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Reviewing Sylvia Plath

In response to:

Sylvia Plath's Apotheosis from the June 24, 1976 issue

To the Editors:

I was pleased to see my critical biography, Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness, sandwiched between Aurelia Plath’s highly selective edition of her daughter’s dull letters and Judith Kroll’s Hughes-sanctioned study of Plath’s exciting literature [NYR, June 24]. It gave an immediate weight to my poor unauthorized product, even if Karl Miller’s “review” was superficial enough to merit inclusion in a Book of the Month Club newsletter.

Before touching upon personal injuries, let me raise a protest against the shabby treatment of K.T. Burton and Valerie Pitt, two fine scholars and teachers whom Mr. Miller needled under the table for their negative comments about Ted Hughes. While snidely exposing their presumed bitchiness, he merely revealed that he himself swings a mean purse. These two congenial academics represent the kind of cool female perceptiveness once celebrated by Agatha Christie, which is why their observations possess an almost inhuman clarity that biographers tend to love—and vague reviewers detest.

So much for altruism.

What was most annoying about Mr. Miller’s “review,” which seemed more incompetent than deliberately unkind, was its condescending air of languid sophistication. After torpedoing my book with faint Grub Street praise—“breezy, knowing, and sometimes sensible”—he sets about bemoaning my alledged predilection for gossip, never suggesting where else a researcher, an unauthorized researcher, might garner his information, if not from personal interviews, published testimony and the like. He also implies that my critical biography would have somehow gained greater credence if I had only read and used Plath’s minor review of Lord Byron’s Wife in The New Statesman. I did indeed read the review, but felt that my extensive analysis of the crucial daughter-mother relationship, along with detailed interpretations of The Bell Jar and several poems and stories pertinent to that relationship, was more than sufficient. But Mr. Miller does get a gold star for mentioning the review, and another for finding two factual errors amid the plackets.

The game, Mr. Miller’s game of one-upmanship, is evident throughout. He wishes to demolish Mrs. Plath’s already discredited volume of letters, which is like demolishing a gingerbread mausoleum, and then do in Miss Kroll’s pretentious tome as well, all the while demonstrating his intellectual chic. He is droll and he is urbane. There are cute references to Marlon Brando and On the Waterfront. But nowhere does Mr. Miller ever admit that the bulk of his literary and biographical insights were lifted from my book, including his final conviction that Plath was too sane to believe in her own mythology and that “the life went out of her with her sting”—although the allusion to Keats and his belly is a nice flourish.

I suppose such lapses were inevitable from a reviewer so reluctant to take on the job in the first place, his arm having been twisted by your magazine’s necrophagous fascination with English playing fields. Perhaps I should simply stiffen my upper lip and thank Mr. Miller for having almost reviewed my book.

Edward Butscher

Briarwood, New York

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