Why Sylvia Plath Still Haunts American Culture
Even half a century after her suicide, both her work and her life remain thrilling and horrifying.
Her name, at this point, is almost onomatopoeic: the elegantly coiled, haute-American Sylvia, poised and serpentine, and then the Germanic exhalation of Plath, its fatal flatness like some ruptured surface resealing itself. Her whole history is in there somehow: the shining prizewinner with a death obsession, the supercharged, comical/terrible talent whose memory is the lid of a sarcophagus.
“This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary / The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue.” That’s the Plath-world, freakishly bleak, exerting its tractor-beam fascination on American culture. Fifty years after she killed herself, we find her vital, nasty, invincible, red-and-white poetry sitting in a region of cultural near-exhaustion. Her short life has been trampled and retrampled under the biographer’s hoof, her opus viewed and skewed through every conceivable lens of interpretation. A Massachusetts girlhood; a precocious literary ascent interrupted by an early nervous breakdown; a decampment to England; marriage to—and separation from—the poet Ted Hughes; suicide. In her lifetime, she published just one book of poetry (The Colossus and Other Poems), one novel (The Bell Jar), and a few stories in magazines. Upon her death, the bulk of her work—including the completed manuscript of Ariel—was still unknown to readers.
Out of these elements, endless constructions and conjurations. The ’70s enthroned her as a feminist martyr. She has been posthumously psychoanalyzed, politicized, astrologized. She did, it’s true, pack into her three decades a remarkable number of reboots and re-selvings—transformation, and its lethal opposite, was her theme—but even so … Can’t we leave her alone?
Not just yet, we can’t. This year has already brought us two new biographies, two more runs at the imago. Carl Rollyson’s American Isis declares her “the Marilyn Monroe of modern literature.” This is not as daft as it sounds: When Plath arrived in England in 1955, on a Fulbright scholarship to Cambridge University, she was, at least to English eyes, ablaze with American glamour. She had fashionable hair, man-eater lipstick, and a wobbly sense of momentum about her. She posed in a swimsuit for the university newspaper. She wore red shoes, as in a fairy tale. She wanted, she needed, to be famous. Rollyson makes much—too much, perhaps—of a dream Plath had three years later, in which Marilyn appeared to her “as a kind of fairy godmother,” giving her a manicure and promising her “a new, flowering life.”
Mad Girl’s Love Song, by Andrew Wilson, cuts a little deeper, because it comes in at a sharper angle. Querying the notion that Plath’s career was essentially a countdown to the artistic blastoff ofAriel—the poems she wrote in the months preceding her death—Wilson zooms in on her pre-Ted life: the bold college girl, adventuress in the virginal ’50s, who finally rebelled into madness. In Wilson’s book, we get to know in depth her extraordinary, leather-jacketed pen pal Eddie Cohen, who wrote to Plath after reading a short story she had published in Seventeen magazine and then—though only a couple years her senior—took it upon himself to be her epistolary instructor in art, sex, and the life authentically lived: “Petting, if it does not culminate in orgasm for both parties, will increase rather than alleviate frustrations.” Cohen was of the “Howl” generation (“I have seen many of my friends,” he wrote in one letter, “all of whom are hard-headed, clear-thinking people, driven to sanatoriums and asylums”), and he had intuited that Plath was a high risk for cracking up. Plath, on the other hand, in literary-hustler mode, would later propose that their correspondence be published as a book called Dialogue of the Damned.
Wilson also gives us one priceless image: that of Plath, her hair bound up, retiring each night in a viscid mask of Noxzema, its odor so strong that her roommate considered finding alternative accommodations. This is about as Sylvia Plath as it gets: the bedtime beauty routine turned ceremonial horror, the lady cream with its repellent smell—ecce mulier, at the brink of the underworld, passing semi-monstrously through the rituals of American womanhood on the way to some deeper, darker initiation.
Wilson and Rollyson both make heavy use of Plath’s archived letters and journals, committing themselves thereby to chunks of laborious paraphrase: “In an unpublished letter,” Wilson tells us at one point, “she outlined her belief that, at the moment, her store of suppressed sexual energy was being sublimated, channelled into her creativity.” Zzzz. This sort of thing, as it accumulates, produces a muffling, third-hand effect. Another breath from the Plath-world, maybe: mummification.
