|Born / Died||1928–1974|
The Anne Sexton collection consists of manuscripts of poems by Sexton. The poems are mostly one to three pages in length, and either typed or carbon typescripts. Some pages contain holograph corrections. The poems are arranged chronologically from Jan. 1970 to April 28, 1973. There are 146 individual poems. Also present is a photocopied typed draft of The Awful Rowing Toward God, a work that consists of forty-one separate poems. Many of the poems in the collection were published in The Complete Poems, edited by Linda Gray Sexton and Loring Conant, Jr. (Houghton-Mifflin, 1981). Some of the drafts here vary slightly from the published versions.
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Pulitzer Prize winning poet Anne Sexton (1928-1974) is best remembered for her autobiographical works which detailed her struggles with mental illness and depression, erotic fantasies and an obsession with suicide and death. Her “confessional poetry,” which she found to be a form of therapy, proved highly controversial to reviewers of her work. Some felt that her writings did not demonstrate an artistic control over the subject matter while others felt that she was pigeonholed by the classification. Despite the mixed reviews, her poems, like those of her contemporary Sylvia Plath, spoke to a generation of women who found much to admire. Sexton proved to so popular that at one time she reportedly commanded the highest appearance fees for any poet. Yet despite the acclaim and the accolades, she continued to struggle with illness abetted by alcohol and drug abuse which led to her suicide in 1974.
Born Anne Grey Harvey on November 9, 1928 in Newton, Massachusetts, she was the youngest of three daughters of textile manufacturer Ralph Harvey and his wife, the former Mary Gray Staples. Raised in the trappings of the upper middle-class in Weston and Wellesley, Massachusetts, she led an unhappy childhood. Her father was an alcoholic and her mother’s literary aspirations were thwarted by familial responsibilities. As a child, she suffered a fear of abandonment and spent a great deal of time with her great-aunt Anna Dingley who lived with the family. When Dingley suffered a mental breakdown requiring hospitalization, the young girl was traumatized.
School was also a problem; she was not a particularly good student and proved to be an occasional troublemaker. While the school officials recommended counseling, her parents opted to send her to Rogers Hall, a boarding school in Lowell, Massachusetts. There she began to write poetry and acted in school productions, but she abandoned writing after her mother accused her of plagiarizing poems that appeared in the school newspaper. Upon graduation, she briefly attended the Garland School, a finishing school in Boston. She became engaged and was planning her wedding when she fell in love with a pre-med student, Alfred Muller Sexton II. Believing she may be pregnant, the couple eloped to North Carolina in August 1948. Her husband abandoned his planned career in medicine and began working as a wool salesman for his father-in-law, while his wife accepted the occasional modeling job. During the Korean War, he served in the naval reserves and the couple relocated to San Francisco, where Anne Sexton actually did become pregnant. She returned to stay with her parents until she gave birth.
Within a year after the birth of the couple’s first daughter, Linda Gray Sexton, in July 1953, Sexton was hospitalized after suffering a nervous breakdown. She repeated the pattern following the arrival of her second child, Joyce Ladd Sexton, in August 1955.
Suffering from post-partum depression, Sexton was put on medication but she continued her downward spiral into mental illness, occasionally lashing out at her older daughter in an abusive manner. Her psychiatrist suggested she explore her creativity through writing and sometime in 1956, she began to write poetry again. Sexton was also in and out of hospitals for much of the year and in November 1956, she made her first suicide attempt by swallowing a bottle of Nembutal.
Sexton enrolled in a poetry workshop run by John Holmes at the Boston Center for Adult Education in the fall of 1957. Holmes encouraged her to seek publication and she achieved that goal when “Eden Revisited” appeared in the April 1958 issue of The Fiddlehead Review. While taking Holmes’ class, Sexton met and became friends with Maxine Kumin. In 1958, she participated at the Antioch Writers’ Conference where she studied under W.D. Snodgrass. Returning to Massachusetts, she attended a graduate poetry writing seminar run by Robert Lowell at Boston University. In 1959, Sexton earned a Robert Frost Fellowship in poetry at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. The culmination of her work was a first volume of poems, To Bedlam and Part Way Back (Houghton Mifflin) that appeared in 1960. Its success marked her as a potent new voice in American letters, but it came at a significant price. The prior year both her parents had unexpectedly died and her husband gradually grew to resent her success and growing celebrity.
Sexton went on to produce a significant body of work, including short stories, plays, and nine additional collections of poetry, including All My Pretty Ones (Houghton Mifflin, 1962), Live or Die (Houghton Mifflin, 1966), which earned the 1967 Pulitzer Prize, Love Poems (Houghton Mifflin, 1969) and Transformations (Houghton Mifflin, 1972), a feminist re-imagining of Grimm fairy tales that served as the basis for a stage opera. Sexton enjoyed a stage success with her 1969 play Mercy Street. She and Kumin collaborated on several children’s books, including Eggs of Things (Putnam’s, 1963), More Eggs of Things (Putnam’s, 1964) and The Wizard’s Tears (McGraw-Hill, 1975). During this period, Sexton also taught at various institutions including Harvard and Boston University and enjoyed great success delivering staged readings of her poems, sometimes to musical accompaniment.
By 1973, though, Sexton was still struggling with her various demons. With her children grown and in college or at boarding school she asked her husband for a divorce. Struggling with depression and abusing prescription medication and alcohol, the writer battled depression and mental illness. Estranged from many of her old friends, she continued writing and working on the compilation of three volumes of poems, The Death Notebooks (Houghton Mifflin, 1974), and the posthumously published The Awful Rowing Toward God (Houghton Mifflin, 1975) and 45 Mercy Street (Houghton Mifflin), which her daughter Linda edited.
On October 3, 1974, Sexton delivered at Goucher College in Maryland. The next day, she returned home and enjoyed a pleasant lunch with her friend Maxine Kumin. Within a few hours, however, Anne Sexton would be found dead from carbon monoxide poisoning behind the wheel of her idling automobile in the garage of her Weston, Massachusetts home. She was 45 years old.
Sexton was embroiled in a posthumous controversy when biographer Diane Wood Middlebrook obtain her medical records, drafts of unpublished poems and audiotapes of therapy sessions with psychiatrist Dr. Martin T. Orne. While Middlebrook’s biography raised some eyebrows with its inclusion of revelations of Sexton’s mental illness, alcoholism and alleged sexual abuse of her daughter as well as details of her extramarital relationships, including one with her second psychiatrist, it was Dr. Orne’s actions that garnered the most press, raising issues of medical ethics and the betrayal of the doctor-patient confidentiality. While her family supported the decision to make the material public, claiming it would be what Anne Sexton would have wanted, others were not as supportive fearing it set a potentially dangerous precedent.
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