My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I was introduced to the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay this past semester when I took an Intro to Poetry class. We read “I, Being Born a Woman and Distressed” and “What Lips My Lips Have Kissed, and Where, and Why.” From that point on, I have been a major fan of Millay’s work and I wanted to know more about her. So I looked around for a good biography to read and found Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay.
Vincent (as Millay was known by family and friends) was a fascinating woman, living in a fascinating time period. She was bold, creative, and charismatic, drawing people to her with her child-like beauty, her voice, passion and sheer talent. Reading excerpts from her letters and diaries was interesting and entertaining. (At times, especially when she was a college student at Vassar, she comes across almost like a character from a Lucy Maud Montgomery book (like Emily Byrd Starr) albeit one that smokes, acts out, and has a LOT more sex that any character Montgomery would ever have written about).
Having said all that, Nancy Milford’s Savage Beauty was a bit of a mixed bag for me. Milford is fairly successful in recounting Vincent’s early years from childhood, up through college and into the beginning of her career and marriage but the book eventually gets bogged down and lags more than a little towards the end before abruptly stopping in a rather unsatisfying conclusion. Also the author lacked a certain sympathy with her subject that would have allowed her to discuss some of the more sensitive parts of Vincent’s life without coming across as gossiping, judgmental and exploitative. She also allowed her personal hostility towards Norma Millay, Vincent’s sister and her source for much of the book, to be painfully obvious in the text. Even as she depends on Norma to provide access to Vincent’s papers and to recount her own recollections, Milford also makes not-so-subtle digs at her and questions Norma’s accuracy and motivations in providing the stories. It makes the narrator of the book come across as an unlikeable, sneering, insinuating, condescending gossip. During the parts of the book where Milford doesn’t intrude too much and allows Vincent to speak for herself through the documents she left behind, I enjoyed the book. I just wish there had been more of it.
I would love to read another, better biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay. If anyone has any suggestions, I would love to hear them.