Nov

19

It was under the male pseudonym George Eliot that Mary Anne Evans (November 22, 1819 – December 22, 1880) became one of the most revered voices in literary history — a choice dictated as much by the biases of the Victorian era, in which women writers tended not to be taken seriously for anything beyond romance novels, as it was by Evans’s desire to keep the turbulence of her private life out of the public eye.

Evans received little formal education after the age of sixteen, but thanks to her father’s position as manager of the Arbury Hall Estate, she was permitted to use the local library. There, with her voracious appetite for reading, she gave herself a makeshift classical education. From a young age, she had learned to escape into her own head for refuge. In an 1839 letter to a friend, she wrote:

When I was quite a little child I could not be satisfied with the things around me; I was constantly living ina world of my own creation and was quite contented to have no companions that I might be left to my own musings and imagine scenes in which I was chief actress. Conceive what charater novels would give to these Utopias. I was early supplied with them by those who kindly sought to gratify my appetite for reading and of course I made use o the materials they supplied for building my castles in the air.

Evans was not considered beautiful by common standards — so much so that the unusual size of her head was often remarked upon — and this was something of which she was exceedingly aware and painfully self-conscious. A former schoolmate once described her as “keenly susceptible to what she thought her lack of personal beauty, frequently saying that she was not pleased with a single feature of her face or figure,” but was quick to acknowledge her “intellectual power … capable of any effort” and “the great charm of her conversation.” In fact, this notion of her intellect as a counterpoint to her perceived physical shortcomings was a recurring theme both in the impressions of others and in Evans’s own self-assessment. Herbert Spencer noted her intellect’s “latent power,” writing that her ideas were “the products of a large intelligence working easily” — but he, too, made a note of her awkward appearance and especially her head, “larger than is usual in women.”

Still, Evans was not the type of person who found relief for her insecurities in trying to lift herself up by lowering others down. To the contrary, alongside her intelligence was also enormous generosity of spirit. The famed British social reformer Charles Bray, who grew to be a close friend of Evans’s for many years, captured this quality of hers beautifully:

She had little self-assertion; her aim was always to show her friends off to the best advantage — not herself. She would polish up their witticisms, and give the credit to them.

Bray also remarked upon the two faces of Evans’s genius, its “sunny and shady side,” noting — as many others who knew her did — that she was frequently depressed. And yet Evans understood that happiness is a skill to be learned and actively cultivated, not a state to be passively beheld. She wrote in a letter to a friend at the age of twenty-five:

One has to spend so many years in learning how to be happy. I am just beginning to make some progress in the science.

Above all, however, stood Evans’s formidable literary talent — a product of the confluence of that enormous intellect and those all-too-human insecurities. Legendary critic Martin Amis famously proclaimed her “the greatest writer in the English language ever” and her 1872 novel Middlemarch “the greatest novel.”

Sep

15

Sylvia Plath (October 27, 1932 – February 11, 1963) has been called an “addict of experience,” a tragic literary blonde, a victim of her generation and her medication. Beneath these partly true yet invariably reductionist labels, however, lies the immutable fact that she was, above all, one of the most celebrated and influential poets of the twentieth century, with a remarkable gift for moving the hearts of millions while struggling to still her own.

From an early age, Plath embodied a chronic osmosis of profound melancholia and boundless literary talent. Her dissonant relationship with life bursts open in her journal from age eighteen, where she writes:

With me, the present is forever, and forever is always shifting, flowing, melting. This second is life. And when it is gone it is dead. But you can’t start over with each new second. You have to judge by what is dead. It’s like quicksand… hopeless from the start. A story, a picture, can renew sensation a little, but not enough, not enough. Nothing is real except the present, and already, I feel the weight of centuries smothering me. Some girl a hundred years ago once lived as I do. And she is dead. I am the present, but I know I, too, will pass. The high moment, the burning flash, come and are gone, continuous quicksand. And I don’t want to die.

In another diary entry, she laments:

Life is a gentleman’s agreement to grin and paint your face gay so others will feel they are silly to be unhappy.

