Reviews | January 31, 2014

Sylvia Plath: A Fifty-Year Retrospective
By: Andrew Mulvania

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, 50th Anniversary Edition, Faber & Faber, 2013, pp., £7.99, paper
American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath by Carl Rollyson, St. Martin’s Press, 2013, pp., $29.99
Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted by Andrew Wilson, Scribner, 2013, pp., $30.00
Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953 by Elizabeth Winder, Harper, 2013, pp., $25.99

February 11, 2013, marked the fiftieth anniversary of the dramatic suicide of Sylvia Plath. The year also saw the publication of three new biographies of the poet as well as the release of a new “50th Anniversary Edition” of her one novel, The Bell Jar, published a few weeks before her death; the latter sports the controversial cover image of a heavily lipsticked woman dabbing at her face with a compact. It is telling that publishers have chosen to “commemorate” Plath with a spate of new books on the anniversary of her death rather than her birth, for it is her death, with its lurid details—gas oven; milk and bread left out for her two young children still sleeping upstairs; towels stuffed in the cracks under the taped doors of kitchen and nursery—that has threatened to overshadow her literary achievement.

Plath herself must share some of the responsibility for this emphasis on death in connection with her work, as biographer Carl Rollyson observes when he writes, of an earlier suicide attempt by Plath at age twenty:

Sylvia’s disappearance and discovery [under the crawl space of her house] were widely reported, and she became news in a way she never intended but which had a remarkable impact on her vocation as a writer. Eventually, she would realize that dying had become part of her true subject matter.

If it’s true that Plath, in her brief life, recognized the importance of the specter of death—particularly her own—to her work, it’s certainly true of publishers who’ve chosen to capitalize on her famous suicide with ghoulish promotion of yet more biographies of a poet whose literary reputation, though secure, is not yet settled and rests largely on the poems in a single volume: her second and final collection, Ariel.

The basic facts of Plath’s life have been well rehearsed by previous biographers: there was the long shadow cast by her stern, German father’s needless early death from self-misdiagnosed diabetes a week and a half after Plath’s eighth birthday. Otto Plath was a scientist—a biologist and Boston University professor specializing in bees—who should have known better. And there were the often unwelcome intrusions of self-sacrificing mother Aurelia’s efforts to promote in her talented daughter an unhealthy perfectionism, perhaps as compensation for the sacrifices she had made on behalf of Sylvia and her brother, Warren, following her husband’s early death. The first signs of a fissure in this edifice of achievement was Plath’s suicide attempt in the summer of 1953, following what had appeared to be a successful internship at Mademoiselle. She’d grown depressed after failing to gain a spot in Frank O’Connor’s short-story class at Harvard Summer School. A few years later came the intense courtship, marriage and artistic collaboration between Plath and English poet Ted Hughes, whom Plath met while on a Fulbright at Cambridge University in 1956, followed closely by Hughes’s adultery with Assia Wevill. Wevill would later kill herself and her daughter, also by gas oven. Through it all, there was the steady, even meteoric development of Plath’s poetic gifts, resulting in the astonishing poetry—much of it written in the last months of her life—that would justify such an outpouring of biographical attention.

Previous biographies include Edward Butscher’s Sylvia Plath: Methods and Madness (1976); Linda Wagner-Martin’s Sylvia Plath: A Biography (1988); English poet Anne Stevenson’s Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath (1989), which has the dubious distinction of being the only biography “authorized” by Hughes’s family; and Paul Alexander’s Rough Magic: A Biography of Sylvia Plath (1991). Still other works, such as Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (1994) and Diane Middlebrook’s Her Husband: Hughes and Plath—a Marriage (2003), focus more narrowly on the Plath-Hughes relationship. The three new biographies discussed here each chart their own course in navigating the thorny landscape of what Hughes, before his own death in 1998, derisively came to refer to as “Plathiana.” It should be noted that it is the Hughes estate, and in particular Hughes’s still-living sister, Olwyn, that have been largely responsible for making that landscape so “thorny.”

