BITTER FAME: A Life of Sylvia Plath By Anne Stevenson. Houghton Mifflin. 413 pp. $19.95.
Dead by her own hand at 30, Sylvia Plath was an immensely gifted and troubled woman whose suicide did her more than one disservice. Popularized and oversimplified by the publication of her only novel, "The Bell Jar," her posthumous martyrdom has cast her as a tortured genius caught in a cruel life: a victim too fragile to live in the compromised real world of hypocrisy, sexism and quotidian pain. The poems she left, particularly those of "Ariel" (written in the last months of her life), unleashed a brilliance that cut to the bone of female anger, for she dared to speak to -- sometimes exalt -- a fury most women couldn't even let in the room. This final legacy, delivered in blood before she turned on the gas in that London flat in 1963, has fueled the Plath myth and probably perpetuated the work. But the tragic elements of her story have also usurped the strength of her vision and robbed the life of its smaller, more accurate truths.
For there is usually far more dignity in truth than in fabrication, no matter how appealing the latter, and this is one of the dangers of the art-through-suffering idea. Had Plath found help, cauterized the demons, lived -- then think how much less triumphant (and titillating) the image of "My own blue razor rusting in my throat"! What got her in the end was the same source from which she drew her most violent imagery, though not her power to recreate it in poetry: a crippling and vengeful depression that finally conquered what will she had left. The real miracle is that she was able to write anything at all in the face of such despair.
It's about time the myth was dispelled, and Anne Stevenson does an excellent job of it with "Bitter Fame." Rather than dismiss the good-girl/ demonic-muse idea that has surrounded Plath, Stevenson finds in that dichotomy a cold duel that probably allowed Plath to live and write as long as she did. Drawing from the papers, journals and correspondence, as well as from interviews with key people in Plath's life (particularly the sister of her husband, the poet Ted Hughes), "Bitter Fame" is as uncompromising in its assessment of its subject as it is critically astute about her poetry.
Plath's story is necessarily compact, and Stevenson wisely moves through its three decades without embellishment, concentrating instead upon key periods and the work itself. Born into an academic German-American family in Massachusetts in 1932, Plath lost her father to diabetes when she was 8; this seminal event -- "I'll never speak to God again," she said upon hearing of his death -- left a fissure that would never heal. Her mother was claustrophobically well-intentioned, a dominant presence made more so by her single-parent status, and Sylvia seems to have both loathed and loved Aurelia Plath in direct relation to how hard she tried to please her. Sylvia was an intelligent, compulsively competitive student who already had self-aggrandizing fantasies by the time she headed for Smith College in 1950; on the outside, her life looked the Smith girl portrait that was all a young woman dared to hope for in '50s America: Phi Beta Kappa, the editor of The Smith Review, a guest editorship at Mademoiselle in New York. This is the story that would become Esther Greenwood's in "The Bell Jar" -- part one of it, anyway. Part two was electroshock therapy, a first suicide attempt, a four-month stint in McLean and a suspiciously glowing recovery. After graduating summa cum laude in 1955, Plath got a Fulbright to Cambridge, England, and met Hughes the following year. They were married on Bloomsday -- June 16 -- in 1956, two young poets with a shared zeal for one another's work.
Plath championed her husband to all lengths, typing his poems for submission while simultaneously writing her own, but she also romanticized him in the same way she had her father. Ted was "the strongest man in the world," she wrote her mother, "with a voice like the thunder of God." That's a frightening form of flattery, and within a few years it would turn into an all-consuming (and mostly delusional) jealousy.
Despite Plath's triumphs -- teaching at Smith, finding her way as a poet -- her journals continued to record the "murderous self" and the fears that were constant as breath. And her poetry was beginning to reflect the horrific oedipal images -- "Sat by my father's bean tree/Eating the fingers of wisdom" -- that formed the steely substance of her work but did not set her free. "I am lost, I am lost, in the robes of all this light," she wrote with typical polarity, unable to embrace the incandescence or stave off the darkness that must have seemed like a womb toward the end.
Stevenson does little to coddle the Plath who shredded her husband's works-in-progress during a jealous fit, who alienated most of their friends and acted like a cross between a prima donna and a drowning woman most of the time.
Nor does her biographer judge her; as Dido Merwyn says in an illuminating appendicized memoir, "Sylvia's malice was pathological and therefore doesn't count -- any more than the reflexes of the threatened animal." The external life progressed alongside the internal chimeras: a move back to London, two infant children, the completion of "The Bell Jar," poems in The New Yorker, a house in Devon, where she would do her finest work. And the horrible last year, when she separated from Hughes over his eventual infidelity, wrote in a laser heat the poems of "Ariel," moved to a flat in London -- Yeats had lived there once -- and ended her life.
The work Plath completed in the last year charts the course of a woman going under, outdone by a wave of pain she had fought most of her life. "Now she herself is darkening/Into a dark world I cannot see at all," she wrote in the spring; a few months later came a flatter dictate: "There is no hope, it is given up." On Jan. 28, 1963, two weeks before she died, Plath finished "Sheep in Fog," and softer images beckoned: "They threaten/To let me through to a heaven/Starless and fatherless, a dark water." That was a world without first deaths or unfaithful husbands -- a world not of this one, certainly -- and it probably seemed like the only choice she had left.
Anne Stevenson is a poet and critic, and "Bitter Fame" is a literary biography through and through; she treats both Plath and her poetry with a sensitive intelligence that glides gracefully between the work and the life. But the critical wisdom of her analysis affords little room for other interpretations, be they historical, psychological or medical. Plath seems to have suffered from some kind of spiritual crisis throughout her life -- there are references to her need to finish 33 poems, for example, and a cry in the dark for God more than once -- yet the religious influence, or lack thereof, is rarely mentioned. Nor does Stevenson spend much time pondering the roots of an obviously chronic depressive condition, despite 25 years of medical breakthroughs since the medieval treatments of the '50s. Ted Hughes, who in Stevenson's hands comes through as far more saint than sinner, nonetheless has a weirdly pale persona next to the blinding focus of his wife's. So in some ways the structure of "Bitter Fame" mirrors the life it intricately depicts: an internal landscape so lush it leaves little room for the rest of the world. This is more observation than complaint; God knows, we've had enough sociohistorical musing about Sylvia Plath, and a manic-depressive diagnosis would have probably gone a lot further toward curing her pain than a better world. For Plath couldn't see the world beyond her own psychic battleground, which was a place plagued with dead fathers and rotting dreams. Doris Lessing met Plath in the last month she was alive, and later spoke of the "incandescent desperation" that drove her. Having lived so long in a world of light and dark without much chance of gray, Plath may, at the end, not have been able to distinguish between the two at all.
It is far better to mourn the loss of a poet so young than to exalt her anguished exit, and "Bitter Fame" has the scope and insight to set that record straight. One of the most powerful images in this powerful biography appears not in Plath's poetry but in a letter to her friend Richard Murphy, written four months before she died. She was finishing the poems that would become "Ariel," and she described waking at 4 a.m. and working in a fever while her children slept. "It is like writing in a train tunnel," she told him, "or God's intestine." It's difficult to imagine a way out of that.
Copyright Globe Newspaper Company 1989
»Return to Articles & Criticism