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Pedagogy 4.2 (2004) 241-261
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Teaching Plath and Her Unabridged Journals
Confessional poets never did cooperate with theoretical interment. Whether we see them as amplifiers of their own emotion (Yezzi 1998), representative victims (Breslin 1987), chroniclers of middle-class family angst (Middlebrook 1993), or harbingers of postwar privacy debates (Nelson 2002), confessional poets refuse to disappear into the signifying process of their texts. The personages of Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, and especially Sylvia Plath seem to be hardwired into their signature poems. Indeed, Plath's texts have a palpable authorial presence that becomes freakish and alluring, singular and symbolic. In the past five years, her manifestations have multiplied in literary and popular culture. Ted Hughes's Birthday Letters (1998) and Plath's own Unabridged Journals (2000a) prompted publicity in magazines as diverse as the New Yorker, Vogue, and People Weekly. Ryan Adams's song "Sylvia Plath" (2002) tapped her status as a cult figure. And as Lynn Neary (2003) reported on National Public Radio's All Things Considered, a trio of texts released in October 2003 attests to our forty-year fascination with Plath's life and writings: Kate Moses's biographical novel Wintering (2000a), Diane Middlebrook's psychological biography Her Husband (2003), and Christine Jeff's film Sylvia (2003). The poet has reanimated more than her mythic Lady Lazarus.
Five years after Plath's apparently premature burial, Roland Barthes (1988 : 145) foresaw "the Author diminishing like a figurine at the far end of the literary stage." In a reverse image of the incredibly shrinking [End Page 241] author, Moses (2000b: 1) sights "the IMAX version of Sylvia Plath" in the pages of her Unabridged Journals because it reflects the poet's "exaggerated, high-voltage, bigger-than-life personality and imagination." The poster blurb for Sylvia—"Life was too small to contain her"—posits a similar expansion of Plath beyond any human scale. This IMAX effect, which greatly enlarges the iconic status that Barthes assigned postmodern authorship, has proved crucial to Plath's staying power. What I am terming "IMAX authorship" refers to the volatile mixture of magnified personhood and mythic iconicity that comprises the literary and cultural phenomenon "Sylvia Plath." The expanded text of Unabridged Journals offers rich opportunities for assessing the IMAX Plath with students because it can intensify readers' investment in Plath the woman at the same time that it amplifies mundane experiences into events of cosmic proportions. What happens when we unleash this colossally human author in the classroom?
My department's retooled Authors course—"Major Figures in American Literature and Culture"—offered me a productive venue for exploring these issues shortly after the American publication of Unabridged Journals. "Major figures" strikes a balance between the author as person and icon, while the "culture" add-on expands the range of course materials beyond traditional literary genres. Combining the perspectives of formalist and feminist literary criticism with cultural studies, my course "Sylvia Plath and Her Cultural Afterlife" prompted interrogations of her literary texts and reputation as well as the biographical and mythic text of her life. Our course texts were Plath's Collected Poems, The Bell Jar, and Unabridged Journals, Linda Wagner-Martin's biography (1987), Jacqueline Rose's The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (1991), and Hughes's tribute volume Birthday Letters. We assessed Plath's iconicity in clips from the 1979 film version of The Bell Jar, the 1988 documentary series Voices and Visions (Pitkethly 1988), and magazine coverage of Birthday Letters and Unabridged Journals. We also considered 1950s television advertisements in our discussions of postwar gender roles that Plath negotiated in her poetry, prose, and photographic portraits. In providing an account of my course, this essay addresses Plath's impact on a new generation of readers. I quote from my students' papers, exams, and evaluations, highlighting the ways that our views came into conflict as well as concert. Because its IMAX authorship prompted some of our most vigorous discussions of how Plath's writing both reinforces and resists what we called "the Plath myth," I will focus largely on...