A passionate paean to the writer Epstein calls “America’s foremost love poet.”
In a terrific volume that supplements rather than supplants Nancy Milford’s Savage Beauty (p. 788), Epstein (Nat King Cole, 1999, etc.) presents Millay (1892–1950) as an erotic dynamo whose serial sexual encounters and rich love life inspired her finest poems, which he praises with a lexicon of superlatives. Like Milford (who appears twice as the “other biographer”), Epstein consulted the huge Millay archive (some 20,000 uncatalogued documents) housed at the Library of Congress since the 1986 death of Norma Millay Ellis, sister of the poet and literary executrix. (Milford had examined them years earlier at the Millay home.) Epstein begins on a night in 1911 with a riveting account of the nubile, nightgowned Millay writing in her notebook and chanting by candlelight. He then leaps backward to the story of mother Cora Millay before settling into a chronology from which he does not often deviate. As much as Epstein admires the poems, he can barely restrain his passion for the poet herself. “With her big green eyes and her spectacular floor-length, golden-red hair,” he writes of the teenaged Millay, “she looked like a lovely Celtic fairy.” Later, he writes eloquently about her breasts, her come-hither look, and that hair, a clipping of which once caused an observer to faint. (He reveals that nude photographs will be available for scholarly inspection in 2010.) Epstein is a phrasemaker, consistently delighting with apposite metaphors and piquant comments on her verse. He chronicles her wild years at Vassar, her cometary appearance in the literary sky with “Renascence” (1912), her arrest supporting Sacco and Vanzetti, her Pulitzer, and her enormous popularity. He accuses academic critics—who have often disdained Millay—of doing her “a grave injustice, mistaking clarity and unity for triviality.” With great compassion, he charts Millay’s sad decline into alcoholism, drug addiction, and depression.
A powerful prose-poem whose subject is the language of love—and the poet who sang in no other tongue. (8 pages b&w photos, not seen)