Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Savage Beauty

Our book today is Savage Beauty, Nancy Milford's best-selling 2001 biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay, and it's an author/subject pairing made in Heaven. Milford of course write Zelda, the definitive life of F. Scott Fitzgerald's needy, stupid mess of a wife - and when that book was new, more reviewers talked about how beautifully it was written than spared even a word for Zelda's own meager and deservedly-forgotten literary output. Indeed, Zelda is a beautifully wrought book - massive research lightly worn, massive legwork casually described, memorable turns of phrase on practically every page.

And unabashedly sympathetic, which isn't always the case with long biographies. That's understandable - after all, the biographer is spending large amount of every day cooped up with their subject, indelibly aware of every flaw and shortcoming. That tends to produce one of two reactions: either the biographer becomes a fact-piling sycophant, or the biographer starts to hate his subject. Few indeed are the biographers who can walk the line between those two reactions, let along walk it for long stretches of pages - and yet, so many biographies are published every year that a list of just such successes would be moderately long! I'll get to such a list in due time, but for now, I can heartily recommend Milford's other biography to all of you: Savage Beauty is a wonderful, wise, and heartfelt examination of one of America's first pop-star poets, as Milford is quick to point out:

Deep into the nineteenth century there had been literary gentlemen who filled lecture halls and athenaeums with their deft recitals of poems and sermons. But Millay was the first American figure to rival the personal adulation, frenzy even, of Byron, where the poet in his person was the romantic ideal. It was his life as much as his work that shocked and delighted his audiences. Edna Millay was the only American woman to draw such crowds to her. Her performing self made people feel they had seen the muse alive and just within reach. They laughed with her, and they were moved by her poetry. Passionate and charming, or easy and lofty, she not only brought them to their feet, she brought them to her. In the heart of the Depression her collection of sonnets Fatal Interview sold 35,000 copies within the first few weeks of its publication.

Milford takes us on a fascinatingly fact-and-figure-based tour of Millay's actual working life, tracking sales figures for each book, accounting for the exact sums of publisher advances and speaking fees. In her poetry performances ("readings" is so sedate as to be misleading), Millay often affected a vaguely ethereal pose, and Milford sometimes seems to be deliberately working against that, constantly nailing us down to tax returns and sales receipts. It's a mark of her talent that she makes it all so compulsively interesting.

She also gives us a complete picture of Millay's reception as a poet - it's fascinating to read all the excerpts included here from contemporary reviews - not all of which were kind, as in the case of Horace Gregory's 1935 review of Wine From These Grapes, in which he spends an inordinate amount of time dwelling on facts from Millay's biography. Such a technique is ubiquitous today, but at the time it was relatively rare in such worthy precincts as the New York Herald Tribune's Books section - and regardless of where it appears, it irritates Milford, who's firmly but not didactically on the side of her author:

This may have been the first time her life was being reviewed,her work taken to task for its reception and popularity; it would not be the last. Millay's poetry appealed to a larger public than most poets every hope to reach. Gregory reduced that appeal to immature girls - or, as they aged, to unhappy women. It was an attack disguised as a review.

I've read my copy of Savage Beauty many times, savoring not only Milford's sharp prose but also her able evocations of the surrounding times of Millay's life (not all first-rate biographies remember to do this), and again, I strongly recommend it to everybody. And of course no mention of the book would be complete without including one of Millay's poems! I'm rather fond of virtually all of them, so I'll pick one almost at random, but naturally, I recommend her Collected Sonnets over any damn biography ever written:

The doctor asked her what she wanted done
With him, that could not lie there many days.
And she was shocked to see how life goes on
Even after death, in irritating ways;
And mused how if he had not died at all
'Twould have been easier - then there need not be
The stiff disorder of a funeral
Everywhere, and the hideous industry,
And crowds of people calling her by name
An questioning her, she'd never seen before,
But only watching by his bed once more
And sitting silent if a knocking came ...
She said at length, feeling the doctor's eyes,
"I don't know what you do exactly when a person dies."

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