This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the suicide of the poet Sylvia Plath (1932–1963), and as one might expect given the sensational details of her short and appalling life, both her US and UK publishers are celebrating the occasion with a kind of vulpine festivity. Faber has just issued an “anniversary” edition of The Bell Jar (1963)—the harrowing autobiographical novel Plath had just published at the time of her death—and has been marketing it, distastefully enough, as “chick lit” avant la lettre. A clutch of new biographies (including the two reviewed here) are likewise among the morbid tie-ins. “Sylvia Plath may be the most fascinating literary figure of the twentieth century”—so the publisher’s copy for one of them gushes. “Even now, fifty years after her death, writers, students, and critics alike are enthralled by the details of her 1963 suicide and her volatile relationship with Ted Hughes.” Such ambulance-chasing fans no doubt also dote on Frida Kahlo’s near-fatal impaling by the tram rail.
Yet however unsavory, the ongoing interest in Plath’s story—Otto the bogeyman “Daddy” and smother-mother Aurelia; the precocity and self-destructiveness; the breakdowns and electroshocks; Cambridge and poetry and the tumultuous marriage to Hughes; the mental illness and scarifying death (she gassed herself one bitter London winter morning, her two small children asleep in the next room)—may reflect something rather more than mere readerly voyeurism. Five decades after her death Plath continues to provoke inflaming conflict and scandal—and no more corrosively than among those who care most intensely about her. Nothing about her life or legacy seems wholesome or resolved.
The world of Plath biography is an especially crowded and rancorous one, having been distinguished since the 1970s by fractured friendships, vicious public feuds between members of the Plath and Hughes families, accusations of censorship and arguments over withheld papers, and enough free-spouting venom and spleen to scar anybody so foolish as to offer an opinion on any of it. In 1994 Janet Malcolm published a brief, charmingly deadpan book—The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes—on the various legal and personal battles then raging between rival Plath biographers and their backers.
Yet so much new Plath-related material has appeared since 1994 that Malcolm would have to write another book simply to update the first. There is not just Birthday Letters—the muddled and wandering book of confessional poems by Hughes addressed to Plath before he died in 1998—but also a trove of papers from Hughes’s personal archive. Then there is Karen V. Kukil’s meticulous collection of Plath’s unexpurgated journals (2000) and Elaine Feinstein’s 2001 biography of Hughes. Mad Girl’s Love Song by Andrew Wilson and American Isis by Carl Rollyson demand attention, not least for drawing on much of this previously unpublished and neglected Plath material. (Rollyson, it should be said, offers a nice quick-and-nasty summary of the strife among biographers in the last chapter and appendices of American Isis.)
Perhaps inevitably, given the central and irredeemable moral horror of the poet’s suicide, the core struggle has taken the form of a Manichaean and disturbingly personal propaganda war. On the one side are the myriad supporters of Plath, who characterize her as a mentally frail woman-genius, cruelly deserted by her philandering Bluebeard-husband. (Hughes, it is true, had been unfaithful to Plath multiple times during their marriage, and late in 1962—just a few months before Plath’s suicide—had abandoned her and their two children for the young German-Jewish-Russian writer Assia Wevill. Wevill would also gas herself to death, in 1969.)
Ranged on the other side are the equally partisan supporters of Hughes—who cast him as a caring, much-abused spouse and father, indentured to misery for decades by the vicious and destructive acts of his lunatic, dead wife. Questions of blame—however crudely formed—have obsessed everyone involved for years. Which of them—Plath or Hughes—was more responsible for the tragic disasters they suffered? Who more the victim of their catastrophic coupling?
Major Sylvia advocates over the decades have included the poet’s mother, Aurelia, who outlived her daughter by thirty-four years and never ceased to promote Plath’s genius and literary reputation; a sizable and at one point vocal contingent of Plath’s old Smith College teachers, roommates, and “pre-Ted” boyfriends; Ruth Beuscher, the young psychiatrist who oversaw Plath’s treatment at McLean’s Hospital near Boston after her failed suicide attempt of 1953; the poet-critic A. Alvarez, who met and befriended Plath after she arrived in Britain in 1956 and later wrote about her in his classic study of suicide, The Savage God; the early pro-Plath biographers Linda Wagner-Martin and Ronald Hayman; and a small horde of female-chauvinist would-be avengers who while Hughes was alive hounded him relentlessly with accusations of de facto wife-murder.
