“The Rough Rocky Depths”: May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude

journalsolitudePlant Dreaming Deep has brought me many friends,” says May Sarton early in Journal of a Solitude, “…but I have begun to realize that, without my intention, that book gives a false view.” She worried that she had given an overly idealistic picture of her life alone in her restored New Hampshire farmhouse, which she describes in Plant Dreaming Deep with such joyous lyricism: “the anguish of my life here — its rages — is hardly mentioned.” She wrote Journal of a Solitude as a counterweight:

Now I hope to break through into the rough rocky depths, to the matrix itself. There is violence there and anger never resolved. . . . I go up to Heaven and down to Hell in an hour, and keep alive only by imposing upon myself inexorable routines.

She kept this journal for a year and recorded both those heights and those depths.

I’m definitely among those who were won over by Plant Dreaming Deep. As I said in the comments on my post on it, though, I didn’t find it idealizing: in the post itself I wrote, “Sarton’s story here is not of uninhibited bliss: there’s guilt and anxiety, as already mentioned, but also fear, hard work, and constant demands on her self-reliance.” Still, Journal of a Solitude did seem darker and more fretful. Days may begin well but often end in tears; friends are welcome but their departure is a relief; traveling is less invigorating than exhausting: “I armed myself in patience and before I finally got back here, I needed it.” Her solitary home is a refuge from the pressures of the external world, but often provides insufficient distractions or buffers against inner turmoil:

I woke in tears this morning. I wonder whether it is possible at nearly sixty to change oneself radically. Can I learn to control resentment and hostility, the ambivalence, born somewhere far below the conscious level? If I cannot, I shall lose the person I love. There is nothing to be done but go ahead with life moment by moment and hour by hour — put out birdseed, tidy the rooms, try to create order and peace around me even if I canot achieve it inside me.

But while there are tears and rages and fits of intense, frustrated depression, her emotional life is not one deep trough. Her garden especially brings her pleasure, and here, as in Plant Dreaming Deep, she writes about it, and the flowers it yields, with pungent vividness:

 A gray day . . . but, strangely enough, a gray day makes the bunches of daffodils in the house have a particular radiance, a kind of white light. From my bed this morning I could look through at a bunch in the big room, in that old Dutch blue-and-white drug jar, and they glowed. I went out before seven in my pajamas, because it looked like rain, and picked a sampler of twenty-five different varieties. It was worth getting up early, because the first thing I saw was a scarlet tanager a few feet away on a lilac bush–stupendous sight! There is no scarlet so vivid, no black so black.

 You almost want to finish her paragraph with “ah–bright wings!

While I didn’t really find Journal of a Solitude that different or that much darker than Plant Dreaming Deep, I did find it more episodic and fragmented, perhaps because the earlier journal tells the story of her finding, fixing, and learning to live in her New Hampshire home, while this one does not have as clear a narrative arc. It does turn out to be about a particular turning point in her life — or at least it covers what turns out to be a turning point, namely her decision to move away from the farmhouse and into a house on the Maine coast. This is a development that occurs fairly far along, however, an opportunity that seems to arise more or less out of the blue, so it’s not as if it is written as a farewell to Nelson.

Life rarely has the coherence of fiction, however, and journals especially — written, as they are, in the moment — can hardly be expected to anticipate or be structured around patterns that will emerge only in the future. That’s a luxury for memoir or biography. Simply as a record of Sarton’s experiences and responses to them, Journal of a Solitude had plenty to interest me. For instance, it’s during this year that she first meets Carolyn Heilbrun, whose essay on Sarton I refer to in my post on Plant Dreaming Deep. I enjoyed seeing the relationship from the other side. With her letter of introduction, Heilbrun sends Sarton some reprints of her articles. “I dived into one on Bloomsbury at once,” says Sarton, who “knew Virginia Woolf slightly.” I can’t resist quoting extensively from her remarks on Woolf, not least because they end up at what is still a familiar place:

What a relief to find an essay that neither sneers at nor disparages Virginia Woolf! The sheer vital energy of the Woolfs always astonishes me when I stop to consider what they accomplished on any given day. Fragile she may have been, living on the edge of psychic disturbance, but think what she managed to do nonetheless — not only the novels (every one a break-through in form), but all those essays and reviews, all the work of the Hogarth Press, not only reading mss. and editing, but, at least at the start, packing the books to go out! And besides all that, they lived such an intense social life. (When I went there for tea, they were always going out for dinner and often to a party later on.) The gaity and fun of it all, the huge sense of life!  . . .

