Sylvia Plath: Will the poet always be defined by his death?

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The impact of the proliferation of this interpretation is to devalue women’s engagements with Plath. Reading her coming of age novel The Bell Jar, for example, is seen by many as a female rite of passage to more serious literature, a perception often reflected in YA-style cover designs. This is not the case with the male coming of age accounts, from the works of JD Salinger to David Foster Wallace. But the truth is, Plath was one of the first writers to tap into the raw reality of being a woman. Ahead of the Second Wave of Feminism and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, Plath wrote about her dissatisfaction with a woman’s inferior position, her sexual urges, and how those pressures affected her sanity.

At the same time, The Bell Jar and Plath’s poetry are works of fiction. They are based on Plath’s lived experience, as all literature should be, but the claim that she only wrote a direct autobiography is misogynistic. Biographies often cite Plath’s works as evidence of actual events and, as is the case with Anne Stevenson’s Bitter Fame, use them to claim that Plath was always depressed; Stevenson ends a chapter on his youth with the blatant statement: “The idea of ​​suicide formed in her mind as the ultimate and irrevocable fig”, referring to the famous metaphor of The Bell Jar where the heroine Esther Greenwood sees all its potential future like figs on a fig tree. A similar prejudice continued to affect creative women, where they are dismissed as using art as therapy. The problem we face with Plath is that the myth of her life and death made it difficult to disentangle her art from that – but also who the “real” Sylvia Plath was, anyway.

Plath’s cottage industry

The desire to know Plath has fueled an industry nonetheless. A new biography purporting to shed more light on his life than before is appearing on shelves with increasing regularity, including three notable releases in the past 18 months alone. One of those books, The Last Days of Sylvia Plath by Carl Rollyson, published in March 2020, focuses solely on her suicide. Another, Three-Martini Afternoons at the Ritz by Gail Crowther, published in April, is a double biography of Plath and his fellow Bostonian poet Anne Sexton, who met at a writers’ seminar hosted by the poet Robert. Lowell in 1959. The third book is Heather The Massive Biography of Clark Red Comet: Published last October, this is, along with Crowther’s, one of the first books on Plath to make full use of the recently published full and unabridged volumes of his letters, and deliberately subverts the reverse, focused on the death timeline of earlier volumes.

While these books may hope to understand Plath from a new perspective, their mission is arguably made even more difficult by the constant flow of critical and biographical works poised to supplant them, alongside the ever-increasing volume of material published from his. archives. There was even a biography of her biographies: In 1994, the great New York writer Janet Malcolm, who died last month, published The Silent Woman, a study of Plath’s books (including Stevenson’s controversial Bitter Fame) which sought to consider the influencing forces that determine the nature of biographical writing.

While preparing his book, Malcolm contacted Olwyn Hughes, the sister of Plath’s husband, the poet Ted Hughes, and the literary executor of his estate, seeking an interview with Ted to complete his research. The response she received was a widespread and spontaneous criticism of the ‘Sylvia Plath myth,’ something Olwyn believed to be fueled by a combination of Plath herself and Plath’s mother, Aurelia, who had, according to Olwyn, “ashamed of the mental illness,” and determined that only the “best side” of her daughter was withheld. Olwyn was horrified, she continued, by the lack of “human sentiment” exhibited by writers and the public for Plath’s family and had “totally changed as a result. [her] whole attitude towards people. ”However, what Malcolm achieved with The Silent Woman was to remind us that Plath was not a myth, but a woman who had lived and breathed like us. in order to reflect on her own role in Sylvia Plath’s posthumous narrativization – rather than acting under the guise of objectivity – Malcolm wrote the most humane book about the poet to date.

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