A conversation with a Plath biographer about the acclaimed poet and The Bell Jar author's unusually quiet death 50 years ago
This week, I went on a hunt for some obituaries of Sylvia Plath. To my surprise, I couldn't find any.
At the time of her death by suicide—50 years ago, on February 11, 1963—she was a published novelist and an acclaimed poet; beyond that, she was also a statuesque, stylish American married to the celebrated English poet Ted Hughes. Surely there had to be some written public remembrance, on one side of the Atlantic or the other, of an author who'd done readings of her work at Harvard and for the BBC. But, no: I couldn't unearth a single piece of news about the death of Sylvia Plath.
Before long, I found that Peter K. Steinberg, author of the 2004 biography Sylvia Plath, had encountered the same problem when he wrote his 2010 paper on Plath's first suicide attempt in 1953. At age 20, Plath had swallowed 40 sleeping pills and gone to sleep in a crawl space in her family's basement, only to be found two days later and hospitalized. The media attention local Massachusetts news outlets gave to this pretty, troubled, largely anonymous Smith student's sensational story dwarfed the press coverage of her actual death by gassing herself 10 years later in England. It caused Steinberg to wonder, in the last paragraphs of his essay, "Why, then, in 1963, when Plath died and when she was conceivably better known and more widely published, was there comparatively so little written about her?"
So I called Steinberg to investigate. The secrecy surrounding Plath's suicide, as it turns out, masked more than just the ugly details of her death. Over the course of my conversation with Steinberg, parts of which are reproduced below, it became clear that the way Sylvia Plath died revealed a lot about the way she lived.
Responses have been edited for clarity and length.
I've been digging around for some obituaries or press coverage of Sylvia Plath's suicide 50 years ago, and I've been very surprised at how little I've—well, at the fact that I've been able to find none. It sounds like something similar happened to you.
Yeah, that's exactly right. And I think part of it is that it was a suicide. There's a scene in The Bell Jar where Esther Greenwood says that the only newspaper they read in their house was the Christian Science Monitor, which treats suicides and murders as though they never happened. So part of my thinking is that possibly, [her mother] Aurelia Plath didn't want the actual details of Sylvia's death to be known. I certainly think Ted Hughes didn't either.
The death notices that I did find were kind of curious, because they were about the death of "Sylvia Hughes." That was her legal, married name, and they were mostly in the local Boston papers. Most didn't mention that she was a writer. One full obituary was published in The Wellesley Townsman, and it said that she'd died of viral pneumonia. Obviously that's a lie—and that was done, I think, to try to draw away a connection to the 1953 suicide attempt. That was one of the earlier obituaries, about 16 days after she died. I think that had something to do with the fact that a lot of people didn't take notice.
Were there circles in which she was better known as Ted Hughes's wife?
I think in the literary world she was both—she was known both as Sylvia Plath and as the wife of Ted Hughes. In the first part of their marriage, when Ted Hughes had his rapid rise to fame, she was commonly referred to in the press, even in the 1960s, four or five years after they were married, as "his American wife, Sylvia." Sometimes she was referred to as "also a writer," and sometimes she was just the pretty American wife.
Because she published under her maiden name, a lot of people often didn't connect the two. Certainly that was the case with Al Alvarez, who was the poetry critic at the Observer. At the time, he had published Sylvia Plath, and when he first met them, he had no idea that Sylvia Hughes was Sylvia Plath. I think she was, in a way, a little bit anonymous as his wife. But as a poet, she had a full-fledged identity. She kept those two identities separate.
You mentioned that there were 16 days between her death and that early Townsman obituary that said she'd died of pneumonia. It's also a little curious that there was such long time between her actual death and the obituaries that ran.
Yes, that's pretty strange too. I don't think at first Aurelia Plath was told how Sylvia Plath died, and there may have been some apprehension about how Aurelia Plath was going to handle an influx of questioning from people. She had a history of ulcers, and when her nerves acted up, she had some pretty serious health problems.
The way it was handled is really kind of cold—the backstory is, Plath dies on the 11th, and then on the 12th, Ted Hughes sends a telegram to Aurelia Plath's sister. He didn't even send one to Aurelia Plath. All the telegram said was, "Sylvia died yesterday." Really terse. Really vicious. Cowardly, too, I think.