Call them the Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton of the literary set; two finely tuned, talented poets who shared the joy and the misfortune of marrying each other. When the often-tumultuous, seven-year marriage of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes ended with her suicide in 1963, the squabbling never stopped.
Instead, their partisans rushed to take sides. In death, Plath became larger than life. Her novel, "The Bell Jar," was posthumously published in the United States and became a fixture on high school and college reading lists. In 1982, she won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. The Plath of legend was the Judy Garland of poetry, a shimmering talent deemed too sensitive for this world.
The Ted Hughes of legend was someone else entirely: a cold-hearted, controlling philanderer jealous of his wife's success. Hughes never granted an interview about Plath and, as her literary executor, shielded many of her letters and diaries from prying biographers. Dozens of books and articles have been published on the pair, and the prurient fascination - usually disguised as literary inquiry - with their relationship never seems to wane. Says Stanford University English professor Diane Middlebrook: "It was the marriage of the late 20th century."
Following Hughes's death in 1998, a vast amount of original archival material from both Plath and Hughes is now becoming available to scholars and to the public, free of the restrictions that had previously been in force. The marriage that launched a thousand monographs will doubtless launch a thousand more - many of which will probably help restore Hughes's personal and literary reputation.
On the Plath side of the ledger, the British publisher Faber & Faber is about to publish more than 700 pages of Plath's adult journal, believed to be a complete edition of her extant adult diaries. (One journal was lost and Hughes destroyed one.) The journals have been kept at Smith College's rare book room, where two of them, written between August 1957 and November 1959, were to have remained sealed until 2013. The couple's children asked Smith curator Karen Kukil to edit the journals, and before he died, their father agreed to unseal the closed materials. Anchor Books in New York will publish a US edition in the fall.
Simultaneously, 2 1/2 tons of Ted Hughes's personal archive, including papers, notebooks, and photo albums, will be formally opened to scholars next week at Emory University in Georgia. With the exception of a few letters about living people - and one mysterious, sealed footlocker - everything is available to researchers. "For a man whose literary history has been so contentious, it is remarkable that he's opened himself up in this way," says Emory curator Stephen Enniss.
Middlebrook, who has been delving into the Emory archive for a book on Hughes's later life, predicts the new material will change public perceptions of the poet. "The entire public narrative about Plath and Hughes is about the dominance of Plath by Hughes," she says. "And that goes on being the story that people want to hear, and that they do hear. That's not my take on it at all. The notion that he is evil or responsible for Sylvia Plath's death is disgraceful."
For those who want to reconstruct the jigsaw puzzle of the Plath-Hughes relationship, there are still a few pieces missing. Ted Hughes referred to a journal that he kept, but this journal is not among the Emory materials. And there is the matter of the sealed footlocker, to be opened 25 years from now.
No one knows what is inside. Hughes and his children have un-dammed an ocean of new material, including new poems and prose works by both poets, so it's a bit churlish to emphasize the eyedropper-ful of missing links. Hughes never restricted access to a large Plath collection at Indiana University's Lilly Library, for instance. Those strictures were mostly imposed by Plath's late mother, and are no longer in force. With free access to the Smith, Emory, and Indiana archives, we may discover a great deal more about the Hughes-Plath relationship; indeed much more than we may want to know.
Alex Beam's e-dress is email@example.com
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