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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.
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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
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 19263
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, by being absorbed into a timeless mythic system. The poetry of Lowell and Sexton relates their narratives; in Plath—although many narrative details of her mythic system are drawn from her life—the emphasis is more on expressing the structure of her state of being. 'Confessional' poetry usually comprises a plurality of concerns—politics, the writing of poetry, marriage, aging, fame, and so on—that remain relatively independent. But in Plath's poetry, there is one overriding concern: the problem of rebirth or transcendence; and nearly everything in her poetry contributes either to the statement or to the envisioned resolution of this problem.
Kroll's analysis of the characteristics of the confessional writer might also be applied to Plath's journal. She is not a confessional poet, nor does she use her journal as a confessor. The journals play an important role in the creative evolution of her writing.
Plath started keeping a journal when she was a child and remained an avid journal writer up to her death. Though most have been preserved, we are unable to read the journals kept just prior to her death because Ted Hughes took the term 'literary executor' quite literally:
The journals exist in an assortment of notebooks and bunches of loose sheets. This selection contains perhaps a third of the whole bulk, which is now in The Neilson Library at Smith College. Two more notebooks survived for a while, maroon-backed ledgers like the '57-'59 volume, and continued the record from late '59 to within three days of her death. The last of these contained entries for several months, and I destroyed it because I did not want her children to have to read it (in those days I regarded forgetfulness as an essential part of survival). The other disappeared.
By destroying this late journal, Hughes has done a disservice to Plath and to scholars and other interested readers. In all probability both of these missing journals would have shed light on Plath and the "Ariel" poems which constitute her crowning achievement.
The editors of Plath's journals, Frances McCullough and Ted Hughes, have altered the surviving journals significantly. In the published American edition of The Journals of Sylvia Plath, the writing often appears fragmented as Plath shifts from one topic to another. A comparison of the published Smith Journal (1950–1953) to the original manuscript, however, reveals that the published edition edits, and often deletes, much of Plath's creativity and sensuality as well as her pain and anger. The discrepancy between the Smith Journal (1950–1953) in this published edition and the original manuscript is a demonstration of the misleading effects of the editorial omissions. Clearly the reader's critical interpretation of Plath's Smith Journal (1950–1953) and understanding of her as an individual and a writer, too, is revised.
McCullough and Hughes also alter the text by making additions, inserting material chronologically from other fragments and notebooks, "ordering" her journals on false grounds. For example, they insert Plath's notes about her attack of sinusitis (October 17 [-19], 1951)—which is not in the bound volume of the original manuscript, but is a six page manuscript. Later on, they insert Plath's poem "Infirmary Blues," thereby establishing a link between the journal and a finished poem which was not included in the original Smith Journal (1950–1953). Near the end of the published edition, the editors include an entry dated May 14 which corresponds to page 414 of the original Smith Journal (1950–1953) in which they omit the last six pages. More importantly, they neglect to state specifically that the subsequent entries in their edition are not part of the original Smith Journal (1950–1953). Plath's reflections, for example, on the executions of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, which she later uses in the beginning of The Bell Jar, are found in a one page typescript (June 19, 1953) which Plath typed on the reverse side of Street & Smith Publications interoffice memorandum paper, and not in the Smith Journal at all. Similarly, her "Letter to an Over-grown Over-protected, Scared Spoiled Baby" is found in a three page typescript.
As is the case of the Smith Journal (1950–1953), the subsequent section entitled "Cambridge 1955–57" in the published edition is misleading because the editors do not state that they are culling material from a variety of journals. Plath did, in fact, keep a journal entitled "Cambridge Diary" (January 3-March 11, 1957), but this is only a ten page typescript. In addition, the editors add editorial commentary, changes in punctuation for the sake of conformity, and make omissions in both content and style. While all three of these editorial decisions are noteworthy, the fact that they are made 'silently' is disturbing.
The central question the editor of journals must consider is whether or not to print the manuscript in its entirety. In From Writer to Reader: Studies in Editorial Method, Philip Gaskell states:
Although they were not written for publication, the literary quality of diaries, collections of letters, etc., may be great, and they may be edited for publication. Here it is the original document itself that is the finished product, and there is every reason to make the manuscript as copy-text and to reproduce it without normalization. The only difficulty is likely to be that of representing the author's manuscript conventions readably and economically by means of typographical symbols.
McCullough and Hughes, however, intervene by making omissions and additions from other journals and by normalizing punctuation for the sake of condensation and readability. The underlying implication is that these measures will eliminate redundancy and tedium, making the journals more interesting and accessible to the general public; but the major problem with this approach is that the reader does not see the author's version of her life, but rather that of the editors. McCullough and Hughes provide a selective portrait of Plath because they eliminate much of her early writing, writing that included, interestingly, much eroticism.
In the editor's note, McCullough states the basic editorial principles for omissions, which I quote at length:
We have tried, in the cutting of the work, to stick to a few basic principles: to include what seem to us the most important elements relating to her work, her inner life, and her valiant struggle to find herself and her voice. This leaves a great deal of material by the road: countless numbers of sketches, prospective poems and stories, lists of characters' names, detailed descriptions of rooms, places, people, and other elements related to her work. Obviously there are also lots of missing pages of ordinary commentary that seemed not particularly relevant to any of the basic concerns of the book. Because it is very early—in terms of the ages of Plath's survivors—to release such a document, there has been special concern for those who must live out their lives as characters in this drama. There are quite a few nasty bits missing—Plath had a very sharp tongue and tended to use it on nearly everybody, even people of whom she was inordinately fond (Paul and Clarissa Roche, for instance, who take some tartness in this book and yet were very close to Plath right up until the end). So, some of the more devastating comments are missing—these are marked '(omission)' to distinguish them from ordinary cuts—of intimacies—that have the effect of diminishing Plath's eroticism, which was quite strong. In the later Smith College section and the Devon section a few names have been changed. (emphasis mine)
The editors do not define what is "relevant," but leave the reader wondering what could possibly be irrelevant. Plath presumably found the material of sufficient relevant to her "inner life" and "struggle to find herself" to record it on paper.
McCullough and Hughes omit approximately one quarter of the original Smith Journal (1950–1953). One page of the original manuscript is roughly the same as one typed page in the published edition because Plath wrote in such a large book. She wrote 420 pages while the published edition only devotes eighty-eight pages to the section entitled "Smith College." The practical exigencies of shaping a book-length manuscript were undoubtedly a strong editorial consideration, but the omissions are so extensive and alter our perception of Plath and her journal significantly. While it is not possible to prove that the editors made cuts due to personal reasons in the Smith Journal (1950–1953), there is evidence in later unpublished journals which suggests that personal concerns played a substantial part in the cutting and deleting process. In a typescript dated (August 28, 1957–October 14, 1958), for example, there are excerpts from an autograph manuscript of 186 pages (sealed). These were written while Plath was teaching at Smith College and while she lived in Boston. These excerpts correspond to pages 174-263 in the published American edition of Plath's journals. The editors typed these parts of Plath's journals and cuts were made, although it is impossible to ascertain how much material was omitted.
On the typescript copy supplied by the Plath Estate there are cuts made with a thick black marker. These deletions fall into three categories: references to men Plath knew; gossip; and references to Ted Hughes. The references to men are often scathing portraits of people who were probably still alive; thus, there are frequent name changes, presumably to protect both the editors and the living. The editing, however, is selective, and not consistent. While the sections in which Plath gossips about friends, faculty members at Smith and contemporary poets are often acerbic, they are none the less important. Of the three categories of deleted materials, the references to Ted Hughes are the most noticeable. In one section where Plath is writing about Ted and friends, a section is cut out with scissors. In addition, the editors delete references to Ted in which he criticizes Plath's poetry and suggests that she change some of the words—deletions that change Ted's own image favourably. There are also numerous references to Ted in the supplied typescript where Plath expresses her bitterness and anger toward him and observes the ways in which he has negatively changed her. She also expresses her feelings of inferiority of living in his shadow. At one point, she records the adultery of some Smith professors, her premonitions about Ted's unfaithfulness, and later, her believed confirmation of it when she sees him returning from Paradise Pond with another woman.
These deletions are important because the editors have censored Plath's anger and altered the public's perception of her personality. In addition, Plath's loss of trust and fears of betrayal and abandonment are relevant to our appreciation of her poetry in which she transforms these personal feelings into central themes. Thus the deletion of Plath's bitterness and anger toward Ted alters the way that we perceive Plath and read her journals; the deletion serves not only to dismiss, but also to invalidate her anger and her right to express it, even posthumously. In reality, anger often motivated her. In the published journal, for instance, she writes, "Fury jams the gullet and spreads poison, but, as soon as I start to write, dissipates, flows out into the figure of the letters: writing as therapy?" Moreover, as the "Ariel" poems illustrate, Plath needed to express her anger in order to write without inhibition and to liberate her own voice. Plath's self-professed powerlessness in life, ironically, persists in death as well. The cuts in this autograph suggest that the editors allowed personal reasons to influence their editorial decision here, and it is likely that personal reasons also influenced their editing of the Smith Journal (1950–1953) manuscript.
Oddly, the working typescript of the next journal (December 12, 1958–November 15, 1959) contains proposed omissions which are often ignored and reproduced in the published edition. Upon first inspection of the suggested omissions, it appears that one of the editors suggests the cuts in order to protect people: there are name changes, suggested deletions of references to prominent writers and to Plath's mother and her spouse. Plath expressed her hatred of her mother and jealousy of—and competition with—her brother. She also discusses her feeling of being unloved by her mother and her anguish over the loss of her father. In addition, she discusses how these feelings, not her rejection from Frank O'Connor's writing course (as her mother suggests), were the underlying factors behind her suicide attempt.
By and large, these suggested omissions are ignored and faithfully reproduced in a section which covers Plath's psychoanalysis and work with her therapist, Dr. Ruth Beuscher, in the "Boston 1958–1959" section of the published text. Here Plath acknowledges her fears of being barren and considers how, if this is true, this will affect Ted. There is also a suggested (but ignored) cut in which Plath discusses one of Ted's stories. She reveals her admiration of the story and offers critical suggestions about how he might edit it. The fact that the proposed cuts were largely ignored suggests that there was a conflict between editors regarding editorial principles and that the person who wished to make the cuts was allowing personal feelings to influence editorial decisions.
In a 1962 typescript, there are twenty-nine pages in which Plath keeps "Notes on Neighbours" in North Devon (including her description of Rose and Percy B and Charlie Pollard). But the editors omit Plath's moving and unusually frank description of her labour and delivery of her son, Nicholas. This omission is important because it shows that the editors have reconstructed Plath to suit their own image of her and, in so doing, that they have deprived her of the right to express her feelings. They have also prevented the reader from seeing that Plath did strip away her masks and reveal her true feelings in her journals alone (these masks remain in Letters Home).
In this entry, Plath describes her sense of loss of control while in labour. She feels as though she is being controlled and possessed by a "black force" (the baby) and records her initial feeling of alienation after the delivery: "I felt no surge of love." In Letters Home, Plath constructs a completely different picture of her labour and delivery for her mother:
Then at 5 minutes to 12, as the doctor was on his way over, this great bluish, glistening boy shot out into the bed in a tidal wave of water that drenched all four of us to the skin, howling lustily. It was an amazing sight. I immediately sat up and felt wonderful—no tears, nothing. (emphasis mine)
From the reading of Plath's journal account, one can see that Plath revised her own feelings in letters to others, yet expressed them in the journals.
Plath used her feelings and experiences during her labour and delivery as recorded in the journals for her radio poem, "Three Women: A Poem for Three Voices." In this poem, Plath describes three women and their ambivalent feelings about their about-to-be-born child. She portrays their feelings of loss of control and alienation. One woman has a son, one miscarries, and the one has a daughter whom she chooses to abandon. The third woman perceives the birth of the child as a form of self-annihilation: "I should have murdered this, that murders me," while the second woman perceives herself as "a heroine of the peripheral." Even the first woman has moments of apprehension in which she fears the vulnerability of love and the parental responsibility: "It is a terrible thing / To be so open: it is as if my heart / Put on a face and walked into the world."
As Wendy Owen suggests [in her dissertation "'A Riddle in Nine Syllables': Female Creativity in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath," Yale University, 1985], Plath's portrait of the pregnant woman is another area in which she explores her own conflicts about her role in the creative process:
Like most women coming of age in the 1950's, Plath must have felt tremendous pressure to bear a child. To be pregnant would be to prove visibly that she had fulfilled one of femininity's most important requirements. On the other hand, Plath expresses fear that having a child, even being pregnant, will take from her the time, energy and concentration she needs for her writing. Plath seemed to know that her writing, however painful and unsatisfying at times, was essential to her well-being. And so she continually struggled with her identity as Earth Mother and her identity as a poet. (…) The pregnant woman is yet another arena in which Plath plays out her contradictory sense of self as a creator.
