Paying little heed to the monotone song of Somes Brook, a hummingbird fills the air with its furious whirring and rushes toward a slab of stone almost entirely covered with leaves and small white pebbles. In this cemetery on a small Maine island cradled by the sea breeze and the swaying of summer branches, the attentive visitor can distinguish, in the shade of a white birch, the name Marguerite Yourcenar engraved in capital letters – one of the most prestigious figures in modern French literature. Under the dates 1903-1987, an epitaph written in French reads: “May it please the One who perchance Is to expand the human heart to life’s full measure.”
The life of Yourcenar, born Marguerite de Crayencour in Brussels to a French father and a Belgian mother, came to an end more than thirty years ago in this faraway place, Mount Desert Island, off the coast of Maine. For many, the American existence of one of the greatest French-speaking writers of the 20th century remains unknown, a mystery, or even a paradox. The profoundly European character of her work, the refinement of her classical education, and Yourcenar’s global image as a brilliant standard-bearer of French letters after her historic election to the Académie Française in 1980, seem to conflict with the image of a woman whose daily life unfolded for half a century beneath the stars and stripes of the American flag.
And yet “Madame,” as people still call her in this part of the world, became an American in 1947. After a childhood rich in readings and travels across Europe alongside her loving and eccentric widowed father, the young woman with piercing blue eyes – who started reading Racine and Aristophanes at age eight and knew Latin and ancient Greek by the time she was twelve – promptly made a name for herself in the swirling Paris of the 1930s as an author, critic, and poet. But a decisive meeting with the American intellectual Grace Frick in 1937 and the outbreak of war with Nazi Germany changed the course of her life. In October 1939 she boarded a ship to the United States, leaving Athens, Lausanne, the Seine, and Capri behind, and with them her life of European wandering.
“It is moving, this arrival in New York City, this mass of humanity suddenly found on the other side of the Atlantic abyss, beckoning with all its lights, from the tops of all its towers. But today a thick fog steals the skyscrapers away, and the Statue of Liberty seems a faded myth,” wrote the author in a letter to a Parisian editor friend, Emmanuel Boudot-Lamotte, during the war. Upon arriving, she already had an excellent command of the English language and its literature, having translated Virginia Woolf and Henry James. However, acclimating herself to “this great baffling continent, where the vast majority of the middle classes still lives morally in the middle of the 19th century,” didn’t always go smoothly.
“Like all of us, I fell back from an Alexandrian period to the Middle Ages, but at least in this version of the Middle Ages I’m neither hungry nor cold,” she added in her letter to Boudot-Lamotte. Struck by America’s puritanism and materialism, Yourcenar certainly wasn’t kind in her writings toward what she called “this civilization of businessmen.” And yet, even once the war was over and the Atlantic reopened to trade and travelers, Yourcenar decided to stay. After a year in New York, she moved to Connecticut where she gradually built a new life for herself alongside Frick, a scholar who would later translate into English her greatest masterpieces, including Memoirs of Hadrian (1951) and The Abyss (1968). Wherever Yourcenar went, the “attractive, dark-browed, young French woman, with a light accent” drew attention with her “charm, intelligence, and very blue eyes,” as described by a friend in Joan E. Howard’s biography of Frick. She was “vivid, lively, energetic, and beautifully dressed.”
Those years of exile, referred to by some in the European intelligentsia as an “American night” or a “long winter,” in fact proved crucial for the author’s ideological, emotional, and intellectual development. Steeped in the extraordinary cauldron of ideas that was America after 1945, Yourcenar was exposed to fresh ideas and opinions, particularly among Frick’s extended circle of scholars and thinkers. She grew passionate about environmentalism, animal rights, and civil rights, causes she would fight for until the end of her life. From the Carolinas to Mississippi, she discovered and grew fascinated with the Deep South’s Black culture and traditions. In 1964, she published Fleuve profond, sombre rivière (“Deep River, Dark River”), an essay on the history of African Americans, along with translations into French of a selection of “Negro spirituals.” She was also introduced to authors such as the 19th-century antislavery philosopher and naturalist Henry David Thoreau and the conservationist Rachel Carson, who became lifelong inspirations.
She who, like her character Zeno in The Abyss, aspired to the dissolution of prejudices and to an ever more lucid perception of the world, came to view herself and her life with a new kind of detachment. “I thought I knew something about life, but that was until I discovered the total anonymity of the great American city, the stark difference between life in the United Sates, at least as I experienced it, and life in Europe. Later I continued my education on the highways of the South, and in New Mexico, and finally in this part of Maine, where I now live. All these experiences taught me how small one is compared with the immensity of mankind, how obsessed we all nonetheless are by our own worries, and how much we resemble each other at the bottom.”
Beginning in 1942, and for almost a decade, Yourcenar taught French, Italian, and comparative literature at Sarah Lawrence College. At this small, upscale, liberal university north of New York City, the intellectual experienced the world of labor for the first time. She would arrive in class wearing a large-brimmed hat and “stalk around the campus dressed in this exotic fashion, completely herself, like nobody else,” remembers a former student. Frustrated by the poor academic level of her students, whom she deemed insufficiently prepared for her classes, Yourcenar took refuge in the literary treasures of New England’s libraries, immersing herself in the works of Thomas Hardy, Hemingway, Faulkner, Wright, Dos Passos, Nabokov, and Baldwin.
It was around this time that Yourcenar and Frick first visited Maine’s Mount Desert Island. Long a summer fishing spot for Abenaki Natives, the island was “discovered” and given its name by Samuel de Champlain in 1604. Seduced by its pink granite “mounts” and its pine, maple, and birch forests populated by myriad species of birds – a landscape Yourcenar described in her novella An Obscure Man (1981) – the pair made it their home in 1950. For the woman who playfully compared birds to angels, this land of passage became a land of choice.
There, on this island where she would die, the author composed her greatest works. In a hammock beneath the changing sky, she intoned 300 times the name of her beloved Zeno. The last word of The Abyss had just been written; it was time to grant Zeno his unthinkable but well-deserved release. A small white clapboard cottage, just a few steps from the ocean, Yourcenar and Frick’s home can be visited during the summer by appointment. Discreet among the opulent mansions of the summer colony, Petite Plaisance conveys a message of simplicity.
Nothing or almost nothing in what the author called her “country house” has been moved since her departure. Her typewriter is still there, on the doorstep of her writing studio, ready for an ultimate journey. Her 7,000-volume library, organized by period from Greco-Roman antiquity to the 20th century, structures the space, its volumes nestled among original Piranesi prints, fragments of ruins, albums of art images, Oriental carpets, and a thousand souvenirs of cherished times or journeys. The tour of the house, led by Joan Howard, who befriended Yourcenar in the 1980s, is a powerful experience. From the writing studio to the bright kitchen or outdoors to the Japanese lantern in the property’s wood garden, the visitor feels guided by the illustrious writer’s benevolent shadow and inspired by the spirit of her literary accomplices, Sophocles, Aristophanes, Euripides, and Plato.
On this August afternoon, a light breeze makes the visitor shudder. The first crimson leaves appear in the alleys of large and venerable oaks, and only the fluty song of a Northern mockingbird disturbs the retreat’s dense silence. The harbor is close by, its elegant sails arising among the pines. Throughout Yourcenar’s life, visitors, friends, and journalists endlessly asked why she’d chosen to call this little piece of America home. The first Immortelle, who had traveled the world from Scandinavia to Japan, from the U.S.S.R. to India, often said that she could write from anywhere. But, somehow, she never abandoned this home port, having perhaps found a welcoming companion for her own “little wandering soul.”