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THIS DOUBLE LIFE
Camden, with its ring of mountains rising behind the white clapboard houses facing Penobscot Bay, made the most of its view. Nowhere else on the coast of Maine was there such dramatic natural beauty. The houses were like weathered faces turned to watch the sea. The upland meadows of ox-eyed daisies, timothy, and sweet fern, the dark green woods of balsam and fir swept to the gentle summit of Mount Megunticook, and the rock face of Mount Battie rose from the edge of the sea as if to hold it. But it was a far less generous time than the early days of shipbuilding, upon which the town's wealth had been founded. Now even the great woodsheds along the wharves were mostly abandoned, permanent reminders of the long death of shipbuilding. The wool mills looming behind the town offered scant wages and long hours. Later in her life Edna St. Vincent Millay would say she was "a girl who had lived all her life at the very tide-line of the sea," but in the fall of 1904, she moved with her family into 100 Washington Street on the far edge of town, in a section called Millville because it was near the mills. It was the smallest house in the poorest part of town, but it was one their mother could afford when she brought her girls to Camden after her divorce.
Their brown frame house was set in a large field, and just beyond it flowed the Megunticook River, into which the mills sometimes spilled their dyes. The house, on low ground, could be reached only by walking down a long, rickety wooden sidewalk from the street. When the Megunticook River overflowed and the weather turned cold with no heat in the house, the kitchen floor flooded and froze and the girls gleefully ice-skated across it. The house was close enough to their mother's Aunt Clara Buzzell, a large, easygoing person who ran a boardinghouse for the mill hands, that she could keep an eye on the girls while their mother worked. Cora wrote to her daughters often; the three little sisters felt her presence even when she was absent, which was almost all the time.
Have the baker leave whatever you want at Aunt Clara's. . . . I can pay him when I see him and it will be all right. Have your washing done every week now and have some system and regularity about your work. . . . You can do it and you must do it . . . for Mama who has her heart and hands full.
She told them to make up a song to sing while they did dishes, "and think 'I am doing this to please mama,' and see how easy the dishes will get clean."
"We had one great advantage, I realized later," Norma Millay wrote. "We were free to love and appreciate our mother and to enjoy her because she wasn't always around, as most mothers are, telling us what to do and how to do it. . . . when mother was coming home, that was an occasion to be celebrated, and we usually celebrated by cleaning the house."
They invented games to make play out of work. "Dishes were handled differently," Norma remembered. "This game was called 'Miss Lane' for miscellaneous: here one of us washed, another dried, and the other did miscellaneous pots and pans, milk bottles, whatever. Vincent was mostly responsible for the songs we sang as we worked." This one was written the first year they were in Camden:
I'm the Queen of the Dish-pan.
My subjects abound.
I can knock them about
And push them around,
And they answer with naught
But a clattering sound;
I'm the Queen of the Dish-pan,
For I've pots and pans
And kettles galore.
If I think I'm all done
There are always some more,
For here's a dozen
And there's a score.
I'm the Queen of the Dish-pan,
But they missed their mother and longed for her return. "At night, sometimes, we would lie in bed together, huddled against the cold, pretending to be brides, and little Kathleen would call out, 'Goodnight, Cherest!' in the direction we thought our mother would be."
Not everyone in Camden agreed with the way the Millays lived. When their neighbor Lena Dunbar came to visit, she was dismayed: "For instance, they had shades at their window and nothing else. I don't think they cared much. Well, once they stenciled apple blossoms, painted that pattern down the sides of the window. Or, for instance, they had a couple of plum trees in their backyard and they never waited for the plums to ripen, but would pick them green, put them in vinegar, and call them 'mock olives.' Well, no one else did that sort of thing in Camden, don't you see?"