Yet even in the face of debilitating mental illness throughout her life, Plath maintained an astonishing daily routine, fueled in part by her anxious insomnia and in part by the very creative restlessness that lent her her poetic prowess.

In 1950, Plath enrolled in Smith College. It was there that she, an excellent student, formally submerged herself into the literary world. After editing The Smith Review, she was invited to serve as a guest editor at Mademoiselle magazine the summer before her senior year — a prestigious assignment that precipitated her notorious month in new York City. She graduated from Smith with honors and moved to Cambridge, England, to continue her studies at Newnham College on a Fulbright scholarship.

There, Plath met fellow poet Ted Hughes in February of 1956. It was one of literary history’s steamiest encounters, but only four months later, they wed and embarked upon a marriage that would be at once a famed partnership at the intersection of literature and love and a highly controversial dynamic that continued until death did them part in 1963, when Plath took her own life by sticking her head in oven and turning on the gas. She was only thirty.

In 1982, her Collected Poems earned Plath one of the few posthumous Pulitzer Prizes ever awarded. She was also a woman of multiple, if lesser-known, talents, from her surprisingly deft drawings and her children’s books — including one posthumously illustrated by the great Sir Quentin Blake — originally written for Plath’s own children, Frieda and Nicholas.

But despite her eye for beauty and quiet capacity for whimsy, Plath never exorcised the demons that haunted her formative years. In another diary entry, 18-year-old Plath presages the enduring open question of her life, so violently shut with her untimely, unspeakably heartbreaking death:

Oh, something is there, waiting for me. Perhaps someday the revelation will burst upon me and I will see the other side of this monumental grotesque joke. And then I’ll laugh. And then I’ll know what life is.

Sep

03

Journalist, critic, and women’s rights pioneer Margaret Fuller (May 23, 1810—July 19, 1850) is celebrated not only as the first full-time female book reviewer in America, but also as the author of the very first work of feminist literature in the United States — her 1845 book Woman in the Nineteenth Century came more than five decades before women’s right to vote and predated reconstructionist Betty Friedan’s seminal treatise The Feminine Mystique by more than a century. By the time she was thirty, Fuller, a voracious reader, was known as the best-read person New England and became the first woman allowed to use the library at Harvard.

A testament to the formative power of good parenting, Fuller was educated largely by her father, Timothy, who taught her to read and write before she was four. Determined to give his daughter an education as dimensional and exacting as a boy’s, he forbad her from engaging with the era’s literary diet for girls — etiquette books, romance novels, and domestic handbooks — urging her instead to study Latin. By the time she was six, little Margaret was able to translate short passages from Virgil.

Though she later blamed her father’s rigorous instruction for her childhood nightmares, it instilled in her unflinching confidence in the capacity of her own mind, precipitating a broader faith in women’s intellectual capabilities.

Fuller’s words in Woman in the Nineteenth Century, radical at the time, capture her conviction with timeless resonance:

There is no reason why [women] should not discover that the secrets of nature are open, the revelations of the spirit waiting, for whoever will seek them. When the mind is once awakened to this consciousness, it will not be restrained by the habits of the past, but fly to seek the seeds of a heavenly future.

A year after the publication of her seminal book, when she was only thirty-five, Fuller was sent to Europe as the Tribune’s first female correspondent. But her tireless advocacy of equality extended beyond the rights of women and into education, prison reform, and civil rights. Rather, she believed in the fundamental liberty of the human soul, as this beautiful passage from Woman in the Nineteenth Century so eloquently articulates:

Sex, like rank, wealth, beauty, or talent, is but an accident of birth. As you would not educate a soul to be an aristocrat, so do not to be a woman. … Express your views, men, of what you seek in women; thus best do you give them laws. Learn, women, what you should demand of men; thus only can they become themselves. Turn both from the contemplation of what is merely phenomenal in your existence, to your permanent life as souls. … There is but one doctrine for ye both, and that is the doctrine of the SOUL.

