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Sylvia Plath: An Exchange

In response to:

A Poet and Her Myths from the September 28, 1989 issue

To the Editors:

At the center, first page, of A. Alvarez’s review of Bitter Fame [NYR, September 28] you reprint a photograph of Plath as she looked in her final year at Smith, in conversation with a sprightly, middle-aged Marianne Moore. The implication is that the line of leading American women poets runs straight from one to the other. In fact, Marianne Moore took a dim view of Plath’s poetry, and in 1958 counselled her not to be “so grisly.” Of Plath’s macabre poem, “Moonrise,” set in a cemetery, she commented “I only brush away the flies.”

Alvarez’s review, blindly unfair as it is to the painstaking treatment of Plath’s poetry in Bitter Fame, has helped me to distinguish two strands in her posthumous mythology. One, psychological and political, relates to the identification many people still make with the persecuted woman of their imagination, the helpless victim of “patriarchal society.” Feminists who adopt this view find in Plath’s tragic suicide an apologia for their own survival. They cling to and try to take possession both of her life and her writings, as if by creating a brilliant script and then dying as the heroine of it Plath had sacrificially performed the deathrite attendant upon the “rebirth” of female identity in the later years of this century.

The other, to me, more insidious strand in Plath’s hagiography is rooted in 19th century Romanticism’s surely outmoded doctrine of the sacrosanct “genius.” Latter-day Romantics persist in regarding Plath’s stunning poetry as a reason for elevating her wholly beyond the reach of human censure. Plath becomes, in such a view, the torchbearer of despairing individualism in a society that can only behave brutally to the sensitive and gifted. To Alvarez—who in a popular book made no secret of his personal failure to resolve his own psychodrama through suicide—Plath has become the scapegoat of justified self-destructive impulses. He elects her to epitomize all that is heroically undertaken in extremist art, and appoints himself, a lesser apostle, to be guardian of her sacred flame.

My object in writing Bitter Fame was to reveal in plain language a Sylvia Plath many of her friends attest to recognizing: a protected, middle-class, American girl of the 1950s, spoiled at home and at school because of her intelligence, exceptional industry and anxiousness to please. The heady idealism, the vanity, the ambition, the competitiveness and underlying self-alienation so voluminously explored in her journals and letters were attitudes I, too, together with many of Plath’s contemporaries, unconsciously adopted in our teens and twenties. Most of us have grown up to be more than a little ashamed of the rapacious self-centeredness of our salad days. In Bitter Fame I make gentle fun of Plath’s youthful absurdities—sympathetically, I think—as Plath herself might have today, had she lived to look back at them.

That she could have lived and laughed, however, seems—alas—improbable. The whole burden of my book is to show how this supergifted but psychologically wounded girl of the 1950s was, in a way she herself brilliantly perceived, incapable of making those constant adjustments to other people that survival in any culture, at any time, depends upon. Romantics, short of humour and full of evangelical righteousness, rarely see that a little levity with regard to the self-importance of any artist, however marvelous, is essential if a balance is to be struck between reality and fantasy.

What hovered-over, middle-class kid ever doubts that the world is there to take care of her? Romanticism, for societies as well as for individuals, represents a stage of adolescence in which, like Sylvia Plath in her last poems, the “self” cries out in despair when confronted with its individual impotence. I believe that artists today can no longer afford the luxury of splendid aloofness or untouchably tender self-indulgence. Willy-nilly we’ve got to accept with the rest of society that all “selves” are minute parts of a living culture, and that the human species is a precious, precarious flowering in an interdependent ecological chain. Nature owes us nothing, and the world, uncultivated and unattended, will turn us out into the universe in an uncaring flash if we do not work together, in W.H. Auden’s phrase, unglamorously to rebuild the walls of the polis.

Anne Stevenson
Durham, England

To the Editors:

A. Alvarez’s review of Bitter Fame, Anne Stevenson’s biography of Sylvia Plath, is very odd. There’s a rambling recapitulation of his early writings on Plath’s life and work, then a near championing of Linda Wagner Martin’s earlier Plath biography (that Ted Hughes thought “a travesty”), and a cursory dismissal of Bitter Fame as “350 pages of disparagement.” Very offensively, Alvarez ridicules the book’s contributors, implies their accounts are doubtful, and says that negative material about Plath should have been swept under the carpet anyway. Presumably because I both gave my memories of Sylvia, and helped Anne Stevenson generally with the book, Alvarez does his best to discredit me by quoting at length Ms. Wagner Martin’s self promoting account of her dealings with me (as agent to the Plath Estate). He seems unaware that I’ve publically repudiated all her points several times over (letters to The New York Times [March 27, 88]; TLS [June 17, 88] and The Independent [March 16, 88]).

