Since her suicide in 1963, Sylvia Plath has attracted increasing critical attention, many scholars invariably fusing (and confusing) Plath’s life with her art. When reading almost anything about Plath’s work, one generally receives a healthy dose of biography accompanied by psychoanalysis. A thorough, well-documented, and sympathetically engaged biography would, then, be of enormous benefit to readers of Plath’s poetry and criticism. Linda Wagner-Martin’s Sylvia Plath: A Biography addresses several of the problems of Edward Butscher’s earlier Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness (1976). A gifted writer, Butscher obfuscated some factual data by substituting pseudonyms and engaged in considerable speculation about Plath. Despite his appreciation of Plath’s work and his creative analysis of her and her work, Butscher was unable to identify with Plath’s particular struggle for independence as a woman of the 1950’s. Wagner-Martin is far better able to discern the conflicts experienced and expressed by Plath, she is forthcoming with names and dates, and she attempts to curb psychoanalytical flights that have become a standard of Plath criticism.
Wagner-Margin does so with an admitted handicap. In the years following his wife’s death, Ted Hughes, assisted by his sister Olwyn, has exercised control of Plath’s literary estate. By his own admission, Hughes destroyed Plath’s record of her last months and has been evasive on the disappearance of another notebook as well as a novel Plath was writing. Some material remains sealed until after the deaths of Plath’s mother and brother, other material until the year 2013. Thus the author, working largely with material already available to scholars, does not uncover any genuinely new information. Yet she obviously believes that the strength of her efforts has been weakened by the Hughes family’s refusal to allow lengthy quotations—this after she declined to make substantial deletions at Ted Hughes’s request.
The author’s stated aim is to emphasize Plath’s identity as a writer. Working largely from Plath’s journals, letters, scrapbooks, calendars, poems, drafts, and worksheets, Wagner-Martin recounts familiar Plath territory, occasionally offering new insights. In the end, readers are given a complete if sketchy portrait of one of America’s most gifted contemporary poets.
The first of Otto and Aurelia Plath’s two children, Sylvia Plath was born into a home where superior academic performance was expected and, after Otto’s premature death, even necessary. For Plath this seems to have created some confusion regarding self-worth; she believed that she had to be perfect to be loved. Thus was created the determined achiever, striving not merely for recognition but for confirmation of her value. Being smart, however, was insufficient; Plath longed to become popular. Wagner-Martin stresses Plath’s idealistic conception of what her life should be, focusing on her unrealistic attempts not only to be perfect but to achieve the ideal in college, friends, job, and husband. Perpetually disappointed when she failed...
(The entire section is 1276 words.)