The Dangerous Art of Writing Biographies: 'Woman' Scrutinizes Sylvia Plath Chronicler

from: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution - April 3, 1994

by Linda Simon

As the Marilyn Monroe of literature, Plath, her biographers have decided, serves as the ultimate victim of male domination, wounded first by her father, then by her husband, the British poet laureate Ted Hughes, and irrevocably by her social context. The claustrophobic and misogynistic 1950s taught Plath that she should be satisfied as wife and mother, that she could be a minor poet, at best, indulging in writing the way her contemporaries indulged in Pillsbury Bake-Offs. For some feminist critics, Plath stands for Everywoman who battled for authenticity - and who became a martyr to the feminist cause.

To date, there have been five biographies and several critical studies of Sylvia Plath, and Janet Malcolm, author of "Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession" and "In the Freud Archives," is disturbed by the ways biographers have appropriated Plath's life, by their insensitive invasion of privacy of those close to her. In "The Silent Woman," Malcolm takes it upon herself to explore not so much life as the afterlife: the biographer's complicated search for Sylvia Plath. What, she asks, can we know about another human being? How does a writer's reputation evolve from her posthumous critics? To what extent do survivors have a right to privacy.

What, finally, is biography about? The primary focus of Malcolm's study is Anne Stevenson, the only biographer of Plath to have had, for a time, the complete cooperation of Olwyn Hughes, Plath's sister-in-law and the literary agent for Plath's estate. "Relatives," Malcolm observes, "are the biographer's natural enemies; they are like the hostile tribes an explorer encounters and must ruthlessly subdue to claim his territory." Certainly Olwyn Hughes was as hostile as she could be, seducing, punishing, manipulating, and chastising Stevenson during the years she researched and wrote "Bitter Fame," published a few years ago.

Initially, Malcolm is more sympathetic to Stevenson, with whom she identifies both as a researcher and a contemporary, but after many lunches and exchanges of letters with Hughes, Malcolm finds that Hughes's passionate battle with Plath's biographers comes from deeply held convictions about ways in which Plath has been misunderstood. Malcolm is no stranger to a writer's trials. Her book on Jeffrey Masson, the controversial curator of the Freud archives, landed her in court, attacked by her resistant subject. As Malcolm tells it, writing is fraught with anxiety - and biography is especially treacherous. Somewhere in her research for this book - perhaps even before she began - Malcolm decided that writing biography is a sinister activity. "The biographer's business, like the journalist's," she writes, "is to satisfy the reader's curiosity, not to place limits on it. He is supposed to go out and bring back the goods - the malevolent secrets that have been quietly burning in archives and libraries and in the minds of contemporaries who have been biding their time, waiting for the biographer's knock on their doors."

And yet, for all their searching, biographers cannot help but fail.

"How," Virginia Woolf once asked, "can one make a life out of six cardboard boxes full of tailors' bills, love letters and old picture postcards?" Malcolm decides that the task is impossible: Biographies necessarily "pale and shrink in the face of the disorderly actuality that is a life." From the masses of evidence that a biographer assembles, "(T)here is the danger of throwing the wrong things out and keeping the wrong things in." But that "danger" allows historians and biographers to tackle the same subject: with different perspectives and fresh questions, they throw out some things and keep others, fashioning a story they know may not be the story. Biographers search for evidence to substantiate their assertions, recognizing that their portrait of any subject is only as believable as the evidence they present. Sometimes the search is frustrating - like assembling a jigsaw puzzle of a cloud - but often it is exciting, always testing the biographer's understanding of humanity, and of herself. Linda Simon is director of the writing center at Harvard University and the author of biographies of Alice B. Toklas and Thornton Wilder.

Caption: Janet Malcolm, author of "Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession" and "In the Freud Archives."

Copyright Copyright 1994 Atlanta Newspapers Inc.

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