Sylvia Plath’s Apotheosis

Letters Home: Correspondence 1950-1963

by Sylvia Plath, selected and edited by Aurelia Schober Plath
Harper & Row, 502 pp., $12.50

Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness

by Edward Butscher
Seabury/Continuum, 388 pp., $15.95

Chapters in a Mythology: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath

by Judith Kroll
Harper & Row, 320 pp., $12.50 (To be published in July.)

These three books about Sylvia Plath have all been coming out within the space of a few months. They are not the first books on this subject, and they will not be the last. Ever since her death in 1963 she has been the goddess of a cult, whose homage has tended, in a romantic spirit, to represent her as a victim of the hard world that poets must inhabit: more recently, and less disarmingly, it has also tended to represent her as a victim of the cruelties and deprivations to which women have been subjected by the supremacy of the male. When her former husband, the poet Ted Hughes, appears in public, women yell abuse at him, ask how Sylvia is keeping, and ask about her suicide. There’s a woman’s poem which refers to Ted’s friend and Sylvia’s rival, Assia Gutman, who also committed suicide: “Hughes has one more gassed out life on his mind.”

Such displays, which are part of a new barbarism to which Western societies have become accustomed, will not be cut short by these books, if only because books have comparatively little to do with the matter. Sylvia Plath was amused that English boys should think of her as “a second Virginia Woolf,” and Virginia Woolf, to whom she felt “very akin,” has lately been taken up in the same way, by the same sort of people: the realities of the relationship between each woman and the man who loved her have been violently abridged or drowned in anathema.

I shall look at the three books mainly from a biographical point of view. Ms. Kroll is opposed to the biographical approach to Plath’s work, which is assimilated in her book to mythic patterns, and construed as swept up, in the end, into a flight from biography, a bid for transcendence. For that reason among others, the book can be considered very interesting biographically. Sylvia was born in Massachusetts in 1932, the daughter of Otto and Aurelia Plath, who were respectively of German and Austrian stock. If she was a “second-generation achiever”—an expression Edward Butscher makes use of—then her parents were achievers too.

Otto was a biologist and an expert on bumblebees, which were later to buzz in his daughter’s bonnet. Aurelia, who had been his pupil, went on to become a teacher herself. In Letters Home, she explains that her husband grew hypochondriacal, a briefcased recluse, who declined to go to doctors, though ailing and seeming to feel he had cancer. By the time diabetes was diagnosed it was too late to save him, and in 1940, having lost a leg, he suffered a pulmonary embolism and died. Sylvia was eight. Two years later the mother and her two children moved to Wellesley. What it cost her to enable the family to survive and prosper is something that Aurelia has perhaps found it difficult to assess, though it is clear that biographers will be ready to enlighten her.

Sylvia loved it at Smith—“as I…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.