childhood was marked by a few pointed circumstances: her father had left, her mother was often gone, the family had no money and therefore no status and little respect.
Left alone to housekeep, school and socialize, the Millay girls no doubt all developed their own coping mechanisms. Vincent daydreamed and wrote. Her diary became her confidant and her daydreams involved the typical savior prince. Through the cheerful letters back and forth from mother to daughters, we hear the ' chin up ' attitude they all tried to maintain, but this unnatural separation took its toll. Vincent was prone to small rages, rages private and perhaps totally so because of the family's lack of money and competitive socializing, but extremely important in view of Vincent's life as a whole.

There is the story recounted by Norma of Vincent stuffing her sister's mouth with geranium leaves, pushing her underneath a pillow and sitting triumphantly on top. The detail of ' geranium leaves ' at first makes the story very amusing, but as we read we realize that the undercurrents provoking Vincent were not light. It was a fierce lonliness for her mother and resentment at the responsibilities thrust on a girl who wrote:

' I'm getting old and ugly. My hands are stiff and rough and stained and blistered. I can feel my face dragging down. I can feel the lines coming underneath my skin. They don't show yet but I can feel a hundred of them underneath. I love beauty more than anything else in the world and I can't take the time to be pretty. Crawl into bed at night too tired to brush my hair... '

Millay's literary story takes it's place in history when she almost takes first prize in a major poetry contest with her poem 'Renaissance'. By the time the contest was over and poems published, Vincent had a written relationship with Mr. Earle (an important editor ), secured herself a fully paid scholarship to Vassar College and received the attention of many in the poetic world who believed that Millay's story should have taken first place.

Millay attends and graduates Vassar, and it is here in this setting that we see her personality as it was to remain for many years- seductive, freewheeling, intellectually stimulating and stimulated and uncommonly confident in her poetic ability. She had affairs with men and women, drew people to her red haired, keen eyed and potently spirited beauty, upset Vassar faculty, did passably at school and at the end of her four years published her first book of poetry, ' Renascence and Other Poems '. ( The spelling discrepancy is discussed in the book. )

From here, Vincent Millay took off to the skies, shining brighter and brighter in the world, fiercer and more admired, called ' a genius ' by almost everyone who met her and most who read her, widely published and respected, eventually called ' America's girl poet '. She was beguiling completely, utterly charming, much beloved by men and women, and married to Eugen Boissevain, a handsome, tall and intelligent man from European money. They would both have affairs and spend, at times, years apart, but they always remained married and in the end of their lives were for each other, only. Eugen was, from the beginning, completely sure of Vincent Millay's genius and took it on himself to be her ' almost perfect husband ' as the caption under his picture reads in the book. He supported her and coddled her, but exactly how Vincent treated him on a day to day basis remains a bit of a mystery to me, not through any lack of Milford's, but because the focus in their life was so primarily on Vincent and her writing that little was spoken of how she treated Eugen outside of expecting him to support her writing completely, including taking on most of the household duties and putting up with an extended and serious love affair she had with a poet.

The brightest burn in this lifeline is during this ' Jazz Age ' where Millay mingled, played and loved with many of the most prominent writers, editors, publishers and poets of that time. She was the first woman to win the Pultizer Prize in 1923, for the poem ' The Harp Weaver '. Millay was very productive, publishing books of poetry, writing abroad for Vanity Fair, completing essays, fighting for politics she believed in, ( highly unusual for a woman ) all the while helping support her family. Again, the details of Milford's research are entwined with her gentle but pointed observations, making this already interesting time in history even more fascinating for it's revolutions around this extraordinary woman.

Millay's life winds tighter and at an increasingly melancholy note from this point on. I found the ending very difficult to read. Millay and her husband settle into their beautiful home ' Steepletop ' and there is much heartbreak, estrangement, an evocative feel that Milford creates reminding me of an old person wandering, and the harrowing descent of Vincent into drug abuse. Her medical condition or conditions remain a mystery. Milford guesses at the truth, but is not as assured here as other places in the story. Reading what documented evidence there is, I was myself persuaded that Millay had two afflictions: physical and spiritual, both which contributed to her addiction. Millay was afraid of getting old, as we all are to some degree, but for her I believe it was the snuffing of a candle that had been her main source of light for her entire adulthood. She herself sobs to a friend at one point that she cannot write, is not beautiful, no one wants her anymore, and is much cheered up when he assures her this is not true.

The pictures twice enclosed in the middle of this large book are fantastic; I referred to them over and over reading the biography, wondering at the details they revealed. Milford closes the picture section with a picture of Norma Millay in her later years, reclining against a fence, cigarette in hand, looking entirely iconoclastic and defiant as well as slightly mischevious. She seems a fascinating character in her own right.

Again, it is Milford's amazing persistence, psychological compassions and tender touch that illuminate this life completely. Savage Beauty reveals not only the life of Edna St. Vincent Millay but the intelligence and talent of it's biographer.

Highly recommended.

' My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends-
It gives a lovely light!'

--- Edna St. Vincent Millay
Glen Binger said...



Valerie Loveland said...

I recently swore off literary biographies, but now I want to read this.

Collin Kelley said...

Millay remains one of my favorites. I have an ancient "Collected Works" I bought back in the 80s always nearby for reference.

Talia Reed said...

Excellent review. You should post it on Goodreads.

L A M A R T I N É said...

i've been meaning to read that book for awhile- but for now i only have time for roald dahl with my kids.

Emily A. Benton said...

I read this book and loved it, too! You make me want to read it again!

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