On February 11th it will be fifty years since Sylvia Plath’s death, an occasion marked by a predictable slew of new books, anniversary editions, and the revival of decades-long feuds over Plath’s contested legacy. In the Guardian, Olwyn Hughes (Ted Hughes’ sister and the supreme gatekeeper of the Plath estate) and Plath’s friend Elizabeth Sigmund keep up appearances as old foes and, to those of us without a dog in the fight, representatives of two opposing Plath camps: Olwyn as the protector of her brother (“Sylvia wasn’t the innocent victim … she was vicious and I think a bit crazy”) and Elizabeth as the tireless defendant of her poet-friend.
Now entering the fray are biographers Carl Rollyson, Andrew Wilson and, later this year, Elizabeth Winder. Wilson’s awfully-titled Mad Girl’s Love Song, published by Scribner, will presumably sail clear of controversy by focusing on pre-Hughes Plath, while Rollyson’s American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath will distinguish itself by drawing from the recently-opened Ted Hughes archives. Lastly, HarperCollins will publish Elizabeth Winder’s Pain, Parties, Work, an account of Plath’s 1953 summer in New York that served as the inspiration for her novel The Bell Jar. Wilson, Winder and Rollyson thus join the motley crew of Plath’s many biographers, most of whom emerged with accounts that were either unauthorized or botched or both.
You can’t help but wonder, though, what on earth we need three new books on Sylvia Plath for. So far as I can tell, there have been no major revelations — no deplorable indiscretions, no scams or secrets unearthed — since the attendant controversy of The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath well over a decade ago, and even that was a rather inflated affair. True, there was the discovery, three years ago, of a poem Ted Hughes wrote shortly after the suicide, in which he imagined Plath making several trips to a phone booth to call him on the night she killed herself. But as Mark Ford commented in The New York Review of Books, we don’t know, and likely never will, whether she actually made those calls or not. And anyway, the poem finally says more about Hughes than it does about Plath — just as Rollyson’s raids on the Hughes archives can shed only a flicker of light on Plath’s life and art — like striking a match in the dark that reveals only the greater darkness surrounding us.
For the outsider, for the uninitiated, this is all very discouraging. We can’t curl up with Ariel or The Colossus or Winter Trees without being disturbed by a half-century’s worth of clanging Plathery, which serves only to further obscure the poet from view. All the biographies, all the memories — “Sylvia Plath does not come closer, shine more clearly,” Elizabeth Hardwick wrote. “For all the drama of her biography, there is a peculiar remoteness about Sylvia Plath.” That’s because all the drama is posthumous and cannot be resolved. In Janet Malcolm’s 1993 work of literary detection, The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (plainly the most original and forceful book written on the subject), we are reminded that “a person who dies at thirty in the middle of a messy separation remains forever fixed in the mess. To the readers of her poetry and her biography, Sylvia Plath will always be young and in a rage over Hughes’s unfaithfulness.”
She will always be young and she will always be angry, and her greatest poetry will always be bound up with the circumstances in which it was conceived — those final, freezing months of feverish inspiration in the fall and winter of 1962. Gearing up to write this piece, I revisited Plath’s letters to her mother (collected in the volume Letters Home in 1977) and felt again the overwhelming pathos of reading of Plath’s excitement for her writing and her future, her children and her new apartment. “I am writing from London, so happy I can hardly speak,” she wrote on November 7 1962, just three months before her death. “I think I have found a place… And guess what, it is W. B. Yeats’ house — with a blue plaque over the door, saying he lived there!” At such moments Plath sounds like any young woman exhilarated by ambitions and hopes and prospects, however misleading we know that is. When she wasn’t caring for her children or writing to her mother or scouting for an apartment, she was writing poems that, fifty years later, are as powerful and troublesome and unsettling as ever:
If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two—
The vampire who said he was you
And drank my blood for a year,
Seven years, if you want to know.
Daddy, you can lie back now.
There’s a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.