Though celebrated suffragists like Susan B. Anthony and beloved poets like Walt Whitman cited Fuller as an inspiration and a major influence, her legacy was dimmed by her literary executors’ tragic shortness of vision and scarcity of faith. Those entrusted with her letters had little regard for Fuller’s enduring contributions to culture, so they truncated, edited, and even censored much of her private writings before publication. Even her obituary in The Daily Tribune, the transcendentalist journal she once edited, acknowledged the occasional excellence of her writings, but coldly noted that “as a whole they must commend themselves mainly by their vigor of thought and habitual fearlessness rather than freedom of utterance.” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s son, Julian, was even harsher, writing that Fuller belonged among the “numberless other dismal frauds who fill the limbo of human pretension and failure.”

And yet Fuller shaped the course of feminist thought for generations to come, challenging both men and women to think for themselves rather than obeying social mores in laying the foundations of a new society based on equality, shared dignity, and mutual respect. Such, perhaps, is the lamentable indignity of the human condition: The tragedy of petty jealousy and ignorant ingratitude is the price triumphant spirits pay for challenging a culture’s most comfortable biases.

Aug

05

Beloved poet and playwright Edna St. Vincent Millay (February 22, 1892—October 19, 1950) endures as one of the most celebrated lyricists of the 20th century. The author of six plays, an opera libretto, and over five hundred poems spanning eleven volumes, as well as more than 170 sonnets, she received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1923 for The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver, becoming the third woman ever granted the prestigious award. Millay’s exquisite poetry was eclipsed only by her remarkable generosity of spirit. In a tribute to the poet written for the American Academy of Arts and Letters, legendary composer Deems Taylor reflects on his friend’s rare gift:

She was ruthlessly self-critical, and would agonize for days over a single, imperfect line. … [But] she was generous in the extreme to the work of other poets. Professional Jealousy was not in her. … It would be hard to find two poets who had less in common than Edna Millay and E. E. Cummings. Yet, when his application for a Guggenheim fellowship was referred to her, she wrote an exhaustive 3,000-word analysis of his work, recommending that he receive one.

At a time when the only thing more challenging than to be a successful and self-sufficient poet was to be a successful and self-sufficient woman, Millay earned a living by publishing her poetry in such reputable publications as Vanity Fair and Poetry. She was barely in her twenties when she wrote in a characteristically self-effacing letter to the poet Witter Bynner that she was “becoming very famous” and that three reviews of her works had appeared in the New York newspapers “in the last week alone.” But Millay sent practically all of her earnings to her mother and three sisters, often with sweetly apologetic notes for not being able to send even more.

Allan Ross MacDougall, Millay’s friend and literary comrade, writes in the foreword to her collected letters, which he edited:

I remember well her passionate interest, her intensity, her gravity; but I remember, too, her quick sense of fun, her wit, and her generosity.

Yet despite her intense dedication to literature, Millay was a woman of indiscriminate curiosity about and joy in life. Though poetry was her primary love, she wrote prose under the pen name Nancy Boyd and was also enormously enchanted by music, masterful in the art of humor, and fascinated by science. (Her very first poem, in fact, was an ode to the Greek mathematician Euclid, godfather of geometry.) Openly bisexual, she had several love affairs with women — on some of whom she unleashed her literary prowess in soul-stirring love letters — and was fervently pursued by prominent men, including the revered literary critic Edmund Wilson, whom she famously called “bunny” and who proposed marriage to her twice, to no avail.

Millay, however, did wed. In 1923, she married Eugen Jan Boissevain, the widower of political activist Inez Milholland, whom Millay had met in Vassar and greatly admired for the shared feminist sensibility. Two years later, Millay and Boissevain bought Steepletop — a former blueberry farm in upstate New York, on the grounds of which they built a writing cabin, a tennis court, and a vegetable garden which the poet tended herself. The couple went on to spend the rest of their lives together, in an open relationship, and died a year apart.

After Millay’s death, her sister Norma — whom Millay affectionately called Hunk — moved to Steepletop with her husband and established the Millay Colony for the Arts, a haven where visual artists, writers, and composers can do their creative work free of the strain of everyday life. Such literary icons as Mary Oliver, who went on to win the Pulitzer Prize herself, have found themselves at Steepletop, absorbing and reflecting the influence of Millay’s inextinguishable legacy.