Shifting the Focus From Sylvia Plath’s Tragic Death to Her Brilliant Life

Historians in the News
tags: books, poetry, biography, literature, Sylvia Plath

What becomes a legend most? As suggested by the old black-and-white Blackglama fur ads, featuring Lena Horne, Diana Vreeland and Cher, among others, legends are people who have soared beyond fame or celebrity into a more rarefied, inaccessible stratosphere.

Today’s media-fixated, Kardashian-dominated world is filled with all sorts of legends, from the elevated to the base, but I can think of few poets who fit into this category. The exception is Sylvia Plath, who, with her perfect blond pageboy, wide smile and cinched-waist dresses, looked less like a proper poet and more like Doris Day.

By now, many of us are familiar with the rough outlines of her saga: the shining promise; the death of her adored father when she was 8; the titanic ambition and extraordinary persistence (in 1950, the summer before Plath started college and after more than 50 rejections, Seventeen magazine accepted her short story “And Summer Will Not Come Again”); the attempted suicide during her time at Smith; the Fulbright to Cambridge, where she met the broodingly handsome Yorkshire-bred poet Ted Hughes (“my black marauder,” as she called him), whom she soon married; the birth of their two children, Frieda and Nicholas; the couple’s single-minded devotion to their art and conviction about their respective talent, followed by Hughes’s affair with Assia Wevill and Plath’s taking her life in February 1963 at the age of 30 during what was famously London’s coldest winter of the century. In the intervening decades she has become a protean figure, an emblem of different things to different people, depending upon their viewpoint — a visionary, a victim, a martyr, a feminist icon, a schizophrenic, a virago, a prisoner of gender — or, perhaps, a genius, as both Plath and Hughes maintained during her lifetime.

One would think there is little to be added, if only because of the avalanche of books — biographies, meta-biographies, pathographies (to borrow Joyce Carol Oates’s term), memoirs, critical studies, letters, journals, novels — that have been published about Plath since her suicide (which, for some people, is the only thing they know about her). In the last few years alone, two fat volumes of her correspondence have been published and parsed by a whole raft of reviewers (including me). And yet, just as one is wondering whether there can possibly be anything new to be said, here comes Heather Clark’s “Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath” hurtling down the chute, weighing in at more than 1,000 densely printed pages.

My response to receiving the galleys during this grim and surreal season was a mixture of fatigue — not her again! — and anticipatory pleasure at the thought of losing myself in the issues the book was likely to bring up rather than the ones being repetitively posed by the glaring dilemmas of our day: the merging of creativity and pathology that informed Plath’s character; her evolving artistic style, which began, in the poems that make up “The Colossus,” her first collection, as formal, meticulously crafted and owing much to influences such as W. B. Yeats and T. S. Eliot and culminated in the shockingly direct, even raw voice that defines the posthumously published “Ariel,” which derived some of its free-associative and colloquial immediacy from D. H. Lawrence, Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton; and the way in which her marriage with Hughes first bloomed and then imploded.

Read entire article at New York Times

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