The Many Lives of Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath, arguably the greatest female poet of the twentieth century, has been the object of much biographical scrutiny, the more so because her suicide at age thirty seems inextricably bound up with her finest work and because, more generally, her life and writing have been the cause of much controversy. It seems likely that each new biographer hopes to solve, or at least to suggest plausible explanations for, the many riddles of Plath’s brief, turbulent life—an apparently never-ending exploratory process that makes it less than surprising that not one or two but three new biographies should appear in early 2013, near the fiftieth anniversary of her death on 11 February 1963.

Each of these new studies, like the many others published in recent decades, takes a unique approach, though they all work their ways around a few signal events: the death of Plath’s authoritarian father, Otto, when the poet was eight; her serious and almost-successful suicide attempt in 1953; her acceptance to the elite Smith College; the four crucial weeks she spent in New York as a guest editor for Mademoiselle magazine; her winning a Fulbright scholarship to attend Cambridge University in England; her marriage to the distinguished British poet Ted Hughes; her last, brilliant blaze of poetic creativity in the fall and winter of 1962–63; the pseudonymous publication of her only extant novel, The Bell Jar, in early 1963; and her sadly successful suicide attempt a few weeks later.

Perhaps the most comprehensive past biographies are Edward Butscher’s Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness (1976) and Paul Alexander’s Rough Magic: A Biography of Sylvia Plath (1991). Not as insightful are Anne Stevenson’s less than kindly Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath (1989) and Ronald Hayman’s slender and melodramatically titled The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath (1991). Thrown into the mix has been an assortment of other biographies, memoirs, and critical studies, along with books focused upon the marriage of Plath and Hughes, most notably Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (1994) and Diane Middlebrook’s Her Husband: Hughes and Plath—A Marriage (2003).

The fragmented nature of Plath biographical efforts is perhaps understandable, given the controversial nature of her reputation and given the fact that when Plath died, though she was estranged from Hughes, she was still married to him; complete control of her papers fell into the hands of the very man the late poems, journals, and a lost novel, Double Exposure, seemed to vilify. Not only did Hughes destroy her last journals and mysteriously “lose” the novel, he also rearranged the manuscript of her final book, Ariel, and continued to stage-manage the presentation of her work both in poetry and prose. Just as Plath’s mother Aurelia had published in Letters Home (1975) only the passages from her daughter’s correspondence that reflected well on herself, so did Hughes apparently mishandle material that reflected poorly on himself. After Hughes’s death in 1998, the situation grew even worse when Olwyn Hughes, Ted’s sister, became Plath’s literary executrix; as someone who had intensely disliked Plath, she made life difficult at best for anyone who approached her with a biographical or critical project. Even today, with Olwyn no longer in charge, the Plath estate is a considerable obstacle for those with a professional interest in the poet, leaving biographers in the uncomfortable position of having to paraphrase rather than quote directly from her work.

This is ironic given the fact that for most of her life Sylvia Plath desperately sought publication, sending out reams of short stories and poems not only to the New Yorker and the Atlantic but also to less intellectually exalted publications such as Seventeen and Mademoiselle; she even wrote a 13,500-word story—titled “I Lied for Love”—for a “confessions” magazine called True Story. One must suppose that Plath herself would want biographers to have free rein to quote from her work, but all three of the biographies considered here have little to say about the poetry, giving the false impression that Plath is famous for her life events, not for her writing. Surely the poet would deplore the practices of her estate—not least problematic of which is charging exorbitant fees to quote individual poems—which inappropriately enough serves to throw the critical focus endlessly upon her life rather than her work. 

This issue is evident even in the title of the most ambitious of these three books, Carl Rollyson’s American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath. Though suggesting a definitive approach to the poet, the title is misleading, for the “art” of Plath is seldom discussed here. Instead Rollyson has embarked upon a project of mythmaking, as if the poet did not already perform that function quite ably and thoroughly for herself. Casting Plath as an “Isis”—the ancient Egyptian goddess of magic and motherhood—adds little to our understanding of the poet, and comparing her life and career to those of Marilyn Monroe (Rollyson is the author of Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress) is nothing short of preposterous.

These problems aside, Rollyson competently enough recounts the familiar events of Plath’s life, though he adds little to past biographies. The notable exception is the excellent final chapter, “In the Temple of Isis,” which narrates (rather like an update of Malcolm’s book) the past misadventures of Plath biography. Here Rollyson is insightful as he reveals the frustration and exasperation every Plath biographer faces. For instance, he quotes Olwyn’s absurd claim that the magnificent Ariel poems were written “just . . . to dazzle Ted and win him back,” and convincingly enough concludes that “Hughes’s role in stewardship of Plath’s posthumous career was, in short, nothing less than appalling.” (In an appendix, Rollyson adds that any new critic or biographer becomes a player “in a conflict that unfortunately is likely to go on as long as the Punic Wars.”)

