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?"