This Week in Literary History: Feb. 22-28

Recognizing the birthdays of Victor Hugo, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and more

Here’s your latest issue of This Week in Literary History, covering Feb. 22-28. Your list of notable literary births and events is below. Have a wonderful week!


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Steepletop: A Tale of Two Poets

By Christine Kingery

In a remote area of upstate New York, close to the Massachusetts border with the Berkshire Mountains nearby, the lovely hilltop estate called Steepletop inspired the work of two very different American female poets who were among the most accomplished of their respective generations. 

Named after the pink-flowered steeplebush that grew near the farmhouse on the original 435-acre estate in Austerlitz, N.Y., Steepletop provided inspiration and a wealth of natural imagery for Edna St. Vincent Millay and one of her devoted admirers, Mary Oliver. Born 43 years apart, both women won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry—Millay in 1923 and Oliver in 1984. 

Millay and her husband, Eugen Boissevain, bought Steepletop in 1925 for $9,000 (today's equivalent of $138,000). Millay was already famous by this time, a celebrity on the Beatles' scale during their early years. 

"No matter what town she was visiting, her readings sometimes collapsed into near-hysteria as she left the stage with her adoring fans screaming for encores (which she usually provided)," wrote a journalist in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 1924. "Simply put, Edna St. Vincent Millay was a rock star." 

Millay's sister Norma commented that "[Edna's] Sunday night broadcasts were an innovation, placing poetry for the first time beside music as a radio feature." 

In many ways, Millay paved the way for contemporary female poets such as Amanda Gorman, who wowed the country with her verses in 2021 at the Presidential inauguration. Millay made poetry "cool" in a way that has taken 100 years to come back into fashion.

Millay led the life of a celebrity while living in New York City's Greenwich Village. She was known to have female lovers, starting with classmates at Vassar, though after her marriage to Eugen, she had a well-documented extra-marital affair with the male poet George Dillon. Millay used her fame to promote social justice issues, especially women's rights and social equality. However, she found it difficult to compose her poetry while living among a big city's hustle-and-bustle. 

"I cannot write in New York," Millay told a reporter. "It is awfully exciting there, and I find lots of things to write about, and I accumulate many ideas, but I have to go away where it is quiet." 

"She was painfully private despite her very public life," said Holly Peppe, Literary Executor of the Millay Society. Millay desperately needed privacy, and starting a new life with her new husband upon return from their honeymoon seemed like an optimal time to make a change.

At Steepletop, Millay was able to find the quiet, time, space, and inspiration needed to continue her craft. Eugen was utterly devoted to Millay and took care of all aspects of running the house and estate—from cooking to cleaning to carrying her to bed when she was tired. His mission in life was to take on all the worldly burdens so that Millay could write her poetry. 

The newlyweds modified the house and estate over time to fit their needs:

  • Elaborate flower, vegetable, and herb gardens.

  • Guesthouses.

  • Tennis court.

  • Sunken garden, including an outdoor bar area.

  • A spring-fed pool where she enjoyed swimming and sunbathing in the nude.

Millay also had a neighbor build her a writing cabin in the middle of a blueberry field. The estate was her sanctuary. 

When Millay died in 1950, Mary Oliver was only 15 years old and living in Maple Heights, Ohio. The two poets never met, but Millay greatly influenced Oliver. In Oliver's essay, "Steepletop," she recalls that when she was 15, she wrote a letter to Norma Millay—Edna's sister who took over running and preserving the Steepletop estate. Oliver asked to come to visit, and Norma agreed. 

The day after she graduated from high school, at 17 years old, Oliver drove for two days to arrive at the New York estate. There she formed a connection with Norma and the property, returning for a few months before eventually living at Steepletop for six years with Norma and her husband, the painter Charles Ellis. 

Edna St. Vincent Millay's poetry must have been a strong appeal to bring the budding teenage poet from Ohio. Perhaps Millay's independent spirit captured Oliver, or maybe it was Millay's sexuality and sensuality. 

