The English author Thomas Hardy proclaimed that America had two great attractions: the skyscraper, and the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay. In these diaries, the great American poet illuminates not only her literary genius, but her life as a devoted daughter, sister, wife, and public heroine; and finally as a solitary, tragic figure.
For 'a fairly conspicuous woman,' as Millay once called herself, her mature diary is notably impersonal. The more dramatic entries have already been mined by Nancy Milford in her 2001 Millay biography, Savage Beauty. Much of Rapture and Melancholy is more prosaic ... Millay rarely reflects upon herself, her marriage, her many love affairs or her poetry in these later pages. Even the final, devastating entries chronicling her morphine use are just dosage lists. (Epstein notes that there are “a hundred” such lists, which remain uncollected.) Are we getting the whole story? ... These diaries ought to change our understanding of Millay — not for what they reveal, but for what they withhold.
... provides an occasion to revisit not just her improbable life but also her sometimes revelatory work ... Such gestures toward the desire to describe—even in the absence of actual descriptions—powerfully articulate Millay’s rapture. Yet it can’t be denied that, in general, the fuller Millay’s world, the emptier her diary (a peril, perhaps, of the form) ... While the diary entries vary widely in interest level, Mr. Epstein’s biographical summations are reliably fascinating and informative, even as they can betray a certain pro-Millay slant—in his introduction to the book, he compares her, unconvincingly, to George Washington. If the poet’s battles and triumphs were less crucial than the Founding Father’s, they’re nonetheless gripping ... Hopefully the release of this complex woman’s diaries will draw readers’ attention to the complexity of her work, which offers much more than figs and ferries.
In his commentary, Epstein treats the writer’s personal weaknesses with sensitivity, her triumphs with enthusiasm ... Millay was not an unflagging diarist, and so Rapture and Melancholy cannot offer an unbroken biographical or narrative arc. After her first semester, there are no extant diaries for Millay’s legendary expulsion-courting years at Vassar, nor any regular entries in the early 1920s, when she published the collections that won her the Pulitzer. The bulk of the entries Epstein has selected for inclusion fall from about 1907–1913 and 1927–1935, with gaps even within those periods. Prior familiarity with at least the rough contours of Millay’s life and work will certainly benefit readers, though Epstein prefaces each section of Rapture and Melancholy with commentary and biographical highlights, and endnotes briefly identify now-obscure people, places, and works that Millay mentions ... This volume will be of particular interest to Millay enthusiasts, of course, and to scholars of early 20th-century literature and culture ... will also appeal to general readers interested in the unfiltered workings of a lively, complicated mind. The diaries reveal a writer both insecure and imperious, convivial and lonely, kind and cruel: brilliantly and wretchedly human ... On this painful subject, Epstein’s commentary — which uncomfortably compares the unpleasant housework of a white teenager in 1908 to the compelled labor of enslaved Black women in the nineteenth century — would benefit from more engagement with scholars of racism.