More writing exists about Sylvia Plath than by her, and three more works came out in the first half of 2013: Carl Rollyson’s American Isis, Andrew Wilson’s Mad Girl’s Love Song, and Elizabeth Winder’s Pain Parties Work. St. Martin’s Press released American Isis first in January.
Even though biographies on Plath are legion, Rollyson writes that, with American Isis, he was not out to consider Plath as a female writer of her place and time. According to Rollyson, the mistake of many biographies is how they perceive Plath’s tragedy. They write of how a great poet was lost to self-destruction. “Sylvia Plath was a great poet, yes,” writes Rollyson, “but she was also great in other ways that no earlier book has evoked.” Rollyson hints at these other ways by describing Plath as “the Marilyn Monroe of modern literature.”
In the introduction, Rollyson wrote that she did not “just” want to be a poet and that it was time to dispense with Plath biographies that fail to acknowledge her “real creation”: “…her own image…all her writing appears like notes and jottings directing attention toward the central problem — herself.”
In other words, all this preexisting biography has proven is that Plath’s real and lasting achievement is her ability to intrigue, captivate, and generate so much biography, her tragic end came as a result of failing to live purely as an ideal. How else is Rollyson to explain all this talk about a writer whose work is never given any priority except to substantiate her “biography”?
Rollyson’s mission is to redefine the “Plath-myth” for new readers. That is why American Isis foregos “timeouts of exposition of [Plath’s] work” as well as contextualization of Plath in 1950s Wellesley, Smith College, and Cambridge. All this is a distraction, Rollyson claims, because the “Plath-myth” has nothing to do with that. Never mind the talismanic way in which the every turn of Plath’s fate as a student populates preexisting tellings of her development. He wanted “a vision of Sylvia Plath,” free of the signposts that “the knowledgeable Plath reader will not need.” The “knowledgeable” Plath reader is, to Rollyson, the reader of Plath biographies.
A “knowledgeable” Plath reader, who has sloughed through the thirty-odd books on her life, would be acquainted, then, with Plath’s will, as a single mother, to get out of bed at 4 a.m. with a fever to write before waking her children; her alienation from her peers as she was perceived as too smart to be normal in the ultra-conformist 1950s; and how the poetry that would “make her name” came of her rage in the dissolution of her marriage and was called unequivocally, by editors she respected, unpublishable. All of these are distractions, Rollyson writes, that the Plath reader has had to put up with in order to arrive at American Isis.
Rollyson fixes himself on Plath’s body and her response to the world. It’s because of works that emphasizes her beauty and sexuality over her writing that leave Plath continually vulnerable to inquiries about why she merits so much biographical treatment and threatens critics who attempt to evaluate her work. Why does Plath need to be written about and defended, the facts excavated and rearranged again and again? Rollyson is the first biographer to declare that that captivation is really what Plath had going for her to the exclusion of her art.
To really redefine the “Plath-myth,” a biographer would posit that Plath does not endure just because she was beautiful and dramatic and met a tragic end by her own hand before she could age beyond thirty — she wrote great poems and a great novel. But the work she did is subject to continued speculation as to why it survives.
THE PERFECT FEMALE EPIC
According to Rollyson, Plath intended, by whatever means necessary (i.e., literature), to occupy “the mythology of modern consciousness.” This is where the Marilyn Monroe comparison comes in, snowballing into the declaration that Plath wanted to be like Isis, “an ideal mother and wife — but with her power, her magic, intact.” The veneration of this dilemma, the dilemma of wanting to be all female archetypes to a perfect degree, is sorely misguided. It is a dilemma, Rollyson writes, that is worthy of Plath’s talent. It is a dilemma — that, implicitly, resulted in her suicide —not of terrestrial moods, but of the kind of “fine madness” naively and condescendingly ascribed to artists.
For Rollyson, Plath’s desire to succeed as an author was merely a crucial step in becoming the cultural shorthand for artistic perfection that Monroe was even then for beauty. “For Plath,” writes Rollyson, “an audience had to witness the spectacle of what it meant to be Sylvia Plath.”
Ted Hughes was baffled by Plath’s desire to write popular prose. Like most “serious” writers of his generation, he drew a line separating vulgar from fine art. He dismissed her efforts to write conventional fiction as “a persistent refusal of her genius.”
But Plath risked more than her genius by writing accessibly. Once a woman attains the spotlight that Plath sought out, that woman is subject to appraisal not just as an artist — and in what is Plath’s case under Rollyson, not as an artist at all — but as a woman, a role that negates every other role. Artist or no, biographies like Rollyson’s posit, how good was she at being a woman?
Plath’s female contemporaries, when they were praised, were praised for the uncanny realism they brought to their prose, how like life it was, how it virtually was life since a woman’s ability to render what is around her continues to outweigh how well a woman writes.
