The Wondrous and Mundane Diaries of Edna St. Vincent Millay

From The Nation:

On April 3, 1911, Edna St. Vincent Millay took her first lover. She was 19 years old, and she engaged herself to this man with a ring that “came to me in a fortune-cake” and was “the symbol of all earthly happiness.” Millay had just graduated from high school and had taken charge of running the household while her mother worked as a traveling nurse. She fixed her younger sisters dinner, washed and mended all their clothes, and entertained their guests. Her lover had no name and no body; he was a figment she’d conjured up to help her get through the stress and loneliness of being a teenage caretaker. This first lover, her “shadow,” is not often recounted among the many others she later had, but Millay had various ways of making these exhausting days of her early adulthood endlessly charming and alive. In one note to her lover, she describes the chafing dish she served her siblings’ dinner on, which she called James, and jokes, “Why don’t you come over some evening and have something on ‘James’—doesn’t that sound dreadful—‘have something on James’!”

Millay’s imaginary lover is the only one mentioned in great detail in the pages of her diary, collected for the first time as Rapture and Melancholy. The editor of the collection, Daniel Mark Epstein, ventures that “few, if any, serious reputations” in American literature “have so quickly arisen and burned so brightly” as Millay’s: In 1923, only 12 years removed from her days as a surrogate mother, she became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, and in her highly publicized life she also became known for her many flesh-and-blood lovers in the literary world as well as her fatal addiction to morphine.

But her diary doesn’t include these things, and it often skips over the most dramatic events in her life. The Millay who emerges in these entries is not the famed poet, performer, and lover but another Millay, whose inner world helps situate the story of her life anew. She embraces the mundanity of the non-writing life, that part of every literary artist’s existence unseen by critics and readers, and finds moments of rapture in the melancholy of these pages.

. . . .

In 1912, while she was still living at home in Camden, Me., the 19-year-old Millay submitted her poem “Renascence,” which she had begun writing the year before, to a prestigious poetry competition. It was a favorite among the judges, and Millay came home from picking blueberries for supper one day to find a letter from a New York editor informing her that her poem had been selected to be published in a volume called The Lyric Year. Critics raved about her poem, and soon people began to court her.

Caroline Dow, the dean of the YWCA Training School in New York, used her connections to find Millay sponsors who would fund her studies at Vassar College; Charlotte Bannon, who knew the head of the English department at Smith College, promised to arrange for a full scholarship if Millay were accepted there. Millay chose Vassar, with a preparatory semester at Barnard College. She boarded a sleeper train and arrived in New York City at the age of 21, in pigtails, having lost her comb on the journey. Her fame, by then, preceded her.

In New York, Millay had to take English, French, and Latin courses to make up for her shortage of high school credits; she balanced her mounds of homework with high teas and luncheons and mixers at the Poetry Society (with “celebs, more or less,” as she mentions in one entry) and regular meetings with her patrons to give them updates. She was expected to keep her grades up and to continue to write her verse. For the most part, these details are mentioned only in passing, often in the same breath with more domestic matters: ironing and discussing Horace; sending out laundry and writing poems in the library.

At Vassar, Millay was untouchable. She negotiated her first book deal, which would lead to the publication of Renascence, and Other Poems in 1917, published poetry in magazines, and took part in college theater productions. She got in trouble constantly for skipping classes, smoking and drinking in the dorms and in the cemetery, and sneaking off campus to go for a drive with her friends up the Hudson River. On at least one occasion, she spent the time allotted for a geometry test writing a letter to a friend. “Perhaps I’ll be expelled,” she quips, but she couldn’t be; though she was suspended just before graduation, she was given a special exemption to receive her degree. While at college, she also developed a relationship with the poet and playwright Arthur Davidson Ficke, an affair that would lead to a lifelong friendship and more than a decade of regular letters, but he doesn’t make a single appearance in her diaries until long after the affair has ended.

Millay’s diary animates the world around her, as she turns everyday objects into a cast of characters. Her new hat is “a dear,” and the faucet in her new room gives her a “feeling of comradeship” because the hot water comes out where the cold water should. When she goes to Paris a few years later, she writes about the Seine (“a French river. It speaks no English”) and little pleasures like tavern desserts: brown pears “squat & twisted as quinces…. I wondered if they had not ripened near a wall, maybe, in a thorny garden, where in the summer-time go walking of an afternoon an old blind woman & a little boy in bright blue apron.”

These were not quiet times for her. The same day she bought her lovely new hat and expressed relief in her diary that she did not have an ulcerated tooth, she mentions offhand, in the same breath, “Saw something about me in the April Bookman.” It was a review of “Renascence” by William Aspenwall Bradley, who called the poem “a more remarkable production” than any of the other poems in the collection it originally appeared in, but Millay does not mention that. Nor does she mention that her reason for going to Paris was to get away from the tangle of her messy love life, which by then encompassed Edmund Wilson and John Peale Bishop, whose work and friendship were strained by their common romantic interest.

These diaries reveal a moment-by-moment kind of life, in which the secret history of a squat brown pear or a rogue faucet or a chafing dish may be just as significant as the public life of the writer. The Millay of these diaries, then, reveals a different kind of writer: less engaged with an audience, with her readers, editors, or fellow writers, and more engaged in the distinctly private pleasure of simply taking in the world. A famous writer’s letters are written with the knowledge that they will be read—certainly by the recipient, but also perhaps eventually by the general public. Diaries, on the other hand, are motivated by a much more ambiguous impulse. Only in diaries does a writer have the true freedom to be no one but a witness to the world, the freedom to not tell a story or make a point. It seems to me that being interested in writers’ lives necessitates being interested also in the nothingness that often fills those lives; we want excitement, but reading the private observations of a writer’s largely static surroundings can perhaps excite us about the world as it is, and not as it promises to be.

Link to the rest at The Nation