Exhibit honors famed Vassar alum

A new exhibition in the Thompson and Art Libraries features objects from Vassar alumna and acclaimed poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, class of 1917, highlighting her life in upstate New York. / Photo courtesy of Edna St. Vincent Millay Society

crystal songbird, paintings, gardening tools, poetry books, leather riding boots…these disparate objects display themselves in the Main and Art Libraries and in the Loeb Art Center. Encapsulated in the glass display cases, and by these seemingly timeless objects, are 25 years of a woman’s life, a life replete with passion, ingenuity and the flowering of a unique identity. Edna St. Vincent Millay, a Vassar alumna from the class of 1917, was born in Rockland, ME, in 1892, and was destined for a career in the literary world as a revolutionary poet. The exhibit “Edna St. Vincent Millay: Treasures from Steepletop” allows Vassar students and faculty to appreciate meaningful pieces of the woman’s life from her bucolic home in Austerlitz, NY, gaining insight into her and her time at Steepletop.

Two separate exposition cases in the Thompson Library and a glass case in the Art Library present artifacts and memorabilia covering the extensive routines and events that came to define Millay’s life at Steepletop, the name she gave to her home in upstate New York. A concurrent photo exhibit in the Loeb Art Center includes solemn, elegant headshots taken by acclaimed international photographers. Adjacent to the exposition cases in the library, and in the Art Center as well, a black and white film captures scenes of Millay and her husband Eugen together on the farm.

The opportunity to absorb such an interesting and rich collection was made possible by Special Collections Librarian and Adjunct Professor of History Ronald Patkus, who recognized the upcoming 100th-anniversary celebration of Millay’s graduation and her 125th birthday. “The idea really surfaced after contacting the Millay Society, whose eager response confirmed the possibility,” Patkus explained. Vice President of the Millay Society Mark O’Berski confirmed the unprecedented nature of the exhibit, noting that aside from writings and photographs, few other belongings of Millay’s have been seen outside of the Society’s own exhibition gallery in Austerlitz, NY.

Patkus affirmed that O’Berski and Millay’s literary executor Holly Peppe bore the brunt of the work in bringing the exhibition to fruition. Peppe wrote an essay for the exhibition catalogue and chose poems and other texts for the exhibit itself, while O’Berski chose the specific objects, books and photographs that would fill the glass cases. “Assembling the collection, researching the history, creating a story and writing the words that accompany the artifacts took many months of intense collaboration,” O’Berski illuminated. The object placement is calculated: Each case contains objects representing the endeavors of Millay and her husband Eugen for the four seasons of the year, an organizational tactic that eased the selection of artifacts.

But the memories and experiences that the poet was to gain from her time on the farm were preceded by a first-rate education and a foray into the professional world of writing. After submitting her poem “Renascence” to a 1912 national poetry contest under the name of E. St. Vincent Millay to evade identification as a woman, Millay did not win a prize, but her recitation of the poem led to an offer for financial assistance that enabled her to attend Vassar. In this enriching academic environment, Millay wrote consistently and satiated her longing to pursue drama and theater as she met other aspiring actors and artists and eventually wrote her first play. Peppe explained, “Millay was active in college activities—she acted in pageants and other productions and wrote plays, songs and poems for college events, including the Baccalaureate hymn for graduation.” Taking advantage of the enriching academic resources available to her, the young woman refined her writing, yet she yearned to escape the rules that she felt often confined her during her college studies.

Despite any disdain for the College’s regulations, Millay would eventually credit her Vassar education for giving her an invaluable academic background that she incorporated into her work. Taking this education with her, she proceeded to her initial settling point, the enlivened Greenwich Village in New York City, where she led an epitomized bohemian lifestyle. There, she constantly wrote, explored and engaged with other writers who shared her dogged pursuit of the artistry of words and the desire to get published. Through her writing, Millay began to deconstruct gender norms and combat social injustice. “Poet, playwright, essayist and short story writer, she infused new life into traditional poetic forms and brought new hope to a generation of youth disillusioned by the political and social upheaval of the First World War,” wrote Peppe in an email.

Little did Millay know that Austerlitz, NY, would be her new home, which included a farmhouse, barns and 730 acres of land, and that she’d name it Steepletop after a steeplebush on the property. Here, her forward-thinking mindset would find nourishment: Removed from the hustle and bustle of an urban climate, the writer reveled in her newfound peaceful haven, which continued to enhance her writing skills while encouraging her to seek novel tasks, activities and hobbies.

In the Art Library, clothing items and other objects bring the poet’s dynamic character to life, such as a long red dress and several chic hats and shoes situated next to her saddle and hunting rifle. Swapping out shoes for her riding boots was just one example of the liberation concomitant with her agrarian lifestyle. “I just love how they’re so meshed in nature and evoke the notion of a ‘slow life,’” commented Laura Sorscher, a visitor from Philadelphia. The items, including sheet music, binoculars and wine bottles, attest to Millay’s rugged free spirit and inclination to learn and grow.

O’Berski opened, “The exhibit will help bring Millay to life for a new generation of students to discover.” Sophie Cash ’19 is one of those students. She shared, “I hardly knew anything about Edna St. Vincent Millay…but I was attracted to the exhibit and learned a lot. It definitely made me want to read her poetry.” No doubt in the contemporary political climate, respect and recognition of the principles she furthered remains critical. “If she were still with us, I have no doubt she would have joined the recent Women’s March on Washington,” Peppe affirmed.

It is fortunate that “Treasures from Steepletop” can be unveiled at a college boasting a community that upholds the values which Millay exuded. A literary phenom, Millay’s exceptional talent is irrefutable, yet her approach to life—to fulfill her desires, challenge the status quo and absorb all the knowledge that she could—illustrates the personal liberation that she embodied and promoted. And each artifact at the exhibit is indicative of that spirit, culminating in a comprehensive display of her time at Steepletop and of her true self.

“Treasures from Steepletop” will be on display until June 11, while another exhibit, “Millay at Vassar,” will be on display at her Steepletop home in Austerlitz, NY, from May to October. On Saturday, Feb. 18 at 3 p.m., a program honoring Millay will take place in the Alumnae House, and is open to all Vassar students, faculty and friends.

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