Plath's divergent accounts of her labour and delivery reveal her conflict between her need to write honestly and her desire to please and protect her mother, a conflict that is nullified by the editors of her journal.
The most blatant distortion in the published journals is that created by the omission of intimacies which "have the effect of diminishing Plath's eroticism." The majority of the omissions in the Smith Journal (1950–1953) are in this area. Almost all of Plath's entries about men are deleted except those about Ted Hughes, the Norton brothers, and select references to some of the dates she had at Smith. Yet even these are condensed so much that the reader of the published journals does not see Plath's pervasive sensuality and eroticism. The original manuscript also leaves the reader with a much stronger sense of the social pressures she experienced as a young woman at an all-women's college in the fifties. For Plath, the entries in which she expresses her sensuality are, like the rest of her journal, significant because she saw these experiences as raw material for her writing. In an entry which is omitted from the published journal, Plath writes, "Perhaps someday I'll crawl back home, beaten, defeated. But not as long as I can make stories out of my heartbreak, beauty out of my sorrow." These entries are also important because they show that she struggles not only to define herself within her romantic relationships but also, paradoxically, to assert her independence and individuality with her writing.
Throughout her journals, Plath struggles between societal and cultural expectations of women as nurturers who place the needs of others first and her personal ambitions to write—to assert her own needs and individuality. Her greatest fear is that her own goals will become subordinate to, and hence dissolved in, those of her prospective spouse. In an early entry which is omitted in the published journal, Plath analyzes her fear of intimacy and unwittingly foreshadows her later separation and divorce from Ted Hughes: "I can only end up with one, and I must leave many lonely by the wayside. So that is all for now. Perhaps someday someone will leave me by the wayside. And that will be poetic justice.—"
In the foreword to the published journals, Hughes stresses the value that Plath's journals have as an autobiography which records her internal struggles:
This is where her journals demonstrate their difference in kind from all her other writings. Here she set down her day to day struggle with her warring selves, for herself only. This is her autobiography, far from complete, but complex and accurate, where she strove to see herself honestly and fought her way through the unmaking and remaking of herself. And the Sylvia Plath we can divine here is the closest we can now get to the real person in her daily life. (emphasis mine) [In an endnote, the critic states: "I do not believe that Plath, or any journal writer, wrote for herself only. Even if she did not consciously consider the eventuality of a reader, the very act of expressing her ideas on paper meant that there was the possibility that, as Gaskell argues, someone at some point in time would read them. By deleting and editing much of Plath's anger and sensuality, the editors prevent the reader from seeing Plath's authentic voice and self."]
Herein lies another contradiction in the application of editorial principles, because if the editors present Plath's manuscript as autobiography—that is, as a record of her vision of herself—then editorial omissions will misrepresent and distort Plath's testimony by providing the reader with only a partial, incomplete portrait. [In an endnote, the critic adds: "Autobiography, I contend, is distinct from the journal because it is a more selective and self-conscious form. The author is more conscious of the reader and selectively crafts the picture of herself that she wants the reader to see. The less structured and defined journal form, on the other hand, enables the writer to explore different aspects of herself and different modes of expression. Moreover, a journal has the illusion of privacy which enables the writer to dismiss the idea of a reader from her conscious thought when actively writing."]
The omissions in the Smith Journal (1950–1953) adversely affect our reading of Plath's journals by altering the physical structure as well as the content of her manuscript. In reading the published edition, the reader lacks any sense of the physical format of the original Smith manuscript. Plath wrote in a black hard-bound volume, labelled "LAW NOTES" on the spine, which has lined and numbered pages with a vertical line a third of the way across from the left side. The physical format of a journal often affects the way an author writes. In Plath's case, the hardbound pages might be seen to suggest permanence. Unlike a loose leaf notebook, bound pages are not meant to be removed. Plath did not rip out any pages and only occasionally crossed out what she wrote. This physical format, then lends itself to a structured, well-thought-out style of writing. However, the physical size and weight of the book would have proved cumbersome and the numerous fragments of writing on memorandum paper and scrap paper housed in the Smith collection suggest that Plath did not always carry this book with her. Hence, this book was more conducive to reflective, premeditated writing than to spontaneous, fleeting impressions.
Unlike many journal writers, Plath rarely dates her entries, but instead numbers each one in the upper left-hand side. Moreover, she does not restrict herself to the pre-set pagination. At times, there are several entries on a page while at other times an entry may be as long as ten or fifteen pages. This method indicates some attempt to organize her thoughts into structurally and thematically unified entries. Each entry often has a theme and a unified beginning, middle, and end. Plath presents a theme, expands on it, and returns to her theme in the closure—much like the structure of a formal essay. Frequently, the following entry expands to a point made in the preceding entry and this linkage continues until she has explored as many different aspects of the theme as possible. The editors, by omitting the numbers of the entries, prevent the reader from seeing the evolution of Plath's ideas. By deleting the beginning paragraph of the entry and making subsequent cuts throughout, the editors make Plath's writing appear fragmented and disjointed.
In the editorial commentary prior to the section they entitle "Northampton," the editors acknowledge that the omissions alter the narrative:
In September of 1950 Plath entered her freshman year at Smith College with several scholarships. Entries from this period in the journal are not dated, and in any case so many cuts have been made in the text that the reader should not be encouraged to attempt to read these excerpts in a close narrative way, but rather thematically. While Plath was under extreme pressure to perform scholastically, in order to keep her scholarships and to maintain her own high academic standards, she felt an equal pressure to be accepted socially, especially with men, and a great passion for her own creative work—poems and stories. (emphasis mine)
A more accurate title of their published edition would be Extracts of the Journals of Sylvia Plath.
The original Smith Journal (1950–1953) and subsequent journals show the extent to which Plath was committed to her writing. While the Smith Journal (1950–1953) is not a writer's notebook in the same way that some of her later journals are, it is important insofar as Plath kept numbered entries in which she formally structured her ideas. By omitting these numbered entries and altering the structure of her entries, the published journals prevent the reader from seeing this important function of Plath's Smith Journal (1950–1953). Plath uses her journals as a preparation for her real writing. It is a place in which she practises her writing and retrieves her authentic self.
At times, the journals convey Plath's immaturity and naïveté, but this, too, is relevant because it reminds the reader that Plath wrote this journal when she was a young woman. Further, it serves to highlight those other parts of her journal in which she often expresses a wisdom and perceptiveness far beyond her years. For a woman in the 1950's to express her sensuality so openly, even in the relative privacy of a journal, is in itself remarkable. What also emerges in this journal is Plath's perpetual conflict between her desire to express her sensuality and passion openly, and her need to conform with a society in which such expression was taboo. The primacy of Plath's sensuality proves the extent to which the published journals have influenced Plath scholarship. This may account for why so few critics have examined this aspect of her poetry.
The published journals, then, are not Plath's own. The predominant impression that the published journals give is that Plath is a self-preoccupied, driven woman and writer. Although there is some truth in this assessment, it is only a partial truth. What the published journals do not show is the extent to which passion—both in terms of her sexuality and her creativity—and anger fuel her writing. The omissions distort the original manuscripts and typescripts because they give no indication of the frequency of which, or the context in which, she expresses her creativity and feelings, and thereby minimize the central roles that these aspects of her personality play in her life and her writing.
The omissions in the published edition of the journals thus produce a biased picture of Plath's professional and personal development. This is not to say that a reader must know Plath's personal history in order to appreciate and understand her poetry, although such knowledge is certainly useful. But the voicing of both personal and creative passions is essential to an autobiography of a writer, which is what the editors purport to present. And if an autobiography is to be valid, then it must be the writer's, not the editors', version of her life. Once it becomes the editors', it ceases to be autobiography and becomes biography. And indeed, McCullough and Hughes cross this generic boundary, without acknowledging that they do so. Ironically, the poet's self-revelation in her journals has been transformed into yet another disguise, providing the public with yet another mask of Sylvia Plath.
Ian Hamilton (essay date 1992)
SOURCE: "Provisional Posterities: Sylvia Plath and Philip Larkin," in Keepers of the Flame: Literary Estates and the Rise of Biography, Hutchinson, 1992, pp. 291-310.
[Hamilton is an English poet, biographer, critic, and editor. His biographies include Robert Lowell: A Biography (1982) and In Search of J. D. Salinger (1988). In the following excerpt, he traces the history of Plath's biographies from her death in 1963 to the present and examines how Hughes's role developed as Plath's reputation grew and changed.]
For literary keepers of the flame, the Copyright Act of 1911 represented a significant upgrading, an access of power. Under the new law, an author's legatee had fifty years' control of published work, together with perpetual ownership of any writings which remained unpublished at the author's death. Keepers could look forward to a lifetime's reign, a lifetime's proceeds. With fifty years in view, their sense of having a double duty—to respect the dead and to maximise the takings—was bound to seem both more delicate and weightier than under the old rules. Obedience to what the lost loved one 'would have wished' might not always turn out to be good for business.
But then, as we have seen, that obedience had always been elastic. Most readily lauded among keepers of the flame is Max Brod, who defied Franz Kafka's instruction that 'Everything I leave behind me … is to be burned unread even to the last page.' Most often vilified is Spencer Curtis Brown, who scorned Somerset Maugham's not dissimilar decree: 'I direct that there shall be no biography or publication of my letters and that my literary executor and trustees are to refuse permission for such publication and any assistance to any person who wishes or attempts such publication.' Max Brod, of course, saved Kafka's now-celebrated novels from the fire; Curtis Brown merely sanctioned a biography: 'Many people may think I have acted wrongly,' he said. 'Only one man could have given me a clear decision, and he was the man who had sufficient confidence in me to place his reputation in my hands.'
Brod's defence, which no one pressed him for, was that when Kafka made his 'will'—actually a note addressed to Brod—he was in one of his depressions (his 'self-critical tendencies had reached their peak') and in any case he had been warned that his instructions would be disobeyed: 'Franz knew that my refusal was in earnest, and at the end, if he had still intended these wishes to be carried out, he would have appointed another executor.' Curtis Brown's defence, which few seem to have quite swallowed, was that 'when Maugham made this stipulation and when I accepted it, neither of us could foresee how many books would be written about him. Some were written with great responsibility, some with apparent lack of it. But even the most conscientious have been unable, for lack of access to the material, to give a true picture of his final tragic years.' Curtis Brown's own 'true picture' of those final years was that the author of Cakes and Ale had turned into a fairly poisonous old toad. The sanctioned biography, by Ted Morgan, was strongly supportive of this view.
George Orwell was another who said he wanted no biography, and there are now two 'authorised' versions of his Life, the second of these none too admiring of the dead widow who had authorised and then disowned the first. W. H. Auden asked his executor Edward Mendelson to assist in 'making a biography impossible'. 'Biographies are always superfluous and usually in bad taste,' he used to say, and when he died the estate published his request that friends should destroy any letters they had had from him: how many of them did we'll never know, but in any case by that date—1973—most of Auden's correspondence had found its way into the libraries. Auden did not, however, formally veto a biography. After some headscratching, Mendelson decided that his instructions were 'flexible enough to be bent backwards'. As with Maugham, the executor contended that his hand was forced by a flood of unofficial memoirs. And Auden, the compulsive aphorist, came to his aid: 'What every author hopes to receive from posterity—a hope usually disappointed—is justice.'
T. S. Eliot added a memorandum to his will: 'I do not wish my executors to facilitate or countenance the writing of a biography of me.' His widow Valerie has done what she was told, or asked: she has not sanctioned a biography and her gradual and meticulous unveiling of the poet's letters has made it difficult for unauthorised enquirers to make headway. And yet it is not at all certain that her husband would have approved her publication of his Waste Land drafts. And what about the song 'Memory' in Cats? 'Memory', says the sleevenote of the Cats LP, 'includes lines from and suggested by "Rhapsody on a Windy Night"' together with 'additional material by Trevor Nunn'. Eliot loved the music-hall, we know, and he hungered for theatrical success, but a taste for Marie Lloyd does not necessarily betoken a taste for Andrew Lloyd Webber. Scholars who have had trouble with the Eliot estate on the matter of permissions might well go a bit sulky when they hear Grizabella mew about those 'burnt out ends of smoky days, the stale cold smell of morning / A street lamp dies, another night is over, another day is dawning.'
The Eliot estate is still a so-called 'live' estate, and will remain so until 2015. Until that date, if Mrs Eliot holds to the no-biography ruling, critics will have trouble reading the Eliot life into the Eliot work, and vice versa. When Peter Ackroyd wrote his unsanctioned biography of Eliot in 1984, he was refused permission to quote from the poet's published work, 'except for purposes of fair comment in a critical context'—which is what the law allows. If he had wished to trace in detail the imprint on Eliot's verse of, say, his terrible first marriage, he would have been obliged to tread with feline stealth: a line here, a couple of lines there, with lashings of critical fair comment. As it was, he made no effort to get round the ruling; he merely put up a few signposts, as in: 'The image of a man who believes himself to have committed a crime, and the notion of a secret which leads to guilt and feelings of worthlessness, are significant aspects of [Eliot's] later drama.' Of course, with Eliot, the biographer was fairly certain that his signposts could be followed, that readers knew the work or had it readily to hand. Ackroyd in truth was not much inhibited by the quotation ban: he claimed that it helped him to tell his tale more crisply. It might have been different if the subject had been a fiction writer of large output and small fame.