It is painful that such genius should evoke such mean-spirited response at present. Is genius so common that we can afford to brush it aside? What does it matter whether she is major or minor, whether she imitated Joyce (I believe she did not), whether her genius was a limited one, limited by class? What remains true is that one cannot pick up a single one of her books and read a page without feeling more alive. If art is not to be life-enhancing, what is it to be? Half the world is feminine — why is there resentment at a female-oriented art? . . . Women certainly learn a lot from books oriented towards the masculine world. Why is not the reverse also true?

 These comments resonate in the journal itself partly because Sarton struggles very hard during this period with her own status as a writer. The entry immediately following records her devastated response to “an annihilating review in the Sunday Times,” which continues to pain her in her low moments:

What a lonely business it is . . . from the long hours of uncertainty, anxiety, and terrible effort while writing such a long book, to the wild hopes (for it looked like a possible best seller, and the Digest has it for their condensed books) and the inevitable disaster at the end. I have had many good reviews and cannot really complain about that. What I have not had is the respect due what is now a considerable opus. I am way outside somewhere in the wilderness. And it has been a long time of being in the wilderness. But I would be crazy if I didn’t believe that I deserved better, and that eventually it will come out right. The alternative is suicide and I’m not about to indulge in that fantasy of revenge.

But she can be turned aside even from these dark thoughts by a glimpse of the sky: “Somehow the great clouds made the day all right, a gift of splendor as they sailed over our heads.”

Writing and Life: Influential Critics

Some time ago one of my most thoughtful readers (hi, Tom!) suggested I write about “a teacher/scholar whose work has had a significant influence on you.” I really liked this idea because, as I said in the resulting post, “It is impossible to overestimate the importance the right teacher at the right time can have on a student, though it may be impossible to foresee what will turn out to be ‘right’ ahead of time.” The teachers I wrote on included one from elementary school, one from high school, and one in particular among several who were important to my university years. At the close of the post, though, it occurred to me that the original question “may have been meant to elicit more about scholarly and critical, rather than personal, influences.” “I’m still thinking,” I concluded, “about that dimension of influence. No question, I have learned a lot from many teachers and scholars. But is that the same as having been ‘influenced’ by them? And have any of them actually inspired, moved, or motivated me?”

I’ve been thinking about those questions again recently because as I have tried to figure out what is most important to me to express as a critic (now that my long apprenticeship is over and I’m answerable primarily to myself for the future direction of my research and writing) I have identified two critics whose work indeed does inspire, move, and motivate me. More specifically, I have noticed that two critical books in particular repeatedly help me see and articulate what matters to me, or interests or challenges me, about many of the books I read, teach, and write about. One of these is Wayne Booth’s companionably plump and erudite The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction, and the other is Carolyn Heilbrun’s slim but mighty Writing a Woman’s Life. Oddly, both were originally published in 1988. That means both were quite current when I started my PhD program at Cornell in 1990. But neither work–indeed, neither author, that I recall–was assigned, or even mentioned, in any course I took.

Booth’s book I discovered for myself when, soon after I earned tenure, I allowed myself to reconsider the focus of my scholarship, hoping to capture in my research the same excitement and urgency I felt in my teaching. I was dubious that I would ever feel much exhiliration pursuing increasingly esoteric projects about obscure women historians; I had done what I wanted to in that area with my thesis (which became my book). What I wanted to talk about was how and why novels actually mattered in our lives. I felt (feel!) that they do, profoundly, and I thought (think!) that one important facet of their significance is ethical. But I didn’t know how to talk about this in a rich way that would also be sensitive to fiction’s many other significant facets, including form, aesthetics, and history. The Company We Keep not only talks about exactly this, but it does so in Booth’s wonderfully engaging, unpretentious, open-minded way. It was criticism that talked about how we live in the world, and about literature as part of that living rather than something abstractly theoretical. Booth’s work was part of a wider debate about the ethics of fiction that included, among many others, Richard Posner, Martha Nussbaum, and, eventually, me: I published two academic essays as a result of this turn in my research (here’s one, in PDF; here’s the teaser for the other). The ideas it generated infused my teaching as well, particularly in a course I designed on ‘close reading’ that I will offer again, for the first time in 5 years, next fall. More recently, I wrote an essay on Gone with the Wind that attempted a “Boothian” reading of that problematic novel: an ethical reading that avoids (or so I hope) simplistic finger-pointing while accepting morality as a key aspect of literary evaluation. (Judging by the comments, not everyone was convinced! But I hope, in the spirit of what Booth calls ” coduction” [my favorite neologism!], some readers found themselves thinking about Gone with the Wind differently, even if they didn’t agree with me in all the details of my argument.) Clearly, Booth counts for me as an influential critic; I only wish I had read him earlier and been in a program where he and his interests had been prominent instead of–well, instead of much of what I was assigned.

