Evelyn Helmick Hively: On Elinor Wylie

At the height of Elinor Wylie’s fame, Carl Van Doren, Columbia University professor and editor of the Century, called her “the queen of poets”; Edmund Wilson, the reigning critic, marveled at her “almost supernatural brilliance and energy.” Her poems and stories were published in Poetry, Vanity Fair, the New Republic, the New Yorker, and other leading magazines of the day. Her four volumes of poetry and four novels written from 1921 to 1928 were all best-selling books.

With the exception of a few frequently anthologized poems, the work of Elinor Wylie is not often remembered today. The reputations of most of the leading women poets who were celebrated in the 1920s suffered in the later decades of the century, but Wylie’s light dimmed earliest and most dramatically.

Today, entries in encyclopedias of women writers say more about Wylie’s provocative personality and unconventional life than about her work. The collected poems have not been reissued since their first publication in 1932. Still, authoritative voices of contemporary criticism express interest in her poetry. Rebecca West considered Wylie a writer who “has slipped out of sight while her inferiors have been over-remembered.” Noting the current neglect of the female writers of the twenties, Clive James added, “but, when you look at the work of Elinor Wylie, in particular, it is astonishing how accomplished she was.” John Gordan, former curator at the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library, predicted she would return to public attention.

There is no denying that [Elinor Wylie’s] beauty, social status, and behavior add interest to her poetry and fiction, which so often make direct references to herself. The people who knew her and the population at large seemed as preoccupied with the events of her life as she was. Their interest extended to her equally fascinating family, the “mad Hoyts,” as the newspapers called them. Elinor Wylie’s father, Henry Hoyt, was assistant attorney general and later solicitor general in the administrations of McKinley, Roosevelt, and Taft, and his children enjoyed lives of affluence and prominence in Washington society. But when Hoyt died suddenly at the age of fifty-three in 1910, the family began to disintegrate. Elinor almost immediately left her husband, Philip Hichborn, and their three-year-old son to flee to England with Horace Wylie, an older married man and the father of three children; a brother and a sister were suicides, as was her husband; a younger brother and sister started their descent into alcoholism and early death.

For six years in villages of southern England, Elinor Hoyt Hichborn read and studied with the remarkably well-educated Horace Wylie, who encouraged her interest in writing poetry and arranged for the anonymously published Incidental Numbers. They returned to America with the threat of war and, on their return to Washington, were ostracized in spite of their eventual marriage in 1916. At this time, Elinor Wylie began to write poetry in earnest, and the periodicals of the day were eager to print them. She was helped in her publishing ventures by William Rose Benét, who had been her brother’s friend at Yale and would become her mentor and agent, her lover, and eventually her third husband. With the exception of a few early poems, all of her work was written during her relationship with this talented, loving, and supportive man of literature.

Hively, Evelyn Helmick. “Introduction.” Selected Works of Elinor Wylie. Kent: Kent State University Press, 2005. xi-xii.

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Title Evelyn Helmick Hively: On Elinor Wylie Type of Content Biographical
Criticism Author Evelyn Helmick Hively Criticism Target Elinor Wylie
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 10 Aug 2014
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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