It might have been different too if Eliot had been like Sylvia Plath and had 'deliberately used the details of [his] everyday life as raw material for art'. Of Plath's case, A. Alvarez has observed:
A casual visitor or unexpected telephone call, a cut, a bruise, a kitchen bowl, a candlestick, everything became usable, charged with meaning, transformed. Her poems are full of references and images which seem impenetrable at this distance but which could mostly be explained by a scholar with full access to the details of her life.
Arguments about what is or should be meant by 'full access' to the details of Sylvia Plath's life have been on the go for the past twenty-five years, and are raging even now. When she committed suicide in 1963, not much was known about her life or work. She had published one book of poems, The Colossus, a pseudonymous novel, The Bell Jar, and she was married to Ted Hughes, a well-known poet from whom she seemed to have learned plenty. The poems that would shortly make her name were written during the last two years of her life; some of them, the most spectacular, during the last weeks. On the Sunday after Plath's death, Alvarez printed an obituary notice in The Observer, together with four poems. The impact was immediate, and eerie. In one poem, 'Edge', a woman imag-ines her own suicide: 'The woman is perfected / Her dead / Body wears the smile of accomplishment.' In another, 'The Fearful':
This woman on the telephone
Says she is a man, not a woman.
The mask increases, eats the worm,
Stripes for mouth and eyes and nose,
The voice of the woman hollows—
More and more like a dead one,
Worms in the glottal stops.
Read alongside a terse announcement of Plath's death, at the age of thirty-one, the lines seemed to insist on an inquisitive response: 'How?', 'Why?' and 'Who?'
It was not until the late 1960s that these questions were brought up in public. The appearance of Ariel in 1965 made it possible, indeed necessary, to make mention of the suicide. Most critics settled for respectful talk about the price Sylvia Plath had had to pay, the 'sacrifice' she had made in order to achieve this last 'blood jet' of brilliantly angry and despairing verse. There was also much emphasis on the so-called 'public' dimension of the poems. Plath's rather modishly dragged-in references to Nazi concentration camps were grasped at as evidence of imaginative courage: 'Sylvia Plath became a woman being transported to Auschwitz on the death-trains,' wrote George Steiner. When 'Daddy' was discussed, there was no problem about explaining why Plath imagined her dead father as a Nazi, but there were other bits of the poem which at this stage had to be ignored:
I made a model of you,
A man in black with a Meinkampf look
And a love of the rack and the screw,
And I said I do, I do.
Sylvia Plath died intestate, and Ted Hughes inherited her copyrights. The couple had separated a few months before she died, and not amicably, but they had not divorced. There were two young children of the marriage. Hughes's inheritance was scarcely to be envied. There was a great mass of unpublished writing, principally journals and poems, and not all of it, in his view, deserved to be kept. One of the journals, covering the last weeks of her life, he at once elected to destroy: 'because I did not want the children to see it.' And he may well have felt tempted to deal similarly with certain of the poems. During her last months, much of his wife's creative fury had been aimed at him. As executor, he was now required to publicise insults and accusations to which he could make no dignified riposte: how do you reply to a good poem—by pointing out that it exaggerates, tells lies?
When Hughes came to assemble the manuscript of Ariel, he decided to present the late work 'cautiously'; he 'omitted some of the more personally aggressive poems from 1962, and might have omitted one or two more if she had not already published them in magazines'. (The omitted poems appeared in 1971, in Winter Trees.) His policy, it seemed, would be one of gradual disclosure. At the time no one complained. In 1969, he appointed a biographer, Lois Ames, and 'undertook to help her exclusively in the usual way (to give her his own records and recollections, make available Sylvia's diaries, notebooks, correspondence, manuscripts, etc. and to request family and friends to give their full cooperation)'. Contracts were drawn up with publishers in the UK and US, stipulating delivery by 1975. Ames's agreement with Hughes granted her 'exclusive help until December 1977'.
How Lois Ames might have performed we can but guess, for she did not deliver. Over the years her research 'slowed to a standstill'. In the meantime, though, the exclusivity clause could be used to deter other would-be investigators. By the end of the 1960s, there was a burgeoning Plath cult and Hughes began to look to his defences, to exhibit a certain touchiness on the matter of how to 'interpret' his wife's death. He did not seem to mind the event being glorified by the likes of Anne Sexton: 'We talked death with burned-up intensity, both of us drawn to it like moths to an electric light bulb. Sucking on it!' But when the Leavisite critic David Holbrook contended, in 1968, that some of the Ariel poems might set a bad example to the young, the estate refused him permission to make quotations from her work. The objection was to Holbrook's use of the terms 'schizoid' and 'insane'. Olwyn Hughes, Ted's sister and by now acting as literary agent to the Plath estate, explained that Holbrook's theories 'seriously misrepresented' the dead poet 'as an individual and as an artist'. Holbrook manfully struck back:
It may be that in public debate my readers will decide that I am as poor a literary critic as Miss Hughes says I am. But she is still trying to suppress the debate altogether, which is my point. Her implication that an author's agent has the right to decide whether or not a work is good enough as criticism to allow copyright permission for it to be published is, I suggest, quite unacceptable to the world of scholarship and letters.
Because Holbrook was constantly writing letters to the newspapers about this or that sickness in the culture, nobody rallied to his aid. But even his worst enemies could see that he did have a point.
Three years later, the estate was at it again, and this time the offender was none other than Alvarez, Plath's first, most influential champion. Of Holbrook, Olwyn Hughes complained that he 'never knew Sylvia Plath in her lifetime'. Alvarez's offence, it soon transpired, was that he did. In 1971, he published a study of suicide, The Savage God, in which he gave an account of his relationship with Plath. During her last months, she had from time to time visited him at his London flat, often bearing new poems, which she read aloud to him. A critic's nightmare, one might think, but in this case Alvarez was bewitched. Plath's poems seemed to him an extraordinary vindication of his own critical position. He had lately ridiculed the 'gentility principle' that vitiated most current English verse and had called for a new poetry of psychic risk: the risk was that by voyaging in search of their 'unquiet buried selves' artists might indeed go mad, or die, or both. As he saw it, Plath's was an accidental death; she gambled, and she lost. 'She had always been a bit of a gambler, used to taking risks. The authority of her poetry was in part due to her brave persistence in following the thread of her inspiration right down to the Minotaur's lair.'
In terms of biography, of circumstantial reportage, the memoir was highly reticent: Hughes was a friend. Alvarez knew that the marriage had ended because of Hughes's involvement with another woman, but he said nothing of this; there had, he implied, been merely a collision of two giant talents. It was a surprise, therefore, when—on the appearance in The Observer of an extract from The Savage God (the first of two, it was announced)—there was an outcry from the Plath estate. Ted Hughes wanted the serialisation stopped, he said, because the memoir had been 'written and published without my having been consulted in any way'. He objected to Alvarez's 'misremembering' of private conversations they had had:
Mr Alvarez's main trouvé is that Sylvia Plath 'gambled' with her death and he uses this to drag her in as an example in close-up, an unusual type of suicide who happened to be his friend (and only incidentally as the now very public poet) to fill the longest and most sensational chapter in his general history of suicide. This particular fantasy of her gamble was, in fact, a notion of mine, which haunted me at the time, and which I aired to him, even though it went against the findings of the coroner, and against other details which I imparted to no one.
His facts are material for fiction, second-hand scraps, glimpses and half-experiences, resurfacing after seven years, imaginatively reshaped and acceptably explained to the author. They have nothing to do with the truth of an event far more important to Sylvia Plath's family than to Mr Alvarez or any of his readers.
It was in order to protect Plath's family, the adult members now and 'her children throughout their future' that he wanted the memoir withdrawn 'from any wider circulation'. The Observer cancelled the second extract. Replying to Hughes, Alvarez sounded genuinely hurt and baffled. He could understand Hughes's instinct to defend 'his privacy and that of his children', and he was also aware that the 'authorised version of Sylvia's last months will appear in the official biography' but 'I see no reason why this should stand in the way of an account by another person who was also involved—though, God knows, not very willingly—in the affair.' And as to not having checked it out with Hughes: 'I was not writing a memoir of him: I was writing about Sylvia Plath.'
Alvarez had reason to be puzzled: what was it that had got up Hughes's nose? The 'risk' theory might be wrong, but it was just a theory. Robert Lowell, six years before, had written: 'These poems are playing Russian roulette with six cartridges in the cylinder, a game of "Chicken", the wheels of both cars locked and unable to swerve.' This was the preface to the American edition of Ariel, which Hughes himself had ushered into print. But Lowell was Lowell, and he had been careful to say 'these poems' and not 'she'. And his only personal recollection of Plath was of her attending one of his Boston University poetry classes in the 1950s, when—he had to admit—she had made more impression than the poems, which somehow never 'sank very deep into my awareness'. He also said nothing about Hughes. Alvarez, on the other hand, had in his memoir attempted to distinguish the Hughes style of self-exploration from that of his wife. The rustic Hughes, it was suggested, lived more familiarly with his dark gods than she could. 'Her intensity was of the nerves, something urban.' Hughes, although as worldly as the next man when he wished to be, was genuinely primitivo; he 'had never properly been civilised or had, at least, never properly believed in his civilisation'. But could the author of the blood-drenched Crow (1970) seriously object to being thought of as possessing 'a quality of threat beneath his shrewd, laconic manner', 'some dark side of the self which had nothing to do with the young literary man'?
Alvarez's memoir was probably Hughes's first experience of what was to become for him a lifetime's horror. From now on, he was able to perceive, the Plath biography would need to appropriate at least one chapter from the biography of Hughes. Anybody who took an interest in her life could claim the right to poke about in his. Hughes, by all accounts, was a taciturn personality, pre-Plath. There is no evidence that he had any taste for the confessional. His poetry, for all its love of violence, tended to be void of personality. Oddly enough, the best way of getting any near-intimate sense of what he might be like was to consult the verses and stories that he wrote for children.
It was not until the early 1970s that Sylvia Plath became a celebrity in the commercial book world. A rough check of her bibliography shows that about four-fifths of all recorded writings on her—aside from book reviews—was done in that decade. In 1970, The Bell Jar was published in the United States and it launched her into stardom. Plath herself once described her first novel as a 'potboiler' and it was turned down in the 1960s by Harper and Row, its 1970 publisher. But with Ariel and the suicide behind it, so to speak, this thin study of late-adolescent breakdown was an immediate bestseller, a campus cult, a movie, and so on. And as the women's movement got into its stride, Plath was assimilated to the ideology. Articles with titles like 'Reading Women's Poetry: the Meaning and our Lives' or 'Male Authority and Female Identity in Sylvia Plath' began appearing in the journals. Post-graduate theses were embarked on: 'The Woman as Hero', 'The Quest for Self', 'Power and Vulnerability in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath'. The girl who won the Mademoiselle fiction prize in 1951 was in 1972 up for 'reconsideration' in the inaugural issue of Ms. magazine. And as Plath was reconsidered, so was Hughes. Under feminist scrutiny, he was found to epitomise 'the enemy, the monster who had all but murdered her'.
Post-1970, then, Hughes's relationship with the 'audience' was forced to undergo a change. Because of his wife's death, the manner of it, and because of her posthumous literary fame, he now had to justify his privateness. For the poet Hughes there could be not much subtlety of interaction between artist and inquisitor. If he were to burn his own diaries in a fit of privacy, he would surely be accused of interfering with Plath Studies. And the situation was for him further complicated by his knowledge that Plath was an eloquent distortionist; she was very good at making her enemies look bad. Her friends too: she used to describe Ted Hughes adoringly as a 'colossus', 'a large hulking healthy Adam … with a voice like the thunder of God', 'a huge Goliath'—praise for which he would later have to pay. She made things up, played roles and put on masks:
Some were camouflage cliché façades, defensive mechanisms, involuntary. And some were deliberate poses, attempts to find the key to one style or another. They were the visible faces of her lesser selves, her false or provisional selves, the minor roles of her inner drama. Though I spent every day with her for six years, and was rarely separated from her for more than two or three hours at a time, I never saw her show her real self to anybody—except, perhaps, in the last three months of her life.
Hughes believed that he knew Plath, or knew the several Plaths—lesser, provisional and real—better than anyone else could. Her death, and the anger that went into it, the death-poems, ought to be understood as a drama of 'rebirth', a destroying of fabricated selves and a breaking through into the 'real'.