Hardly less bellicose, however, have been various Hughes defenders. In this camp Hughes himself may be counted as a long-standing shadow presence: although he had refused to speak publicly about Plath’s suicide or their marriage before Birthday Letters—being at once protective of his two children and loath to comment on his dead wife while Aurelia Plath was still alive—he apparently sought to manage, if not requite, some of the attacks on him over the years from behind the scenes. Other entrenched Hughes supporters have included his second wife, Carol, who survives him; Frieda Hughes, his (and Plath’s) now-middle-aged artist-daughter; longtime literary friends like the poet W.S. Merwin; and the illustrator (and Hughes collaborator) Leonard Baskin.
Hughes’s most ardent defender by far, however, has always been his older sister and self-confessed Plath-abominator, the colorful and irascible Olwyn Hughes. Now in her eighties, she took over the literary executorship of the Plath and Hughes estate in 1998 after her brother’s death. She has been a polarizing figure in Plath studies—not least (according to her enemies) for having browbeaten Anne Stevenson, who wrote the only “authorized” Plath biography, Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath (1989), into promoting mainly the Hughes family view of Plath. (Stevenson, to be sure, emphasized Sylvia’s mania and shrewishness and, yes, presented Ted Hughes as perhaps more sinned against than sinning.) Suffice it to say that in 2013 it remains Olwyn Hughes’s firm conviction that her late sister-in-law (whom she met in 1956 and claims to have detested from the start) was mentally unstable long before her marriage to Ted, and that she drove her husband away with gorgonish displays of jealousy and abuse.
Given such treacherous circumstances, a would-be Plath biographer must be doughty indeed to enter the fray. Quite apart from the ongoing forensic warfare between the Plath and Hughes contingents, the basic facts of Plath’s life, while deeply bewildering, are hardly a mystery. By my count (and I include the new books here) there are at least fifteen major Plath biographies in English at present—some adversarial in tone, others less so. (Diane Middlebrook’s elegiac Her Husband: Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath—A Marriage, published in 2004, is one of the more balanced and sensible.)
Andrew Wilson and Carl Rollyson both have an advantage over earlier biographers in that two of the major figures in Plath’s story, her mother and Ted Hughes, have now both been dead for more than a decade (Aurelia for almost two) and the number of people who knew and remember Plath shrinks dramatically every year. Armed thus with the new archival material included in these latest biographies, and increasingly buffered by passing years against the noisy and possibly distorting molestations of friends and relatives, are we not finally in a position to judge Plath and her work more dispassionately?
Both of the new lives under discussion repay sympathetic reading. They do not overlap hugely; even perusing them in tandem, one seldom has a feeling of redundancy. Andrew Wilson’s Mad Girl’s Love Song is by far the more sober and deliberate in scope. But he also takes Plath’s story only up through 1956—the year she went to Cambridge on a Fulbright and met and married Hughes. This “life before Ted” conceit makes for an odd, prequel-like effect. The book’s fairly abrupt ending—Sylvia and Ted are careening into wedlock, despite only knowing each other for four months—feels from one angle distinctly perverse, as if the author wished us only to know what the shit was doing before it hit the fan.
The advantage of the limit, of course, is that one’s attention is turned back, sharply enough, to a somewhat less familiar Sylvia (or set of Sylvias). There’s Sylvia the high-strung child of Otto and Aurelia—a well-educated German-Austrian-American couple settled in the 1930s in suburban middle-class New England; Sylvia the passionate teenager caught—after her father’s sudden death in 1940—in a suffocatingly close folie à deux with her now impoverished, now demanding, all-too-intimate mother; Sylvia the maniacally driven honors student, contest winner, and scholarship girl at Smith; Sylvia the charismatic, arrogant, ever more extraordinary young American poet.
Thanks to fresh researches and, indeed, a certain authorial distance, Wilson enriches the information supplied in previous biographies remarkably well at times. Most unsettling in this regard: the gripping, almost cinematic blow-by-blow he devotes to Plath’s disastrous New York summer at Mademoiselle, nervous breakdown, electroshock treatment, and botched suicide attempt of 1953. This last unfolded as a truly hideous three-day affair. Plath crawled into the basement beneath her mother’s house, gulped down several handfuls of Aurelia’s sleeping pills, and fell, like Poe’s Madeline Usher, into a corpse-like stupor for nearly seventy-two hours. Plath somehow cut her head open before lapsing into unconsciousness; and when her younger brother finally discovered her on the third day, she had maggots (“fly spawn attracted to meat”) crawling over her face and feeding on the red pulp in the wound. She would later invoke such insect horror, of course, in “Lady Lazarus”: the speaker’s resurrection-men “had to call and call/And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.”
