Bitter Fame

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2007

In the preface to Sylvia Plath: A Biography (1987), Linda Wagner-Martin explains the difficulty that she had in dealing with Sylvia Plath’s estate. In particular, she mentions Olwyn Hughes, who demanded revisions that would have fundamentally altered Wagner-Martin’s biography. Several friends of Plath and Hughes would not speak to Wagner-Martin. Now they have not only assisted Anne Stevenson but also included their own vivid reminiscences as appendices to her biography. Indeed, Olwyn Hughes’s contribution is so great that Stevenson calls their collaboration “almost a work of dual authorship.”

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Both the dust-jacket blurb of Stevenson’s biography and her preface imply that the truthful story of Sylvia Plath is being told for the first time. While there is no question that Stevenson’s book provides a new view of Plath, it does not supersede Wagner-Martin’s book, nor should it be regarded as the definitive biography. In the case of a protean figure such as Plath, a poet who had many sides and moods and a highly subjective imagination which turned nearly everything into the story of herself, there can be no such thing as “the truth” as told to a biographer. For all her parade of Plath insiders, Stevenson cannot produce the thoughts of the one source, Ted Hughes, who might have made her biography definitive. Hughes checked her text for errors of fact, but he did not consent to an interview, and Stevenson has no privileged view of his feelings. Like Wagner-Martin, she must speculate, and rely on the testimony of others. If Wagner-Martin labored under a disadvantage by not being able to penetrate the inner circle of Plath and Hughes, Stevenson is equally suspect for having done so, since she adopts wholeheartedly their points of view.

With these reservations firmly in mind, however, it must be said that Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath is a penetrating psychological study, well documented and closely reasoned. By the end of the biography, Stevenson has amply demonstrated both the power of Plath’s poetry and her inexorable drive to kill herself. In the biographer’s narrative, the work and the life are inextricable. At a very young age, Plath exhibits remarkable literary ability, using her gift of seemingly total recall to create startling images and metaphors. She is a romantic idealist, finding a significance for herself in everything that happens to her and sealing up memories in the tomb of her imagination. This makes for extraordinarily vivid writing but also for a sensibility that dwells on the past and that cannot let go of anything. One of her adolescent male correspondents once accused her of writing to him merely for the sake of her own ego—an ego that was always literary, Stevenson implies, turning everything into an investigation of itself

When Otto Plath died, Sylvia was not allowed to mourn him. Her mother thought to shield her from the trauma of a funeral, but the result was that Sylvia never got over her father’s death. In fact, she irrationally thought of him as abandoning her and breaking the bond that had made her feel secure and special. Aurelia Plath seems to have done everything possible to attend to her precocious, high-strung child, and Sylvia remained close to her mother. Yet the family harmony was destroyed by Otto Plath’s death, with Sylvia nursing a grudge against her mother that she never quite understood. Stevenson suggests that Plath associated her mother’s high expectations for her with “all editors, all readers, all persons in a position to accept or reject her.” It came as a momentary revelation and a relief to Plath when her psychiatrist gave her permission to hate her mother. The closeness between Aurelia and Sylvia had become so stifling that Sylvia had difficulty making any decision that she could not immediately justify to Aurelia—often in long, falsely optimistic and loving letters.

At an early age, Sylvia was determined to be both a commercial success as a writer of magazine fiction and a great poet. She was brash and ambitious, and she tended to exploit her relationships for what they could do for her. Stevenson, an Englishwoman, attributes Plath’s rather vulgar behavior at the University of Cambridge (after her graduation from Smith) as indicative of her “archetypal American gusto.” Plath was a little loud for the English. Similarly, Stevenson does not like the way Plath apparently condescended to Hughes’s parents, calling them “dear, simple Yorkshire folk,” while herself expressing a simple hope in the future that Stevenson terms “childlike, American to the core.”

It never occurs to Stevenson to think how uncomfortable Plath must have been in the English climate; instead she dwells on how Plath’s aggressive pursuit of Ted Hughes (a rising young poet) unnerved his friends. It was rather frightening, Stevenson reports, to see how viciously Plath protected her possessions. In a comparison between Plath and Hughes, Plath comes off for the worse. She is all show while he is all seriousness. Stevenson quotes a friend of the couple to establish the fundamental difference between these two poets and lovers: “Sylvia was determined that it [her work] should be read. Ted was determined that it [his work] should exist.”

Hughes is credited with persuading Plath to be “true to her gift rather than to her ambition.” Her one real virtue in this biography is her selfless devotion to promoting her husband’s talent. Even at a time when Hughes was getting early recognition for his work and Plath almost none for hers, she showed virtually no jealousy of him. Her main fear was that she would lose this handsome literary genius to another woman. She wanted Hughes to be like her (father, an all-enveloping male presence. In return, she would adore him without qualification. It was only when Plath began to feel isolated, shut out by Hughes’s friends and by several rejections of her work, that she lashed out against him, tearing up his papers and drafts in a self-destructive fury that revealed her despair over her own unacknowledged creativity.

