Fifty years ago in February, during the coldest winter on record in England, Sylvia Plath turned on the oven in her London apartment, failed to light the gas jet, stuck her head inside the oven door, and died of asphyxiation.
At the time, Anne Sexton, her fellow American poet, called Plath’s suicide a brilliant career move. Cynicism aside, Sexton (who eventually took her own life) proved amazingly prescient: Plath’s legacy continues to thrive half a century after her death.
Consider: Her best-loved book of poems, “Ariel,” was published posthumously, and her autobiographical novel, “The Bell Jar,” just shortly before her death. Later, her “Collected Poems” won a Pulitzer Prize, and “The Bell Jar” still clings to the must-read lists of 20th-century feminist texts.
On the strength of those works alone — possessively manipulated by her husband, Ted Hughes — the legend of Plath as Lady Lazarus burst into full bloom.
A key piece of that legend hinges on Plath’s lifelong obsession with death and self-destruction. Readers have struggled to find clues to her troubled, divided psyche — a prodigious mind that could produce such fierce artistic creations as “Daddy,” yet also set an unwavering course toward suicide at the age of 30.
Typically, one of two paths holds the answer: madness or mythology. The number of studies suggesting one of these traits as the “real” meaning of Plath’s work far outweighs her own poetic and fictional writings.
Now, on the 50th anniversary of her death, two new biographies try to feel their way along these paths — with limited, but at times fascinating, success.
Poet, mother, wife
Carl Rollyson, professor of journalism at City University of New York, offers a modern twist on the mythological view: Plath lusted after the celebrity of popular culture, he claims, shamelessly mixing high- and low-brow art to feed her desire.
With the skimpiest qualification, Rollyson declares that Plath wanted to be, and indeed thought of herself as, an American Isis, the goddess of ancient Egypt. In Plath’s case, Rollyson sees a version of Isis as “an ideal mother and wife — but with her power, her magic, intact.”
To bolster this less-than-orthodox view, he announces at the outset of his book that he will dispense with the typical structures of past biographies, thus freeing himself to craft a compelling narrative of Plath not only as Isis, but also as “the Marilyn Monroe of modern literature.”
Rollyson knows whereof he speaks, having written a biography of Monroe in 1988. But his comparison, though catchy, turns out to be less than insightful, since Monroe had the star-making machinery of Hollywood at her disposal, while Plath was busy raising two children virtually on her own.
Still, Rollyson may be right when he says that Plath wanted to be “at the center of modern consciousness.” Ambitious, precocious, driven to succeed in every social role thrust upon her, she outshone all competitors. That modern consciousness wasn’t ready for a female Wunderkind of her intensity led to her angry, obsessive self-implosion, Rollyson contends.
Andrew Wilson, also a journalist, prefers to trace the genesis of Plath’s madness in the years before her fateful marriage to Hughes, “a big dark” and “hunky” man she met at a party in 1956, then tied the knot with only four months later.
Hughes, a stiff-upper-lip British poet who was eventually named laureate of England, has long been held responsible for Plath’s suicide, in large part because of his blatant philandering.
But madness plagued Plath well before Hughes, Wilson shows. A nexus of sociological, economic and familial factors led to her self-inflicted rage, even her bipolar disintegration.
Like Rollyson’s simile, however, Wilson’s analysis serves the author better than it does the reader. Of course, Plath showed signs of psychic trouble before Hughes. Of course, literature constitutes, in part, an escape from the ordinary. Of course, women in the 1950s were socially and sexually repressed.
Yet none of this accounts for Plath’s explosive creativity in the last years of her all-too-brief life.
New resources, new portraits
If these biographies thus beggar profundity, they nevertheless take advantage of new resources, which alone makes them worth reading. And if we can glean the best of each book, we will come up with a more detailed, thorough view of Plath than we have had since Anne Stevenson’s “Bitter Fame.”
Rollyston’s loosely documented version downplays Plath’s mental illness, skips all but the last of her poems, and creates a highly romanticized persona — “a primordial
child of the times who wrote for the ages.”
But what elevates his work to a place of authority is his access to the Ted Hughes Archive at the British Library, unsealed to the public three years ago. In it, he finds 41 letters between Plath and Hughes that shed a broader light on their turbulent relationship.
Wilson takes a more traditional approach, emphasizing Plath’s early attempts at suicide, her obsession with boys and sex, and her pronounced psychological imbalance. He corroborates his contention that Plath suffered from megalomania, by talking to her former acquaintances and friends.
His biggest coup comes when he tracks down Richard Sassoon, Plath’s lover before she met Hughes. Sassoon refuses to talk to Wilson, however, directing him instead to two short stories from the time of Plath’s death that ostensibly reflect Sassoon’s feelings for her.
An indomitable poetic energy
Whether Plath role-plays as Isis or the Frankenstein monster (as Wilson regrettably puts it), she exudes an unmatched creative intensity for her time. That energy — part brilliance, part unchecked egotism, part rage, part mental illness — still mesmerizes readers.
And no mythological or psychiatric category does justice to her
Plath embodied a fierceness of spirit that did not denigrate her domestic duties of wife and mother, but that still created some of the most penetrating American poetry of the 20th century.
“We Poets in our youth begin in gladness; / But thereof come in the end despondency and madness.” So wrote William Wordsworth 160 years before Plath confirmed his diagnosis.
Just how much gladness she enjoyed in her youth remains in question. But both new biographies seem to point to very little.