Books and Reviews at Greenberry House

Like most booksellers, reading is a large part of my life here at Greenberry House. I have a special old chair, so worn that it sags, where I love to curl up with a good book. Old favorites, exciting new writers, spiritual or challenging, fiction or fact; all pass through my hands and many are worthy of comment. I plan an occasional mention here of a recent book I've read, either to recommend or to warn!

Friday, April 06, 2007

Savage Beauty

Savage Beauty, The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay by Nancy Milford, Random House, 2001.

I've been reading the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay lately, so I was pleased to find this book in one of the boxes that my aunt sent at the beginning of the winter. I knew very little about the poet and her life, so this biography, thirty years in the writing, makes me want to take a new look at the poems. Although I feel that there are some faults in Milford's biography, seeing the poetry against the background of a life, often troubled but always adventurous, added a new dimension to my understanding.

Millay spoke for a new generation of women, those of the Jazz Age that were stepping across boundaries and breaking into new territory. Millay smoked in public and made no secret of her many lovers, both male and female. Marriage vows, her own or another's, had little effect on her behavior. Her troubled life began in Maine, where her father abandoned the family early and her mother felt obliged to leave her three small daughters alone for long periods of time while working as a nurse. The relationship between the four women affected much of "Vincent's" life, with turmoil between herself and a difficult younger sister who felt overshadowed by Vincent's talent. Cora Buzzell Millay, Vincent's mother, seems to struggle with pride and jealousy in Milford's portrayal of her, and it sometimes seems that Vincent and her sisters go to great lengths to pacify Cora's demands, perhaps from fear of abandonment. There is a hint at one point that Vincent may have been molested by a man Cora was involved with.

What struck me most about Vincent Millay's life is that genius so often comes out of such a life. Talented people often seem to be driven toward a need for experience, and the depth of their work reveals an understanding of experience that so many of us lack. We need these people to speak for us, out of their pain, to say what we cannot find words to reveal.

Milford disappoints me occasionally throughout her work. She isn't a particularly organized writer; the book is unsettling in the manner that the material is presented, sometimes in an almost haphazard fashion. It is difficult to capture a life, of course, but the best biographers understand the "why" behind the "what happened" and these reasons elude Milford. Reading between the lines of the numerous excerpts of Millay's works, journals and letters is up to the reader, and Milford offers no interpretation or analysis. I felt sometimes that Milford was overwhelmed with the material, and perhaps intimidated by Millay's sister, Norma.

Savage Beauty has some flaws, but so did Edna St. Vincent Millay. The biography is well worth reading for the facts presented and the excerpts from Millay's journals and less accessible writing beyond her poetry. The biography has encouraged me to go back to the poems, with a better understanding of their author, and maybe this is accomplishment enough.

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