(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

Sylvia Plath surely surpasses any other poet of her generation as a cultural icon and center of controversy. Was she the victim of a misogynist husband? Is she a feminist martyr? How did Plath come to write the stunning poems of her last year? What was Ted Hughes’s role in advancing or retarding her reputation? Why did he destroy some of her work? What kind of man marries two women who commit suicide?

To gauge the significance of Diane Middlebrook’s book, it is necessary to place it in the context of the voluminous Plath canon. Although Middlebrook provides a bibliography, it is unfortunate that she does not separate it into primary and secondary works so that the reader can clearly see how the growth of literature about Plath coincided with Hughes’s editing and publication of his late wife’s poetry and prose.

After Plath’s suicide in 1963, Hughes oversaw the publication of Ariel (1965), the collection of poems that suddenly catapulted Plath into the ranks of the twentieth century’s best-known poets. Until then, she had published only one book of poems, The Colossus (1960), as well as the novelThe Bell Jar (1963) under the name Victoria Lucas. Plath used a pseudonym because she did not want the autobiographical work associated with the reputation she had established as a poet. Plath’s reputation first took hold in England, where, however, she was seen as decidedly inferior to Hughes, who had been hailed from his first book on as a major poet. The Colossus was received as a worthy but by no means groundbreaking work. Before Hughes left Plath, she had composed perhaps no more than four or five poems that were later considered to be among her finest achievements. Her work while married to Hughes seemed somehow too controlled, too perfected, too derivative of the great writers she absorbed with scholarly intensity. After her husband left, Plath erupted, producing a body of poetry that, for quantity and quality, has no equal among her contemporaries.

Middlebrook relates this part of the Plath saga extremely well, shrewdly noting that while Plath may not have been producing her greatest work while living with Hughes, his example and their constant interchanges as poets and as husband and wife were having a cumulative effect that would issue forth in the creative flow of her last year. Even at moments when Plath seemed quiescent as a writer—baking cakes and caring for her two children—she was storing up metaphors and gearing up for her greatest work. No completely satisfying biography of Plath has yet appeared, but Middlebrook provides a mid-course correction, so to speak, by dislodging Plath from her early passive role as Hughes’s consort and by propelling her into Hughes’s life as a goad and inspiration for some of his best writing.

As Middlebrook makes clear, Hughes bears considerable blame not only for obscuring Plath’s contribution to his own work but also for distorting his late wife’s achievement. Although Plath had completed and organized for publication her masterpiece Ariel, Hughes took it upon himself to rearrange the order of the poems and to suppress certain works. Even worse, he destroyed two of her journals, claiming they contained material that would hurt their two children. Later, as Middlebrook reports, he cast doubt on this explanation when he admitted that, in fact, very little of those journals contained anything that the children would find disturbing. When the remaining Plath journals were first published in 1982, Hughes made the editor excise certain passages that he deemed too personal (usually relating to him), and he exerted the same kind of censorship on Plath’s mother when she published her daughter’s letters to her in Letters Home (1975). Some of Hughes’s damage has been undone with the publication of The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (2000).

Middlebrook’s book...

(The entire section is 1600 words.)