Monday, October 19, 2020

Photo of the Day: Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Steepletop, Austerlitz, NY

Seventy years ago today, the personal “candle” that Edna St. Vincent Millay announced “burns at both ends” finally gave out when the 58-year-old poet fell to her death down steps in her home, with nobody around to come to her assistance.

Although in her youth a Greenwich Village bohemian, Millay had spent most of her last quarter-century quietly tending to her gardening, birds and poetry, in a Victorian homestead that she and her late husband Eugen Boissevain had lovingly refurbished.

In the late summer of 2017, I had already visited the homes of two other Berkshire authors, Edith Wharton and Herman Melville, when I decided to stop at Millay’s, Steepletop, across the border from Massachusetts in Austerlitz, NY. But unlike those two writers, Millay’s was a good deal more remote, involving not just getting off a main highway but ascending a high, twisting, gravelly road.

That remoteness meant that Millay could write in the seclusion she had come to crave, but it also complicated the difficulties that many American house museums faced in the wake of the 2007-09 recession.

This meant that, the spring after I toured (and, as you can see, photographed) the house and grounds, the operator of this National Historic Landmark, the Edna St. Vincent Millay Society, announced that it was facing severe financial pressures.

Subsequently it announced that the home would be closed indefinitely to visitors. In a 2019 Berkshire Eagle article, a literary executor for Millay was quoted as saying the current goal was “to continue to maintain, restore and safeguard the property,” even as they hope for donations while seeking “sustainable solutions, ideally an institutional partner or two to help us secure the site's future.”

I don’t envy the task facing the Edna St. Vincent Millay Society or similar nonprofit organizations these days. I hope that they will meet their goal, so that others may experience, as I did, tangible reminders of this groundbreaking female author, only the third woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry when she was awarded it in 1922.

Direct, outspoken, and even sexually frank, Millay’s verses were listened to rapturously on the reading and lecture tours that Boissevain arranged for her. More often than not, her many admirers gave up trying to imitate her intensely personal style. ("I was following in the exquisite footsteps of Miss Millay, unhappily in my own horrible sneakers,” Dorothy Parker noted sadly about her own poetry in a 1965 Ladies Home Journal interview with a young Gloria Steinem.)

When I visited, the library represented the best opportunity to understand the deep intellect that informed her poetry, as it was stocked with 3,000 volumes that included poetry, the classics, contemporary current novels, and reference books in English, Spanish, French, German and Latin that she used in creating not only her verses but also operas and other dramatic works.

“Vincent,” as she was known to friends, does not currently enjoy the passionate following she had in the Jazz Age. But, even as the conservators of her home wait out the current recession, I hope that readers will savor her work, including these verses on the property she loved so well published after her death:

   “I hear the rain, it comes down straight;

               Now I can sleep, I need not wait

               To close the windows anywhere.

               Tomorrow it may be, I might

               Do things to set the whole world right.

               There’s nothing I can do tonight.”

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