Edna St. Vincent Millay, the early voice of 20th century feminism

April 2, 2022 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: Women writers and journalists, writers, writing.

When she was 19 years old in 1912, Edna St. Vincent Millay had few prospects. She had just graduated from high school in Maine, but her family did not have enough money to send her to college.

Her sister, Norma, worked as a waitress at a local inn that summer, and Edna stayed with her a good deal. In the dining room one evening, Edna decided to play the piano and recite a poem that she had written.

The poem was titled “Renascence.” It was a 107 rhyming couplet poem that described her spiritual awakening. It had been published in a book, The Lyric Year, an anthology of poetry, and it had been widely acclaimed as the best poem in the book.

She was a very competent piano player, and one of her dreams—despite her innate shyness—was to go on stage as an actress. These talents came to the fore, and she played and recited for the dining room audience. A member of that audience happened to be Caroline Dow, the head of the YWCA national training school in New York. Dow recognized Edna’s talent and potential, and she offered to support her college career.

The next year Millay entered Vassar College as a 21-year-old freshman. It was the ticket that she needed to a life that became one of the most celebrated in all of 20th century American letters.

Millay found Vassar to be intellectually stimulating but socially restrictive, far too restrictive for the bohemian lifestyle that she had been developing since childhood. She carried on numerous affairs while she was at Vassar both with her fellow students and also with men whom she met and was attracted to. Her repeated violation of the college’s rules almost prevented her from taking part in graduation ceremonies. It was only with the intervention of the president of the college that she was able to graduate. He wanted rid of her.

All the while she wrote prolifically and was able to publish some of her poetry. After graduation, she moved to Greenwich Village in New York City and soon joined in the free-wheeling social life and leftist politics of the era. She attracted a coterie of lovers both male and female, and her poetry was published in important journals such as Vanity Fair.

In 1921 she left on a two-year stint to Europe where she wrote poetry and served as the foreign correspondent for Vanity Fair. Her poetry attracted a large and favorable audience, and in 1923 she became the first female to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

It was also in 1923 that she met the man she was finally willing to commit, in whatever way she could, a marriage pledge. His name was Eugen Boissevain. He was a rich Dutch merchant and newspaper publisher who had been married to the famous suffragist Inez Milholland until her death in 1916. Eugen loved Edna wholeheartedly and was accepting of her openness to relationships with other people.

Two years after their marriage, Boissevain and Millay bought a 600-acre blueberry farm they named Steepletop near Austerlitz, New York. They put substantial effort into fixing up the farm and building new buildings. Millay came to love gardening and considered this place to be a refuge from her ever-broadening public appeal.

In addition to writing for the theater and the operatic stage and to continuing her output of poetry, Millay became an accomplished and engaging public performer. Her concerts and readings drew large and enraptured audiences. The southern journalist Ralph McGill wrote after attending a performance in Nashville, “She wore the first shimmering gold-metal cloth dress I’d ever seen and she was, to me, one of the most fey and beautiful persons I’d ever met.”

Millay also involved herself in politics, becoming deeply identified with the unsuccessful movement to prevent the execution of anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti in 1927. Along with many others, she was arrested during a protest march in Boston.

Public tastes evolved, however, and Millay’s poetry lost much of its following in the 1930s. Millay was involved in a serious automobile accident in 1936. The injuries she sustained combined with other physical ailments and increased consumption of alcohol, as well as the deadlines for her writing, slowly debilitated her physically and emotionally. Her husband died of a stroke in 1949, and she died a year later of a heart attack.

Despite the decline in her popularity late in her life, Millay is today recognized as a giant early voice of feminism and the “New Woman” of the American 20th century.

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