In her poem "Rendevous," Millay wrote, "Not for these lovely blooms that prank your chambers did I come. Indeed, | I could have loved you better in the dark."

Peppe, the Millay Society's executor, shared her own experience of knowing Norma when she studied Millay's work, mentioning that she required that Peppe memorize Edna's poems before she would agree to discuss them. It might be reasonable to assume Norma did the same with Oliver. If so, the young poet most likely had memorized the entire canon of Millay's work by the time she left Steepletop.

The two poets composed their poetry in completely different ways—Millay relied on traditional forms like the lyric, sonnet, ode, and elegy, whereas Oliver avoided rhyme and preferred the more flowing style free verse allowed, such as in her poem "Why I Wake Early:"

Why I Wake Early (excerpt)

Hello, sun in my face.
Hello, you who make the morning
and spread it over the fields
and into the faces of the tulips
and the nodding morning glories,
and into the windows of, even, the
miserable and crotchety–

Despite their differences, their similarities are striking, most notably how nature images dominate both writer's works. Both poets strive to capture the impermanence of time, the sacredness of nature, and the ever-changing pace of nature and human temperament. Their voluminous collective works were heavily criticized during their day for their readability and popularity as if the quality of work diminished as more people read their poems. 

Oliver walked in Millay's shoes, attending Vassar College in the mid-1950s and eventually taking up a teaching position at Bennington College, only one hour away from Steepletop. In the late 1950s, Oliver met photographer Molly Malone Cook while visiting the Millay estate. It was love at first sight. In Oliver's words, "I took one look and fell, hook and tumble." The two remained together for 40 years, eventually moving to Provincetown, Mass., in the 1960s and staying there until Cook died in 2005. 

The magic of Steepletop endures to this day. The beacon of beauty and inspiration that drew Oliver to Steepletop resonates loudly decades later. Many Millay fans, particularly writers, musicians, dancers, painters, and other artists, incorporate Millay's work in their own to keep her words alive. Now that Oliver's torch has been laid aside (she died in 2019), perhaps another great poet will follow her lead and venture to Millay's house on the hill in the spirit of Millay's famous mantra: 

First Fig

My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night; 
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light!

Edna St. Vincent Millay

  • Born on Feb. 22, 1892, in Rockland, Maine

  • Died on Oct. 19, 1950, in Austerlitz, N.Y.


From Self-Hatred to Successful Writer, the Life, and Work of Haki R. Madhubuti

By Emily Quiles

“I paid six dollars for your book in prison,” a person named Sabuh Muhammad said to Haki R. Madhubuti during a 2002 C-SPAN interview. “That book touched my soul. You have saved my mind. I’ve never heard anyone articulate the condition of Black people like you have. You have touched my soul; you are my father.”

Muhammad’s voice from the studio’s phoneline spoke of Madhubuti’s book of essays, Tough Notes: A Healing Call. Madhubuti wrote Tough Notes in reaction to the letters and phone calls he received from prisoners, similar to Muhammad’s studio call, after publishing Black Men: Obsolete, Single, Dangerous?: The African American Family in Transition, in 1991. 

“As I read the letters, I began to respond in my mind, and sometimes in letters,” Madhubuti recalled. “I decided I’d just respond in a book form. Tough Notes came out of these correspondents. As well as the ideas that I felt would help hone bright young men in this very difficult time in America and in the World.”

The writer who saved Madhubuti’s mind was Richard Wright. Born in Little Rock, Ark. and raised in Detroit, Michigan, segregation instilled self-hatred into Madhubuti. 

During his C-SPAN interview, Madhubuti spoke of the day his mother asked him to check out Wright’s Black Boy at the Detroit Public Library.

 “I refused to go because I didn’t want to go any place asking for a book with Black in the title, written by a Black writer. And to ask for the book from a white librarian,” Madhubuti said.

Ashamed, he swallowed his nerves and went to the library. Once he found the book, he settled in a quiet corner and started to read. 

