In this newest addition to Sandra M. Gilbert’ s Ad Feminam: Women and Literature series, Diane P. Freedman brings together twelve essays by critics of poetry and women’ s writing for a critical reappraisal of the prolific work of Edna St. Vincent Millay.
Though finding its occasion in the life of Millay— the centennial of the writer’ s birth— this volume refocuses attention on Millay’ s art by asking questions central to our present concerns: What in the varied body of Millay’ s work speaks to us most forcefully today? Which critical perspectives most illuminate her texts? How might those approaches be challenged, extended, or reoriented? In seeking the answers to such questions, the volume’ s contributors illuminate the means by which Millay’ s early success has been slighted and misunderstood and examine issues of personality, personae, critical stature, and formal experimentation in Millay’ s various genres: lyric poetry, the sonnet, verse drama, fiction, and the personal letter.
In 1920, following the publication of A Few Figs from Thistles, Millay was the "It girl" of American poetry. But by the late 1930s, her popularity waned as her critical reputation declined under the reign of high modernism and its critics. In fact, Millay, like others of her generation, had rejected modernist elitism in favor of public engagement, using her powerful public voice to plead for an end to the Sacco-Vanzetti trials as well as for U.S. entry into World War II. Condemned for both her politicizing and her political poetry, she was the first to admit that she and her poetry suffered in the service of public causes.
Grouped into four parts, these essays focus on Millay’ s relation to modernism, her revisionary perspectives on love, her treatment of time and of the female body, and her use of masquerade and impersonation in life and in art. Throughout, the essayists pose such questions as: Where is Millay’ s place in the literary histories of modern writing and in our hearts? How are we to value, interpret, and characterize the various forms and genres in which she wrote? What is the cultural work Millay achieves and reflects? How does she help us redefine modernism? What do Millay’ s great gifts enable us to see about genre, the social construction of gender, the definition of modernism, and the role of the poet?
Millay’ s considerable productivity, the range and virtues of her forms, and her experimentation clearly argue for a wide-ranging reappraisal of her work.