Research Across Borders – As fragile as a metaphor: Constructing Edna St. Vincent Millay from the Library of Congress records

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When I was awarded funding through the AHRC’s International Placement Scheme to consult the papers of the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950), I was prepared to be overwhelmed.[1] The Millay collection at the Library of Congress, Washington DC comprises 45,000 items but fortunately, given the three month period of my fellowship, I had a specific idea of what I was looking for. My current research project focuses on photographic images of the woman poet in the nineteenth and twentieth century, exploring how these poets used photography to fashion a celebrity image that would enable them to promote their works. How much control did they assert over their image? And how did their photographs and public appearances affect the reception of their poetry?

Herman Mishkin, Edna St. Vincent Millay (ca. 1927) Box 24, Folder 8, Edna St. Vincent Millay Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

As one of the most iconic poets of the 1920s and 30s, Millay was an obvious starting point – her beauty, intriguing personal life and melodious name meant she became a regular fixture in the American press, and she was pictured by many of the most celebrated photographers of her day, including Arnold Genthe, Man Ray, Herman Mishkin, Carl Van Vechten and Berenice Abbot. My research therefore concentrated on both the Prints and Photographs Division and the hundreds of press cuttings held in the Manuscript Division. These press articles chart Millay’s career from her celebrated debut poem ‘Renascence’ – published when she was just 19 years old and still living in Maine – to her Bohemian lyrics of A Few Figs from Thistles (1920), through her passionate love sonnets, such as those published in Fatal Interview (1931), to her later political poetry of the Second World War (read aloud to millions in her highly popular radio broadcasts).

These newspaper and magazine articles provide a striking insight into the version of Millay constructed by the press. She is consistently referred to as a ‘little poetess’ and reviews of her live performances pay as much attention on her gowns, hairstyles and gestures as they do the words of her poems. For example, a reviewer for The Cleveland Press in 1924 writes:

Edna St. Vincent Millay is as fragile as a metaphor and as elusive as a figure of speech. If her hearers at the Women’s City Club wanted atmosphere she gave it to them in her Medici gown and her red slippers last night. […] Miss Millay’s brown hair adds a touch of pallor to her face. She looks like a painting from the Renaissance. […] Her hands flutter to her forehead and then drop child-like to her bosom to rest there while she recites.[2]

Such articles are usually accompanied by photographs of Millay which emphasis her delicacy and femininity. Documenting and analysing these images and accounts of live performances crucially enables me to trace the evolution of Millay’s public image. This public persona was partly carefully constructed by Millay herself, who wrote to her family that ‘I have nothing to give readings in, I must have long dresses, trailing ones. The short ones won’t do.’[3]

Millay_magnThrough her choice of photographers and her clothing, expressions and bearing in these images, we can trace the ways in which Millay’s public persona subtly developed throughout her career. Her earliest, most iconic photograph is Arnold Genthe’s 1914 image of her standing beneath a magnolia tree looking like an ethereal dryad. This image played a key role in launching Millay’s career. But this ingénue persona gradually modulates into the smart, tailored look of the mature Millay, which we see in the Mishkin images of the late 20s. Millay was clearly aware that she could not play the eternal ingénue, and equally, her poetic writings develop along a similar trajectory, as she moves from flirtatious short lyrics which celebrate Bohemian life in Greenwich Village, to later politically-engaged and ambitious works, such as the long dramatic poem Conversation at Midnight (1937).

This development is partly due to Millay’s changing interests and concerns (and the cataclysmic events of the world around her), but her shifting public image is also due to the necessity of negotiating the aging process; a particularly fraught negotiation for the woman poet. Unfortunately for Millay, her image was so closely tied to her youthful popularity that her maturity – both as a poet and as a woman – could only be received in terms of failure or decline. Indeed, as critics wrote increasingly harshly about her appearance and her work (reinforcing my argument that these two factors are subtly connected), even her early popularity was revised and regretted:

the fact that the direction of her progress has been from legend to success somewhat confuses discussion of her merit as an artist. If she is not taken quite seriously in this role today, it may be that she was taken too seriously twenty years ago, and that we have, ever since, been making the mistake of entering her in the wrong company, placing her out of her class, over her head.[4]

Despite the increasingly negative reception of her later years, I suggest that Millay continued to engage playfully with her public image right up to her death at 58. This underscores the impression that Millay did not view any one persona as ‘authentic’; she was instead a chameleon who adopted various masks in order to fascinate, delight, and seduce her public. In my forthcoming journal article on Millay, I therefore compare her to a clown in her adoption of masks, make-up and costume (indeed, one of Millay’s most-prized possessions was a Pierrot painting by Walt Kuhn which features in many of her later photographs). My favourite find in the Library of Congress was a photograph that I had never seen before of Millay at a costume ball, dressed as a clown. Such moments when archival discoveries directly confirm our suppositions are rare indeed – and constitute one of the many joys of archival research.

E. F. Foley, Millay as clown at Illustrator’s Ball (ca. 1927) New York World Telegram and Sun Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington D. C.

Notes

[1] I would like to thank the AHRC and the Kluge Centre, Library of Congress for this wonderful opportunity. Special thanks also go to the Prints and Photographs Division at LOC for all their help.

[2] Mary Rennels, The Cleveland Press, p. 14, Box 24, Folder 7, Edna St. Vincent Millay Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

[3] Edna St. Vincent Millay, Letter to family, September 27, 1917, in: Edna St. Vincent Letters. Ed. Allan Ross Macdougall (Camden, Maine: Down East Books, 1952), p. 76.

[4] Rolfe Humphries, Nation, December 20, 1941, Box 92, Folder 11, Edna St. Vincent Millay Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

About Sarah Parker

Sarah Parker is a Lecturer in Nineteenth-Century Literature at University of Stirling. Her first monograph is The Lesbian Muse and Poetic Identity, 1889-1930 (Routledge, 2013). Her other publications include articles on Michael Field, Olive Custance and a chapter in Algernon Charles Swinburne: Unofficial Laureate (Manchester UP, 2013). Her article ‘Publicity, Celebrity, Fashion: Photographing Edna St. Vincent Millay’ is forthcoming from Women’s Studies: An inter-disciplinary journal in Spring 2016.
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