unique plath: a double biographical review

By Ingrid Goatson on 4/08/2013

Biography is kind of scary. At least, it seems to me like it would be terribly hard to write. It’s as much an interpretive exercise as it is a narrative of a person’s life. In a sense the biographer has that person’s life in their hands. They must choose which parts of that life should be included in their version of the story and how those parts are going to be presented, which means the smallest details and their implications can change the picture dramatically. Because of this, biographies are often read with careful scrutiny and subjected to intense criticism.

Sylvia Plath and the many different biographies that have been written about her are great examples of how kaleidoscopic and confusing this process of biography can be.  From each narrative a different woman emerges. After suffering from a mental breakdown soon after learning of her husband‘s affair, writing her sharpest and most renowned collection of poems, and killing herself at the age of 30 by placing her head in a gas oven, her life and work have been interpreted and reinterpreted by biographers since her death 50 years ago last month. And of course, being the voyeur (voyeuse?) that I am, I devour it all.

I’ve been reading Sylvia Plath since I read her novel The Bell Jar my freshman year of college and, like many readers who first encounter her was taken by her weird, dramatic and violent writing style. That summer I consumed everything Plath I could find, including her unabridged journals and a few biographies, online articles, and of course, her poetry. Her journals especially present a life so multivalent, colorful, so deeply lived it’s hard not to be sucked into her universe. What is especially interesting, though, is how differently people who knew her thought of her, how different a woman she seemed to be outside the journals. She was quite a polarizing personality even in her lifetime. To me, this is evidence of a deep creativity, a constant appropriation of experience and creation of self that comes through vibrantly in her writing but apparently did not translate easily to her relationships with acquaintances, friends and even family. (More on this later.)

I like a biography that delves deeply into Plath’s creative personality and asks the hard questions. Because so much has been written about her that is widely accessible, I don’t expect every biography to take absolutely everything I think is interesting or important about the poet into account. I think a good Plath biography takes a specific and nuanced approach the poet and her poetry, is well-researched and well-written.

I was quite excited when not one, but two new biographies about her were published early this year to mark the 50th anniversary of her death. Of course I pounced and read both immediately. American Isis by Carl Rollyson traces the evolution of the poet as she emerges from her specific cultural era. Andrew Wilson’s Mad Girl’s Love Song focuses on Plath’s life and work before she met her husband, Ted Hughes. I liked both, though perhaps now in hindsight I was a bit lukewarm about American Isis. But let’s talk about it.

American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath draws the poet’s life in mythic proportions, from her earliest years and her first published poem at age 8 (“Primordial Child of Time,”) her years at Smith College and summer internship at Mademoiselle magazine (” Mistress of All the Elements,”) first suicide attempt (“Queen of the Dead,”) her marriage to the late British poet laureate Ted Hughes and her settling into married life and motherhood (“I am Nature,” “The Universal Mother,”) to her final breakdown and suicide (“Queen also of the Immortals.”) I admit, these wonderfully grandiose chapter titles thrilled me just a little bit. Like Plath’s poems, they are big and strong and demand attention. American Isis takes a hard look at Plath and her work within the cultural environment of the 1950’s, especially popular culture. Plath was very much aware of and involved in popular culture, as Rollyson explains, her first published poems and stories appeared in women’s magazine’s such as Mademoiselle and Seventeen. Someday she wanted to be known, loved, even worshiped like other pop culture figures of the time, saying so explicitly in her diary and letters. She fused this vision with her literary ambition, Rollyson tells us. She didn’t separate “high” or literary culture from pop culture. She relished any and all attention. Rollyson compares her colossal ambition to that of Marilyn Monroe, even calling her “the Marilyn Monroe of modern literature,” a comparison he seems to be quite excited about that unfortunately isn’t incredibly convincing. Like Marilyn, Rollyson says, Plath has become something of a goddess, maybe like, say, Isis, the Egyptian goddess of death. (Interestingly, Plath and Hughes actually had a framed print of Isis on their wall for many years.)

Rollyson is the first Plath biographer to utilize the recently-opened Ted Hughes archive at the British library. This archive apparently contains correspondence written between Hughes and his sister (who later became the literary executor of Plath’s estate,) as well as Sylvia’s mother Aurelia and various editors and biographers who wrote to Hughes about compiling Plath’s journals, letters, and poetry. The letters in this archive document Hughes’ careful and deliberate censoring of Plath’s writing, especially her letters and journals. The last chapter of American Isis was in my opinion the best and most worthwhile part of the book, most of which seems to be based on Rollyson’s research in this archive. Beautifully titled “In the Temple of Isis,” it tracks the publishing history and development of Plath scholarship since her death, and is absolutely fascinating, and is just as, if not more dramatic than her life. This chapter is worth your attention, I think, especially if you are a serious Plath fan.

Plath’s own correspondence as well obviously plays a large part in both biographies (luckily most of it was also carefully archived); Rollyson explains in an author’s note that through reading her correspondence, “I came to see how hard Plath tried to live many different sorts of lives, and to be many different things to her correspondents.” This biography is pretty focused; he discards all scene-setting, extensive background information, and exposition of her work. It does seem to follow the typical biography blueprint, though, and I don’t know … besides the final chapter, it left me feeling kind of meh.

Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted by Andrew Wilson is centered on Sylvia Plath’s formative years as a poet. This title comes from the name of a villanelle Plath wrote in 1953, a poem she said was one of her favorites. Personally, I think it’s a breath of fresh air to read just about Plath’s development as a writer without having to bring all that problematic Ted Hughes stuff in and avoid all the trouble and confusion and bleh that comes with it. In fact, Wilson seems to push back on Hughes’ assertion that Plath’s writing wasn’t fully developed until after she married him. (While compiling her Collected Poems, Hughes categorized everything she wrote before they met as “Juvenilia” and decided to include it in an appendix to the book for “specialists” to consider. Many Plath scholars and readers have harshly criticized him for this decision.)

Mad Girl’s Love Song was much more fun to read than I expected. Wilson seems to have that lovely talent for bringing his subject alive. Reading about Sylvia Plath as a teenager and college student made me think so much of my grandma, who was also a college student in the mid 1950’s, an era that seems to alien to me yet also somehow at the same time, familiar. Wilson also focuses in more on Plath’s poetry and her creative process. One of the most fascinating things to me about Sylvia Plath is how much she saw her life and her art as connected. She seemed to be deeply engaged in her own experience, which she was constantly transforming into poetry and short stories. Artists often draw from their own lives, but the bond between art and reality seems to be so much stronger, even elemental for Plath. The border between them seems hardly to exist at all. The way she interprets and assembles her experience is what makes her such an excellent artist. Wilson explores how this worked for her.

I think both Rollyson and Wilson both have new and interesting points things to say about Plath’s life and work. While both drawing on previous Plath scholarship, Rollyson has chosen to zoom out and take a wider focus of her life while Wilson has zoomed in on her earlier development as an artist. Both are worth a look. However, Sylvia Plath’s poetry has had so much more impact on me as a reader than anything I’ve ever read about her life. Her poetry has this beautiful energy and absolutely haunting pulse to it that you absolutely must experience. If you haven’t read any of her poetry, start there. To me Plath’s poetry is most deserving of our attention. These biographies are a nice aside, in the meantime.  Δ


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