Sylvia Plath's "Ariel" poems of rage and death - with their violent, ecstatic imagery and Freudian dramas - created an immediate sensation when they were published in 1965, two years after her suicide at age 30. An intense interest was aroused in her brilliant, troubled life and her tragic death. Her novel, "The Bell Jar," a satiric, fictionalized account of her suicide attempt at age 19, became a best seller. And, today, she is arguably the most widely read and studied English-language poet of her generation. Numerous critical essays have been written about her work, as well as three previous biographies and memoirs by those who knew her.
Because Ms. Plath left no will, her husband, English poet Ted Hughes, from whom she was estranged, inherited control over her estate. Since then, the Plath estate, which consists of Mr. Hughes and his sister Olwyn, has rigidly restricted use of her unpublished writings.
Biographers and critics who sought cooperation from the estate also found their writing censored from unfavorable mention of the Hugheses. Of the three previous biographies, the most informative was Anne Stevenson's "Bitter Fame" (1989). An authorized biography, it described Ms. Plath as manipulative, demanding and unstable, and portrayed Mr. Hughes as long-suffering. Two new biographies, written without the estate's cooperation, offer more sympathetic portraits of Ms. Plath and draw more negative implications regarding Mr. Hughes's conduct. Paul Alexander has written a detailed, chronological account of Ms. Plath's life. Ronald Hayman offers a more penetrating, interpretive depiction.
After her father's death when she was 8, Ms. Plath was compulsively driven to succeed in order to deserve her mother's love. The academic achiever, prize-winning young writer, popular all-American coed were masks that cracked when Ms. Plath made her first suicide attempt. Both biographers emphasize her lack of spontaneity and her sense of futility, which no success could alleviate. Ms. Plath's intense perfectionism both inspired and undermined her. But it is impossible to know whether her suicide could have been prevented. Both books raise unanswered questions.
While we can respect Mr. Hughes's feelings, we deserve to know what Ms. Plath put on paper and what she thought about it. Most of her readers undoubtedly will agree with these two authors that anything that pertains to the direct understanding of her writing deserves to be made available to the public. Anne Whitehouse is author of the poetry collection, "The Surveyor's Hand."
Copyright 1991 Atlanta Newspapers Inc.
»Return to Articles & Criticism