“For the first time in my life, I was reading words that were not an insult to my own personhood,” Madhubuti remembered. “I was reading ideas and paragraphs that essentially told me about myself, and I was experiencing a writer who had shared similar experiences which I had at that time.” 

Raised in a life of poverty, Madhubuti received his first suit at 16. It was to attend his mother’s funeral, who passed away from a drug overdose. At 18, in 1960, Madhubuti started a three-year stint in the U.S. Army. During this time, he surrounded himself with books by writers such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and Margaret Walker. 

“I began to kind of, write myself,” Madhubuti explained.

When Madhubuti left the military in August 1963, he decided to dedicate his life to poetry. “I realized that ideas and the creators of ideas actually run the world,” he said. “We all tap dance inside of somebody’s ideas.”

Since that time, Madhubuti’s published dozens of books. He’s written poetry, essays, and an autobiographical novel, Yellow Black: The First Twenty-One Years of a Poet’s Life

Madhubuti’s career has not only helped bring African-American thought into the center of American literature, but he also helped build independent Black institutions with the mission to educate and foster the Black experience.

Madhubuti founded Third World Press publishing company, The International Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent, and the National Black Writers Retreat. He co-founded the Institute of Positive Education/New Concept Development Center, the Betty Shabazz International Charter School, and the Gwendolyn Brooks Center for Black Literature and Creative Writing.

“It is my responsibility as an intellectual, as a father, as a teacher, as a husband, as a businessman, as an editor, to give back to our community,” Madhubuti said.

Haki R. Madhubuti

  • Born on Feb. 23, 1942, in Little Rock, Ark.


How Victor Hugo Helped Save Notre-Dame

By Andria Kennedy

"The Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris is doubtless still a sublime and majestic building. But, much beauty as it may retain in its old age, it is not easy to repress a sigh, to restrain our anger, when we mark the countless defacements and mutilations to which men and Time have subjected that venerable monument, without respect for Charlemagne, who laid its first stone, or Philip Augustus, who laid its last."

These words open Book Three of Notre-Dame de Paris, known to the world as The Hunchback of Notre Dame - one of the epic classics penned by Victor Hugo. And while critics debate the underlying meaning behind the story, driving at the relationships between the characters and their natures' duality, they fail to recognize the novel's real purpose. One need only look at the original title - or two of the chapters contained within - to understand.

Notre-Dame de Paris speaks of the sublime and grotesque, but not within Quasimodo and Esmeralda. Hugo spoke of the Cathedral herself. And the novel? A call to arms to preserve her.

Under Louis XIV, Notre Dame suffered. Ordinary glass replaced the beautiful stained glass windows. To allow carriages through, they destroyed one of the stately pillars. And the rood screen - the stately, ornate partition dividing the nave from the chancel - was demolished. Not content with that blasphemy, the French Revolution visited further atrocities upon the Cathedral. Statues crumbled. The bishop's palace burned to the ground, with no care for repairs. Soldiers seized the lead from the roof to melt down for bullets, while the bronze bells found themselves melted for canons. When wind damaged the spire, deconstruction was easier than repair.

By the time the Catholic Church resumed care of the Cathedral in 1802, the decay seemed permanent. Victor Hugo looked upon the destruction and wrote, "It is difficult not to sigh, not to wax indignant, before the numberless degradations and mutilations which time and men have both caused the venerable monument to suffer." 

Disturbed at the neglect, he wrote a pamphlet entitled Guerre aux Démolisseurs (War to the Demolishers). Unfortunately, the paper yielded little effect among the populace.

Hugo then began work on a novel. The first attempts spun in circles, and he allowed other projects to interrupt him. In July 1830, the second French Revolution took place, overthrowing King Charles X. 

It's questionable whether the three-day revolt inspired something in Victor Hugo or his publisher's threat of a breach of contract did the trick. Either way, he locked himself in his apartments for the next four-and-a-half months, writing the masterpiece that became Notre-Dame de Paris. Where the pamphlet failed, the novel succeeded. The French people demanded action to save the Cathedral.

