Death Brought Poet Fame, Sylvia Plath's Life Filled With Bitterness

from: Richmond News Leader (VA) - September 24, 1989

by Joni Spangler, Richmond free-lance writer

A LIFE OF SYLVIA PLATH. By Anne Stevenson. A Peter Davison Book/Houghton Mifflin Co. 413 pp. $19.95.

Sylvia Plath described herself, in her poem "Medusa," as "Over-exposed, like an X-ray." Though that description aptly described the artist in her lifetime, it is perhaps even more appropriate after her premature death in London in 1963.

Ms. Plath's tragic death by suicide at age 30 not only guaranteed her a place in the history of 20th century poetry, but also made her a legend. Like James Dean, whose early death made him a cult figure, Ms. Plath gained a cult following in the literary world.

The rumors and speculation surrounding Ms. Plath's death have been abundant. Her family and friends, who remained silent to protect both her privacy and theirs, have in many ways merely added fuel to the fire. "Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath" by Anne Stevenson set the record straight -- and in many ways at great expense to the Plath legend.

At first glance, "Bitter Fame" is an impersonal, analytical look at both the subject and her work. It is a biography that borders on a literary critique.

Ms. Stevenson's style takes some getting use to, especially in a biographical work. But with Ms. Plath as the subject, Ms. Stevenson has little choice but to write in a systematic, matter-of-fact manner -- for Ms. Plath was a distant and unrelenting subject. Even her friends and family did not presume to know her.

Trying to separate Ms. Plath from her writings is both unthinkable and impossible. To know Ms. Plath one must pull out her writings and look there.

To Ms. Plath, putting pen to paper was the only way to find an impartial judge. Writing was her life, and it is through excerpts of her poetry that Ms.

Stevenson can create her portrait of this consumed artist. Ms. Stevenson says Ms. Plath was self-obsessive and insanely possessive -- writing works filled with passion and power. Her short life was a turbulent one. The voice that speaks to readers from the famous "Ariel" poems or from her novel, "The Bell Jar" (published only days before her death under a pseudonym), is one-sided. That voice shows Ms. Plath as a veritable martyr, tormented and self-destructive. It is easy to make an example of Ms. Plath, to see her as a representative for repressed women everywhere, but Ms. Stevenson dispels many of the popular myths surrounding the life and death of the artist.

Ms. Stevenson tells another side . . . that of friends and family whom she interviewed in conjunction with "Bitter Fame." No longer is Ms. Plath the daughter of an abusive father and negligent mother, nor the suffering wife of a philandering husband. Instead, Ms. Stevenson depicts them as victims of Ms.

Plath's obsessiveness and derangement. In her writings, Ms. Plath transformed and apotheosized events. She wrote from the deepest part of her soul and believed all that she wrote. And that is why, when even fame was not enough, she put her head in an oven and turned on the gas. Perhaps if she had not believed so thoroughly. . . . In a letter written after Ms. Plath's death, her mother describes Ms.

Plath's terrible legacy: She has posthumous fame -- at what price to her children, to those of us who loved her so dearly and whom she has trapped into her past. The love remains -- and the hurt. There is no escape for us.

Throughout the book, readers gradually piece together the puzzle that is Ms. Plath. Ms. Stevenson shows us the lover, daughter, sister, student, writer. Ms. Plath had two children, Freida and Nicholas, but Ms. Stevenson neglects to tell us what she was like as a mother. That is one facet of Ms.

Plath that remains a mystery. "Bitter Fame" takes its title from a poem by Anna Akhmatova: "If you can't give me love and peace, then give me bitter fame." And after reading Ms.

Stevenson's biography, it seems that Ms. Plath did indeed get her bitter fame. "Bitter Fame" is a Peter Davison book, published under his name through Houghton Mifflin. Davison, an award-winning poet whose relationship with Ms.

Plath is mentioned in the book, is perhaps best known locally as the master of ceremonies at the annual Junior League Book and Author Dinner.

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