New Book collects Millay’s diaries

THROUGHOUT THE 1920s and 1930s, Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poems sold in the thousands, and public readings across the country were quickly sold out. From 1925 until her death in 1950, she lived at Steepletop, a 700-acre homestead and farm at the upper end of East Hill Road in Austerlitz.

Since her death, biographies, critical studies, and collections of her letters and poetry have heightened awareness of her literary work. This month Daniel Mark Epstein, one of her most recent biographers, has released nearly all of her known diary entries, previously available only at the Library of Congress.

Millay’s diaries, originally written in multiple notebooks, open doors for a more complete appreciation of her life and poetry. In “Rapture and Melancholy: The Diaries of Edna St. Vincent Millay” (Yale University Press, $35), Epstein brings into public view Millay’s private activities, personal impressions, and literary thoughts.

Millay was 15 years old, living in Camden, Maine, when she wrote this volume’s first diary entry, which reflected both her hard work as caretaker for her two sisters (her mother, Cora, was a traveling nurse and often away from home) and her keen sense of humor.

“It is such a relief to have a diary to run to,” the 16-year-old Millay wrote in another early entry, “where you can spit out all your spite on something which can’t spit back, and which is not hurt by your spitting.” These teenage entries, which Epstein informatively introduces, comprise nearly a third of this collection.

As a teenager, Millay writes at length about her day-to-day activities, even catching up with herself after extended absences from pen and paper. These teenage entries tell about her family life, play with friends, annoyances and flirtations with boys, high school theater performances, and the making of a budding poet.

Later-in-life sections of these diaries, with Epstein giving valuable context, cover her years at Vassar College, time spent in Manhattan, and her travels in England and Europe. Another one-third of this volume consists of her life at Steepletop, where she found peace in her gardens and retreat from the broader world.

Millay’s diary-writing was regular at times, but often missing as she busied herself writing poems, retreating from the world, or traveling on her honeymoon, vacations, or sometimes dreaded poetry readings.


Millay’s diaries affirm her attachment to Steepletop.


In 1927, as case in point, Millay protested the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti. The novelist Upton Sinclair soon noted that “she did her part,” but soon after the executions she went off-diary, retreating to an island off coastal Maine. In coming years, she wrote poems, letters, and articles related to capital punishment and lynching, both of which she strongly opposed, but few observations are made in these pages.

In the 1940s, she mainly inked in extended lists of prescription and other drugs she ingested during the last, often-addicted decade of her life.

Millay’s diaries affirm her attachment to Steepletop. She gave steadfast attention to its gardens, her dogs and other animals, and to at least some guests. She and her husband, Eugen Boissevain, had frequent visitors, although there were times when she would have preferred to have none.

Of local interest, Steepletop-related entries contain revealing anecdotes of her life in neighboring towns: Walking, horseback riding, or sleighing up and down the still-treacherous East Hill Road, where she suffered several serious injuries sliding off its muddy or snow covered surface. “Motoring” by car to the Austerlitz post office, the Columbia Inn for drinks, a pharmacy in Great Barrington, shopping and movies in Chatham, and trips to State Line and other train stops to drop off or pick up guests and a steadily changing contingent of farm hands, cooks, housekeepers, and stenographers.

Steepletop, Millay’s Austerlitz home, is not currently open to the public. But a virtual tour of the house is available at https://someonelivedhere.com/steepletop/. On August 13, 2022, the Edna St. Vincent Millay Society will hold a fundraising benefit that will include in-house visits, music, and poetry; further information and updates are available at https://www.millay.org.

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