Hughes would no doubt have preferred to keep Plath Studies at this level of abstraction. The hate-objects in Ariel and Winter Trees were often male, admittedly, but they were male-figures, archetypes, not individual chaps. For Plath to become 'real' in those last months, she had to conquer and destroy the psychic tyranny of those malegods who had controlled her lesser lives. Did it matter who, in actuality, they were? A father, a lover, a merging or confusing of the two: this was the radical configuration. When it came to studying the verse, the important evidence was already on display, and if the evidence was justly scrutinised, Plath's fear and hatred of other women could scarcely be ignored. This is perhaps to travesty Hughes's thinking, but he did seem to believe something of the sort. For instance, Judith Kroll's Chapters in a Mythology is one of the few books about Plath that Hughes is known to have admired; Kroll's approach is anti-biographical, heavy with archetypes, and expounds a 'false-selves' thesis that roughly corresponds with his.
Perhaps the early Seventies would have been the right time for Hughes to have applied the brakes. He could have brought out a Collected Poems and embargoed all other material for fifty years. With only the poems to go on, his accusers would have been thrown back on speculation and hearsay. But then speculation and hearsay could hurt too, as Hughes was soon to learn. In 1976 a deeply unauthorised biography by Edward Butscher appeared in the United States. Butscher in 1972 had solicited the estate's cooperation and had been rebuffed: the Ames arrangement was invoked. He had persisted, though, and his book leaned heavily on the 'living witness' method of research. The witnesses prepared to speak were, of course, no friends of Hughes. During her last chaotic months, Plath had done a lot of talking: more than one neighbour or acquaintance could boast of having been her special confidante. In an attempt to block the book, the estate refused Butscher permission to quote from Plath's writings, but he and his US publisher ignored the ban, reckoning—correctly—that Hughes would not pursue a transatlantic lawsuit. (Many years later, Hughes had cause to regret not suing Butscher. When a film was made of The Bell Jar, a Dr Jane Anderson complained that a lesbian character in it had been based on her: she used Butscher's text as evidence. Hughes was arraigned for having 'failed to control what Mr Butscher wrote about the plaintiff' and the whole affair, he said, 'consumed five years and cost several people—but not Butscher—many hundreds of thousands of dollars'.)
As Sylvia Plath's executor, Hughes had a duty, he believed, 'to permit publication of whatever contributes to a fuller appreciation of the author'. Despite all the peculiar circumstances, the overlaps, the general prejudice, his own loathing of biography ought not to be imposed on her. Ariel, he had to acknowledge:
supplies little of the incidental circumstances or the crucial inner drama that produced it. Maybe it is this very bareness of circumstantial detail that has excited the wilder fantasies projected by others in Sylvia Plath's name. We respond to the speech, that fascinating substance, which is everywhere fully itself, nowhere diluted and ordinary—but we can only discuss it, or communicate our feelings about it, in terms of those externals, the drama of her psychological makeup, the accidents of her life.
There was a money angle too. By the mid-1970s Hughes did not need his sister to tell him that the Plath industry, now at its peak and not guaranteed to last, could provide security for the two children.
Whatever the reasoning, the estate in the end opted for a policy of staged and monitored publication, releasing a bit here, a bit there. First, in 1976, came Letters Home, a collection of Sylvia's letters to Aurelia, her mother. Hughes had given Aurelia the copyright of these on condition that he could retain some measure of control. Thus, when reviewers discovered that there were a number of excisions, they rumbled sternly about censorship. It turned out that, although Hughes had asked for certain cuts, not all of these were self-defensive. He removed 'some wicked comments about people she knew' and a few of the more 'syrupy' descriptions of himself. The book's editor, Frances McCollough, was 'amazed to see how much he allowed through'. She herself had had the task of cutting the original manuscript by half. The real problem with Letters Home was that the letters themselves were almost unreadably affected. They displayed one of the least endearing of Plath's provisional or unreal selves: the chirpy, high-achieving self she kept on tap for mother. Faced with accusations of a Hughes paint-job, McCollough was obliged to spell out what ought to have been obvious: 'Anyone who remembers his own letters home will recognise at once that if there is a censor's hand at work here, it is the daughter's, not the mother's.'
The estate itself was less level-toned in its response to the reviews of Letters Home, possibly because the book's publication coincided with the 'illegal' Butscher Life: the two volumes were being noticed side by side. When Karl Miller, in the New York Review of Books, expressed what might to most readers have seemed a decent sympathy for Hughes's plight, Olwyn Hughes accused him of writing 'in guise of indignation on my brother's behalf'. Miller's crime was that he had given more space to Butscher's 'patently rubbishy hotch-potch' than to the near-official Letters Home. A belligerence was in the air and Olwyn was beginning to make a name for herself. As Hughes retreated into a volcanic silence, his sister could be found out-front, mixing it with the 'libbers' and the ghouls, 'who treat Sylvia Plath's family as though they are characters in some work of fiction, or a hundred years dead, and proper subjects for speculation and academic dissection'.
Since the mid-1970s, there have been further, but not dissimilar outbreaks of controversy. The estate has been criticised for censoring Plath's Journals, for delaying the Collected Poems, for harassing the feminist biographer Linda Wagner-Martin and for leaning on their own appointee, Anne Stevenson, whose 1989 Life of Plath confessed to being 'almost a work of dual authorship—the co-author being, of course, Olwyn.
The Stevenson biography was a curious affair. As the estate's answer to two decades of misrepresentation, it was always likely to sound somewhat irritably partisan, pro-Hughes, and perhaps if Hughes himself had chosen this opportunity to have his say, the book might have had a more cordial reception. As it was, he distanced himself from the whole enterprise ('Hughes asked me to address all questions relating to his personal life to Olwyn,' Stevenson recalls), and his sister seized the reins. So eager was Olwyn to ensure that Ted should at last be treated fairly that she strong-armed a large part of the biography into an appearance of ill-natured bias, and in the process made Stevenson seem got at and confused—one minute thanking Olwyn for her help, the next complaining that her own input had been 'olwynized', and all in all coming to regret the whole assignment: 'It was clear to me at a very early stage that Olwyn Hughes badly needed to tell her side of Sylvia's story. It was a side no one as yet had heard, chiefly because no one would listen.'
The message of Anne Stevenson's Bitter Fame could not in truth have been delivered in person by Ted Hughes: the narrative suggests that only a man of the most saintly temperament could have lived with the devil-woman Plath for twenty-four hours, let alone six years. In the end, after many a wearying explosion, even the ever-patient Hughes had had to get some air. To force such a reading into shape, Plath of course had to be represented at her worst: jealous, success-hungry, manipulative, and—since the childhood loss of her over-adored father—suicidally inclined. She was a victim, to be sure, but not of Hughes, nor of any other dominating male. Her own disordered psyche was to blame. And yet, apart from the poems, there was nothing very heroic about the ways in which she tried to cope with her affliction. Most of the time, she had come over as petty, mean-minded, self-absorbed, a rather shrill and nasty bore. The book reeked of exasperation, and thus rather played into the hands of hostile Plathologists, those commentators who had now and then felt the rough edge of Olwyn's tongue and had retaliated by building small careers out of policing the estate.
In the year of Stevenson's biography, Ted Hughes was obliged to emerge from his burrow to answer charges that really could not be ignored: (a) that his first wife's grave lay derelict and unmarked in a remote Yorkshire churchyard and (b) that on the night of her funeral he had attended a 'highspirited and boisterous party with bongo drums'. In the latter case, Hughes had recourse to the law, and was thus branded as a bully-litigant: the bongo-party anecdote had been dredged from the faulty memory of a near-penniless 82-year-old. On the matter of the grave, he wrote letters to the press, explaining that the headstone, having been regularly vandalised by feminists who objected to the inscription 'Sylvia Plath Hughes', was in the repair shop of a local mason: 'I asked him to give it another go. If he has not yet done so, I'm sure I agree with him that there is no hurry.'
Hughes's account of his trial-by-gravestone was restrained enough, and rather touching. He had originally wanted to put the legal name Sylvia Hughes on the memorial but had then added the Plath because 'I knew well enough in 1963 what she had brought off in that name, and I wished to honour it. That was the beginning and end of my thoughts about the name.' Then came the desecrations: riveted lead letters were levered off the stone, restored, and then removed again—three times. Even the shells and beach pebbles he had placed about the plot were carried off. Small wonder that he now 'simply wished to preserve for a while longer something of the private remnant valued by her living family'. To judge from these letters, Hughes was tired of the whole carry-on, but there was also an anger to be felt, an anger that had been building up over the twenty-five years in which he served as keeper of the Plath inheritance; an inheritance which had come to him but was not really his:
In the years soon after her death, when scholars approached me, I tried to take their apparently serious concern for the truth about Sylvia Plath seriously. But I learned my lesson early. The honourable few who have justified my trust have been few indeed. With others, if I tried too hard to tell them exactly how something happened, in the hope of correcting some fantasy, I was quite likely to be accused of trying to suppress Free Speech. In general, my refusal to have anything to do with the Plath Fantasia has been regarded as an attempt to suppress Free Speech. Where my correction was accepted, it rarely displaced a fantasy. More often, it was added to the repertoire, as a variant hypothesis. It would then become itself a source of new speculations which sooner or later, somewhere or other, would be preferred to it. The truth simply tends to produce more lies….
A rational observer might conclude (correctly in my opinion) that the Fantasia about Sylvia Plath is more needed than the facts. Where that leaves respect for the truth of her life (and mine) or for her memory, or for literary tradition, I do not know.
James Atlas (essay date 12 December 1993)
SOURCE: "The Biographer and the Murderer," in The New York Times Magazine, December 12, 1993, pp. 74-5.
[Atlas is an American poet, biographer, and critic. At the time this article was published, he was at work on a biography of Saul Bellow. In the following essay, he discusses the changing nature of biography, contending that current books, including The Silent Woman, tend to revel more in scandalous details than serious scholarship.]
Biography is getting bad press these days. A "lowly trade," Martin Amis pronounced it, reviewing Andrew Motion's biography of Philip Larkin. "Something horrid has recently befallen the craft of biography," lamented Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. in The New Republic, deploring the glut of gossipy new lives on the market. Joyce Carol Oates even coined a word to describe the genre: pathography—biographies that revel in "dysfunction and disaster, illnesses and pratfalls, failed marriages and failed careers, alcoholism and breakdowns and outrageous conduct."
Now biographers themselves have joined the chorus. "Biography as a form has become the revenge of little people on big people," noted Edmund White, the biographer of Jean Genet, in The New York Times Book Review a few weeks ago.
How mild even these objurgations seem in the wake of The Silent Woman, Janet Malcolm's book-length anatomy of Sylvia Plath and her biographers in The New Yorker—the first salvo in what has become a virtual assault against the whole enterprise. Malcolm is not one to tiptoe around her subject; The Journalist and the Murderer, her previous book, led off with the now famous declaration that "every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible." That was just a warm-up; compared with the charges lodged against biographers in her latest diatribe, stupidity and arrogance are venial crimes. Biography is a spurious art, claims Malcolm: the orderly narrative it creates is illusory; the "facts" aren't facts at all, but literary inventions. Worse—and here Malcolm goes in for the kill—the pretense of biographical objectivity conceals a darker purpose. The biographer's real intent is to enact revenge: "The writer, like the murderer, needs a motive."
A biographer's heart sinks. To be linked, even metaphorically, with murder is of a different magnitude of culpability than being accused of moral turpitude.
Of course, one could lay the blame for this depressing indictment on a few bad apples—guys like Joe McGinniss, whose character Malcolm so memorably eviscerated in The Journalist and the Murderer, depicting him as a weaselly betrayer of his subjects. Certainly The Last Brother, McGinniss's "biography" (it was Michael Kelly, writing in GQ who put quotes around the word) of Ted Kennedy, hasn't done the profession any good. Encrusted with allegations of plagiarism, with a craven author's note that admits thoughts and dialogue were "created" by the author, The Last Brother is, even by the standards of celebrity journalism, a sordid spectacle. Joe Klein, reviewing McGinniss's opus in The New Republic last month, went Oates one better, calling it an "odiography."
It could be that all this sniping is partly the fault of us biographers. At a recent Harvard conference on biography, three of the conferees quoted the passage from Malcolm's New Yorker article in which she compared the biographer to a thief. "It had become a crux," said Phyllis Rose, the author of Parallel Lives and one of the quoters. "I was trying to express my sense of my own transgressions as a biographer." There is a seedy aspect to the business—Malcolm calls it "busybodyism"—that must trouble the sleep of all but the most thick-skinned biographer. Who among us hasn't looked up from the avid perusal of our subject's private mail and recalled with embarrassment the "publishing scoundrel" in Henry James's The Aspern Papers, pawing through the desk of a dead poet's lover in search of their correspondence? We all have a touch of Jeffrey Aspern in us. (Or people think we do: A cartoon in The New Yorker shows a man and a woman talking in bed while a rumpled scholar rifles their desk. "Ignore him," the man counsels his mate. "He's the guy who's writing that unauthorized biography of me.")
