FREDERICKSBURG — Having spent her life in academia and journalism, Orange County author Hilary Holladay has made quite a splash combining the two.
Holladay’s biography of American poet and early feminist Adrienne Rich recently was published by Penguin Random House.
A review in The New York Times called “The Power of Adrienne Rich” the “first proper biography” of the woman known for decades as the female face of American poetry, adding that Holladay’s book is a “good story well-told.”
There is an additional bit of good news that might interest serious bookworms: It was the final book Nan Talese edited before retiring.
“It’s out under her imprint, the last book she’ll ever publish,” Holladay said. “Her husband is Gay Talese, and they’re a real New York power couple.”
Holladay said writing the book was probably a product of fate.
As a journalist, she worked for The Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg and the Orange County Review. She said she loved nothing more than writing about people, and always tried to capture what made them interesting. During her teaching days — which included an extended stretch as an English professor at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell — she spent considerable time writing literary criticism and delving into the works of major American writers.
“In writing biographies, I’ve discovered I can bring together these two things I like to do so much — writing about people and going into depth about American authors,” she said.
Still, Holladay never imagined she would write a book about Adrienne Rich.
“But in 2012, a couple of years after she died, I was looking around for a new book topic,” Holladay said. “I thought about all sorts of people, even at one point considering Martha Stewart. But I realized lots of others had written about her, and that I’m not an expert on any of the things she’s interested in.”
Something kept pulling her back to Rich, whose poetry Holladay believes speaks to the times we live in.
“Rich led a very principled and courageous life, and I eventually realized that I wanted to dig in and write about that life,” she said.
Asked for an example of Rich’s courage, Holladay said the poet wasn’t afraid to follow up the “lovely, moving formal poems” that initially won her acclaim with pieces that were more experimental and focused on women.
“When she won the National Book Award for Poetry in 1974, Rich said during the awards ceremony that she would not accept it for herself, but only in the name of all women,” Holladay said, “and that she objected to the tokenism of women writers and would be donating her share of the prize money to women’s organizations.
“Rich pretty much said to these people honoring her that things were not the way they should be, that many women were being left out,” Holladay added. “Look at the Me Too movement today and you realize that she was saying things back in the 1970s that they would later champion. And she always did it with such eloquent words.”
Rich also suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, but never let it stop her from writing poems or evolving as a writer.
“She became an internationally prominent feminist, came out as a lesbian and eventually embraced Judaism,” Holladay said. “A lot of people through the years found in her a true role model.”
Holladay said her work on the book was a mix of interviews and document research at Harvard University.
“I would sit there in the Schlesinger Library and pour over her original correspondence, diaries and journals, taking copious notes,” she said. “It was easy enough to come up with people to interview because many of her acquaintances are still alive. It was a combination of old-fashioned shoe leather and scholarly research.”
Holladay said her view of Rich changed as she learned more about her, always keeping enough distance to appreciate both her strengths and foibles.
“We’re talking about someone who was a tremendous poet, a great essayist, and also a translator,” said Holladay. “She was a genius, as were many in her family. I was in touch with her sister, Cynthia Rich, and learned a lot from her about the whole family.”
Though her time as a journalist taught her the importance of objectivity, Holladay said there were moments when her research and reporting led to emotional reactions.
“When I was writing the chapter about Rich’s husband’s … and death and the immediate aftermath, I felt it,” she said. “I truly felt the pain of it, and it took a while to move on.”