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Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent…
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Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay (2001)

by Nancy Milford

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Showing 1-5 of 18 (next | show all)
I must say up front that I generally don't find biographies to be among my favorites. I've always said that a book should not be rated based on whether or not you like the characters. It seems you should not have to be in love with admirable traits - nor despise the failings - of a character in order to be swept away by a story. However, when the story is a focused biography it's difficult for me to be influenced by much else. I didn't like her much...

Edna St Vincent Millay was an astonishing and creative poet inspired by her emotional pain, love, and crises. She had a fiery social conscience and a gusto for all that made her life exciting. She exhibited amazing strength, crippling fragility, and hurtful self-centered choices. Her fame, sexuality, and addictive appetites were sources of crushing hardships, intense vitality, and deep depression. Her life was a mess.

So, I guess I gave this 4 stars for the ability of the author, Nancy Milford, to get it all together... but I highly suspect it was the best possible slant and sympathetic account that could be written of this troubled woman. I was thankful Milford appropriately included many of Millay's poems. These samples provided emotional colors and whet the appetite for more. ( )
  -Cee- | Jan 30, 2017 |
Per the forward to this long bio, Milford’s the first to have been granted access to the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay’s private letters and journals, long held in keeping by her sister Norma. This helps explain why this narrative is so compelling: having access to the subject’s own journals and letters provides fascinating access to her internal as well as external life. However, this may also explain the frustrating limits of this narrative: basically, if an incident isn’t covered in the letters, it isn’t mentioned here – leading to a biography that feels weirdly limited and insular. Moreover, while letters and diary entries may be revealing, they’re not necessarily complete, and they’re not necessarily trustworthy. In this case, it’s necessary to remember that our subject, Millay, wasn’t just a poet – she was also an accomplished actress, an erratic diarist with a tendency to omit unpleasant events, and an expert manipulator (especially of men and older women) with a gift for self-delusion. At the end of 500 pages I guarantee you’ll know a lot more about Millay, her life, and her canon; just don’t expect to have gained much insight into the forces that likely played the greatest role in shaping her life and character, which (based on clues in this text) may have included abandonment issues, bipolar disorder, and childhood sexual trauma.

There’s way too much drama in Millay’s life to try to summarize here, from her oddly heartbreaking childhood to her wild, bohemian adulthood to her early death following increasingly dramatic hospitalizations and staggering drug use. What Milford seems intent upon us understanding is that, as worthy as Millay’s poetry may have been, her fame was also in large part indebted to her ability to create her own “cult of personality.” If it hadn’t been for the willingness of a succession of older women, dazzled by her talent and charm, to smooth her path to and through college; if it hadn’t been for a string of discarded lovers, enchanted by her beauty, intensity, and sexual precocity, to ensure her poems stayed constantly in the public eye; if it hadn’t been for her scores of fans, particularly “sexually liberated young women,” enthralled by her dramatic public readings, her risqué reputation, and her husky contralto voice, flocking to the stores to purchase her poetry – one wonders whether she would have become what she became: the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for poetry and the “voice of her era.” For if F. Scott Fitzgerald can be said to have given the “Jazz Age” its voice, then Millay can surely be said to have written the libretto.

Which brings me to the quirks of Milford as a narrator. She has the oddest habit of introducing new characters without any preamble and minimal biographical information, making it very difficult to figure out which characters are “minor” and which “major.” It was frustrating to constantly have to double back to re-read character introductions when the characters suddenly reappeared, 100 pages later, without any helpful reference or context. Even the minimal biographical information she provides sometimes comes chapters after the characters have been introduced, long after it would have been useful to have. Another issue I had was with Milford’s apparent resolve to present information without endeavoring to interpret it. In general I’m grateful when biographers eshew psychobabble – but isn’t there also something a little unhelpful (if not irresponsible) about presenting two fairly significant clues that Millay was the victim of childhood sexual trauma at the hands of one (or more) of her mother’s lovers with as much detachment as she brings to reprinting Millay’s endless letters about fashion? About as far as Milford goes is to acknowledge that when Millay starts using baby talk in her letters to her family, it’s “a bad sign” – though she coyly declines suggest what it’s a bad sign of.

