Poet, playwright, and translator Daniel Mark Epstein certainly has the right background to understand and evaluate poet, playwright, and translator Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950)--though Millay didn't write biographies. Readers of Epstein's Sister Aimee
and Nat King Cole
will recognize the intense personal engagement the author brings to his task. He's not afraid to express an almost physical fascination for his subjects, which is especially appropriate for the flamboyant Millay, who insisted on the right to take as many lovers as she pleased and to write about them in some of the greatest erotic poetry in American verse. Epstein focuses on that poetry, deciphering the affairs that fueled it and elucidating the boldly iconoclastic, almost cynical acceptance of love's fleeting nature that informs it. (Of the last sonnet in A Few Figs from Thistles
, with its notorious putdown, "I shall forget you presently, my dear / So make the most of this, your little day," he remarks: "For a woman, not yet thirty, to compose and market such a poem... was a scandal, an alarm, and a red flag to censors.") While the Edna St. Vincent Millay who emerges in Nancy Milford's Savage Beauty
is indelibly shaped by her upbringing, particularly her relationship with her mother and sisters, Epstein's Millay is a self-created goddess of love and literature. It's fascinating to compare these two biographies, published nearly simultaneously and each with considerable merits. Milford's lengthy book, the product of three decades of research, is lavish with details and comprehensive in scope. Epstein's more selective work excels in cogent summaries and forcefully stated opinions. Either book will satisfy readers with an interest in Millay or American literature; really passionate aficionados of the art of biography will want to read both. --Wendy Smith
From Publishers Weekly
Sexually implacable, perennially noncommittal and, by all accounts, possessed of an irresistible charisma, the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay led a love life of Byronic proportions. The truth about her personal affairs was scarcely less fantastic than the rampant speculations; even now, historians find it difficult to separate Millay rumor from Millay fact. This volume, a case in point, is less a biography of the great seductress than an imaginative reconstruction of her amorous adventures. As such, it reads like a literary novel with a racy streak. Some may argue that Epstein goes too far in the fictional coloring of his heroine, particularly in the early parts of the book, where he refers to one of America's greatest lyric poets as "the little sorceress" and "the little actress." Still, Epstein's telling of the poet's progress makes for gripping narrative and will satisfy readers interested in Millay's romantic image and sources of inspiration. An experienced author and poet himself, Epstein is especially skillful at calling up vivid images, and he makes even the better-known facets of Millay's love life (such as her bisexuality and her 25-year open marriage) seem fresh. The book's preface makes much of Epstein's use of unpublished material viewed by hardly anyone besides the poet's sister Norma and "possibly one other biographer whom [Norma] engaged to write a book in the 1970s." In a case of fateful timing, the "other biographer" (Nancy Milford) will at last publish her book, Savage Beauty (Forecasts, June 18), in the same month as Epstein's, and will almost certainly steal his thunder. Whereas Epstein's book offers a rousing tribute to the Millay legend, Milford's outstrips his in breadth and subtlety.
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