Julie's Reviews > Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay

Savage Beauty by Nancy Milford
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's review
Mar 31, 2009

really liked it
Read in April, 2009

What a riveting biography of a remarkable literary and feminist icon. It took Nancy Milford 30 years to write this biography of "Vincent" - and after you read it, you can understand why. Milford remains remarkably true to her sources - a vast treasure trove of at-that-point-unseen letters, journals, notebooks, unfinished works, and more from Edna St. Vincent Millay's estate. In the book, she lets the sources stretch their legs and breathe, allowing us readers to stew in Vincent's rich, impeccable writing. We get to read full letters, full ten-page poems. We are transported into the thick of her sumptuous drama-laden life. Yet Milford allows Vincent's literary triumphs, her frank eroticism, her late-in-life petulance, addiction, and downward spiral to unfold quietly, without a hint of sensationalism. Above all, this book feels honest.

But It seems to me that Milford made a conscious methodological decision with this biog, one I ultimately lamented. Savage Beauty almost reads in real-time; that is, she revels in the details of Vincent's fantastic life in a way that makes you feel like you are watching it via hidden camera. Yet Milford does little in the way of contextualization.

As a historian, I walked away wondering why Milford failed to situate Vincent's life in the history of feminism during this time, changing sexual ideals and possibilities for American women, the history of New York's bohemia ... I could go on and on about the themes that could have been addressed here. Vincent's life seemed a perfect entry point onto these fascinating processes, but Milford declined to allow it to be so.

As someone who knows significantly less about poetry than I do about history, I longed for some analysis of Vincent's work ... Vincent's poems seemed so old fashioned during a time of striking experimentation with modernist forms. Wasn't she a throwback? Was she just a celebrity or was she truly deserving of the heaps of praise she received throughout her life?

Milford offers little in the way of judgment of Vincent, her poetry, and her life. While I think this was purposeful, and on some level admirable, it seemed as if she passed up a rare opportunity to explain the way that the early 20th century influenced Vincent, and vice versa.
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message 1: by Kelly (new)

Kelly What a great, honest review. Thanks, Julie!

Julie thanks kelly! def. read it.

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