I have a longer relationship with Heilbrun’s little book, which was given to me by my mother soon after its publication, with a lovely inscription noting that she had found it “interesting and provocative” and hoped we would talk about it “over tea.” It seems appropriate that Writing a Woman’s Life should have come to me in this way, as a gesture of shared interests and an invitation to intimacy and support, because that kind of female community and the strength it generates is one of Heilbrun’s major themes. Written relatively late in Heilbrun’s long career, its brevity is deceptive as it distills the accumulated insights of three decades of academic experience and feminist scholarship (for Heilbrun, often in a vexed relationship with each other). It’s wise, articulate, and insistent. I drew on it in formulating the central argument of my thesis and book, quoting from its first chapter, which is nominally on George Sand but is also on the difficulties and the vital necessity of finding appropriate ways to shape narratives of women’s lives. “Lives do not serve as models,” Heilbrun writes;

only stories do that. And it is a hard thing to make up stories to live by. We can only retell and live by the stories we have read or heard. We live our lives through texts. They may be read, or changed, or experienced electronically, or come to us, like the murmurings of our mothers, telling us what conventions demand. Whatever their form or medium, these stories have formed us all; they are what we must use to make new fictions, new narratives.

She moves immediately on to an example from George Eliot, to the Alcharisi in Daniel Deronda, who vehemently “protests women’s storylessness.” She writes in the book about women who lived lives that chafed against the stories they knew, and about biographies of these women that did, or, more often, did not find a better story to tell their lives in. She writes about anger and courage, about love and compromise, about age and beauty, about Dorothy Sayers and Virginia Woolf and herself. Writing a Woman’s Life is as much polemic (graceful and witty as it is) as theory, and it makes big claims supported by allusion and invocation rather than narrow claims defended by bulwarks of footnotes and metacriticism. It’s not, exactly, scholarly, but then it wasn’t exactly meant to be, because it’s a book that’s about living life as much as it is about writing it. “I risk a great danger,” Heilbrun remarks at the outset: “that I shall bore the theorists and fail to engage the rest, thus losing both audiences.” But Writing a Woman’s Life is never boring because it has all the urgency I wanted criticism to have. Though I didn’t immediately see it as a relevant book when I was reconsidering my own critical path, it’s urgent because it too is ethical criticism, in that broad sense of ethos that drives Booth’s arguments as well, and it’s urgent because it thinks it matters what and how we read: it takes fiction seriously because it sees reading as part of living, as shaping how we think and thus how we live.

I’ve found myself returning again and again to Heilbrun’s ideas about the limits of narrative forms and the problems of conceptualizing new stories (especially love stories) when talking with my students about many different novels, from The Tenant of Wildfell Hall to The Mill on the Floss to Sue Grafton’s ‘A’ is for Alibi. Like Booth’s book, Heilbrun’s has been recurrently useful not so much in the details but in the lens it offers for bringing key problems into focus–or, to try a different metaphor, for the way it illuminates the problems I want to talk about. Reviewing a new biography of George Eliot that frustrated and disappointed me, I turned to Heilbrun for help in explaining why. I just turned to her work again while teaching Death in a Tenured Position, which was written by Heilbrun under her pseudonym, Amanda Cross. (In another odd coincidence, Death in a Tenured Position is dedicated to May Sarton, whose novel The Small Room I just read and wrote up for the Slaves of Golconda.) Looking at it again, and also reading with great interest and pleasure the essays in her collection Hamlet’s Mother and Other Women, I found that after all these years, she more than most critics speaks in a voice I want to listen to. She’s infectiously passionate about the books and writers and issues she addresses, and she explains them sympathetically: her approach is inspiring, even, again, if we might differ on the details. Her  own story, also, with its brave ending, is moving in its effortful integrity. She was a controversial figure, but that in itself is motivating. As she says towards the end of Writing a Woman’s Life, those of us who are very privileged,

not only academics in tenured positions, … but more broadly those with some assured place and pattern in their lives, with some financial security, are in danger of choosing to stay right where we are, to undertake each day’s routine, and to listen to our arteries hardening.

“I do not believe,” she concludes, “that death should be allowed to find us seated comfortably in our tenured positions.” There, she is surely correct.