The best books about Sylvia Plath (no shock here) are by women: Janet Malcolm’s probing, felineThe Silent Woman and Diane Middlebrook’s Her Husband. But her best critic, strange to say, was Ted Hughes. Hughes on Plath is irresistible, not merely because he was a genius writing about a genius, but because the force propelling his prose is love. In the letters and essays that he wrote about his dead wife, Hughes responded to her work with a binocular combination of spousal sympathy and undomesticated awe. “Behind these poems,” he wrote in a 1965 essay on Ariel, “there is a fierce and uncompromising nature. There is also a child desperately infatuated with the world. And there is a strange muse, bald, white and wild, in her ‘hood of bone’, floating over a landscape like that of the Primitive Painters.” This is deep-focus concern, with nothing retrospective or after-the-fact about it. Middlebrook has persuasively demonstrated that the Plath-Hughes marriage was on one level a devoted mutual artistic stewardship, in which each party saw very clearly the nature of the other’s gift.
Their daughter, Frieda Hughes, in her foreword to the 2005 edition of Ariel, writes of the arrival of “the distinctive Ariel voice,” an explosively liberated poetic voice that, after a breakthrough in late 1961, would appear “with increasing frequency, ease, and ferocity.” Of the liberation there can be no doubt, but it seems to me that Ariel has more than one voice. There’s the voice of the heavy-metal showstoppers like “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus”—profane, bombastically crazy—but there’s another voice too, a quieter voice that mutters as if entranced: “The comets / Have such a space to cross …” The beginning of “Cut,” meanwhile, detours into the bruising Salingerian deadpan of The Bell Jar: “What a thrill— / My thumb instead of an onion. / The top quite gone / Except for a sort of a hinge.”
The book’s impact, nonetheless, is total. In visions and maledictions, and weird singsong, the poems straggle across the page like disemboweled nursery rhymes. “Flapping and sucking, blood-loving bat. / That is that. That is that.” Some of them she wrote in a cold London flat between the hours of 4 a.m. and 8 a.m., with her children asleep in the next room and her husband off with another woman. Haloed with fatigue, she aimed herself straight at the unthinkable. “But my god, the clouds are like cotton. / Armies of them. They are carbon monoxide.” She seems at times to be talking to herself, testing her own nerve. Some kind of terminus confronts her: a magnetic white deadness, fury at the freezing point. “How far is it? / How far is it now?” And the outcome of this confrontation—thrillingly, horrifyingly—is in the balance. It’s the unrepeatable sensation of Ariel.
Plath could have won. That is the point. Her demons, so courageously envisioned and anatomized, so named, could have slunk away, back into their hoods of bone. Instead they contrived the last catastrophe: Ariel, genderless sprite, burst from the pine tree only to suffocate in an oven. It’s awful to think about, awful to touch with our minds. And so, being human, we can’t stop.
Crossing the Water (1971) With Winter Trees, also published in 1971, this collection gathered up poems Plath wrote betweenThe Colossus and Ariel. Sharpening her awful, seated-at-the-Algonquin-Round-Table-in-Hell wit, she is at a peak of acerbic control: “For five days I lie in secret, / Tapped like a cask, the years draining into my pillow. / Even my best friend thinks I’m in the country.” (“Face Lift”)
The Bell Jar (1963) First published under a pseudonym a few weeks before she died,* this skimpily fictionalized account of Plath’s adventures in New York (and subsequent mental collapse) is essentially two books in one: a highly accomplished and commercially savvy knockoff of The Catcher in the Rye, and something harder and more terrifying. Very brilliant and very cruel, The Bell Jar is not dated in the slightest.
The Colossus and Other Poems (1960)The only book of poetry published in her lifetime, this is Early Sylvia: wordy, morbid, clever as anything, frowningly in search of something that might sound a little less like poetry: “Grub-white mulberries redden among leaves. / I’ll go out and sit in white like they do, / Doing nothing.” (“Moonrise”)
* This article originally stated that The Bell Jar was published a few months before Sylvia Plath died. We regret the error.