Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath. Anne Stevenson. Houghton Mifflin Co., $19.95.
At 30 -- her brilliance and beauty as pale as London's scab snow on Feb. 11, 1963, -- Sylvia Plath committed suicide and begot a notoriety savored by few literary megastars.
"Bitter Fame," Anne Stevenson's biography of Ms. Plath, doesn't ask why she fascinates us. Ms. Stevenson assumes Ms. Plath's prominence (her "Collected Poems" received the only posthumous Pulitzer Prize in poetry) and reads her poems as the direct castings of the life. Readers may be wearied by the author's unqualified boosterism. But most will be drawn like moths to Ms. Plath's flame, and Ms. Stevenson's book ably glows.
Born to Otto Plath, a professor of bees, and his wife, Aurelia, Ms. Plath proved precocious as a student and writer early in life. She won scholarships to Smith College and Cambridge University; took prizes; sought, met and married the boldest young poet around, Ted Hughes, (now England's poet laureate); and in a handful of years, established herself among the new breed who declaimed poetry from the deep and personal self, with blunt attention to previously shrouded subjects such as lust, sex, death and madness.
Ms. Plath had the American ache to succeed and the Germanic will to do it.
She wrestled poetry. Ms. Stevenson argues all poets now are "affected by the power and passion of Ms. Plath's poetry." Yet Ms. Plath equally wanted what women in the 1950s were raised to want: husband, children, home, a heavenly life. These desires were on a collision course and Ms. Plath refused to compromise. The result was a battered marriage, two small children, little cash, scarce time to write and a grim future.
She was a Marilyn Monroe in poetry, driven by a philandering poet-husband's cruelties to gas herself rather than betray her poems. Or so the Plath myth said.
Ms. Stevenson debunks the mythologized Ms. Plath and rehabilitates Mr. Hughes. The death of Ms. Plath's father, when she was 8, left her with a severe psychological wound. That wound was complicated by animosities toward her mother, which led Ms. Plath to first attempt suicide at 18. Ms. Stevenson describes in both Ms. Plath's life and art a psycho-war between a submerged self -- the writer, and a surface self -- the homemaker.
Mr. Hughes is portrayed as a patient, loving husband who supported a woman whose imagined insults and torments he did not cause, but suffered. To the extent that "Bitter Fame" is a corrective for that sad myth of victimization, it is welcome. Ms. Plath's death was the result of long illness, a combination of circumstances, bad timing and the inability of science to cure more than flesh.
She once said, "I have a violence in me that is hot as death-blood." And she had fears to match. She was possessive, protective, self-absorbed and mean. Dido Merwin, speaking of her old friend, mentions an "unrelenting, unspoken, omnipresent animosity" that led Ms. Plath on one occasion to shred Mr. Hughes's manuscripts, drafts and books.
Previously unpublished memoirs by Mrs. Merwin, Lucas Myers, poet Richard Murphy, and, it appears, cooperation from Mr. Hughes, help substantiate Ms.
Stevenson's image of Ms. Plath. But "Bitter Fame" is compromised by its own blank tapes. That Mr. Hughes had an affair with Assia Wevill, the wife of a mutual friend, is mentioned but never examined by Ms. Stevenson, even though it is critical to Ms. Plath's life and death, even though Ms. Plath's erotic adventures are well cataloged and despite its influence on her poems. Why the biographer has so little to say of the Plath journals that Mr. Hughes lost or destroyed is a similar puzzle. The words of "Bitter Fame" are hardly the last to be said of a poet whose own words dazzle and defy us. Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes are Barrett and Browning.
They are an American romance. She stands in for us -- shining, grappling, hungry for the infinite, almost making it. Then reality drops in with its old Puritan warning that approaching the edge will have its price: its sordid betrayals, pain, divorce, life crumbling like Ms. Plath's colossus-daddy. "Bitter Fame" asks the biographer's question: who was she? Ms. Stevenson's answer suffices, but it does not conclude our business with the woman who wrote, "The blood jet is poetry."
Memo: Dave Smith, a poet, teaches creative writing at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va. He is co-editor of "The Morrow Anthology of Younger Poets."
Caption: Sylvia Plath with Ted Hughes in 1959.
Copyright 1989 Atlanta Newspapers Inc.
»Return to Articles & Criticism