Lately I’ve found myself drawn to the biography section of the Providence Public Library. Think of it! Truman, Marechal Foch, Thomas Cranmer, Napoleon, Cleopatra, Nellie Bly, all side by side.

Recently I read two biographies in a single weekend: one of Edna St. Vincent Millay (“Restless Spirit,” by Miriam Gurko), and “O Rare Don Marquis!” by Edward Anthony.

By Sunday evening I was sad and thoughtful.

Biographies generally end with the death of the protagonist. These two were no exception. Millay loved life and dreaded death, so the account of her death at the age of fifty-eight (very soon after the death of her beloved husband) was very saddening. Marquis saw much death in his life – his two children, both of his wives – and died young himself, of a stroke, at fifty-nine years of age.

I’m fifty-five. Maybe you can see where I’m going with this.

Millay was the spirit of her age. She wrote tons of lyric poetry, in traditional meter and rhyme; she lived in Greenwich Village and associated with all kinds of people; she was a feminist ahead of her time. Her poetry is memorable, and still anthologized. I find that I know lots of her poetry by heart, even now.

Is she still taught at all? Does anyone still read her?

Marquis was a newspaper columnist. He created characters: the Old Soak, an alcoholic managing to get by during Prohibition; Hermione, a fashionable intellectual; Archy, a cockroach who’d been a free-verse poet in a previous life; and Mehitabel, an alley cat who claimed she’d been Cleopatra in a previous life.

Marquis wanted to be remembered for his serious verse, and his plays.

He is remembered to this day for Archy and Mehitabel.

He foresaw this, and dreaded it. He did not want to be remembered for two comic characters he’d created: a literary cockroach, and a cat who was a lady in spite of everything.

And yet, to this day, these are his books that are remembered.

There are lessons to be learned from biographies, if you know where to look for them.

About Loren Williams
Gay, partnered, living in Providence, working at a local university. Loves: books, movies, TV. Comments and recriminations can be sent to

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