Sylvia Plath A Biography By Linda W. Wagner-Martin (Simon and Schuster, 247 pp., $18.95)
The story of poet Sylvia Plath is often told as a midcentury morality tale, a tale of a brilliant poet destroyed by a father who abandoned her, a mother who smothered her and a Neanderthal husband who cheated on her. To some readers, Plath is a tragic heroine, a genius destroyed by male monsters and an unfeeling society. Detractors, however, see her as a self-promoter who did everything, up to and including committing suicide, to draw attention to herself.
Linda Wagner-Martin, author of Sylvia Plath: A Biography, is not a partisan of any camp. In a quiet, understated style, she concentrates on the development of Plath's thought and poetry. The book gives Plath the dignity due her talent without minimizing the difficulties of her life and personality.
Even 25 years after her death, Plath's story still is unsettling. A bright, much-loved child, her earlier years were idyllic, pampered by her mother and grandparents. But pressures that eventually became the subject of her work and the cause of her depression showed up early. First, there was her father, a respected college professor and acknowledged expert in his scientific field. Otto Plath was middle-aged when Sylvia was born, and, true to his European roots, he was a distant and demanding father. His long illness and death when Sylvia was 8 years old clearly wounded the girl in ways that never healed. In her poem Daddy, written some 20 years after his death, her anger at him is startlingly vivid and bitter.
The second influence was her mother, who supported her children after her husband's death by teaching business courses. Her selfless hard work induced much guilt in Sylvia. And the mother's emphasis on intellectual achievement led the daughter to see her own worth solely in terms of high grades.
A final influence was her marriage. She envisioned her marriage to Ted Hughes, a creative and attractive British poet, as a meeting of the minds.
But the strains of two creative and demanding people in one household were too much. Hughes left her in the fall of 1962 and she committed suicide in February 1963.
The breakup of the marriage is often seen as the direct cause of her suicide, but as Wagner-Martin makes clear, Plath had battled depression and suicidal impulses throughout her adult life. It is simplistic to blame Hughes.
Wagner-Martin puts Plath's story back into perspective, showing how her life contributes to her poetry. The anger and longing for death in the poems are heightened by the facts of her life and suicide, but it is the quality of the poems that compel, not the unhappiness of the life. Wagner-Martin did run into a snag. She had hoped to interweave the biographical developments with the poems, but could not get permission to reprint the poems. She negotiated with both Hughes (who has never agreed to be interviewed about his late wife) and with his sister Olwyn Hughes, the executor of Plath's estate. But it became clear they wanted control over the book in exchange for permission to reprint the poems. Wagner-Martin rightfully chose to keep control of the book, but it does mean much of the discussion of the poems takes place without the poems actually in the book. The devoted Plath fan may want to read with the biography in one hand and the poems in the other.
But the book is worthwhile. The author is most balanced and kind to her heroine.
Sylvia Plath envisioned her marriage to Ted Hughes, a creative and attractive British poet, as a meeting of the minds.
Copyright 1987 Phoenix Newspapers Inc.
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