Anne Sexton was Plath’s contemporary and classmate in Robert Lowell’s storied Boston University poetry seminar. While Plath was well published prior to matriculating at Smith, Sexton took thirty years to arrive at writing. Five years after Plath’s death, the Paris Review interviewed Sexton. When asked why it took her so long to start writing, she said, “I didn’t know I had any creative depths.”
Sexton’s attending physician informed her that the value of her poems lay in what was springing forth without her knowledge: the secrets she was too damaged to appreciate. That she had any depths at all was commendable. The skill with which Sexton crafted her Pulitzer Prize-winning poems was of no interest.
Plath’s entry into cultural shorthand was ultimately the result of her suicide, which occurred after her novel, the Bell Jar, failed to get American distribution. Rollyson recognizes the truth in Sexton’s statement that, in light of that failure, suicide was “a good career move.”
At the time, though, the Bell Jar was not in print in Plath’s own name. She did not intend for that book to have any part in the making of her success as Sylvia Plath. She did not die because American audiences missed their chance to witness her spectacle — why she died is not clear, but it is a horribly depressing fact that the literature she labored over would not get its due because there is the suicide to discuss instead.
The few parts of American Isis about what might have been are radiant; especially Rollyson’s substantial evocation of Falcon Yard, Plath’s unrealized Cambridge novel that has heretofore never been covered at length in Plath’s biographies. It was, according to Plath herself, to be an “Isis fable.”
She was trying to work out a trajectory for her heroine, [Sadie] Peregrine, a “Voyager, no Penelope”….clearly the dominant, even prey-driven woman…a goddess born out of a “perfect dream of love.” Like Isis, she roams the world assembling the parts of the god-man who will fulfill her love. The god-man becomes for Peregrine/Isis a father, lover, and priest, promising the “perpetually possible.” Plath, however, realized Peregrine’s plight: How can she accept the “fallible man as divine”?….The question of how to write the perfect female epic was evidently just as daunting.
Also daunting is the acceptance of Plath as both a writer of myths and a real human who worked hard to create the work that has, for its power, matched her charisma. Rollyson’s biography is less an array of facts as it is a wish that Plath herself was extricated from the trappings of that well-trodden series of events and rendered — to use her own words — “the dew that flies suicidal, at one with the drive.”
That might have something to do with why writing “the perfect female epic” might seem so “daunting”: if one’s life as an artist is a distraction, easily dispensed with, to evaluate one’s “real achievement” as a woman, how could a female epic, perfect or not, do much to absorb the shock of how little biographers care, fifty years later, about what one has written?
This tendency still haunts evaluations of Plath’s work. In the July 11, 2013 issue of the New York Review of Books, Terry Castle reviewed both American Isis and Andrew Wilson’s Mad Girl’s Love Song in an essay called “The Unbearable” that demonstrates the consequences of the “Plath-myth” enveloping Plath’s work as a writer.
“It will come as no surprise that I’m one of those who will always be turning away from Plath,” Castle writes. “I find her grisly — unbearable, in fact…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.”
Castle goes on to identify one example of “tragic inhuman mischief” as Plath’s son, Nicholas Hughes’ suicide:
A respectful 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.
In addition to expressing her desire to kill Plath, Castle also wrote of Mad Girl’s Love Song, “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?”
Under what circumstance would a critic feel it appropriate to refer to T.S. Eliot as Tom? Feelings about Plath as toxic as Castle’s have been able to flourish in print in venues like the New York Review of Books thanks to the publication of biographies like American Isis.
Castle cites the death of many key players in Plath’s life as an advantage to biographers like Rollyson and Wilson. But a disadvantage she fails to acknowledge is how fewer tangible connections to one’s subject makes one prone to projection. In the case of both these books, it did.
What poignancy exists in American Isis comes from its traumatic quality. When a child endures a trauma, that child tries to effect change by playing the harmful scene again and again. Reversal of the outcome might be an objective, but so is the examination of events as they led up to the trauma.
The continuous revisiting of the subject of Plath by her biographers recalls traumatic play, particularly in how it is framed according to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network: “It is very serious play and may interfere with a child’s more flexible, enjoyable use of play.”
Asserting that Plath’s work — or the work of any author who cannot defend themselves — is worth consideration protects and engenders the new and forthcoming readers and writers whom that work has the potential to inspire.
Systematically delegitimizing Plath’s poetry by relentlessly turning attention back to her life and the idea that her life and her being intriguing, beautiful, and tragic is de-facto more captivating than her poetry is irresponsible and misogynistic.
A more flexible, enjoyable use of play might be the living legacy of Plath’s work: how constantly her work has been in print, how her work is a mainstay of literary curriculum’s. Plath’s poetry and the Bell Jar are still influential to those living and writing today.
The Guardian’s February 8, 2013 roundup of reflections by writers like Lena Dunham, Sharon Olds, Jennifer Egan, Jeanette Winterson, and others is at least a more generative look at how, tragic as it is that such a brilliant writer was lost, what she achieved in her life persists.