Janet Malcolm, to her credit, tried to monitor this tendency within herself. Time and again, she confesses to her own complicity in the very process she condemns. "My narrative of Rose has an edge," she writes of her interview with a literary critic, Jacqueline Rose. "My silver-plated scissors are ever at the ready to take snips at her." The writer's treachery is Malcolm's great theme.
The one person she lets off is Ted Hughes, an "electrically attractive man" whose letters are "so deeply, mysteriously moving" as to fill the normally unsentimental Malcolm with feelings of "intense sympathy and affection." Why does she idealize this man she doesn't know? Because Malcolm identifies with him. "I, too, had been attacked in the press," she writes, acknowledging (as she failed to do in The Journalist and the Murderer) Jeffrey Masson's headline-making libel suit. "I had been there—on the helpless side of the journalist-subject equation." The connection is hard to miss: Just as Ted Hughes has been mercilessly scrutinized, his private life examined in the court of public opinion, so Janet Malcolm, the defendant in one of the most widely covered trials of our time, now stands exposed to the world. Like Hughes, Malcolm has been—literally—on trial.
All art is a form of autobiography. That Malcolm's work parallels her life doesn't bother me. Indeed, its subjectivity is what makes it such an absorbing read. For all her malevolence, Malcolm is an exciting writer, a mesmerizing stylist whose own voice and sensibility leap off the page. The most interesting character in her narrative is herself. Yet of all the characters in The Silent Woman, this is the one who eludes her. She never quite grasps the depth of her own destructive impulses.
For Malcolm, the biographer is a voyeur, a "burglar"—in a word, bad. But isn't it possible to be motivated by other, more benign impulses? For instance, the wish to commemorate? Richard Ellmann, in his biography of James Joyce, achieved a considerable feat of imaginative empathy. His Joyce stands before us in all his human qualities, both exalted and base—in all his goodness as well as his badness. Ellmann (he was my tutor at Oxford) had a profound affinity with his subject's dual nature. He was as fascinated by Joyce's sympathy for ordinary people, his lack of pretension, as by his taste for pornography. Ellmann's Joyce doesn't idealize; neither does it desecrate.
Saul Bellow has often said that a novelist is a reader moved to emulation. So is a biographer. When I undertook to write the biography of Delmore Schwartz, it wasn't to unearth his dirty secrets. No one cared about them, anyway; he was a nearly forgotten figure. I had admired his early poems, so incandescent with promise, and his classic story "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities," published in Partisan Review to great acclaim when he was only 24. Three decades later, he died alone in a midtown Manhattan fleabag. What happened in the interval? The work made me curious about the life. "Affection for one leads to interest in the other, the two sentiments tend to join, and the results of affection and interest often illuminate both the fiery clay and the wrought jar"—that was Richard Ellmann's credo.
All biographical narrative, claims Janet Malcolm, is "stale, hashed over, told and retold, dubious, unauthentic, suspect." Memory is "monstrously unreliable," vitiated by "epistemological insecurity." Why is she so adamant on this point? Because if authorial objectivity is a myth—if Malcolm had been tried by a jury of deconstructionists instead of 12 ordinary citizens—she would have been acquitted. But there are facts. That Saul Bellow, two weeks after his 21st birthday, officially changed his first name from Solomon provides a clue to the name changes of his characters. Charles Citrine, the hero of Humboldt's Gift, was originally Tsitrine; Tommy Wilhelm in Seize the Day was born Wilhelm Adler; Dr. Shawmut, the narrator of Bellow's story "Him With His Foot in His Mouth," came from a family named Shamus, "or, even more degrading, Untershamus." Surely this persistent literary theme is clarified by the biographical fact. Why did Solomon become Saul? And why did his two older brothers choose to be called Bellows, adding an s? Was Bellow asserting his independence? Defying his father? The biographer can only speculate. But that speculation is informed by a knowledge of the subject's character—by intuition and research; by facts.
Janet Malcolm depicts the biographer as a nosy, intrusive figure, invading his subject's private papers. But isn't there usually some collusion? Samuel Johnson gave more than tacit cooperation to his biographer; he made himself available night after night in the coffee-houses of London, furnished Boswell with correspondence, even read his biographer's notes—in effect sat for his portrait. T. S. Eliot, famous for his reticence, accepted posterity's interest in his life; he wrote a "private paper" about his troubled marriage to Vivienne Haigh-Wood and assumed that his voluminous correspondence with Emily Hale, a schoolteacher with whom he had a long flirtation, would eventually be read. (It's sequestered at Princeton until 2020—but at least it's there.) Even Ted Hughes, whom Malcolm apotheosizes as a saintly poet beset by biographical jackals, is no recluse; over the years, as she herself discloses, he has tirelessly advanced his case in various literary forums. "Why, if he is so keen to own the facts of his life, has he distributed them so freely to the reading public?" Why, indeed?
A piety surrounds this issue. "My father turned down the vast majority of magazines and talk shows that came calling," wrote Janna Malamud Smith, the daughter of Bernard Malamud, in "Where Does a Writer's Family Draw the Line?," an essay in The New York Times Book Review. It's true: Bernard Malamud was an intensely private man. "He wanted people to read his books, not about him." Yet one of his most appealing novels, Dubin's Lives, is about a biographer—a highly sympathetic figure, one might add. "He loved biographies," the novelist's daughter admits, "read them throughout his life, always underlining, carefully, word by word, the parts that grabbed him." Too bad. There won't be a biography of Malamud—not if his daughter can help it. "If an audience for his fiction persists, my grandchildren might wish to make public Bernard Malamud's private letters and journals," Smith concludes. "I doubt I will." That's her prerogative—which doesn't necessarily mean it was the writer's wish. One day when I was visiting with Malamud in his study, he pulled open a file cabinet and pointed to the papers and letters within, neatly arranged in manila folders. "Someday a person could make something interesting out of this," he said.
Richard Holmes, the biographer of Coleridge and Shelley, describes the moment when, having gone to Paris to try his hand at a novel, he came across a photograph of Baudelaire by the 19th-century photographer Nadar: "The old sensations of being drawn into another life began to assail me almost with a sense of fatality." Every biographer has known this moment—the serendipitous discovery of a bundle of letters or a forgotten manuscript that kindles all at once the hope of insight. To recover and bring forth, to preserve against oblivion the documents that give texture to a life, those "fossils of feeling" that Janet Malcolm holds up as the one verifiable artifact of truth—is that such a scurrilous vocation?
Victoria Glendinning (review date 23 October 1994)
SOURCE: "Whose Life Is It Anyway?: Why One Prefers a Biographer of One's Own," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 23, 1994, pp. 2, 8.
[Glendinning is an English biographer and novelist whose biographies include Elizabeth Bowen: Portrait of a Writer (1977) and Edith Sitwell: A Unicorn Among Lions (1981). In the following review of Ian Hamilton's Keepers of the Flame: Literary Estates and the Rise of Biography (1992), she recounts how biography has changed through the years as those close to an author have sought to control what is said about that person. She also raises questions about the appropriateness of certain details in biographies and illustrates cases in literary history where opportunism on the part of the living ran rampant.]
What is posterity? Nothing but "an unending jostle of vanities, appetites and fears," concludes Ian Hamilton at the end of [Keepers of the Flame,] a book that is quite surprisingly entertaining and suggestive. One might not suppose that a work subtitled "Literary Estates and the Rise of Biography" would give one cause to laugh aloud, but it does. Hamilton is a British poet, an editor and himself the biographer of Robert Lowell and, notoriously, of J.D. Salinger (well, he tried). For all his scholarship, he writes here with the immediacy, economy and ease of a witty man talking over a bottle of wine.
The "keepers of the flame" are the friends, relations, devotees, literary executors and biographers, in whose hands lies what Hamilton calls the "after-fame" of great writers. We live in an era of copious, candid and some would say intrusive, biography. The questions Hamilton addresses about the history and ethics of the genre were never more topical. "How much should a biographer tell? How much should an executor suppress? And what would the biographee have wanted—do we know?"
He proceeds chronologically, by means of case histories, each marking some change or development in the perceived function of the custodians of greatness. This leads us into the history of publishing and of the law on copyright, into the company of some egregious crooks and creeps, and into some stimulatingly unprovable statements from Hamilton. The poet and priest John Donne (d. 1631), for example, was "the first" important writer to leave a substantial collection of letters, and his no-good son was "the first" to see that there was money to be made from a literary parent's leavings. Edmund Curll, the 18th-Century publisher, was "the first" to cash in on scurrilous instant biographies. Robert Burns was "the first" to have his frailties exposed by a biographer (he drank himself to death). Just occasionally, Hamilton is wrong. He writes that Thackeray's daughter "vetoed all thoughts of a biography," thus fueling speculation about skeletons in cupboards; in fact, she commissioned Trollope to write a book about her father, which he did. Admittedly, she gave him very little material to work on.
The book is full of tasty details about cabinets and laundry baskets of letters and manuscripts falling into greedy hands or being used as wrapping paper for groceries. Keepers of the flame tended to be self-appointed. The poet Andrew Marvell's landlady posed as his wife in order to get money owed to his estate. Sir William Davenant liked it to be thought that he was Shakespeare's illegitimate son. Thomas Hardy had the bright idea of controlling his after-fame by ghosting his own biography, ostensibly authored by his second wife.
The book is free from academic pedantry. Hamilton remarks that Johnson's life of Dryden contains "the funniest and cruelest" of the "many wildly improbable" accounts of Dryden's funeral, quoting none of them, and thus whetting the reader's desire to find out more. Likewise, he writes of William Warburton, the adviser and editor of Alexander Pope, that Pope guided him to a rich wife "and then (via her very rich uncle) to a bishopric and a palatial estate." Most scholars would have ruined their narrative flow by dutifully identifying, if only in a footnote, the "very rich uncle."
Not Ian Hamilton. His pace and semi-satirical tone extract the maximum entertainment value from pompous literary mayhem. He writes with informed malice about the frequent rivalry between a dead author's self-aggrandizing "best friends" as to who is the true keeper of the flame. Disciples are often catty about co-disciples. One reviewer of The Life of Dickens by his friend and champion John Forster complained that it "should not be called The Life of Dickens but The History of Dickens' Relations to Mr. Forster." Yet Forster was cavalier about his hero's materials. He chopped extracts out of Dickens' letters (discarding the tattered remains) and pasted them into his manuscript, which was thrown away afterward by the printers. Boswell was the most successful flame-keeper of all time, making the relationship between subject and biographer the central pillar of his Life of Dr. Johnson, to the extent that Boswell is now a more lively commercial proposition than Johnson himself.
They believed in "definitive" biography in the past, and possessive jealousy such as John Forster's found destruction preferable to the gaze of alien eyes. John Cam Hobhouse, neurotically possessive about the late Lord Byron, engineered the burning of his idol's autobiography, unread, because it had been shown to Tom Moore and not to him. Hobhouse was uneasy lest there be something uncomplimentary about himself in it.
When Henry James was given a private view of Byron's scandalous private papers he was so appalled that he went home and destroyed 40 years accumulation of his own correspondence, manuscripts and notebooks, expressing an "utter and absolute abhorrence" of any biography of himself. And what was the upshot? Leon Edel's five-volume Life of Henry James, and four volumes of letters.
Henry James did not have much to hide, or else it remains hidden. He is an exception. Readers are sometimes shocked when they discover that authors whose books they admire were less than admirable in private life. Hamilton poses the most difficult question that biographers and critics must address: "Does poetic genius excuse or mitigate bad conduct; does/should knowing about the life have a bearing on how we read the work?"
In the 19th Century, most spouses and devotees thought it their duty to suppress all evidence of "bad conduct." Biographers worked "to the sound of snipping scissors and paper crackling in the grate…. After the funeral would come the slamming of doors, the scrubbing of marble and then, within two years or so, the emergence of what Gladstone called 'a reticence in three volumes.'" George Eliot's reputation for unrelenting high seriousness was largely established by her widower's cutting all jokes and familiar turns of speech out of her published letters and journals.
The problems remain much the same today. The biographer of a modern subject is caught between wanting to tell "the truth" and the need to maintain good relations with informants and access to the archive. The eternal dispute, as identified by Henry James, between "the public and the private, between curiosity and delicacy" may have been resolved to Kitty Kelley's satisfaction, but it still exercises most biographers.
Coming to our own time, Hamilton is sharp about the costiveness of T.S. Eliot's window in publishing his letters and declining to authorize a biography, while she allows Eliot's words to be mixed with Trevor Nunn's in the song "Memory" in the lucrative show Cats; Hamilton pays tribute to Peter Ackroyd's subtly "widow-proof" account of Eliot's life. Yet he shows sympathy with Ted Hughes who, as he writes, cannot even destroy any of his own private papers without being accused of interfering with "Plath Studies."