Moreover, this biography is thoroughly researched, as suggested by the lengthy bibliography and frequent references, most of them respectful, to previous Plath scholars. Most of the book itself, however, is not very well written. Rollyson often falls into melodramatic phrasing, as when he writes: “Sylvia said that working on a poem gave her greater pleasure than any other activity. She lived for it and—she eventually realized—she was willing to die for it.” And again: “She had been writing the poetry that would make her reputation, but she knew that no human being could sustain such a peak of perfection and perform all the normal functions of existence.” 

Rollyson misquotes a line from Plath’s famous villanelle “Mad Girl’s Love Song,” and another from the even more famous “Daddy”—and the book reads as if it were copyedited by Mr. Magoo. (Shame on the St. Martin’s editorial staff for their poor work here.) A reader could overlook one or two spelling errors, but here they are legion. We are given “pretentions” for “pretensions”; “poured over” for “pored over”; “workman” for “workmen.” As for friends of the poet, a Mrs. Cantor becomes “Mrs. Canter,” Lucas Myers becomes “Lucas Meyers,” and Susan Roe becomes “Susan Rowe.” Even famous people don’t escape the author’s carelessness: Edgar Allan Poe is spelled “Edgar Allen Poe”; the distinguished British novelist Alan Sillitoe, “Allen Sillitoe”; the American short-story writer Frank O’Connor, “Frank O’Conner”; the actress Susan Hayward, “Susan Hayworth”; and the singer Eddie Fisher, “Eddie Fischer.”

This sloppy presentation is consistent, unfortunately, with the conceptual sloppiness of the book as a whole. In most of the chapters Rollyson throws in a reference to Isis or to Marilyn Monroe, but these mentions are simply that; he doesn’t convincingly present Plath in relationship to either of these figures. His chapter titles—“Primordial Child of Time,” “Queen of the Dead,” “The Universal Mother”—are distinctly at odds with the wholly familiar narrative of Plath’s life. In short, the rather pretentious book and chapter titles simply promise far more than they deliver.

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Happily, no such problems mar Andrew Wilson’s Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted, which is easily the best of the three books reviewed here, and one of the two or three best books in Plath studies. Finely written and exhaustively researched, it employs not only published works but numerous primary sources such as interviews with people who knew Plath in her teens and early twenties. Ted Hughes is mentioned seldom, since Wilson has chosen to keep the focus on his subject’s “formative” period, especially her years at Smith College. Though one certainly must argue with Wilson’s contention that Hughes’s “enormous shadow obscures many aspects of Plath’s life and work”—the bibliography of works devoted to her, after all, is far longer than an analogous list of books about him, and her reputation as a poet has far outstripped his—the focus on her earlier life is nonetheless salutary, revealing much about her education, her early writing, and her relationships with people uninvolved in the great Plath-Hughes conflicts of her last few years.

Especially valuable here is the portrait of the 1950s American ethos in which Plath matured, and in which her creative writing teacher, of all people, told his female students he hoped none of them was “planning to be a writer because women writers are usually very unhappy.” Wilson portrays Plath as a young woman riven by multiple pressures: to be a “good girl” (she had a very strong sex drive); to excel in her studies (she was once devastated when she received a B+ in an English course); to publish her work in magazines (she saved her hundreds of rejection slips because they showed at least that she had “tried”); to stay sane and cheerful all the time (today, Plath might have been diagnosed bipolar, and one summer during the Smith years she grew so depressed she attempted suicide and was given electroshock therapy); and to find the perfect man to complement the fierce, complex, fully rounded feminine selfhood she so desperately sought. (Wilson calculates that Plath dated “hundreds” of boys, and in one two-month period alone she went on sixty-six dates.)

It is jarring but not really shocking to learn that Plath was, in today’s terminology, a “cutter,” or that she was fascinated by the suicidal American writer Sara Teasdale. Nor is it surprising that she tried on so many different faces, as if trying to decide which was her authentic self. Was she the cheerful overachiever of her letters to Aurelia, or the studious intellectual she seemed to her girlfriends at Smith? Was she the precocious writer who began her professional career at age eight with a poem in a Boston newspaper and who felt delirious joy when she won the coveted Mademoiselle magazine’s College Fiction Contest, or the depressed woman who periodically decided that all this effort was simply not worth the cost? Wilson quotes from Plath’s journal: “How can you be so many women to so many people, oh you strange girl?”

Wilson’s fine work leaves only one question hanging: Why write a 369-page study covering only half of Plath’s adult life instead of continuing, producing perhaps a 700-page full biography, one analogous to R. W. B. Lewis’ classic work on Edith Wharton or to Richard B. Sewall’s on Emily Dickinson? Maybe Wilson is working on a second volume, and his publisher simply wanted to put out a book in 2013 to mark that fiftieth anniversary of the poet’s death. Whatever the case may be, it’s to be hoped that Wilson will continue his study of Plath, one day combining this book with a second volume and possibly producing the “definitive” biography the poet so richly deserves.

