Sylvia Plath and the Nature of Biography
Sylvia Plath and the Nature of Biography
With the advance publication of The Silent Woman (1994) in the New Yorker in August 1993, Janet Malcolm reopened debate about the life of poet Sylvia Plath and raised some larger issues about the nature of biography itself. Suggesting that the motives of biographers are less than altruistic, if not intrusive, Malcolm's book concentrates on her lengthy research process, particularly dealing with Olwyn Hughes, the executor of Plath's literary estate, and interviewing other Plath biographers to discuss how writing their biographies affected them personally. Among the issues Malcolm addresses is the right to privacy of living persons who were associated with the biographer's subject and how those rights interfere with the biographer's attempt to produce an accurate portrait. Indeed, Malcolm questions the efficacy of the biographer's project—capturing a person's life—and wonders if the biographer is, in fact, more of a burglar than a benefactor. Several other writers have also pondered this predicament. B. L. Reid, for instance, argues in Necessary Lives (1990) that "biography ought to be as well written as a novel; but it should not try to be, or to feel like, a novel. Biography becomes a fine art when it performs superbly within the right limits of its own nature…. One must be wary of the tempting 'high Priori road,' as Pope calls it: of fitting data into preconceived designs, the temptation to neaten and intensify and thereby to falsify the often disorderly order of time. Biography's strength and its integrity are ones of subject matter, of honorable and tasteful treatment of an interesting subject."
What makes biographies of Plath so controversial is that her widower, the English poet Ted Hughes, is still an active writer who insists, through his sister Olwyn Hughes, on maintaining a high degree of privacy concerning his years with Plath. This has made research difficult for Plath's biographers, who have been denied access to many of Plath's journals and letters, key sources that biographers of other individuals often take for granted. Once considered a noble genre, whose standard was James Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson (1791), biography in recent years has become increasingly dependent on the lurid details of its subject's life, becoming a psychology of an artist's pathology instead of an exploration of the guiding principles and philosophies that underscored a person's life. This penchant for deviant details—a trait Malcolm readily recognizes in her own biographical pursuits—prompts her to compare the biographer to "the professional burglar, breaking into a house, rifling through certain drawers that he has good reason to think contain the jewelry and money, and triumphantly bearing his loot away …" and to characterize biography as "the medium through which the remaining secrets of the famous dead are taken from them and dumped out in full view of the world." Thus, she defends Hughes's noncooperation with Plath's biographers as his attempt to guard his privacy and honor his wife's memory.
Representative Works Discussed Below
Keepers of the Flame: Literary Estates and the Rise of Biography (criticism) 1992
The Journalist and the Murderer (nonfiction) 1990
The Silent Woman (biography) 1994
Letters Home: Correspondence 1950–1963 [edited by Aurelia Schober Plath] (letters) 1975
The Journals of Sylvia Plath [edited by Ted Hughes and Frances McCullough] (journals) 1982
Reid, B. L.
Necessary Lives: Biographical Reflections (criticism) 1990
Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath (biography) 1989
Telling Women's Lives: The New Biography (criticism) 1994
(The entire section is 77 words.)
The Nature Of Biography
Dee Horne (essay date 1992)
SOURCE: "Biography in Disguise: Sylvia Plath's Journals," in Wascana Review, Vol. 27, No. 1, 1992, pp. 90-104.
[In the following essay, Horne details how Plath's published journals were manipulated by Hughes and his editor, thus providing a skewed rendering of Plath's life. Horne concludes that there is always room for interpretation in biography, even when analyzing works written by the subject.]
It's hopeless to "get life" if you don't keep notebooks.
Now to do what I must, then to do what I want: this book too becomes a litany of dreams, of directives and imperatives. [The Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1982]
Many critics have erroneously labelled Plath a confessional writer. As Judith Kroll accurately observes in Chapters in a Mythology, Plath is not a confessional writer because her writing has distinctive characteristics which do not conform to those of confessional writers such as Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton:
In a great deal of the work of Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton, often considered the paradigm 'confessional' poets, the voice—intensely personal and almost journalistic—is the direct voice of the author in an everyday role. In Plath the personal concerns and everyday role are transmuted into something impersonal,...
(The entire section is 19263 words.)
Reviews Of The Silent Woman
Phoebe Pettingell (review date 14-28 March 1994)
SOURCE: "Plath and the Perils of Biography," in The New Leader, Vol. LXXVII, No. 3, March 14-28, 1994, pp. 14-15.
[In the following review of The Silent Woman, Pettingell praises Malcolm's journalistic and self-conscious approach to biography.]
Janet Malcolm has created a literary niche for herself as a chronicler of quarrels. Ten years ago, In the Freud Archives gave us a blow-by-blow account of orthodox Freudians duking it out with their master's detractors. In 1990, The Journalist and the Murderer depicted the feud between an Army doctor convicted of killing his family and a friendly writer with whom he cooperated in hopes of exoneration, but whose book ultimately concurred with the court. Not one to pull her own punches, Malcolm lets us see how people talk to a reporter, how in seeking to control a story they usually reveal the very information they later regret having mentioned. Her tales are gripping precisely because she zeroes in on the essence of a personality. Without being disengaged—her own opinions do emerge, and tend to be strong—she fashions portraits that, favorable or not, retain the feel of authenticity.
Now, in The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, Malcolm explores the conflicts inherent in accurately describing the life of a dead contemporary author. For...
(The entire section is 7785 words.)
Alexander, Paul. Rough Magic: A Biography of Sylvia Plath. New York: Viking, 1991, 402 p.
Largely implicates Hughes in Plath's death. Alexander forgoes literary analysis of Plath's work in favor of tracing the lives of those affected by Plath's death and her rising popularity since 1962.
Butscher, Edward. Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness. New York: Seabury Press, 1976, 388 p.
Presents a psychological portrait of Plath and her various personae, discusses how she integrated these identities into her life and art, and analyzes the formation of the Plath legend.
Hayman, Ronald. The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath. New York: Birch Lane Press, 1991, 235 p.
Writes of Plath's life, her college boyfriends, and the circumstances leading to her death. Hayman also relates the details of Plath's psychological history and Hughes's infidelity.
Wagner-Martin, Linda. Sylvia Plath: A Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987, 282 p.
Focuses on Plath's desire to become the perfect wife and mother. Wagner-Martin, who was denied permission to quote from Plath's works, argues that Plath's quest led her to defer her development as a writer....
(The entire section is 703 words.)