Edna St. Vincent Millay, Austerlitz poet, remembered

AUSTERLITZ—In the library at Steepletop, the home of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay for 25 years, a well-worn copy of Floyd Dell’s “Love in Greenwich Village” lies atop a table next to her reading chair.

Dell’s collection of short stories, published in 1926, featured, in fictional form, his intimate relationship with Millay while both were writing or performing for the Provincetown Players, a groundbreaking theater group founded in 1916.

Millay’s library is preserved much as it was when she died in 1950, so it seems that Dell may have been on her mind, or in her heart. In a new book, “Blood Too Bright: Floyd Dell Remembers Edna St. Vincent Millay” (Glenmere Press), Dell suggests that he, too, was long preoccupied, or even haunted, by his memories of Millay.

Dell died in 1969, at the age of 82. Years later, his granddaughter, Jerri Dell, his literary executor and archivist of the Dell Collection, began searching family archives at Chicago’s Newberry Library for information about the lives of her grandparents. After Dell had read through many boxes of letters written to her grandfather from distinguished American writers such as Edmund Wilson, H.L. Mencken, Upton Sinclair, and Margaret Sanger, a librarian asked her if she wanted to look at five more boxes.

She did.

And what she found were more than one thousand hand-written pages of letters from Floyd Dell to Miriam Gurko, an early Millay biographer, about his relationship with the poet.

Floyd Dell and Millay were lovers for a brief time in the late 1910s, a relationship that quickly simmered down into a lifelong friendship. Beyond this “turbulent love affair,” as Dell called it, he greatly admired Millay’s poetryand her acting abilitiesand he wrote about Millay’s poetry, their relationship, and her life regularly from the 1920s until shortly before his death.

“Blood Too Bright” reprints some of Floyd Dell’s earlier published pieces, including a 1931 New York Herald Tribune article and a chapter from his 1933 autobiography, “Homecoming.” More important, however, are the previously unpublished pieces at the core of this intriguing collection.

Gurko begins the volume with an introductory essay, written in 1971, that describes her letter-writing relationship with Floyd Dell. Briefly put, she was writing a biography of Millay and she sent Dell questions about the poet. Back then, Gurko and Dell had hoped to publish these letters in a book of their own. For this just- released volume, Gurko’s inquiries were apparently not available for publication, but Dell’s responsive letters comprise roughly two-thirds of the book.

Also included in this collection is a short unpublished memoir, “Not Roses, Roses All the Way,” that Floyd Dell wrote in the 1960s about his relationship with Millay.

Jerri Dell describes “Blood Too Bright” as “a long love letter to Edna St. Vincent Millay, the ‘girl-poet’ my grandfather could never forget.”

In one letter to the biographer Gurko, Floyd Dell writes with some resignation, “She must, I am sure, have known long before she met me that she did haunt the minds of men who had been in love with her; haunted them not only with her charm but also because she had held out to them the promise of a complete emotional surrender, which was always delayed.

“As for her taking up with me–who knows what a girl-poet needs in her emotional and poetic life? Perhaps she needed exactly what I had to give. I wish I could have given her more help of various kinds. But I am glad we let each other go when we did, to live our separate and different lives.”

Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892–1950) won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 1923. Floyd Dell (1887-1969) published numerous novels and nonfiction books, and had several plays produced. In 2015 he was inducted into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame.

Jerri Dell will speak at two upcoming Columbia County events: Saturday, March 25, at 3:30 p.m., she will talk about “Blood Too Bright” at the Chatham Public Library; Saturday, October 7, she will take part in “Millay through the Years: A Steepletop Celebration.” For further information, contact the Edna St. Vincent Millay Society at 518 392-3362 or millay.org.

 

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