Of the three biographies reviewed here, Carl Rollyson’s American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath is the only one that attempts to cover the entire life; the other two focus more closely on periods of Plath’s life that may not have received as much previous attention. Rollyson acknowledges that he’s treading on well-covered ground by the somewhat presumptuous decision to confine basic facts of Plath’s life to paragraph-length headings at the beginning of each chapter. The headings provide a quick chronology of important events in Plath’s life and accompanying dates for the years covered in that chapter. He justifies this decision in his author’s note, saying that rereading earlier Plath biographies led him to dispense with “a good deal of the boilerplate most biographers feel compelled to supply.” One wonders what this means when applied to such an original and complex woman as Plath. Can it mean, as Rollyson indicates, not discussing Plath’s parents in detail (“I say little, for example, about the backgrounds of Plath’s parents”) or skimming over her years at Smith (“I don’t describe much of Smith College or its history”)? In the case of the former, Plath herself—to a greater extent even than confessional-era contemporaries such as her onetime teacher Robert Lowell and acquaintance Anne Sexton—made extensive use of their lives in her writing, psychologizing and mythologizing them at will in important poems such as “The Disquieting Muses,” “Full Fathom Five,” “Electra on Azalea Path,” “Colossus,” the Bee Poems sequence and “Daddy” and writing heavily autobiographical fiction in The Bell Jar and short stories published in Seventeen, Mademoiselle and elsewhere. In the case of the latter, the time at Smith was a crucial and formative period in Plath’s life, confirming her in her already partially realized goal of becoming a writer by introducing her to the benefactress of her scholarship at the college, novelist Olive Higgins Prouty, and indirectly leading her to Dr. Ruth Beuscher, the therapist she saw after her post-Mademoiselle breakdown (Prouty paid for her treatment at the famous Boston psychiatric hospital McLean). In any case, this crucial biographical information could hardly be said to be “boilerplate.”

Rollyson’s tone is breezy and at times unctuously familiar, as some reviewers have noted. Here’s Terry Castle writing for the New York Review of Books: “Rollyson’s book bounces along, jalopy-like, at a madcap pace. No slack metaphor, shameless cliché, or laughable anachronism can slow the authorial juggernaut.” Rollyson also develops the intrusive habit of alternately referring to Plath by the family nicknames “Sivvy,” “Siv” or “Syl” (“Then her father died, and the family moved upcountry, sealing Sivvy off from the enchantments of childhood”; “Siv was six years old when war came to Europe, old enough for a precocious child with a foreign father to realize the world was full of villains”; “Syl was not alone. She went to school with the children of immigrants.”), often on the very same page, as in the examples just cited. Aside from violating the sense of consistency or scholarly objectivity one expects from biography, this lack of formality feels mannered and has the paradoxical effect of distancing us from Plath rather than bringing us closer.

In contrast to his informal tone, however, Rollyson’s chapter titles— indeed, the title and approach of the entire book—reach for a gravitas and earnestness that they are often unable to deliver. Plath’s own self-mythologizing in her work seems quite natural in comparison. Titles like “Primordial Child of Time,” “Queen of the Dead,” “Queen of the Ocean” and “The Universal Mother” imply a narrative of Plath’s rise to near-mythic status. If she would eventually achieve that status, Rollyson’s chatty emphasis on the day-to-day details of Plath’s life simply can’t show us how. Rollyson takes his lead from Plath’s interest in the figure of Isis from D. H. Lawrence’s work The Man Who Died, but the image of the poet that Rollyson provides often seems more the tawdry stuff of tabloids.

This may be due in part to Rollyson’s repeated and frustrating comparisons of Plath to the figure of Marilyn Monroe, comparisons based largely on the fact that Rollyson has also written a biography of Monroe. Examples of such arbitrary analogies include lines like the following: “Sounding very much like Marilyn Monroe, who would soon wed Arthur Miller, Plath [searching for a male partner] called herself a princess awaiting her white knight, employing the same imagery Monroe used in sessions with her psychiatrist.” These comparisons are purely speculative and add little to Rollyson’s implied argument that Plath saw her own life in terms comparable to those of the film icon Marilyn Monroe. But their fame was not equivalent. Though certainly ambitious and well published in her short lifetime in major venues such as theNew Yorker, Mademoiselle and elsewhere, Plath died having published only a single book of poems, The Colossus, and a novel that appeared only a few weeks before her death.

In Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted, Andrew Wilson manages to avoid Rollyson’s tendency to reach for the mythologizing “master narrative” of Plath’s life, choosing to focus on striking details and well-placed anecdotes often supplied by firsthand testimony from friends and lovers who, as the dust jacket advertises, “have never spoken openly about Plath before.” The book is peppered liberally with such revealing testimony, often used as “real-time” reaction to some specific moment Wilson has just discussed, as for example in his conversation with Melvin Woody, professor emeritus of philosophy at Connecticut College. In an interview Wilson conducted in April 2011, Woody recalls having drinks with Plath “in a couple of bars around Fifty-second Street and Third Avenue” after the two bumped into one another at the New York City Ballet during Plath’s month as aMademoiselle intern in the summer of 1953:

I remember that night she was incandescent.… She was radiant—when she was “up,” she really glowed. We had a wonderful time that night—we were soul mates—but she was in a manic or hypomanic phase. I first met her because she wrote to me when I was a senior in high school—she had read my poetry, which I had sent to her roommate Marcia Brown. She said she liked my poems—I didn’t think they were that good—but from that time on we had similar enthusiasms.

Such recollections have a poignant effect in context, in part because of the contrast between the importance of the recollected event to the individual and its ultimate significance for the “Plath narrative” and in part because they compel one to reflect that these individuals lived to witness and come to terms with Plath’s posthumous rise to fame while she herself did not: they are still alive, which means Plath could have been as well, had things turned out differently. It’s this ability to bring Plath into vivid focus, almost as though she were still alive, that characterizes Wilson’s book.

An example of the difference in approach between Wilson’s biography and Rollyson’s can be seen by comparing the two writers’ accounts of the fateful first meeting between Plath and Hughes on February 25, 1956. First, Rollyson:

They were shouting to one another above the noise, and the first words Hughes heard from her were from his own poetry. “You like?” Hughes asked as he backed her into another room and sloshed some brandy into her glass. Then he kissed her—“bang smash on the mouth,” ripping her hair band and earrings while barking, “I shall keep …” When he kissed her on the neck, she retaliated with a long, hard bite on his cheek that drew a line of blood.

And now for the same scene as recounted by Wilson:

After she had quoted some lines from his poem “The Casualty,” Hughes had shouted back over the music at her, in a voice that made her think he might be Polish, “You like?” Did she want brandy, he had asked. “Yes,” she yelled back, at which point he led her into another room. Hughes slammed the door and started pouring her glassfuls of brandy, which Plath tried to drink, but she didn’t manage to find her mouth.… Then, suddenly, Hughes leaned toward her and kissed her “bang smash on the mouth.” As he did so he ripped the red hair band from her head and ravished her with such force that her silver earrings came unclipped from her ears. He moved down to kiss her neck, and Plath bit him “Long and hard” on the cheek; when the couple emerged from the room, blood was pouring down his face.

Wilson’s instinct for storytelling, scene setting and pacing is immediately apparent, making Rollyson’s prose seem workmanlike by comparison. But what’s most significant in these parallel examples (both drawn from Plath’s journal entry of the event, recorded the next day), particularly as it bears on the art of biography, is Wilson’s attention to detail: that the poem from which Plath had quoted lines was Hughes’s “The Casualty”; that the hair band, mentioned in both accounts, is “red,” the earrings “silver”; that Hughes “slammed the door” and poured “glassfuls of brandy,” which Plath “couldn’t manage to drink.”

