By ALICE L. BIRNEY
The Library of Congress has recently acquired an extensive collection of manuscripts of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950) that will add more than 20,000 new items to its existing Millay materials housed in the Manuscript Division. The new materials will be available for research as soon as they have been processed and prepared for use.
"I have always admired Edna St. Vincent Millay," said Dr. Billington. "I spent some time as a youngster with my family on the coast of Maine not far from where she lived. She was well known to all of us there as a legend in the area. So I have always felt a kind of connection with Millay and her work, and I am very pleased that we have been able to expand the Library's Millay holdings through the acquisition of this very significant collection of her manuscripts."
The Library will acquire the collection over a four-year period from the Edna St. Vincent Millay Society. In August, most of the materials were transferred to the Library from Sotheby's in New York, where they had been stored for several years. In September, the literary executors and trustees added to the Library's collection the relevant papers remaining at Steepletop.
Edna St. Vincent Millay was well known to the American public during the first half of this century. By 1920, after the publication of Renascence and Other Poems, A Few Figs from Thistles and a one-act play, Aria da Capo, she became known as the voice of her generation — full of freshness and gaiety tempered by social rebellion. She gave theatrical readings of her poems, many of which were published in popular and literary magazines. She was one of the first poets to recite her poetry and fill a hall, according to her sister Norma Millay Ellis. In Greenwich Village, Millay was part of an artistic circle that included Edmund Wilson, Floyd Dell, Max Eastman and Witter Bynner, among others. In 1923, she was awarded the second annual Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
Millay and her sisters were raised on the coast of Maine, where they overcame the limitations of their family's poverty by pursuing creative projects such as writing poems, songs and plays and listening to music. In 1912, Millay gained her first public recognition with the publication of her long poem "Renascence." Soon after, she attracted the attention of Caroline B. Dow, head of the YWCA Training School in New York, who helped raise funds for her education at Vassar.
In 1923, Millay married Eugen Boissevain, a Dutch importer, and soon after they purchased Steepletop, a farmstead in Austerlitz, N.Y. In 1927, she joined the protest against the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti and was arrested in Boston. (Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, members of an anarchist group, were executed in Massachusetts in 1927 for murder. The case drew international attention, as many believed they were arrested and convicted not on the evidence but because of their unpopular views.)
In the mid-'30s a nerve injury left Millay in constant pain and she sought relative seclusion with her husband at Steepletop. He died in 1949, Millay in 1950. Her published work includes six plays, 11 original volumes of poetry and fiction under the name of Nancy Boyd.
Shortly after the poet's death, her sister Norma deposited much of the Millay manuscript collection with the Library of Congress and gradually converted most of it to gift status in subsequent years. These 625 items include poetry and play holographs, typescripts and galleys, as well as unpublished diary notebooks. The collection includes the original manuscript of "Renascence," as well as versions of many of her sonnets, among other materials much coveted by researchers. A number of the Millay diary-notebooks, including early drafts of poems and prose, as well as other materials left in deposit status at the death of Norma Ellis, are covered by the 1998 acquisition.
Norma Millay Ellis lived at Steepletop after her sister's death. She was an actress who, as a young woman, played the lead in Millay's Aria da Capo and married its set designer, the painter Charles Ellis. When Norma died in 1986, she left the Millay papers still at Steepletop to the Edna St. Vincent Millay Society, whose board of trustees had long wished to add this major lot to those papers already in the Library of Congress.
The new materials include the remainder of the unpublished diaries and notebooks, other segments of the poetry manuscripts already in the Library and original, unpublished correspondence from such friends and associates as Witter Bynner, Louis Untermeyer, Sara Teasdale, Georgia O'Keeffe, Edmund Wilson, John Peale Bishop, Deems Taylor, Edgar Lee Masters, Van Wyck Brooks, Maxwell Anderson, Upton Sinclair and Vita Sackville-West. Also included are original materials of sociopolitical interest, such as the manuscript of a Millay essay on Sacco and Vanzetti and her handwritten comments on a statement by the Committee for Cultural Freedom.
The additions are extremely rich in Millay family papers and correspondence of research and biographical value. They also include Millay manuscripts and typescripts, such as drafts of her libretto The King's Henchmen, photographs, newspaper clippings and printed reviews, broadsides, original music, recordings and radio scripts, financial records and first editions of her books.
When the entire collection is arranged, an extensive trove of primary materials will be available for research into Millay's work, the life of Millay and her circle, women's history, musical adaptation and related subjects dealing with American cultural history during the first half of the 20th century.
Requests to study Millay primary materials at the Library have increased in recent years. On Dec. 1, the first annotated edition of Millay's poetry, which includes all the poems from her first three volumes, will be published by Penguin Books in its Classics series. The introduction to this collection, Early Poems, consists of examples from her letters as well as a critical discussion of her major subjects and themes. A Millay revival is under way.
Ms. Birney is the manuscript historian in the Manuscript Division.