This book was first published in Britain two years ago—before the very pertinent furor caused by the publication of the biography of Philip Larkin by Andrew Motion and of Larkin's Letters, before the contentious overview of the saga of the Plath biographies by Janet Malcolm in the New Yorker, before the proposal for a new and Draconian "Privacy Bill" in Britain, and before it was decided that the 50-year copyright period should be increased in Britain to 70 years, in the interests of harmonization within the European Union. It would have been helpful, in the American edition, to have had an afterword on these matters.
Hamilton's own position is that writers must, in the first instance, be their own keepers of the flame: In other words, having read this review, you should at once burn all your diaries and love letters. Or not; as Izaak Walton wrote in the 17th Century, a wish for self-perpetuation is "rooted in the very nature of man." But you should never, Hamilton thinks, burn anyone else's private papers. Larkin in his last illness requested that his diaries be destroyed. His friend Monica Jones shredded the 25 volumes within hours of his death. She did not have to. However vehement the wishes of the deceased in this regard, you are not in (British) law obliged to fulfill them.
There are evidently still moral imperatives stronger than the tug of literary history or the law of the land. But there's little any author can do about eliminating indiscreet letters written to other people; they are probably already in the Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin anyway, nicely filed and catalogued. Only the law of copyright, and a stalwart keeper of the flame, can protect you. On the evidence of this book, writers should choose the keepers of their flame very carefully indeed. As Dryden wrote to his young protege, the playwright Congreve:
Be kind to my Remains; and oh defend
Against Your Judgement Your departed Friend!
Carol Muske (review date 6 November 1994)
SOURCE: "Oppressed by Narrative," in The New York Times Book Review, November 6, 1994, p. 18.
[Muske is an American educator, poet, novelist, and critic. In the following review of Linda Wagner-Martin's book Telling Women's Lives (1994), she rejects the author's thesis that women's lives, because of their non-linear nature, do not lend themselves to traditional biography.]
With Telling Women's Lives, Linda Wagner-Martin erects a shaky platform from which to leap headlong into the swirling waters of controversy engulfing the genre of biography. Here's a sample quotation from her introduction:
"The lives of real people have always been more interesting than stories about fictional characters; we may temporarily believe in the exploits of imaginary human beings, but biography wears better."
That will come as news to those of us permanently obsessed with Anna Karenina, Sula or Holden Caulfield. In light of this quick dispatch of imaginative writing, it is particularly ironic that Ms. Wagner-Martin's overall premise is deeply indebted to fiction, its structures and strategies. These she borrows at will to document the routine "fictionalization" process that occurs in biography; thus she comes up with the rather familiar conclusion that biographies are inventions, as are (to the extent that the impulse to render character is innately speculative) the subjects of biography.
This thinking would seem to reduce biography to the level of second-class creative writing, and contradict her own initial division of the two genres. But Ms. Wagner-Martin, a professor of English and comparative literature at the University of North Carolina who is herself a biographer—and one who, in 1987, after publication of her Sylvia Plath: A Biography, was caught in the inevitable commotion surrounding Plath—has bigger conflicts in mind. Ms. Wagner-Martin soon moves away from analysis of biography as fiction and begins to psychoanalyze the genre itself. It is about "conceptualization," she says, it is the "enactment of cultural performance," and just as the self in everyday life constructs the appearance of a consistent identity, so the biographer must represent that manufactured self whole.
The biographer, Ms. Wagner-Martin says, must decide if the performance self that the real self projects is credible. The biographer then constructs a narrative, either supporting or refuting this performance self. The traditional biographer has a difficult time with life stories of women because, she says, "few women—even women like Eleanor Roosevelt—live public lives" or possess well-developed performance selves. And further:
"Harder to discover, private events may be ones purposely kept secret by the subject (such as sexual abuse, dislike for parents, dislike by parents or other unfortunate childhood or adolescent happenings)."
The neglect of women and their stories is tragic and irrefutable; what is questionable is Ms. Wagner-Martin's certainty that there is a particular kind of life story unique to women. Narrative itself is her enemy. She does not believe that women's experience fits neatly into a linear arrangement. And, she says, critics are only looking for the performance narrative to praise:
"When the biographer fails to meet the most traditional of biography's rules—to provide a structure of external event as a setting for the subject's life story—critics are disgruntled."
She includes among the disgruntled William H. Pritchard, whose review in The New York Times Book Review of Ann Hulbert's Interior Castle (a 1992 biography of Jean Stafford) reveals his attempt, she says, to "put biography back into a more traditional mode." In the passage she quotes, Mr. Pritchard warns that probing a "subject's childhood, sexual and domestic conflicts, obsessions and compulsions" should not be mistaken for better understanding: "In fact, the more fully we become acquainted with people—in real life or in biography—the more ultimately mysterious and unfathomable they may become."
This passage could not make clearer the argument between Ms. Wagner-Martin and what she calls traditional critics. Mr. Pritchard is not, in her view, raising questions about how we interpret human experience; rather, he is attempting to repress and restrict real-self stories of women's lives. It becomes clear that for her, the revelation of repressed detail qualifies as the unprejudiced examination of interior life. She is unlike Janet Malcolm, who in The Silent Woman, her new book on Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes and their biographers, finds the task of determining individual motive largely elusive, and moves farther inward, into questions of how the biographer is both seduced and repelled by her subject, eventually wondering what purpose biography finally serves. Ms. Wagner-Martin moves outward into cultural analysis.
She has no serious questions about the impossibility of one human being rendering another's life story whole and accessible within language. Rather, she has answers for readers and writers alike, providing, oddly, her own performance narrative. Here it is: The reason there are not many, or many effective, biographies of women is the failure of the genre itself, as conceived and executed by men—and by women who attempt to tell women's life stories in "traditional" form—and as bolstered by critics. These restrictions have made the correct recounting of women's lives unlikely.
But Ms. Wagner-Martin sees hope in "new ways," which include structures "dependent less on chronology than on 'moments of being.'" She does not, however, provide many examples from biography, drawing instead on the use of "recognizable voice" in fiction, memoir and autobiography by women.
Presumably, once these "new ways" are firmly in place, all women will live happily ever after, at least within the confines of Reconstituted Biography. At least, that's the way the story is supposed to go. Middlemarch, anyone?
Janet Malcolm (essay date 1994)
SOURCE: The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, Alfred A. Knopf, 1994, 213 p.
[A nonfiction writer and biographer, Malcolm is well-known for her contributions to The New Yorker. In the following excerpt, first published in The New Yorker in slightly different form in August 1993, she explains the "transgressive nature of biography" and how she became interested in the controversy surrounding the Plath biographies.]
Life, as we all know, does not reliably offer—as art does—a second (and a third and a thirtieth) chance to tinker with a problem, but Ted Hughes's history seems to be uncommonly bare of the moments of mercy that allow one to undo or redo one's actions and thus feel that life isn't entirely tragic. Whatever Hughes might have undone or redone in his relationship to Sylvia Plath, the opportunity was taken from him when she committed suicide, in February of 1963, by putting her head in a gas oven as her two small children slept in a bedroom nearby, which she had sealed against gas fumes, and where she had placed mugs of milk and a plate of bread for them to find when they awoke. Plath and Hughes were not living together at the time of her death. They had been married for six years—she was thirty and he was thirty-two when she died—and had separated the previous fall in a turbulent way. There was another woman. It is a situation that many young married couples find themselves in—one that perhaps more couples find themselves in than don't—but it is a situation that ordinarily doesn't last: the couple either reconnects or dissolves. Life goes on. The pain and bitterness and exciting awfulness of sexual jealousy and sexual guilt recede and disappear. People grow older. They forgive themselves and each other, and may even come to realize that what they are forgiving themselves and each other for is youth.
But a person who dies at thirty in the middle of a messy separation remains forever fixed in the mess. To the readers of her poetry and her biography, Sylvia Plath will always be young and in a rage over Hughes's unfaithfulness. She will never reach the age when the tumults of young adulthood can be looked back upon with rueful sympathy and without anger and vengefulness. Ted Hughes has reached this age—he reached it some time ago—but he has been cheated of the peace that age brings by the posthumous fame of Plath and by the public's fascination with the story of her life. Since he was part of that life—the most interesting figure in it during its final six years—he, too, remains fixed in the chaos and confusion of its final period. Like Prometheus, whose ravaged liver was daily reconstituted so it could be daily reravaged, Hughes has had to watch his young self being picked over by biographers, scholars, critics, article writers, and newspaper journalists. Strangers who Hughes feels know nothing about his marriage to Plath write about it with proprietary authority. "I hope each of us owns the facts of her or his own life," Hughes wrote in a letter to the Independent in April, 1989, when he had been goaded by a particularly intrusive article. But, of course, as everyone knows who has ever heard a piece of gossip, we do not "own" the facts of our lives at all. This ownership passes out of our hands at birth, at the moment we are first observed. The organs of publicity that have proliferated in our time are only an extension and a magnification of society's fundamental and incorrigible nosiness. Our business is everybody's business, should anybody wish to make it so. The concept of privacy is a sort of screen to hide the fact that almost none is possible in a social universe. In any struggle between the public's inviolable right to be diverted and an individual's wish to be left alone, the public almost always prevails. After we are dead, the pretense that we may somehow be protected against the world's careless malice is abandoned. The branch of the law that putatively protects our good name against libel and slander withdraws from us indifferently. The dead cannot be libelled or slandered. They are without legal recourse.
Biography is the medium through which the remaining secrets of the famous dead are taken from them and dumped out in full view of the world. The biographer at work, indeed, is like 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. The voyeurism and busybodyism that impel writers and readers of biography alike are obscured by an apparatus of scholarship designed to give the enterprise an appearance of banklike blandness and solidity. The biographer is portrayed almost as a kind of benefactor. He is seen as sacrificing years of his life to his task, tirelessly sitting in archives and libraries and patiently conducting interviews with witnesses. There is no length he will not go to, and the more his book reflects his industry the more the reader believes that he is having an elevating literary experience, rather than simply listening to backstairs gossip and reading other people's mail. The transgressive nature of biography is rarely acknowledged, but it is the only explanation for biography's status as a popular genre. The reader's amazing tolerance (which he would extend to no novel written half as badly as most biographies) makes sense only when seen as a kind of collusion between him and the biographer in an excitingly forbidden undertaking: tiptoeing down the corridor together, to stand in front of the bedroom door and try to peep through the keyhole.
Every now and then, a biography comes along that strangely displeases the public. Something causes the reader to back away from the writer and refuse to accompany him down the corridor. What the reader has usually heard in the text—what has alerted him to danger—is the sound of doubt, the sound of a crack opening in the wall of the biographer's self-assurance. As a burglar should not pause to discuss with his accomplice the rights and wrongs of burglary while he is jimmying a lock, so a biographer ought not to introduce doubts about the legitimacy of the biographical enterprise. The biography-loving public does not want to hear that biography is a flawed genre. It prefers to believe that certain biographers are bad guys.
This is what happened to Anne Stevenson, the author of a biography of Sylvia Plath called Bitter Fame, which is by far the most intelligent and the only aesthetically satisfying of the five biographies of Plath written to date. The other four are: Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness (1976), by Edward Butscher; Sylvia Plath: A Biography (1987), by Linda Wagner-Martin; The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath (1991), by Ronald Hayman; and Rough Magic: A Biography of Sylvia Plath (1991), by Paul Alexander. In Stevenson's book, which was published in 1989, the cracking of the wall was all too audible. Bitter Fame was brutally attacked, and Anne Stevenson herself was pilloried; the book became known and continues to be known in the Plath world as a "bad" book. The misdeed for which Stevenson could not be forgiven was to hesitate before the keyhole. "Any biography of Sylvia Plath written during the lifetimes of her family and friends must take their vulnerability into consideration, even if completeness suffers from it," she wrote in her preface. This is a most remarkable—in fact, a thoroughly subversive—statement for a biographer to make. To take vulnerability into consideration! To show compunction! To spare feelings! To not push as far as one can! What is the woman thinking of? The biographer's business, like the journalist's, is to satisfy the reader's curiosity, not to place limits on it. He is supposed to go out and bring back the goods—the malevolent secrets that have been quietly burning in archives and libraries and in the minds of contemporaries who have been biding their time, waiting for the biographer's knock on their doors. Some of the secrets are difficult to bring away, and some, jealously guarded by relatives, are even impossible. Relatives are the biographer's natural enemies; they are like the hostile tribes an explorer encounters and must ruthlessly subdue to claim his territory. If the relatives behave like friendly tribes, as they occasionally do—if they propose to cooperate with the biographer, even to the point of making him "official" or "authorized"—he still has to assert his authority and strut about to show that he is the big white man and they are just the naked savages. Thus, for example, when Bernard Crick agreed to be George Orwell's authorized biographer he first had to ritually bring Orwell's widow to her knees. "She agreed to my firm condition that as well as complete access to the papers, I should have an absolute and prior waiver of copyright so that I could quote what I liked and write what I liked. These were hard terms, even if the only terms on which, I think, a scholar should and can take on a contemporary biography," Crick writes with weary pride in an essay entitled "On the Difficulties of Writing Biography in General and of Orwell's in Particular." When Sonia Orwell read excerpts from Crick's manuscript and realized the worthlessness of the trinkets she had traded her territory for (her fantasy that Crick saw Orwell exactly as she saw him, and viewed her marriage to Orwell exactly as she viewed it), she tried to rescind the agreement. She could not do so, of course. Crick's statement is a model of biographical rectitude. His "hard terms" are the reader's guarantee of quality, like the standards set by the Food and Drug Administration. They assure the reader that he is getting something pure and wholesome, not something that has been tampered with.