What Wilson recognizes is that it’s precisely these small and humanizing details that draw readers to biography in the first place. This awareness makes Mad Girl’s Love Song a fine and compelling portrait of Plath. One could cite, for example, Wilson’s anecdote of a young Sylvia on a walk home from school spotting a blue jay pecking at a sparrow fallen from the nest. Wilson tells us how, “without a moment’s hesitation,” Plath rescued the bird, took it home, fed it pieces of worms on a toothpick, named it “Dickie” and made a nest for it “out of an old strawberry box and a piece of flannel.” It’s not the typical image that comes to mind when reflecting on the poet who penned such lines as “Daddy, Daddy, you bastard, I’m through,” or “I eat men like air,” and yet it’s precisely the kind of image one wants when trying to gain a full understanding of the person who could come to write such lines. For his part, Rollyson simply doesn’t have time for such details. In his breakneck gallop through the Plath archive, he forgets that it’s exactly these moments that most interest readers.

One way in which this attention to detail can sometimes seem overdone, though, concerns Wilson’s nearly obsessive interest in the vicissitudes of Plath’s romantic life. Wilson paints a portrait of a Plath frustrated with ’50s-era conventions controlling the free expression of female sexual desire:

We have to remember that Sylvia was a young woman overloaded with a huge store of sexual energy that she was not allowed to express, living in a society that wanted to contain female eroticism within the confines of marriage. The anger that she felt about this—and the rage that she was not born a man, free to sow innumerable wild oats before settling down—would find expression throughout her journals.

There are moments where Wilson’s biography begins to feel like a revolving door of young men Plath auditioned for the role of future husband, even as part of her rejected such a future. And so we read of her waxing and waning relationships with Dick Norton, immortalized as Buddy Willard in The Bell Jar; Gordon Lameyer, to whom she was unofficially and briefly engaged; Myron Lotz; Philip McCurdy; and Richard Sassoon, the one man besides Hughes about whom she was quite serious. One particularly compelling male figure in Plath’s life whom Wilson discusses at length is Eddie Cohen, the young man who became her correspondent, confessor and counselor when he took the bold step of writing to her after reading her story “And Summer Will Not Come Again” in the August 1950 issue of Seventeen. Cohen was a twenty-one-year-old living in Chicago—and an English major—who would serve for a time as one of Plath’s most insightful literary and personal critics. He would occasionally overstep in an attempt to be a substitute boyfriend, as with an ill-conceived trip to visit her in Northampton during her spring break at Smith College. What Wilson gets right about Plath’s relationships with male companions prior to meeting Ted Hughes is that she was a young woman of her times, expected to actively search for a husband in the pursuit of a conventional marriage. Perhaps it makes sense to devote so much space to Plath’s dating life given the truncated scope of the book. But in the end, Wilson also adequately addresses the ways in which Plath was anything but conventional, focusing extensively on her unabashed literary ambitions (she loved to greet new friends by showing them her pile of rejection letters, which she felt demonstrated her determination and drive); her well-known struggles with mental illness; and the paradoxical combination of the defiant feminism often expressed in her work and a similarly strong impulse toward domesticity in her personal life.

Elizabeth Winder’s Pain, Parties, Work is a curious combination of Plath biography, historical context and epigraphic callouts—with words or phrases such as “Pageboy,” “Red Lipstick,” “Beauty”—throughout the text defining different aspects of the lives of Plath and the elite group of twenty young women who served as guest editors in the high-gloss milieu of Madison Avenue and the Mademoiselle offices in the month of June 1953. The “biography” reads at times like a novel, which is fitting, since the experience it describes would become the subject of Plath’s The Bell Jar. At other times it reads like the magazine whose atmosphere it is meant to describe. This genre-bending quality is not entirely surprising, given that Winder, who earned an MFA in creative writing from George Mason University, is also the author of a collection of poetry.

The title borrows a phrase from Plath’s own journals characterizing her twenty-six-day stint as a Mademoiselle intern. In her book, Winder details a whirlwind month of lavish rooftop parties, including a crabmeat-and-avocado-salad luncheon at an ad agency that led to ptomaine poisoning for Plath and some of the other women. There are scheduled outings to a Yankees game, the UN, the ballet and other classic Manhattan “musts,” and sweltering nights at the Barbizon Hotel that led to Plath’s slow simmer toward the post-Mademoiselle breakdown and suicide attempt when she returned to her mother’s house in Wellesley, Massachusetts.

