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Sylvia Plath: A Fifty-Year Retrospective

From: The Missouri Review
Volume 36, Number 4, 2013
pp. 177-188 | 10.1353/mis.2013.0085

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February 11, 2013, marked the fiftieth anniversary of the dramatic suicide of Sylvia Plath. The year also saw the publication of three new biographies of the poet as well as the release of a new “50th Anniversary Edition” of her one novel, The Bell Jar, published a few weeks before her death; the latter sports the controversial cover image of a heavily lipsticked woman dabbing at her face with a compact. It is telling that publishers have chosen to “commemorate” Plath with a spate of new books on the anniversary of her death rather than her birth, for it is her death, with its lurid details—gas oven; milk and bread left out for her two young children still sleeping upstairs; towels stuffed in the cracks under the taped doors of kitchen and nursery—that has threatened to overshadow her literary achievement.

Plath herself must share some of the responsibility for this emphasis on death in connection with her work, as biographer Carl Rollyson observes when he writes, of an earlier suicide attempt by Plath at age twenty:

Sylvia’s disappearance and discovery [under the crawl space of her house] were widely reported, and she became news in a way she never intended but which had a remarkable impact on her vocation as a writer. Eventually, she would realize that dying had become part of her true subject matter.

The Bell Jar. 50th Anniversary Edition.
Sylvia Plath Faber & Faber, 2013,240 pp., £7.99

If it’s true that Plath, in her brief life, recognized the importance of the specter of death—particularly her own—to her work, it’s certainly true of publishers who’ve chosen to capitalize on her famous suicide with ghoulish promotion of yet more biographies of a poet whose literary reputation, though secure, is not yet settled and rests largely on the poems in a single volume: her second and final collection, Ariel.

The basic facts of Plath’s life have been well rehearsed by previous biographers: there was the long shadow cast by her stern, German father’s needless early death from self-misdiagnosed diabetes a week and a half after Plath’s eighth birthday. Otto Plath was a scientist—a biologist and Boston University professor specializing in bees—who should have known better. And there were the often unwelcome intrusions of self-sacrificing mother Aurelia’s efforts to promote in her talented daughter an unhealthy perfectionism, perhaps as compensation for the sacrifices she had made on behalf of Sylvia and her brother, Warren, following her husband’s early death. The first signs of a fissure in this edifice of achievement was Plath’s suicide attempt in the summer of 1953, following what had appeared to be a successful internship at Mademoiselle. She’d grown depressed after failing to gain a spot in Frank O’Connor’s short-story class at Harvard Summer School. A few years later came the intense courtship, marriage and artistic collaboration between Plath and English poet Ted Hughes, whom Plath met while on a Fulbright at Cambridge University in 1956, followed closely by Hughes’s adultery with Assia Wevill. Wevill would later kill herself and her daughter, also by gas oven. Through it all, there was the steady, even meteoric development of Plath’s poetic gifts, resulting in the astonishing poetry—much of it written in the last months of her life—that would justify such an outpouring of biographical attention.

Previous biographies include Edward Butscher’s Sylvia Plath: Methods and Madness (1976); Linda Wagner-Martin’s Sylvia Plath: A Biography (1988); English poet Anne Stevenson’s Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath (1989), which has the dubious distinction of being the only biography “authorized” by Hughes’s family; and Paul Alexander’s Rough Magic: A Biography of Sylvia Plath (1991). Still other works, such as Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (1994) and Diane Middlebrook’s Her Husband: Hughes and Plath—a Marriage (2003), focus more narrowly on the Plath-Hughes relationship. The three new biographies discussed here each chart their own course in navigating the thorny landscape of what Hughes, before his own death in 1998, derisively came to refer to...

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