When Anne Stevenson's biography arrived, it looked like damaged goods. The wrapping was coming undone, the label looked funny, there was no nice piece of cotton at the top of the bottle. Along with the odd statement about the book's intentional incompleteness, there was a most suspicious-looking Author's Note on the opening page. "In writing this biography, I have received a great deal of help from Olwyn Hughes," Stevenson said. (Olwyn Hughes is Ted Hughes's older sister and the former literary agent to the Plath estate.) "Ms. Hughes's contributions to the text have made it almost a work of dual authorship. I am particularly grateful for the work she did on the last four chapters and on the Ariel poems of the autumn of 1962." The note ended with an asterisk that led to a footnote citing exactly which poems Olwyn Hughes had done work on. As if all this weren't peculiar enough, the Author's Note in the published book differed from the Author's Note in the galleys sent to reviewers, which read, "This biography of Sylvia Plath is the result of a three-year dialogue between the author and Olwyn Hughes, agent to the Plath Estate. Ms. Hughes has contributed so liberally to the text that this is in effect a work of joint authorship."
Anne Stevenson apparently had not subdued the natives but had been captured by them and subjected to God knows what tortures. The book she had finally staggered back to civilization with was repudiated as a piece of worthless native propaganda, rather than the "truthful" and "objective" work it should have been. She was seen as having been used by Ted and Olwyn Hughes to put forward their version of Ted Hughes's relations with Plath. Hughes has been extremely reticent about his life with Plath; he has written no memoir, he gives no interviews, his writings about her work (in a number of introductions to volumes of her poetry and prose) are always about the work, and touch on biography only when it relates to the work. It evidently occurred to no one that if Hughes was indeed speaking about his marriage to Plath through Stevenson this might add to the biography's value, not decrease it.
When I first read Bitter Fame, in the late summer of 1989, I knew nothing of the charged situation surrounding it, nor was I impelled by any great interest in Sylvia Plath. The book had been sent to me by its publisher, and what aroused my interest was the name Anne Stevenson. Anne had been a fellow student of mine at the University of Michigan in the 1950s. She was in the class ahead of me, and I did not know her, but I knew of her, as the daughter of an eminent and popular professor of philosophy and as a girl who was arty—who wrote poetry that appeared in Generation, the university's literary magazine, and who had won the Hopwood award, a serious literary prize. She had once been pointed out to me on the street: thin and pretty, with an atmosphere of awkward intensity and passion about her, gesticulating, surrounded by interesting-looking boys. In those days, I greatly admired artiness, and Anne Stevenson was one of the figures who glowed with a special incandescence in my imagination. She seemed to embody and to have come by naturally all the romantic qualities that I and my fellow fainthearted rebels against the dreariness of the Eisenhower years yearned toward, as we stumblingly, and largely unsuccessfully, attempted to live out our fantasies of nonconformity. Over the years, I watched Anne achieve the literary success she had been headed toward at Michigan. I had begun to write, too, but I did not envy or feel competitive with her: she was in a different sphere, a higher, almost sacred place—the stratosphere of poetry. Moreover, she had married an Englishman and moved to England—the England of E. M. Forster, G.B. Shaw, Max Beerbohm, Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey, Henry James, T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence—and that only fixed her the more firmly in my imagination as a figure of literary romance. When, in the mid-seventies, I read Anne's book-length poem Correspondences, a kind of novel in letters, a chronicle of quiet (and sometimes not so quiet) domestic despair over several generations, my vague admiration found a sturdy object. The book showed Anne to be not only a poet of arresting technical accomplishment but a woman who had lived, and could speak about her encounters with the real in a tough, modern woman's voice. (She could also modulate it into the softer tones of nineteenth-century moral thought.)
The years passed, and one day a poem by Anne Stevenson appeared in the Times Literary Supplement entitled "A Legacy: On My Fiftieth Birthday." Anne was now a grand literary lady. Her poem was full of poets and editors and critics and friends and children and dogs, and its tone of intimate allusiveness evoked a society of remarkable people meeting in each other's burnished houses and talking about literature and ideas in their quiet, kind English voices. I briefly considered writing Anne a note of congratulation and identifying myself as an old Michigan schoolmate—and didn't. Her society seemed too closed, sufficient unto itself.
More years went by when I didn't hear or think about Anne Stevenson; then Bitter Fame brought her into my imaginative life again. I read the early chapters about Plath's childhood and adolescence and college years with pangs of rueful recognition—the three of us were almost the same age—and with a certain surprise at the accuracy and authority of Anne's evocation of what it had been like to be a young person living in America in 1950s. How did Anne know about it? I had placed her far above and beyond the shames and humiliations and hypocrisies in which the rest of us were helplessly implicated. Evidently, she knew about them all too well. "Middle-class teenage Americans in the 1950s subscribed to an amazing code of sexual frustration," she writes, and continues:
When writing of how Plath, in her senior year at Smith, daringly matriculated from petting to sleeping with her boyfriends, and deceived her mother about her activities, Anne is moved to observe: "Many women who, like myself, were students in America in the 1950s will remember duplicities of this kind. Sylvia's double standard was quite usual, as was the acceptable face she assumed in letters to her mother. My own letters home of the time were not dissimilar."
Everything was permissible to girls in the way of intimacy except the one thing such intimacies were intended to bring about. Both partners in the ritual of experimental sex conceded that "dating" went something like this: preliminary talking and polite mutual inspection led to dancing, which often shifted into "necking," which—assuming continuous progress—concluded in the quasi-masturbation of "petting" on the family sofa, or, in more affluent circumstances, in the back seat of a car. Very occasionally intercourse might, inadvertently, take place; but as a rule, if the partners went to the same school or considered themselves subject to the same moral pressures, they stopped just short of it.
The early chapters of Bitter Fame pulled me back into a period that I still find troubling to recall, precisely because duplicity was so closely woven into its fabric. We lied to our parents and we lied to each other and we lied to ourselves, so addicted to deception had we become. We were an uneasy, shifty-eyed generation. Only a few of us could see how it was with us. When Ted Hughes writes about the struggle of Plath's "true self" to emerge from her false one, he is surely writing about a historical as well as a personal crisis. The nineteenth century came to an end in America only in the 1960s; the desperate pretense that the two World Wars had left the world as unchanged as the Boer War had left it was finally stripped away by the sexual revolution, the women's movement, the civil rights movement, the environmental movement, the Vietnam War protests. Sylvia Plath and Anne Stevenson and I came of age in the period when the need to keep up the pretense was especially strong: no one was prepared—least of all the shaken returning G.I.'s—to face the post-Hiroshima and post-Auschwitz world. At the end of her life, Plath looked, with unnerving steadiness, at the Gorgon; her late poems name and invoke the bomb and the death camps. She was able—she had been elected—to confront what most of the rest of us fearfully shrank from. "For goodness sake, stop being so frightened of everything, Mother!" she wrote to Aurelia Plath in October, 1962. "Almost every other word in your letter is 'frightened.'" In the same letter she said:
Now stop trying to get me to write about "decent courageous people"—read the Ladies' Home Journal for those! It's too bad my poems frighten you—but you've always been afraid of reading or seeing the world's hardest things—like Hiroshima, the Inquisition or Belsen.
But Plath's engagement with "the world's hardest things" came only just before she killed herself. (Robert Lowell wrote in his introduction to Ariel, "This poetry and life are not a career; they tell that life, even when disciplined, is simply not worth it.") The history of her life—as it has now been told in the five biographies and in innumerable essays and critical studies—is a signature story of the fearful, double-faced fifties. Plath embodies in a vivid, almost emblematic way the schizoid character of the period. She is the divided self par excellence. The taut surrealism of the late poems and the slack, girls'-book realism of her life (as rendered by Plath's biographers and by her own autobiographical writings) are grotesquely incongruous. The photographs of Plath as a vacuous girl of the fifties, with dark lipstick and blond hair, add to one's sense of the jarring disparity between the life and the work. In Bitter Fame, writing with the affectionate asperity of a sibling, Anne Stevenson draws a portrait of Plath as a highly self-involved and confused, unstable, driven, perfectionistic, rather humorless young woman, whose suicide remains a mystery, as does the source of her art, and who doesn't add up.
As I read the book, certain vague, dissatisfied thoughts I had had while reading other biographies began to come into sharper focus. It was only later, when the bad report of the book had spread and I had learned about some of the circumstances of its writing, that I understood why it gave the sense of being as much about the problems of biographical writing as about Sylvia Plath. At the time, I thought that it was Sylvia Plath herself who was mischievously subverting the biographer's project. The many voices in which the dead girl spoke—the voices of the journals, of her letters, of The Bell Jar, of the short stories, of the early poems, of the Ariel poems—mocked the whole idea of biographical narrative. The more Anne Stevenson fleshed out Plath's biography with quotations from her writings, the thinner, paradoxically, did her own narrative seem. The voices began to take over the book and to speak to the reader over the biographer's head. They whispered, "Listen to me, not to her. I am authentic. I speak with authority. Go to the full texts of the journals, the letters home, and the rest. They will tell you what you want to know." These voices were joined by another chorus—that of people who had actually known Plath. These, too, said, "Don't listen to Anne Stevenson. She didn't know Sylvia. I knew Sylvia. Let me tell you about her. Read my correspondence with her. Read my memoir." Three of these voices were particularly loud—those of Lucas Myers, Dido Merwin, and Richard Murphy, who had written memoirs of Plath and Hughes that appeared as appendixes in Bitter Fame. One of them, Merwin's, entitled "Vessel of Wrath," rose to the pitch of a shriek. The memoir caused a sensation: it was deplored because of its intemperateness.
Dido Merwin couldn't stand Plath, and had waited thirty years to tell the world what she thought of her former "friend," depicting her as the unbearable wife of a long-suffering martyr. According to Merwin, the wonder was not that Hughes left Plath but that he "stuck it out as long as he did." After the separation, Merwin writes, she asked Hughes "what had been hardest to take during the time he and Sylvia were together," and he revealed that Plath, in a fit of jealous rage, had torn into small pieces all his work in progress of the winter of 1961, as well as his copy of Shakespeare. Merwin also recalls as if it had happened yesterday a disastrous visit that Plath and Hughes paid her and her then husband, the poet W. S. Merwin, at their farmhouse, in the Dordogne. Plath "used up all the hot water, repeatedly helped herself from the fridge (breakfasting on what one had planned to serve for lunch, etc.), and rearranged the furniture in their bedroom." She cast such a pall with her sulking (though her appetite never diminished, Merwin notes, as she tells of balefully watching Plath attack a fine foie gras "for all the world as though it were 'Aunt Dot's meat loaf'") that Hughes had to cut the visit short. Anne Stevenson was heavily criticized for giving an "unbalanced" idea of Plath by including this venomous portrait in her biography.
In fact, where Anne Stevenson made her mistake of balance was not in including such a negative view of Plath but in including such a subversively lively piece of writing. The limitations of biographical writing are never more evident than when one turns from it to writing in another genre; and when, led by a footnote, I turned from the text of Bitter Fame to Dido Merwin's memoir I felt as if I had been freed from prison. The hushed cautiousness, the solemn weighing of "evidence," the humble "she must have felt"s and "he probably thought"s of biographical writing had given way to a high-spirited subjectivity. Writing in her own voice as her own person, fettered by no rules of epistemological deportment, Dido could let rip. She knew exactly how she felt and what she thought. The contrast between the omniscient narrator of Bitter Fame, whose mantle of pallid judiciousness Anne Stevenson was obliged to wear, and the robustly intemperate "I" of the Merwin memoir is striking. Merwin's portrait of Plath is a self-portrait of Merwin, of course. It is she, rather than Plath, who emerges, larger than life, from "Vessel of Wrath," and whose obliterating vividness led readers into their error of questioning Anne Stevenson's motives.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7785
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 her model she has chosen one of the most fierce and public battles ever fought between a literary estate and aspiring biographers. Since Malcolm's style depends on startling metaphors, it comes as no surprise that she sees those biographers as players in a gothic poker game, taking place "in a room so dark and gloomy that one has a hard time seeing one's hand; one is apt to make mistakes." In the next room lies "an open coffin surrounded by candles. A small old woman sits in a straight-backed chair reading a manual of stenography." A tall, graying man, all in black, enters where the players are gathered, followed by a tall woman who glares malevolently at them. Will these rather menacing characters help or hinder the game? Nothing becomes clear until the bidding starts.