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Alas, Elizabeth Winder’s Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953 is no such endeavor; as its title suggests, it is the most narrowly focused book ever written on Plath. One can sympathize with its intentions—to portray intensively the four-week period she guest-edited at Mademoiselle, an identity-shattering experience that led to her suicide attempt on 24 August—but the resulting study is as vapid and frothy as an article from that magazine. Granted, these weeks were important not only in terms of how they affected Plath’s development as a poet, but also as the source material for The Bell Jar. Winder’s awkward title, wrenched in part from a Plath journal entry, does sum up the general mood of Plath’s life in New York during the month she spent there, and some of the material the author includes here is significant, to an extent, in revealing the social history of women’s lives in the 1950s. But Winder’s approach is so superficial, suggesting a creative-writing exercise gone amok (Winder received an MFA in creative writing from George Mason University), that the reader ultimately learns very little except what the atmosphere of Plath’s New York days might have been like.

The book is oddly researched: though Winder talked to most of the other now elderly “girls” who guest-edited at the magazine that summer (including the educator and writer Janet Burroway and the distinguished novelist Diane Johnson) and gives some of their quoted material in boxed format scattered throughout the book, she seems unfamiliar with the vast oeuvre of Plath biography and criticism—her bibliography lists only seven titles, most of them insignificant works. Rather, Winder seems interested in purveying free-writing riffs on feminine life—fashion, makeup, food—circa 1953. We get endless details about Plath’s shopping trips:

First, a black shantung sheath in pure silk, with slippery shoestring straps and a matching bolero-style jacket. The dress was cut lissome and lean—it left a lot of skin bare and was perfect for dancing. (Sylvia was a narrow-hipped five feet, nine inches—one of the few figures flattered by the sheath’s unforgiving silhouette.)

Then a second sheath, strapless, blue and white cotton cord. This one was girly and summery with a sweetheart neckline and white buttons up the front. It too came with its own jacket—tight and cropped, with a standup mandarin collar modeled after Dior’s oval collection.

And we also learn about cosmetics: “Fifties lips were crisp and defined. Ideally, you’d be using two or three shades of lipstick—dark red on the lower lip, a brighter, lighter red on the upper lip, and a slick of pale gloss in the center.” This slender book is graced with reproductions of fashion designers’ sketches, along with even less enlightening photographs such as the one of a smiling, magazine-reading woman under a hairdryer, the point of which seems to be See how women dried their hair in the 1950s! There is an entire boxed paragraph on the “pageboy” haircut, and another one entitled “Halo, Everybody”: “Halo shampoo was wildly popular. It gave a rich lather and was the first soapless shampoo.” Duly noted.

All this material is glued together with the class-exercise type of “fine writing” mentioned above, as in this description: “New York is unruly, tangled. The city woos first, then mangles, then pastes back together in a fresh, dazzling mosaic.” And: “[Sylvia] had that ‘bloom’ so often credited to youth, and a large, gold personality that bubbled, then boiled over.”

In a strange way, it’s a good thing the book sticks mostly to trivia. On the rare occasions when the author comments on Plath’s work, the results are less than insightful. She calls “Daddy” a “gangrened tour-de-force poem” and says that “The Bell Jar burns with a merciless bathing-suit-in-the-dressing-room fluorescent light.” For the most part, however, we are invited to forget Plath was a writer at all. She was apparently too busy shopping, getting her hair styled, applying makeup, and listening to the inane chattering of her fellow guest-editors to get much done in the way of serious work.

One should usually pay no attention to jacket-flap copy, but this reader carefully noted the words on Pain, Parties, Work to try to discover why the book had been published, and what the publisher thought it had accomplished. Especially striking is this sentence: “Winder reveals how these twenty-six days indelibly altered how Plath saw herself, her mother, her friendships, and her romantic relationships, and shaped her emerging identity as a woman and as a writer.” In fact, the book accomplishes no such thing. Rather, it gives us reams of facts about the fashion, makeup, and hairstyles of the time, offering almost no insight into Plath’s life or work. The book is simply a bagatelle, settling for a blithe look at Plath’s milieu while leaving the poet herself in the shadows.

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As suggested above, what is now needed is a lengthy, definitive, critical biography, one paying as much attention to the work as to the life. It’s to be hoped that Andrew Wilson will undertake such a task, since he clearly has the biographical skills and probably has the critical acumen as well. Especially we need to know more about Plath’s poetic development—how she transformed herself from the rather cautious, semi-formalist writer of her early twenties into the wild, original, but superbly controlled poet of her last months. Until such a thoroughgoing study appears, readers will have to content themselves with careless overviews, partial biographies (however excellent), and occasional trifles, such as the three volumes reviewed here. Perhaps these books merely reflect that the jury is still divided on the quality and scope of Plath’s achievement. Perhaps the appropriate biographer—many candidates have likely been scared off by the reputation of the Plath estate—has simply not yet appeared. Whatever the case, we can hope not to wait too long, for Sylvia Plath certainly deserves the most thorough and thoughtful scrutiny.

 

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*An essay-review of

American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath. By Carl Rollyson. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2013. 319 pp. $29.99.

Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted. By Andrew Wilson. New York: Scribner, 2013. 368 pp. $30.

Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953. By Elizabeth Winder. New York: Harper, 2013. 288 pp. $25.99.

 

Greg Johnson, whose reviews have appeared regularly in our pages across many years, has published two novels, five collections of short stories, and several volumes of nonfiction. He lives in Atlanta and teaches in the graduate writing program at Kennesaw State University.