Diary Entry

1968 / 2023 Friendship Stories, Part 4:  Fan Mail

This past April, I read, in a state of shock, the first letter my friend Carolyn G. Heilbrun sent to the writer May Sarton. Dated March 8, 1968, it was a typed, single-spaced letter on personalized stationery, with Carolyn’s name (no title) and the enviable Central Park address. From its very first line, the letter unsettled almost everything I thought I knew about my friend’s literary tastes and enthusiasms. (For the backstory on this correspondence between Carolyn Heilbrun and May Sarton, view Parts 1, 2, 3)

“Dear Miss Sarton:

I want to express my appreciation for your book, Plant Dreaming Deep,” and admiration for you, the person who shines through it.” (Plant Dreaming Deep had been published in January of that year.) Carolyn explains that while she had received fan mail herself, she had never written to “writers unknown to me.” She had long been a fan of Sarton’s poetry and novels, she adds, but this new book moved her to act wholly out of character.

Plant Dreaming Deep by May Sarton

Notes on quotations from the archive: I will be following the method adopted by the biographer Diane Middlebrook. To comply with fair use, and not depend on permission from literary estates, Diane would use “snippets” when quoting in her biographies, especially strategic in Her Husband, the story of the Plath/Hughes marriage and careers.

Carolyn was not the book’s only fan. In her 1997 biography May Sarton, Margot Peters notes: “readers loved the book, reread it, talked about it, passed it along to friends. By mid-November 1968, Plant Dreaming Deep had sold 11,145 copies and was still moving nicely. Not a runaway success, but a success.” The story in its bare bones: May Sarton, a poet and writer on the cusp of her fifties, buys a house on her own in New Hampshire, situated in a tiny village called Nelson. The book, one might say, is quite literally the detailed story of the house, its repairs and renovations, painting and furnishing, along with portraits of Sarton’s colorful local neighbors, and nature’s transformative effects on her spirit. “Gardens and gardening are central to this myth,” Margot Peters observes, the myth of this amazing village and its inhabitants. “What lifts Plant Dreaming Deep out of the realm of ordinary memoir,” she continues, “is Sarton’s genius for using nature as a metaphor for human life.” The book charts the “creation, of a female cultural heroine.” Carolyn strikes much the same note in her assessment. The book “speaks with great honesty” about what it means to be “a woman and a person — whole, coherent, a self.” She goes further, suggesting that readers may feel sustained by the book, finding words of “affirmation” in the prose of Sarton’s emotional landscape, uplift in the face of despair.

This lyrical Carolyn to me was suddenly an unmet friend, according to her definition, literally and metaphorically. Addressed to a woman its author had not in fact met, the letter struck a note quite different from the typically cool critical discourse that had characterized the essays and reviews of the friend I had followed and read for decades. I had not read Sarton’s memoir when I first read the letter, and so was not, on the moment, able to make my own judgment of the book’s power, to fathom why it had meant so much to Carolyn.

When writing to Sarton for the first time in 1968, Carolyn herself had already created something new, not a memoir like Plant, or the 1965 novel Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, that Carolyn would write about — and celebrate — many years later as a critic.  When describing herself in the letter she states that unlike Sarton, she is neither poet nor novelist, but a “teacher, of the regular, academic sort,” at Columbia University.  But what about the detective novels she had been publishing since 1964? Many years later, in Writing a Woman’s Life, Carolyn describes what she needed and wanted to do in her Amanda Cross books, in creating a character, Kate Fansler, a woman unlike herself, thin, rich, and beautiful — a witty, female detective. (She eventually will reveal her identity as Amanda Cross to Sarton, after sending her a copy of Poetic Justice.) Carolyn in this first self-portrait, is married, with children, a husband, “a country house in New England,” and a dog.

When I met Carolyn almost ten years after her first letter to May Sarton, she was married, with a husband (the same one), children, an 18th-century house in the Berkshires, and a dog — maybe a different one.  But I would not have guessed who Sarton had been to her then and, as I’m learning, when we met, still was.

More than what I would ever have imagined.

Nancy K. Miller. Diary

Welcome. Some musings on my current preoccupations with the worlds of illness and the worlds of books, the vicissitudes of living with cancer and the need now, in my eighties, to imagine what new writing might be. 

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