As Wilson does in Mad Girl’s Love Song, Winder writes about the bevy of young men who surrounded Plath while she was a student at Smith and during the month that she and the nineteen other interns were taking in New York City. She depicts a young woman who was as unabashed in her attraction to the opposite sex as she was in her literary ambition:

Actually, Sylvia lit up around men and flirted without restraint. She had that “bloom” so often credited to youth, and a large gold personality that bubbled, then boiled over. Some of her mannerisms were almost aristocratic, whether carte-blanching her way through a debutante ball or picking beans on a farm in Masachusetts. She was bold like the perfumes of the day, gaudy brews like Youth Dew full of amber and aldehyde—big bossy perfumes that took up space.

Though Winder’s prose may at times reach too far toward the poetic, the image she gives us is a humanizing one of a young woman fully immersed in experience, greedily gulping it down like the caviar she was accused of hogging at a meet-and-greet lunch for the interns. As is also the case in Wilson’s book, this image is bolstered by quotations from private author interviews and correspondence with the other still-living interns, including Janet Burroway, novelist and author of the popular short fiction-writing manual Writing Fiction.

All three biographies provide a backward glance at Plath’s life, including the inevitable emphasis on the suicide and its meaning for her life and legacy. At the same time, the books hint at a continued life for Plath through the voices of those who knew her. Rollyson’s work, in particular, has a fascinating, if pedantically titled last chapter, “In the Temple of Isis: Among the Hierophants,” that chronicles the fate of Plath’s reputation beginning immediately after her suicide in February 1963 and continuing through the publication of her final poems in the Hughes-edited collection Ariel in 1965. It was the book that demonstrated the searing immediacy and power of her work. Rollyson covers the wrangling between Aurelia Plath, on the one hand, and Olwyn and Ted Hughes on the other, over the American publication of The Bell Jar, which triggered what Hughes, writing to a friend, would call “Sylvia mania.” The chapter also addresses the suicide of Assia Wevill and her daughter by Hughes, contributing to the 1970s-era feminist backlash against Hughes as a kind of misogynist monster. It details the emergence of the first full-length biography of Plath by Butscher in 1976 (carefully censored by Olwyn) and subsequent biographies by Wagner-Martin, Stevenson (some felt her work had nearly been coauthored by Olywn), Alexander, Ronald Hayman and Malcom—all of whom were hampered by an inability to quote from Plath’s work. It covers Ted Hughes’s own poetic response to his relationship with Plath with the publication of Birthday Letters shortly before his death in 1998. The 2004 publication of the restored edition of Plath’s own version of Ariel, introduced by her daughter, Frieda, gave Plath a last word, as was only fitting. The suicide of Plath’s son, Nicholas, formerly a professor in the School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences at the University of Alaska, on March 16, 2009, serves as a sad coda.

For me, the Plath who endures—outside the biographies, the Plath vs. Hughes blame-game, the dramatic details of her suicide and her morbid fascination with death—is the Plath of the poems. Not poems like her final poem, “Edge” (“The woman is perfected / Her dead / Body wears the smile of accomplishment”), however spare and powerful it may be; rather, it is the Plath of poems like “Wintering,” one of five in the sequence of Bee Poems that grew out of her experience as an amateur beekeeper while living in the English countryside at the house called Court Green she and Hughes had purchased in Devon in 1961. “Wintering,” and the other Bee Poems, were written and conceived of as a sequence in the fall of 1962, only a few months before her suicide, as Plath’s marriage with Hughes was dissolving. In the poem, Plath describes, in almost funereal terms, the bees locked in their coffinlike box for the winter, yet she ends the poem—after a poignant series of questions suggesting the uncertainty of their future and, by association, her own (questions such as, “Will the hive survive, will the gladiolas / Succeed in banking their fires / To enter another year? / What will they taste of, the Christmas roses?”)—with the lines “The bees are flying. They taste the spring.” Though “tasting the spring” of fifty years ago was something Plath herself, as a woman, finally could not do, her brilliance and promise are perennially renewed with each new biography and each new reader drawn to her life and work.

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