A revealing examination of a prominent feminist's writings
Understanding May Sarton introduces readers to the poetry, fiction, and memoirs of a pioneering feminist whose works, acclaimed but underappreciated during her lifetime, have attracted an expanding readership since her death in 1995. With the inclusion of Sarton's final novel, The Education of Harriet Hatfield, her final volume of poetry, Coming into Eighty, and her three final volumes of nonfiction, Mark K. Fulk provides a comprehensive study—and one that does not assume Sarton's writings to be of interest exclusively or even primarily to female readers. Rather than limiting Sarton's literary accomplishments to the categories of feminist and lesbian writing, as other critics have done, Fulk approaches them in a way that he contends "comes closer to the spirit of Sarton's work as she saw it."
Fulk traces the evolution of Sarton's poetry from the celebration of women's bodies and sexuality to an increased engagement with Eastern forms of belief, and finally to poems resonating with the life of the elderly. In his readings of Sarton's novels, he finds that the author's struggles as a Belgian emigrant to America become significant in understanding her, but Sarton's depictions of small-town life and intimate communications among women, along with her groundbreaking coming-out novel, Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, create a fuller picture of her self-documentation. Fulk also analyzes Sarton's memoirs and published journals, in which she addresses aging, living with illness, and the discipline of solitude. These writings brought Sarton attention outside her core audience in her later years.
Depicting Sarton as a contemporary, unorthodox mystic in the tradition of Thomas Merton, Fulk emphasizes the solitary and spiritual dimensions of Sarton's thought. He clarifies the influence of early personal struggles on her work, identifies her primary thematic concerns, including the ideals of beauty, serenity, and healing, and expounds on her achievement of an earthy spirituality that sustained her through isolation and difficulty.
Mark K. Fulk is an assistant professor of English and theatre arts at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas. He holds a Ph.D. from Miami University of Ohio and is an active board member of the Aphra Behn Society for Women in the Arts, 1660–1830. A published poet, Fulk has written articles on Stephen Sondheim and on women writers in the time of John Dryden. He lives in Siloam Springs.