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.
Her brother and his wife went over to England for the funeral, and he sent regular letters to his mother giving details about the situation, including the fact that she had killed herself. And I don't know when Warren Plath flew back to Massachusetts, but it may have been that the reason for the delay in the obituaries may have been so that he could get back and be with their mother and help her cope with it.
So Sylvia Plath died right after the first-edition publication of The Bell Jar.
It's a fascinating timeline. The Bell Jar was published in England on January 14, 1963, so about 28 days before she died. It was published under the name Victoria Lucas.
There were a handful of reviews for it, before she died. Most of them were kind. They weren't glowing. She wasn't going to make hundreds of thousands of dollars off of it. She would have seen the reviews that were published up until the time she died, and I'm pretty sure she would have read them. And I think she got nervous about its reception. Afraid that people might recognize the story, even though it was less likely that people would recognize the story in England than had it somehow filtered into the United States at that time.
So Plath died while critics were still reviewing her book—morbidly enough. How did her suicide affect the critical reception of The Bell Jar?
The poet Anne Sexton called it a good career move. (Laughs) But it wasn't immediate. It wasn't like when Kurt Cobain died [when Nirvana albums rocketed up the Billboard charts after his body was found]. I think it helped book sales when her Ariel poems finally came out [two years after her death, in 1965], but I think that might have had just as much to do with the poems as it was the fact that she was dead. I'd like to give [the benefit of the doubt] that people were buying the book because of the poems, but there was probably a little bit of both. People wanted to see what these poems were like. Were they worth dying for?
There's a review of Ariel in a 1967 issue of The Massachusetts Review in which a critic writes that she has a "major difficulty in reviewing this last volume... to separate her work from her psychology," and that it's especially hard because there is "so intrusive a note of self-pity and exhibitionism."
Was that a common thing, for reviewers to suddenly feel uncomfortable reviewing her work after her death?
I think it very well could have been, but there's a reason for that. The Ariel that Ted Hughes published wasn't the Ariel that Plath envisioned: It was very different in tone, especially the last dozen poems. Those are very dark and bleak, whereas the collection she had intended ended with her Bee Poems, which are all about new life and spring. It would have ended on a more vibrant note.
Given the tone of the way Ted Hughes's Ariel progressed, in a way, it had a really good effect on her reputation, because that book built her reputation. But once the real facts of her death came to light, it became almost an inseparable thing to read the poetry from the death. People just put them together. And it's not fair to do that. As poetry, they stand on their own.
The Atlantic published a piece about Sylvia Plath last week that seemed to suggest that she'd been deeply torn between whether to pursue that era's traditional feminine housewife-mother version of happiness and pursuing professional success as a writer—implying that that's what led to her spiral and eventually her suicide. Do you feel like that's what happened?
Oh, this is loaded. I might get in trouble! But—I think she wanted to be a writer.
She loved her children; I think she loved being a mother. She was good at being a mother, too, and I think being a mother helped her writing. It gave her a whole different set of emotions and experiences to draw on, as a creative writer. She wrote largely based on the experiences she had. If you look at a poem like "Three Women," the long verse poem, it just has so much going on in it about the experience of being a woman. It's almost strange for me to be talking about it as a man—I don't have children, and there's a lot of it I cannot relate to. But the poem is so powerful and so evocative of the female experience that even as a male, I can't help but be completely affected by it. It's so beautiful.
But she would not have been happy, I don't think, without writing. I think she depended on it.
There's a line in it that said Sylvia Plath's mistake was "wanting to have it all in an age naïve enough to promise that she could."
I read that! And I don't think there's anything wrong with wanting it all. She certainly had every right to want it all. And in some respects, she did have it all. For a time, at least.
And even with Ted Hughes's affair, and managing a house as a single mother of two, basically, plus moving houses at one point—for a very long period of time, actually, a span or six months, she did it remarkably well. It was only because certain things just didn't go her way—and that's a really crass way to put it—that things did begin to spiral out of her control. When it came to being in London with that terrible winter that they had in 1963, there had to be other factors we don't know about that have been kept quiet that just totally beat her down in those last few days.
After Plath died, how did the public find out about it? In the absence of obituaries, that is.
A lot of the periodicals that were publishing her poems asked for contributor biographies. Usually just a sentence or two: "Sylvia Plath graduated from Smith College in 1955 and she currently lives with her husband, the poet Ted Hughes, in Massachusetts." Something like that.
But in 1963, a lot of the poems that were appearing had little contributor biographies, and they all mentioned that Plath had died earlier that year.
Here's one, from her short story "America! America!" that was published in April of 1963 in Punch magazine: It says, at the bottom of the first page of the story, "Sylvia Plath, who died earlier this year at the age of 30, was educated at Smith College and Cambridge University. She was a poet with a clear, original, and a very effective style, and has also written a novel."