Yet disturbing in a different way is Wilson’s exhaustive and somewhat awestruck reconstruction of Plath’s untrammeled and reckless pre-Ted sex life. As many of her college contemporaries have since reported, the feverish Plath not only sought kudos for her studies, she also sought the role of reigning Smith-girl nympho. (Sorry, fem-crits, but the 1950s pulp-fiction term seems oddly appropriate.) Readers of The Bell Jar will not be surprised to hear of Plath’s intense adolescent sexual curiosity or her close-to-febrile desire, even in high school, to lose her virginity at the first opportunity. Plath seems to have viewed sexual defloration—followed by energetic if not acrobatic promiscuity—as a sort of academic prerequisite to becoming a serious writer. (Dick Norton, a medical student to whom Sylvia was briefly engaged, was the deflowerer, only to be savaged in The Bell Jar as the dumb, dull, and horny Buddy Willard.)
Characteristically giddy is one of Plath’s journal entries quoted by Wilson:
I will…whip myself onward and upward (in this spinning world, who knows which is up?) toward Fulbright’s [sic], prizes, Europe, publication, males.
It’s sometimes hard to keep these seemingly interchangeable varsity paramours straight, especially since their names, starting with the aforementioned Dick, so often have a smutty-joke quality to them: e.g., Melvin Woody, Phil Brawner, Bob Cochran, Dick Wertz, Ilo Pill, Myron Lotz. In Wilson’s minutely rendered account the young Plath comes off as a compulsive, slightly scary priestess-worshiper at what one of her college friends (referring to a popular student bar, the Totem Pole) called “the Scrotum Pole.” Her erotic quest seems at once impressive, chaotic, lascivious, and pathetic.
Especially enlightening in this regard—and unmatched in previous Plath lives—is Wilson’s discussion of Richard Sassoon, the small, dark-haired, Jewish, intensely cosmopolitan Yale student (born in Paris, raised in Britain, and a distant relation of Siegfried Sassoon) with whom Plath fell wildly in love in 1954 and remained erotically obsessed for the next two years. While he has attracted some interest as the poet’s last major boyfriend before Hughes, Sassoon till now has remained an enigmatic figure in the Plath story. Still alive at time of writing, he has never spoken publicly about his and Plath’s relationship (and told Andrew Wilson that he “never will”). Nonetheless Sassoon seems to have cooperated with the biographer in some degree, allowing access to letters and indeed to an unpublished and seemingly autobiographical short story, “The Diagram,” written about his time with Plath.
Cynical, witty, worldly, and intuitive, Sassoon was the opposite of the tall, chiseled all-American beefcake hunks who had until then been Plath’s somewhat juvenile predilection. Yet Wilson is convinced that he was the man “who would help her free herself from her conventional morality, liberate her sexually, and expand her intellectual horizons.” (One of Sassoon’s letters quoted here suggests, indeed, that along with reading Plato together, erotic spanking was a part of their experimental lovemaking.) And it’s Sassoon who provides Wilson with the striking “what if” with which Mad Girl’s Love Song concludes.
Now wistful counterfactuals are a staple in Plath biographical narrative. (What if Hughes had not gone to the party at St. Botolph’s where he and Plath met? He hadn’t planned to. What if Plath’s downstairs neighbor had smelled gas coming from her London flat on the morning of February 11, 1963? He didn’t.) Yet still astonishing is the realization that Plath’s sexual and intellectual fixation on Sassoon continued for some time after she’d met Hughes in Cambridge. Not only that, but when she first had sex with Hughes, in London on March 23, 1956, she was on her way to Paris to meet Sassoon for a long-awaited tryst. (She had already written to Sassoon about the drunken meeting with Ted, apparently in an effort to make Sassoon jealous.) When she arrived in Paris and discovered that Sassoon—annoyed by her coquettish attempts at emotional blackmail—had decamped for Spain and declared their relationship over, she was distraught.
