Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Declarations of Dependence

I've added May Sarton's journals to my list of reading projects.  Or rather, re-reading projects, since I've already read them all, mostly as they were published.  In my thirties and forties they were interesting primarily for her account of aging; I'm now slightly older than she was when she began writing journals for publication, so it will be interesting to see how my perspective has changed.  Another interesting aspect in the later journals, especially after her 1986 stroke, was how she had to learn to depend on other people.  That made a big impression on me when I first read them, but I expect to learn more now that I'm old myself.

But what got me started this time was something I'd heard about these books, and wanted to check for myself.  Her first journal, Plant Dreaming Deep (1968) describes her move to a house of her own in (or near) the village of Nelson, New Hampshire.  Determined to live alone, she aimed to write honestly about herself, including her anger and temper -- a somewhat daring course for a woman writer.  But she found that most readers didn't notice her anger in that book, it was too well masked.  I think of Sarton as a ladylike writer, and her anger up to this point was expressed in repressed, ladylike ways.  In Journal of a Solitude (1973), which I'm reading now, Sarton resolved to make her anger more explicit.  I wanted to see how well she'd kept that resolution, and if I could tell the difference between the tone of the first book and the tone of the second.

I can see how she worked hard not to censor herself, to mention her anger -- indeed, her rages and tantrums, the words she herself used for certain moods.  This is a good thing, but as the word "tantrums" suggests, she had trouble putting her anger into context.  It doesn't help that she still censored herself in certain areas, not entirely of her own choosing I suspect: for example, she refers often to the woman she was romantically involved with at the time as "X," and is careful not to make it explicit that X was a woman.  Her partner of many years, Judy Matlack, is mentioned several times by her first name only, and their relationship is never specified.  Sarton and Matlack had broken up when Sarton moved to Nelson, but they remained close, and they often spent weekends together until Matlack's death.  (She spent her later years in a nursing home, where Sarton visited her even after Matlack no longer recognized her, as I remember from the later journals.)  This reticence makes it difficult for Sarton to delve into the sources of her anger, at least for print, and makes her outbursts seem isolated and sometimes puzzling.

(I noticed that it was in Journal of a Solitude that Sarton made her famous reference to her 1965 novel Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing as "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 ..."  Geez, what a list of negative virtues!  It has been a long time since I read Mrs. Stevens, and I imagine I'll be rereading Sarton's novels after I get through the journals, but as I recall Mrs. Stevens wasn't all that interesting.  Nor, in fact, was she a novelty: there were quite a few non-sex-maniacal lesbians in fiction before her.  Like Gore Vidal's account of his homosexual novel The City and the Pillar, Sarton toots her own horn a bit too stridently here.)

At the same time, it's clear that her anger often puzzled her: she wrote repeatedly that on some mornings she woke up in tears, for no reason she could name.  I don't judge her for this -- I have my own temper, and I honor her honesty in admitting that she could be difficult to get along with, in ways I recognize in myself -- nor do I try to diagnose her.  As she became older and her health declined she often came across in the journals as merely querulous, but then she had plenty to complain about, and I was always impressed at her determination to keep working and traveling as long as she could.  I hope to do as well myself.

The other thing I notice on this reading is that although Sarton often refers to her solitude, how she has chosen to live alone to dedicate herself to work, and her frequent loneliness, she hardly seems solitary to me.  As I mentioned, she kept in close touch with her ex, she had various love affairs, and she had an extended network of friends both personal and professional.  Her solitary life in these journals is frequently interrupted by visitors, usually but not always on the weekends, and by travels around the country to give readings and lectures.  Sometimes fans come knocking on her door.  She also has neighbors, who helped her get settled into her house, mow her grass, plow the road after snowfall, and look in on her periodically to make sure she's all right; her portraits of these people are often quite touching.  But then she complains regularly that she can't get any work done because of all the interruptions!  It's a fair complaint, but it undermines her protestations of solitude.  Oh well, I experience similar ambivalence about living alone, so I read a lot of this with recognition.  Like Sarton, I live alone, but I'm assuredly no hermit, nor would I want to be.  Maybe the meaning of "solitude" needs to be clarified.  I remember that while Thoreau lived "alone" and solitary at Walden Pond, he still went into town each day to gossip, and he took his laundry home for his mother to wash.  Even the desert hermits of the early Christian church lived in connection with monasteries and churches, and probably passed few days without seeing fellow religious, pilgrims, and servants bringing them their meals.

So, I'm enjoying this renewed acquaintance with the "solitary" May Sarton.  May my own old age be as fulfilling and productive.