By that time, Millay had written almost 10 books of poetry, won a Pulitzer Prize and cut herself out of corsets and stays by — as she so famously put it — "burning her candle at both ends" during the Jazz Age.
Photos: Literary Northeast
Millay ultimately accepted the degree, but her objections to gender segregation were later taken up by the feminist movement, which viewed the term "women writers" as derogatory, consigning those so labeled to second-class citizenship.
I hope that we're beyond polemics now and that it is no longer incorrect to think women can't be great writers. Lately, I've been thinking about three who lived near me in the Northeast: Millay (1892-1950), who traded bohemian Greenwich Village for a placid farmhouse in eastern New York state; celebrated novelist Edith Wharton (1862-1937), chatelaine of a mansion across the Berkshire Mountains from Millay in the upper-class summer haven of Lenox, Mass.; and the divine Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), who spent her whole life in Amherst, Mass., and thus "never saw a moor," though she could conjure up the universe in the space of a single stanza.
I recently toured Millay's Steepletop, Wharton's the Mount and the Emily Dickinson Homestead. Seeing the houses in succession gave me a fresh appreciation for their work and the different obstacles they faced to become writers. But perhaps just as significantly, I realized how profoundly at home they were in the beautiful countryside.
Edna St. Vincent Millay
"O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!
Thy winds, thy wide grey skies!
Thy mists, that roll and rise!
Thy woods, this autumn day, that ache and sag
And all but cry with colour! That gaunt crag
To crush! To lift the lean of that black bluff!
World, World, I cannot get thee close enough!"
Millay was born in Rockland, Maine, and given her unusual middle name because her uncle had once been treated at St. Vincent's Hospital in Manhattan. Vincent — as almost everyone called her — was the oldest of three daughters raised in a financially strained single-parent family after her ne'er-do-well father was sent packing.
She was 20 when she wrote "Renascence," a haunting lyric poem about spiritual awakening that made her an overnight sensation. Admirers of the "girl poetess" in 1913 sent her to Vassar, where she made friends, purportedly lesbian; Millay was a lifelong bisexual. After college, she sloughed off her shy provincialism, roaring through the 1920s in Greenwich Village and collecting lovers like bottles of bathtub gin.
In 1923, she married Eugen Boissevain, a Dutch businessman who in many ways was the hero of Millay's story. He saw her through illness and drug addiction, ran her household and left her free to have affairs — all in order to keep her writing poetry.
Boissevain spotted an ad for a 435-acre dairy farm in the Taconic Mountains near the border of New York and Massachusetts. In 1925, the couple moved to Steepletop, named for a wildflower that grows around the modest white farmhouse on Harvey Mountain. "We're so excited about it we're nearly daft in the bean — kidney bean, lima bean, string-bean, butter-bean — you dow whad I bean — ha! ha! ha!" Millay wrote to her mother.