Alvarez has been absent from regular poetry reviewing for nearly 20 years now, and the attitudes in this review seem stuck at where he left off. He has nothing new here except an eccentric (and baseless) theory about the origin of the “voice” in two of Plath’s late poems. What seems to be operating, is an outraged refusal to accept that Sylvia Plath had sides to her Alvarez himself did not write about in his 1971 memoir of her. But why should he have? Plath liked him, but they only shared a few scattered meetings.

It may be the nature of Sylvia Plath’s post-humous fame, or the exalted mix of hope and doom she projected, that has such a hypnotic effect on some of her admirers. To find Alvarez fiercely proprietorial in the defence of a sort of idolatry of her, in the style of the feminists, is nevertheless dismaying (though Alvarez deplores here the libbers’ views on Plath).

In 1989, 26 years after her death—surely a decent moratorium—any serious biography of Plath has to take on board her divided selves. Yet Alvarez actually says: “It might be reasonable to suppose that the agent to the estate of a best-selling author would want a biography that portrayed its subject in a good light.” Wouldn’t the light of truth throw a clearer beam on any real quest to understand Sylvia Plath? And are some of the accounts in the book really so surprising? Sylvia’s own agonized Journals record her valiant wrestlings with inner daemons that inevitably had to have their outward expression. (Though it does seem possible that Mr. Alvarez hasn’t read her Journals.)

Alvarez feels it was “tasteless” to include Dido Merwin’s memoir. Yet many reviewers have found it one of the most illuminating things in the book, and, like all the main contributors to Bitter Fame, Dido Merwin knew Plath a great deal better than Alvarez ever did. The facts in her piece were double checked (by the poet W.S. Merwin and Ted Hughes). Beyond that she has voiced a strong, clear assessment of Plath, much as Alvarez did in his memoir, and it’s hard to see why hers is not, at the very least, as valid as his.

I should point out that the mason replaced Sylvia’s repaired gravestone some time ago. Also Alvarez’s conviction that Bitter Fame was “commissioned by the Plath Estate” is incorrect. I myself suggested the book to Anne Stevenson (I am not a party to the Estate). Olwyn Hughes
London, England

A Alvarez replies:

I find it hard to believe that Ms. Stevenson is quite as tone-deaf to her own prose as she implies. None of the many snide comments that I quoted in my review of Bitter Fame seem to me at all witty and if Ms. Stevenson seriously believes that all she was doing was making fun of Plath’s “youthful absurdities” and indulging in “a little levity with regard to the self-importance of any artist,” then, in Dorothy Parker’s words, “I am Marie of Roumania.” And if it is a symptom of nineteenth-century Romanticism to expect a biographer to show respect and sympathy when writing about a major talent, then I am happy to be called a Romantic. Ms. Hughes appears not to have read what I wrote. I forbore to ridicule the contributors because ridicule did not seem the appropriate response. On the contrary, I was appalled by the degree to which so many witnesses for the prosecution—and they overwhelmingly out-numbered those for the defense—seemed intent on belittling Plath. I found this surprising in the only biography that has yet been written with the full cooperation of the Plath estate. “Three-hundred-and-fifty pages of disparagement” remains, I believe, an accurate and restrained assessment of Bitter Fame.

A properly rounded biography of Sylvia Plath, taking account of her personal failings as well as her strengths, would indeed be welcome. But Bitter Fame concentrates almost exclusively on the failings, misses no opportunity to cut Plath down to size, credits her invariably with the worst motives, and generally bad-mouths someone who, alas, can no longer answer back for herself.

Ms. Hughes is correct on two counts. I have only read the sanitized version of Plath’s journals that was published in the US—though not, oddly enough, in Britain. Like other readers, I was not privileged to see the crucial journals of the last two years of Plath’s life before they disappeared. If these journals are in fact still in existence, their publication is long overdue.

She is also correct in saying that I knew Plath relatively briefly and saw her when she was on her best behavior. But this seems to me an advantage since my interest now, as in 1971 when I wrote about her in The Savage God, is in Plath as a poet rather than as a personality.

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