Ted Hughes is portrayed in this biography at a distance as a long-suffering and patient husband. He may well have been. There is, however, almost no presentation of what he thought of Plath, of why he was attracted to her, and of why he eventually left her for another woman. On the contrary, Stevenson resorts to vague phrases such as “Ted Hughes must have begun to feel This is disturbing in a biography that purports to have the inside information. Stevenson clearly shows why it was difficult to live with Plath, but she cannot account for the fact that in its first years the marriage was very happy. In fact, at Cambridge, where the two poets met, the biographer reports that “Ted’s friends looked on in perplexity as Ted too showed increasingly that he was falling in love.” Here and in other parts of the biography it seems that Plath was resented by Hughes’s English friends for taking him away from his first love, poetry, even though Plath helped promote his career and the couple was happiest when they were writing together. In Stevenson’s eagerness to portray Plath’s self-destructive egocentricity, she makes it very difficult to imagine why Hughes, or any man, was attracted to Plath in the first place. Yet Plath had her share of lovers and male friends (one of whom, A. Alvarez, has complained about Stevenson’s harsh portrait of Plath).

A more evenhanded passage captures the division in Plath between “an artificial Sylvia, modeled on her mother, driven by ambitions she believed Aurelia harbored for her and ideals she thought Aurelia projected” and the “violent, subversive, moonstruck, terribly angry” American girl who wanted to die, perhaps, because she had dark, underground emotions that were at war with her sunny, wholesome appearance.

Stevenson is undoubtedly right: Plath might have been able to save herself if she had opened up and had been less blind to the needs of others. She was a perfectionist, however, and could not tolerate the flaws in other people. She was a trial for Hughes’s English friends, who often found her rude and in bad form because she resented their claims on her husband’s time. She liked it best when she and Hughes were off by themselves and planning to have a family. This was a very narrowly conceived world. The least indication on Hughes’s part that his interest in Plath was flagging was met by her with jealous rages. If their marriage could not be perfect, then in her view it was a failure. There was no middle ground. As Stevenson puts it, Plath’s “concept of marriage was absolute and all-demanding.” When Hughes behaved as something less than her god, he became a representation of Otto Plath, the father who had abandoned her.

In the last days of her life, Plath carried on a compulsive dialogue with herself, ignoring other people and unwilling to have anything penetrate her inconsolable grief over the failure of her marriage. She felt alone and barely capable of coping with her two young children. In her last year, she had been creating magnificent poems in the early hours of the morning that poured out her savage anger at everything that seemed to conspire against her life. Stevenson rightly concentrates on one poem, “Daddy,” to convey both the quality of the poet’s work and her life. Daddy is a “bag full of God,” standing for the creator who has denied Sylvia contact with the very sources of her identity. Yet because he has abandoned her, she has had to kill him, to repudiate his hold over her life caused by his very absence. Memories of him have been a torture to her, and in her feverish imagination he becomes a sadist, the Nazi tormenting the Jew, the authority over her self that she has never been able to overthrow. The poem is a kind of exorcism. It claims to have killed the father even as the poet states “I do, I do,” acknowledging how married she has become to his memory. The poem is finally ambiguous, suggesting both Plath’s struggle to become her own person and her decision to take her own life:

“Daddy, I’m finally through.”

Plath was never able to conquer her psychological demons and committed suicide by turning on a gas oven and sticking her head into it. Yet her poetry obviously gave her another life; in her poems she could actually thrive on the tensions that made day-to- day life miserable. The heightened life of the poetry, which Stevenson is very adept at analyzing, provides the counterpoint, the successful self that Plath found so hard to sustain with other people. In the end, Stevenson shrewdly identifies the sources of Plath’s power as a poet—her ability to wrest an original self from literary creation. At twenty, Plath had attempted suicide and had been rescued—”they stuck me together with glue,” she writes in “Daddy.” In London during an unusually harsh winter, without her husband, burdened by her young children and depressed by the imperfection of her life, Plath went about her suicide as meticulously as she wrote her poems. She stuffed the space under her children’s doors with towels so that the gas would not seep through and killed herself in the early hours of the morning (a favorite time for her to write) when it was least likely for anyone to save her. In another poem, Edge,” she presented the image of a dead woman, “perfected” by her very death, wearing a “smile of accomplishment.” There is no telling whether Plath viewed her own suicide in this way, except for the deliberate, well-conceived manner in which she planned it. Stevenson’s emphasis on this poem near the end of her biography implies that on some level Plath knew where her talent and life were heading: right to the very edge and then over into death.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 66

Library Journal. CXIV, August, 1989, p. 135.

London Review of Books. XI, October 26, 1989, p.28.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. August 20, 1989, p.3.

The New Republic. CCI, November 6, 1989, p.98.

The New York Review of Books. XXXVI, September 28, 1989, p.34.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIV, August 27, 1989, p.11.

Newsweek. CXIV, August 28, 1989, p.60.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXV, June 23, 1989, p.44.

The Times Literary Supplement. October 27, 1989, p.1179.

The Washington Post Book World. XIX, August 20, 1989, p.5.

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