A striking effect of the chronology is to take away some of the fatal glamour one associates with Hughes. He seems less the craggy, carnal bogeyman of Plath mythology here and more just another contender for Plath’s widely broadcast sexual charms. It all could have gone a different way. “Plath’s feelings for Sassoon were so intense,” Wilson argues, “that, had Richard decided to stay in Paris, it’s highly probable that [Plath] would never have returned to England to marry Hughes. It was his rejection that catapulted Sylvia into Ted’s arms.” Waiting in vain for Sassoon to return to Paris, she wrote to a friend, “If he would come today I would stay here with him.”
And here once again, the fancy that Wilson’s book—a study at once stately and strange—so often elicits: how easily the “life before Ted” might have become the “life without Ted.” Would such a tweak in the course of destiny have meant more years—with or without poems—for Sylvia? Sanity, self-possession, and an escape from the prescribed doom? Or merely some other kind of agony and mental collapse?
One has little time for existential ruminations while reading American Isis. In contrast with Mad Girl’s Love Song, Rollyson’s book bounces along, jalopy-like, at a madcap pace. No slack metaphor, shameless cliché, or laughable anachronism can slow the authorial juggernaut. Thus Rollyson’s tormented-genius Sylvia experiences “burst[s] of inspiration” that climax in “a crescendo of poetic outpouring.” When she encounters Hughes, the “love of her life,” on the “Cambridge campus” he “might as well have stepped right out of a Brontë novel.” (“Plath seems to have intuited the triumph and tragedy of mating with such a man.”) Later, after she’s married him and they begin a joint teaching stint back at Smith, she has “start-up problems” adapting to lecturing. Luckily, she will be reassured by the studly Ted, who reminds her she’s “a poet on the go.” (“Thank God she had a man who understood the demon in her.”)
At a certain point a reader learns just to sit back and enjoy it. This is a diverting, gossipy, and perfectly serviceable Plath biography. Not that it has much in the way of intellectual gravitas. Rollyson’s attempts to portray Plath as an archetypal Isis-figure (hence the title) or as a troubled American sex goddess à la Marilyn Monroe are not successful. (He’s also written a life of Monroe.) But unlike the slow-moving Wilson, Rollyson seems to grasp that Plath’s life was short. He doesn’t waste time getting to the essence of things. And however slapdash, he can write with emotional insight:
The typical criticism of Plath…held her poetry to be overwrought, both in terms of technique and of temperature. The reader who withdraws from her work cries out, as she does, “They must take you back!” But Plath’s great achievement is precisely her refusal to be temperate, to exercise the restraint the British deem “good form.” Just as understatement can be a powerful literary tool, overstatement, like an optometrist’s overcorrection, can compel greater perception.
Granted, both he and Wilson fall victim at times to the “Plath Effect”: a tendency to plunge into bathos like Plath at her baleful worst. Describing the young poet at Smith, her dancing and fornicating with one randy bow-tied youth after another, Wilson suggests that she regarded them all as literary characters “created from the rich gloop of her imagination.” Parnassian gloop, no doubt. But a dedicated Plathian might be forgiven for thinking also of that unlovely “muck funnel” in Plath’s “Words Heard, By Accident, Over the Phone” from 1962:
O mud, mud, how fluid!—
Thick as foreign coffee, and with a sluggy pulse.
Speak, speak! Who is it?
It is the bowel-pulse, lover of digestibles.
Rollyson uses similar metaphors when he describes Hughes as having “glommed onto” Plath in their famously sticky love-clench at the Cambridge party in 1956. And when he relates the traumatic episode that inspired the aforementioned poem, he topples over into Plath’s own language of sepsis and festerings, treacherous quicksand, and bags of flesh ripped open. Having answered by mistake a phone call meant for Hughes from the seductive Assia Wevill, Plath suddenly realized that Wevill and Hughes were having an affair. Rollyson describes how Plath was seen to
rip the phone line out of the wall, treating it like a monster’s threatening tentacle. It was too late, and the poet felt infected, sensing the caller’s words were like a monster’s spawn percolating in her heart.
What to make of it all after half a century? From one angle Plath had only herself to blame for the rhetorical excess she provoked—and still does provoke—in readers. She was crazy, after all. Even fifty years on, the gruesome mental suffering that she wrote about continues to pierce and frighten and exasperate.