On the other hand, you could argue that this approach, at the least, provides ample fodder for book club discussion! Some of the questions my group wrestled with (and that I’m still wrestling with): What was the root cause of Vincent’s sexual precocity – was it a Jazz Age thing? A poet thing? A Greenwich Village/bohemian thing? A symptom of a childhood sexual trauma? A desperate cry for attention/love? How did regularly society react to her many affairs with women and married men – or, what explains their failure to react? Did the babying she received at the hands of her husband Eugin truly protect her from her mistakes, or merely enable her to continue making them? Were her many illnesses real or psychosomatic? When did she begin using morphine, and what role did it play in hastening her nervous breakdowns? Or do Millay’s alternating episodes of mania and depression provide evidence that she was struggling with bipolar disorder? What exactly were her true feelings towards the mother she outwardly adored, but who in fact abandoned her daughters for long periods of time and seems, throughout this narrative, much more interested in being Vincent’s BFF than protecting her from harm? And finally, the biggest question of all: after reading this 500 page biography, why are we all struggling with the feeling that this narrative omits almost as much valuable insight as it includes? ( )
  Dorritt | Sep 10, 2016 |
Be forewarned, Milford is sexist and heterosexist to an educated modern reader and paternalistic towards her subjects. Furthermore, she seems to be listing what Millay does instead of telling/narrating it.

Biography is the art of making data into a story so the reader can feel they knew the person whose life is told; Milford does not accomplish this. Unsurprising when she sometimes lists such an inspiring documents as lists of repairs to be made to Millay's home. That said, Millay herself is such an interesting person and her poems (quoted abundantly) are sometimes so good, there is something to be taken from this book. Still, wouldn't recommend it.

I was also bothered by the unexplained shift from 'Vincent' to 'Edna' to refer to the subject. ( )
  askajnaiman | Jun 14, 2016 |
One of the best biographies I've ever read. It's amazing that any biography, particularly one so vast, can be as engrossing and entertaining as this one has been. Very comprehensive and yet the author presents Millay's life as a true story. I loved it. ( )
  lovelypenny | Feb 4, 2016 |
So many thoughts on this... The short version: Fascinating, sad, inspiring, disturbing. It took a while to get through, but I'm very glad I did. ( )
  devafagan | Jan 2, 2015 |
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Camden, with its ring of mountains rising behind the white clapboard houses facing Penobscot Bay, made the most of its view.
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The correct author of this books is Nancy MILFORD, not Mitford.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0375760814, Paperback)

Fans of Zelda, Nancy Milford's groundbreaking (and bestselling) biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald's tortured wife and muse, have been waiting impatiently since 1970 for Milford's promised follow-up about poet Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950). It's finally here, and they will not be disappointed. Milford's vivid narrative limns an electric personality with psychological acuity while capturing the freewheeling atmosphere of America in the turbulent years following World War I. After "Renascence" was published (when she was only 20) and she moved to Greenwich Village, Millay was the queen of bohemia, taking lovers with zest and voicing the reckless gaiety of a generation in her famous lyric, "My candle burns at both ends; / It will not last the night; / But, ah, my foes, and, oh, my friends-- / It gives a lovely light." With her flame-red hair, milk-white skin, and a voice that thrilled audiences (making her poetry readings a welcome source of income), Millay was the archetypal "new woman": powerful, passionate, and not to be ignored. But Milford makes it clear that her first loyalty was to her mother and sisters, and her deepest commitment to her writing. This juicy chronicle has famous names aplenty--critic Edmund Wilson and Masses editor Floyd Dell were among the men devastated by her refusal to be faithful--and lots of dissipation: Millay drank heavily and became addicted to morphine. It also takes a perceptive look at how an artist draws material from her life and at the strategies she uses to protect the wellsprings of creativity. Brief passages interspersed throughout delineating Milford's interactions with Norma Millay, the poet's younger sister and literary executor, might have been self-indulgent and self-aggrandizing; instead they offer intriguing snapshots of the complex process by which biography is made. The resulting book is a tour de force, and wildly entertaining as well. --Wendy Smith

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:20:28 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

"If F. Scott Fitzgerald was the hero of the Jazz Age, Edna St. Vincent Millay, as audacious in her love affairs as she was in her art, was its heroine. She embodied, in her reckless fancy, the spirit of the New Woman, and gave America its voice." "The first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, Millay was dazzling in the performance of her self. Her voice was an instrument of seduction, and her impact on crowds, and on men, was legendary. Young women styled themselves in her image - fairylike, taunting, free. Yet beneath her studied act, all was not well." "Nancy Milford was given exclusive access to Millay's papers, and what she found was an unimaginable treasure. Hundreds of letters flew back and forth between the three sisters and their mother - and Millay kept the most intimate diary, one whose ruthless honesty brings to mind the journals of Sylvia Plath."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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