In response to the public outcry, the French government formed the Commission on Historical Monuments. And in 1841 - ten years after the book's publication - the Commission assigned the architects Eugène Viollet-le-Duc and Jean-Baptise Lassus to Notre Dame's resurrection. Unfortunately, Lassus passed away in 1857, leaving Viollet-le-Duc to complete the work on his own. The project included resurfacing the stonework, restoring the statues, constructing a new sacristy and organ, replacing the stained glass, installing the beloved gargoyles, and a seemingly endless list of other tasks. On May 31, 1864, the Archbishop of Paris rededicated the Cathedral.

"Great buildings, like great mountains, are the work of centuries. Whereby each wave of time lays down its alluvium. The universal history of mankind might be written from these successive weldings of different styles at different levels." Victor Hugo spoke the words, believing sincerely in the preservation of beautiful architecture. The feats of human ingenuity reminded him of the delicate labor of the social honey bee. Both fall under the driving nature of an unknown life force.

An irony upon which one longs to pin their hopes. Because while the horrible 2019 fire destroyed much of Notre Dame, the three beehives that live within the sacristy survived the devastation - a symbol of resilience.

Victor Hugo's immortal work inspired the French people to rise up and save the historic landmark of the Notre Dame Cathedral. Without Hugo's words inciting the public over 150 years ago, it's almost impossible to imagine the Parisian landscape today.

At the end of the first chapter of the Third Book, the words convey so much power and beauty - to an inanimate object that plays such a pivotal role to the story. "However, all these gradations and differences affect the surface only of an edifice. Art has but changed its skin. The construction itself of the Christian church is not affected by them. […] The trunk of the tree is fixed; the foliage is variable."

Victor Hugo

  • Born on Feb. 26, 1802, in Besançon, France

  • Died on May 22, 1885, in Paris, France


Sources

Significant effort goes into ensuring the information shared in Bidwell Hollow’s content is factual and accurate. However, errors can occur. If you see a factual error, please let me know by emailing nick@bidwellhollow.com. I’ll make every effort to verify and correct any factual inaccuracies. Thank you.

Edna St. Vincent Millay

A special thank you to Holly Peppe, Literary Executor of the Millay Society, who spoke with me, Christine Kingery, at length via a telephone conversation on Feb. 11, 2021. Please visit www.millay.org for more information about the Millay Society.

Haki R. Madhubuti

  • Author Interview.” Publishing Black Books. C-SPAN. July 20, 2002.

  • “GroundWork: new and selected poems of Don L. Lee/Haki R. Madhubuti from 1966-1996.” Haki R. Madhubuti. Third World Press. 1996.

  • Harlem Book Fair Interviews.” Harlem Book Fair. C-SPAN. July 19, 2003.

  • Yellow Black.” Book Expo America. C-SPAN. May 19, 2006.

  • “Yellow Black. The First Twenty-one Years of a Poet’s Life.” Haki R. Madhubuti. Third World Press. 2005.

Victor Hugo


Notable Literary Births & Events for Feb. 22-28

Feb. 22

  • James Russell Lowell

  • Edna St. Vincent Millay

  • Ishmael Reed

Feb. 23

  • W. E. B. Du Bois

  • Haki Madhubuti

  • William L. Shirer

Feb. 24

  • Gillian Flynn

  • Wilhelm Grimm

  • Weldon Kees

Feb. 25

  • Sabahattin Ali

  • Anthony Burgess

  • Jack Handey

  • Amin Maalouf

  • Karl May

  • Shiva Naipaul

  • Edgar Pangborn

  • George Schuyler

  • Richard G. Stern

  • Raphael Straus

  • Cynthia Voigt

Feb. 26

  • Elizabeth George

  • Victor Hugo

  • Sharyn McCrumb

  • Dorothy Whipple

Feb. 27

  • Kenneth Koch

  • Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

  • John Steinbeck

Feb. 28

  • Colum McCann

  • Stephen Spender

  • Walter Tevis