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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Anne Sexton
(1928 - 1974)


Anne Gray Harvey Sexton was born in Newton, Massachusetts, the third daughter of Mary Gray and Ralph Harvey. Sexton’s great-uncle had been governor of Maine, and her grandfather, editor of Maine’s Lewiston Evening Journal, was a respected journalist. The family’s primary emphasis by the time of Sexton’s birth was mercantile; Sexton’s father and, later, her husband were both wool merchants. The Harveys lived in Boston suburbs during the year and on Squirrel Island, Maine, during summers. Her childhood was both privileged and difficult. Sexton felt she could not fulfill her family’s expectations, which were both high and vague. She was implicitly expected to marry at the right time and to behave decorously—neither of which she did—but not necessarily to distinguish herself professionally or intellectually.

Anne Harvey was a spirited and demanding child, a romantic and popular adolescent, an undistinguished student (she attended a finishing school for women in Boston). In 1948 she eloped with Alfred Sexton, to whom she remained married until 1973. Shortly after the births of each of her two daughters (in 1953 and 1955), Sexton was hospitalized for the recurring emotional disturbances that continued to plague her for the rest of her life. After a suicide attempt in 1956, on the advice of her doctor, she began writing poetry. In 1957, Sexton enrolled in John Holmes’s poetry workshop, Boston, where she met Maxine Kumin, her closest personal friend. In 1958–59 she was a student in Robert Lowell’s writing seminar at Boston University, where she met Sylvia Plath.

Her first collection, To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960), was controversial and established Sexton’s reputation as a confessional poet. Popularity and something approaching notoriety accompanied Sexton’s poetic career. She received numerous awards, including a nomination for the National Book Award; fellowships from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Ford Foundation, and the Guggenheim Foundation; several honorary doctorates; and in 1967, the Pulitzer Prize for Live or Die. She taught at Harvard and Radcliffe, lectured at Breadloaf Writers’ Conference, held the Crashaw Chair at Colgate University, and was a full professor at Boston University by 1972. Her celebrated readings on the poetry circuit were criticized as the flamboyant, dramatic performances they were. When Sexton killed herself in 1974, she was still professionally successful and productive. Diane Wood Middlebrook’s Anne Sexton: A Biography tells readers much more about a life that seems, but clearly is not, fully disclosed in the poetry.

Sexton used the personal to speak to cultural concerns, many of which apply to women’s conflicts and transitions in modern American society. If Lowell and Snodgrass are the fathers of confessional poetry, Sexton is perhaps its first mother. The gender distinction is worth making. Snodgrass gave her “permission,” as she phrased it, to write about loss, neurosis, even madness, but no one had extended the permission to write about such experiences from a female point of view. For that bold stroke there was no precedent. Many feminist poets and critics find in her work a set of resonant and enabling myths, as well as a critique of those that disabled Sexton herself.

Sexton’s early work was preoccupied with formal structure and lyric discipline, while the later work became what critics have variously called surreal, mythic, or visionary. Anne Sexton’s poems articulate some of the deepest dilemmas of her contemporaries about their—our—most fundamental wishes and fears.

Diana Hume George
The Pennsylvania State University/Behrend College


Texts
In the Heath Anthology
Her Kind (1960)
Young (1961)
Housewife (1962)
Somewhere in Africa (1966)

Other Works
To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960)
All My Pretty Ones (1962)
Selected Poems (1964)
Live or Die (1966)
Love Poems (1969)
Transformations (1971)
The Book of Folly (1972)
The Death Notebooks (1974)
The Awful Rowing Toward God (1975)
45 Mercy Street (1976)
Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters (1977)



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Links

Anne Sexton
(http://empirezine.com/spotlight/sexton/sex1.htm)
Photographs, a detailed biography, a list of works, and links.
Anne Sexton Audio Files
(http://www.dianemiddlebrook.com/sexton/asaudio.html)
Audio files of Sexton performing with the musical group "Her Kind."
The Academy of American Poets
(http://www.poets.org/poets/poets.cfm?prmID=14)
Biography, selected poetry, a list of works, and links.
The Poems
(http://pages.prodigy.net/stesha/)
Archival site containing nearly all of Sexton's poems available for reading online.


Secondary Sources





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