Emma Harrington, who taught eighth and ninth grades at the Elm Street grammar school, where Vincent enrolled that fall, never forgot her. "She was small and frail for a twelve-year-old. . . . Her mane of red hair and enormous gray-green eyes added to the impression of frailty, and her stubborn mouth and chin made her seem austere, almost to the point of grimness." She kept her after school after reading her first composition to find out if someone had helped her with it. Tactfully, she asked if her mother had seen her excellent work. Vincent interrupted her: "Excuse me, Miss Harrington, . . . but I can tell that you think I didn't write that composition. Well, I did! But the only way I can prove it will be to write the next one you assign right here, in front of you. And I promise it will be as good as this one, and maybe better."
It was her determination to excel that drew attention. That first winter, she clashed with the principal of the school. He was a good teacher but quick-tempered. Vincent questioned him whenever something he said puzzled her, and she was often puzzled. He felt she was challenging his authority and began to mangle her first name. He called her Violet, Veronica, Vivienne, Valerie, any name beginning with a V but her own, which he considered outlandish. Unshaken, Vincent would respond, "Yes, Mr. Wilbur. But my name is Vincent." One day he erupted during an exchange and shouted that she'd run the school long enough. He grabbed a book from his desk and threw it at her. She picked the book up carefully, took it to his desk, and walked out of the classroom.
That afternoon Mrs. Millay marched to the school and demanded an explanation. Trying to conclude their heated interview, Wilbur pushed her away from his door sharply enough that she nearly fell down the stairs. Dusting herself off, Mrs. Millay strode into the office of the superinten-dent of schools, who quickly agreed with her that Vincent should not return to the Elm Street School. He transferred her to Camden High School, midway in the first term. She was "The Newest Freshman," the title of her first composition to be published in the school paper, The Megunticook, and the youngest. Though they misspelled her last name-Milley-they would learn to correct it, for by her senior year she was editor in chief.
"She was supposed to be a year behind, you know," Henry Pendleton, who was in her class, said. "But her mother had-well-she had a downright fight with the principal of the school, and she took it upon herself to put Vincent ahead. Yes, she did. Now the girls associated with her more than the boys did. Their circumstances were very poor. They were a very poor family. Oh, neatly dressed and all, but their home looked . . . ah, well, they didn't have, let's say, the things that most people in Camden enjoyed."
What began to disturb, even offend, the local worthies, was the way Millay's mother treated Vincent. "You see," Henry Pendleton recalled, "sometimes people felt a little . . . oh, well, for instance father-my father was a farmer-and Mrs. Millay would be bragging about her daughter, Vincent, and my father couldn't get a word in edgewise. He had a daughter, too, you see, and he'd come home fuming. He said to mother more than once, 'I would say my daughter is out-ranked!' And people didn't like that."
Vincent's birthday that year was noted by her mother as "an unpleasant day." As Cora totted up its costs, she said she'd paid $30.00 for a set of books for Vincent and $3.00 for a subscription to St. Nicholas, a children's magazine. She said there were
1 cross little girl
1 grieved little girl
1 satisfied little girl
1 tired and discouraged mama.
The satisfied little girl was Vincent. She wrote to St. Nicholas and asked to join its League:
We have just been reading your interesting stories and poems and Norma, Kathleen, and myself wish to join your League. We think you are very kind to devote so much valuable time and space to your readers. Norma was ten years old last December. Kathleen, seven last May, and I shall be twelve Washington's birthday. Please send three badges of membership to three very interested little sisters.
-Vincent, Norma and Kathleen Millay
What Millay called her first "conscious writing of poetry" was done that year. "Mother sent it to the St. Nicholas League and it received honorable mention." Published in New York, St. Nicholas was a monthly illustrated magazine for children. It was begun in the 1870s by Mary Mapes Dodge, the author of a children's classic, Hans Brinker; or, The Silver Skates, who was able to bring authors such as Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, Christina Rossetti, Louisa May Alcott, Rebecca Harding Davis, Lucy Larcom, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Jack London-writers of distinction who might not ordinarily have written for children-to young readers throughout the country. But what truly distinguished the magazine was the St. Nicholas League, which each month gave out not only prizes-badges in silver and gold, and cash-but the gift of publication.