In her defense: Plath used the pain as best she could. Though attempts over the decades to see her as a protofeminist oracle fail to convince, it has to be said that Plath’s writing captured the central and most disturbing psychic component in the lives of conventional middle-class American heterosexual women of the 1950s and early 1960s: a toxic, typically unconscious longing—sadomasochistic in structure—to be both adored and degraded, cherished and abjected, by a powerful man resembling one’s father. The fantasy contaminates (and sickens) any number of now-canonical Plath poems: “Electra on the Azalea Path,” “Two Views of a Cadaver Room,” “Medusa,” “Cut,” “Daddy,” “The Jailer,” “Lady Lazarus”—all those kitsch near-masterpieces that make the poet a sensation still (sometimes) among bulimic female undergraduates. Plath exposed, as no one had before, the quintessential “nice girl” sex-anguish of her time: a mode of female desiring as incoherent, narcissistic, passive-aggressive, and self-canceling as it was misogynistic, daddy-obsessed, and morbidly heterosexual.
But one shrinks at the ugliness and hysteria of the vision. Most off-putting, to my mind, is the way Plath made a repugnant and meticulously curated longing for death feel sexy and sublime. At least, that is, for a minute or two. Like Sylvia and Ted colliding at St. Botolph’s, Eros and Thanatos not only lock eyes in Plath’s poems, they’re already so far gone—so mad and humpy with crazy love—that we know they’ll end up killing each other. One doesn’t wish to remain too long in close proximity.
Nor is there much to moderate this appalling pull toward the grave. In a characteristically generous essay about the last poems—particularly those Plath wrote in Devon in October 1962, just after Hughes left her, but before she went back with her children to London—the Irish poet-critic Eavan Boland proclaims Plath a “superb” (and unheralded) “nature poet,” one who discovered in motherhood, domesticity, and the English autumn countryside a brief yet influential respite from the inner landscapes of vileness and putrefaction. In poems such as “Night Dances” and “Nick and the Candlestick,” Boland suggests, the solitary “young woman,” nursing her infant child, “did something radical to the perspective of the nature poem: she stopped addressing nature and she became it.”
Yet such assertions must somehow ring hollow. The foregoing says more about Boland—a writer who very much believes in kind hearts, good fellowship, and a poetry of healing and communion—than about Plath. The child addressed in “Nick and the Candlestick,” Plath’s infant son, may be “the baby in the barn,” the winter changeling, but the speaker’s otherwise dirge-like incantations hardly suggest that Nature has any maternal gifts for us, her blighted sons and daughters:
I am a miner. The light burns blue.
Drip and thicken, tears
The earthen womb
Exudes from its dead boredom.
Black bat airs
Wrap me, raggy shawls,
They weld to me like plums.
Philip Larkin, Plath’s psychological opposite in virtually every respect, came closer to capturing the Plathian essence: the shocking necrophilia and refusal of life. After her brilliant yet overschooled poetic apprenticeship, wrote Larkin in a 1982 review of the Collected Poems, Plath found her real subject matter in “variously, neurosis, insanity, disease, death, horror, terror.” (He considered “Two Views of a Cadaver Room” from 1956 to be the turning-point poem.) But the insanity and horror were requisite for the overall vision; they are deep and inalienable sources of the poet’s fever dream. For Plath, Larkin suggests, to grow up was to grow madder and madder. The mania within—caustic, ever-amplifying—could not be separated from the mature work. Thus her later poems were, Larkin wrote,
to the highest degree original and scarcely less effective. How valuable they are depends on how highly we rank the expression of experience with which we can in no sense identify, and from which we can only turn with shock and sorrow.
Unlike Larkin’s own poetry—or so one in turn might venture—Plath’s verse lacks wisdom and humor and the power to console. She invariably scours away anything sane or good-natured.
It will come as no surprise that I’m one of those who will always be turning away from Plath. Or trying to. I find her tasteless, grisly—unbearable, in fact—precisely because, even five decades after her suicide, she and her corpse-infested verses hold on with such ghoulish tenacity. She seems never to tire of creating tragic inhuman mischief from beyond the grave. That the infant “Nick” addressed in those final poems from Devon, the very poems cited as “nature poems” by the kindly Boland, hanged himself in 2009 seems only the latest malignant turn of the Plathian screw. A respected fisheries biologist—he taught at a university in Alaska—Nicholas Hughes had apparently done everything possible to distance himself geographically and psychically from his parents’ cursed history. (Most of the people who worked with him knew nothing of his family story.) Yet Lady Lazarus caught up with him at last. He was said afterward to have been “lonely” much of his life and depressed by his failure to find love. His mother was by then long dead—he had never had any memory of her—yet even so I couldn’t help wanting to kill her.