Monday, February 22, 2016

Birthday: Edna St Vincent Millay

From The Writer’s Almanac:
It is the birthday of American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, born in Rockland, Maine (1892). She had two sisters and her parents divorced when the girls were small. Her mother, a nurse, moved the girls from town to town. They often lived in poverty, but her mother kept the trunk filled with volumes of Shakespeare and Milton, and she read aloud to her children. Millay was resourceful and smart, and she began writing when they permanently settled at her aunt’s house in Camden, Maine.
Millay was also stubborn. She preferred to be called “Vincent,” which her grade school principal refused to recognize. He called her any name that began with “V,” as long as it wasn’t “Vincent.”
She thought she might be a concert pianist, but her piano teacher said Millay’s hands were too small, so she concentrated full time on writing, which her mother encouraged. They had no money, so Millay stayed home, keeping house, until long after she’d finished high school. She entered a poetry contest and won fourth place with what would become one of her most famous poems, “Renascence.” Even the winner acknowledged that she should have won, saying, “The award was as much an embarrassment to me as a triumph.” The second-place winner offered her his winnings of $250.00. It was while giving a reading of the poem that she so impressed a wealthy arts patron named Caroline Dow that Dow offered to pay for Millay’s education at Vassar College.
Millay entered Vassar in 1913 at the age of 20. She was petite, with flaming red-hair and personality to burn. She had affairs with men and women, and wrote, “People fall in love with me and annoy me and distress me and flatter me and excite me.”
After Vassar, she decamped to Greenwich Village and began to live a wild Bohemian life. Millay said she and her friends were “very, very poor and very, very merry.” She lived in an attic apartment at 75 ½ Bedford Street that was nine feet long and six feet wide. It was the narrowest house in New York City and is today known as “The Millay House.” Her first collection of poetry, Renascence and Other Poems,was published to great acclaim (1917). She befriended the writers Witter Bynner, Edmund Wilson, and Floyd Dell. Dell and Wilson asked for her hand in marriage, but Millay, who was openly bisexual, refused. Dell called her “a frivolous young woman, with a brand-new pair of dancing slippers and mouth like a valentine.”
She was also a master of the sonnet and nimbly imbued modernist attitudes on traditional forms. Her collection A Few Figs from Thistles(1920) drew much attention for its depictions of female sexuality and feminism. In 1923, she became the third woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry when she published The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver.
For a time, Millay was the most famous poet in America. She’d finally married, choosing a coffee importer named Eugen Boissevain, a self-proclaimed feminist who agreed to an open marriage and was handy at arranging her finances and her cross-country reading tours. They bought a home in Austerlitz, New York, and called the house Steepletop, building a barn from a Sears and Roebuck kit and a writing cabin for Millay. By 1943, though, Millay was suffering from alcohol addiction and her life was in disarray. She became the second person to receive the Frost Medal for her lifetime contributions to poetry, but her best writing was behind her. Her husband died, and she became isolated at Steepletop. She died at the foot of her staircase, by suicide or a fall, no one is quite sure.
Her sister Norma took over Steepletop and carefully began to renovate it. In 1973, she established the house and grounds as the Millay Colony for the Arts.
#LiteraryBirthdays #EdnaStVincentMillay #LGBTAuthors #HenryBemisBooks

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