The main figures in this allegory are Plath's survivors. The old woman is her mother, Aurelia, with whom Sylvia had a close but difficult relationship. Ted Hughes, now England's Poet Laureate, is the tall man, the husband whose desertion inspired Plath's most powerful and angry verse. Because she left no will when she killed herself in 1963, her writings and other properties automatically passed to him. The tall woman is his sister, Olwyn Hughes, a literary agent who administered the estate until her retirement in 1991. Her overriding concern was, and remains, to defend her brother from the "libbers" she imagines to be Sylvia's champions and his adversaries. Many Plath scholars, identifying strongly with the rage and hurt their heroine expressed against her husband during her last months, cannot forgive him—even 30 years later—for censoring parts of her Journals or for controlling their freedom to quote from her in print. Malcolm shows how the situation is both oppressive and tantalizing for Plath's would-be biographers: Each hopes to be the one to illuminate what actually happened and voice the feelings of the "silent woman" in the casket, whose poetry still speaks so loudly.
Plath is considered a "confessional" poet. Thus it is commonly assumed that by studying her personality and the events of her life, readers can better understand the desperation of what Emily Dickinson would have called her "letter to the world." Yet of the five biographies to date (Silent Woman does not properly belong to the genre), Anne Stevenson's Bitter Fame alone confronts the enigma at the heart of Plath's work. Her writings, public and private, indicate that she deliberately discarded the image of "a nice person" in favor of a grittier truth. She was obviously driven by private demons we cannot fully fathom. Malcolm rightly points out that "The taut surrealism of the late poems and the slack, girl's book realism of her life (as recorded by biographers and by her own biographical writings) are grotesquely incongruous." In short, "she doesn't add up." But how does one go about filling in the lacunae in one's knowledge of a dead person? Witnesses prove contradictory, so one ends up trying to collate the paper trail of a lifetime. Family keepers of that material, however, will frequently turn hostile if their vision of the deceased is not accepted.
From the time of his wife's death, Ted Hughes has been what Malcolm terms "Plath's greatest critic, elucidator, and (you could almost say) impresario." His enemies, recalling her best-known poem, "Daddy," crudely mark him as the "man in black with a Meinkampf look / And a love of the rack and the screw," persecuting her defenders to hide his own moral complicity in her death. This view does not jibe with reality. If Hughes had wanted to escape blame, he might better have suppressed the furious poems of the Ariel manuscript altogether. Had he done so, Plath probably would never have come to public notice. He has instead faithfully kept her flame burning bright before literary audiences. Nevertheless, he insists on his right to preserve an undistorted portrait of Plath for their two children—infants at the time she died—whom he and Olwyn raised. With good reason, if unrealistically, he also resents having his own life hashed over. When Hughes bitterly protests the way "writers move onto the living because they can no longer feel the difference between [them] and the dead," and charges that they ransack their subjects' "psyches and reinvent them however they please," readers of recent biographies know exactly what he is talking about.
Malcolm's research uncovered clumsy errors in the handling of Plath's estate, but no self-serving omissions by Hughes. In fact, she clarifies how a serious tactical misstep he made set in motion a chain of events that had quite the opposite effect. In 1970 Hughes wanted money to buy a new house, so he decided to reprint Plath's autobiographical novel The Bell Jar. Aurelia Plath was understandably upset, for the book contained highly unflattering portraits of her family and friends, as well as an account of Sylvia's first suicide attempt while in college. Previously it had been published under a pseudonym and only in England, to avoid inflicting pain on its American subjects. Hughes was within his legal rights. The friction the novel's appearance caused, though, soon escalated into a war between husband and mother over the poet's image. Both sides started releasing private letters and journals to support their contrasting impressions of "the real Sylvia." Malcolm notes that the eventual result was something neither anticipated nor wanted: Public attention began to focus on the details of Plath's life more than on her poetry.
In one of her most memorable passages Malcolm writes: "The voyeurism and busybodyism that impel writers and readers of biography alike are obscured by an apparatus of scholarship designed to give the enterprise an appearance of banklike blandness and solidity. The biographer is portrayed almost as a benefactor … sacrificing years of his life to his task … and the more his book reflects his industry the more the reader believes that he is having an elevating literary experience, rather than simply listening to backstairs gossip and reading other people's mail." A number of individual lives have been reshaped—usually for the worse—by getting caught up in the thicket surrounding Plath. Malcolm, observing that there have been countless similar exploitations of the survivors of a biographer's dead subject, cites the case of George Orwell's widow, Sonia, and his authorized biographer, Bernard Crick.
After two accounts of Plath's life were published—both fairly innocuous to an outsider's eye, yet hurtful to those who figured in her history—the estate made another unfortunate move. Hughes decided to "cooperate," through his sister, with Anne Stevenson in order to correct what he and Olwyn agreed were the failings of the earlier books. An American poet about Plath's age, Stevenson too had moved to England. Her approach seems sensible and balanced to an impartial reader. All the same, it drew fire from every side. Reviewers accused her of "selling out" to the estate and assuming an advocate's role for the Hugheses. The notoriously difficult Olwyn, meanwhile, felt Stevenson had not listened to the family enough and never forgave her for it. In Malcolm's view, Bitter Fame is "the most intelligent and only esthetically satisfying" life of Plath thus far. She takes up cudgels against those who, reacting to its connection with the estate, have written it off as an attack on a heroine unable to respond. Mostly, she suggests, these are the people eager "to wrest from Hughes the power over [Plath's] literary remains which he acquired when she died." They insist that no one may criticize the deceased, although living members of the family are fair game.
Malcolm confesses to appreciating Anne Stevenson's predicament because she herself has "written an unpopular book … and been attacked in the press." The allusion is to In the Freud Archives. Malcolm had claimed that one of its subjects, a Freudian apostate, used his position in that august institution to hunt for documents that might discredit the founder of psychoanalysis. He sued her for defamation and she was widely presumed to have intruded her own Freudian bias into her tale. At her trial she countered (with little success) that such a charge distorts both the offending portrait and her purpose. On one level, The Silent Woman is a continuation of her defense.
All writers wear "the blinders of narrative," she argues, since any attempt to tell a coherent story necessitates editing the material. Inevitably, some issues get left out and others are magnified. As she did the interviews for this work, Malcolm tells us, she paid particular attention to the way each person molded "the Plath legend." Some made it a melodrama between the good girl and the bad guy. A postmodernist critic who had done a study that saw everything Plath wrote as dreamlike, allowing infinite speculation, confided that an outraged letter from Hughes over her reading of one poem as a bisexual fantasy caused her to feel physically threatened. In Malcolm's own complicated interpretation, Hughes emerges a compelling and sympathetic figure. Doubtless many will charge her again with being grossly biased. But that would miss her fundamental point. Her thoughtful book proclaims that too many contemporary biographies do violence to reality by treating it merely as a form of literature, complete with black-or-white characters, a tidy plot and a Hollywood moral.
Caryn James (review date 27 March 1994)
SOURCE: "The Importance of Being Biased," in The New York Times Book Review, March 27, 1994, pp. 1, 18-20.
[In the following review, James describes how Malcolm's investigation into Plath's life was fueled by her sympathy for Ted Hughes and how The Silent Woman presents a revisionist view of Hughes's influence on Plath and her biographers.]
In small cemetery in Yorkshire is a gravestone that reads "Sylvia Plath Hughes, 1932–1963." Or at least that's what it usually reads. For a while in the late 1980's, vandals kept creeping into the cemetery and scraping away the word "Hughes." The poet's husband, Ted Hughes, had his family name restored, only to find it scraped off again, at least three times. No one ever discovered the vandals' identities, but it was assumed that they were enraged Plath devotees who had bought into a popular, simple-minded myth. She was St. Sylvia, the genius housewife driven to despair and suicide because of her adulterous husband. He was a poet too, but also a garden-variety 1950's-style oppressor, who metaphorically held open the oven door.
Who owns Sylvia? The tug-of-war began soon after Plath's final, best poems were gathered in Ariel, in 1965. (To anyone under 50, that slim volume now carries the unmistakable whiff of sophomore year in college.) And the debate gained a new flurry of interest last August, when The Silent Woman, by Janet Malcolm, appeared in The New Yorker. Now published as a book subtitled "Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes," it details the angry wrangling between Plath's biographers and the Hughes family for control of Plath's image.
On one side are the hagiographers, armed with a now-glorified tale: the young American alone with two small children, rising at dawn in a brutal English winter to write her fierce, blackhearted poems about death. On the other is Ted Hughes, then her estranged husband. Arguably as great a poet as Plath and now England's poet laureate, he has nonetheless been best known over the years as the man who let Sylvia down. It seems odd that Ms. Malcolm doesn't mention Plath's defaced headstone in The Silent Woman, for this book is her passionate attempt to restore the Hughes name to a position of honor.
She takes Mr. Hughes's side against 30 years' worth of disgruntled critics and biographers. As executor of his wife's estate, Mr. Hughes can grant or deny permission to quote from the cache of Plath's poetry, letters, journals and manuscripts. His sister, Olwyn, was the estate's agent until three years ago. It was Olwyn Hughes who dealt directly with the writers, bearing messages from her elusive brother as if from the oracle. Together, the Hugheses were famous for the hard time they gave to anyone who disagreed with them about Plath.
Ms. Malcolm's approach is rich and theatrical. The Silent Woman is to literary skulduggery what All the President's Men was to Watergate, with Ms. Malcolm casting herself in the Woodward-Bernstein role. As she races around England, a reporter going from one genteel teatime interview to the next, she artfully turns the story of Ted, Olwyn and the shaping of the dead poet's legend into a high human drama about a tragic, maligned widower and his devoted sister. Few essays in recent years have caused anything like the buzz The Silent Woman did when it first appeared, but Sylvia Plath was the least of it. While the English fuss about poets' graves, Americans gossip about litigation and celebrity journalists. The word was that The Silent Woman was all about Janet Malcolm.
Well, it's certainly not about Plath, who emerges as an enigma, a shadowy set of contradictory anecdotes. Some say she was mad, others maddening; she may well have been both. In The Silent Woman, she is usually the bone and the hank of hair over which two camps are feuding. Though Ms. Malcolm positions herself in the Hughes camp, the great strength of the book is that Plath becomes the excuse for page after page of deep and provocative questions. Her broader subject, Ms. Malcolm writes, is biography itself, "a flawed genre" in which "the pose of fair-mindedness, the charade of evenhandedness, the striking of an attitude of detachment can never be more than rhetorical ruses."
These are explosive words from someone with Janet Malcolm's notoriety. Just two months before the New Yorker essay appeared, Ms. Malcolm lost a famous libel suit, which has dragged on for 10 years and isn't over yet. The psychoanalyst Jeffrey Masson sued her and The New Yorker over a 1983 article that later became a book, In the Freud Archives. Last June, a jury found that Ms. Malcolm had fabricated five quotations, two of them libelous. But the jury could not agree on damages, and a retrial was ordered. (The New Yorker was declared not legally responsible, and the magazine was detached from the suit.)
Ms. Malcolm's legal troubles cast a tiny shadow over The Silent Woman, not because her quotations seem suspect but because she is so coy. She cannot angrily accuse one Plath biographer of skirting "the limits of libel law" without making a reader wonder why she chose such loaded words. But the woman who is set to go back to court is different from the Janet Malcolm who appears as a character, on stage, in her book. The offstage Janet Malcolm is the one who at her trial could not produce tape recordings of all her challenged quotations and who strung together remarks from two different interviews as if they were one. Most reporters would think it's safer to rob a bank. Still, the journalistic lessons of her legal case are crashingly banal—always tape everything and don't monkey with the quotes—and irrelevant to The Silent Woman.
The Janet Malcolm in the book is an idealized version of her journalistic self. She lucidly unravels the Plath controversy. She makes a vehement, though finally unconvincing, case for Mr. Hughes as a man helplessly "imprisoned in the Plath legend." Most important, she raises indispensable, uncomfortable issues that journalists and biographers should be brave enough to face. In an age of rampant celebrity journalism, it would be foolish to dismiss her claim that biography's appeal is based on "voyeurism and busybodyism," however high-minded the subject. And what reporter can disagree when she peers beneath the ritual dance of the interview, with its "outward resemblance to an ordinary friendly meeting," and finds two people trying to use and outwit each other? These are the existential questions of journalism: profoundly important and totally paralyzing if you think about them for too long. It may be the ultimate paradox that they are framed by someone whose own methods are in dispute.
The Silent Woman gives dazzling shape to Ms. Malcolm's theories. True to her sense that a biographer must have a bias to be any good, she sets out to persuade her readers that Ted Hughes has been unfairly treated, as if he too were already dead and fair game for history's cruelty and voyeurism. Metaphors become one of her most effective weapons. The "flood of information" about Sylvia Plath, she writes, "could be likened to an oil spill in the devastation it wreaked among Plath's survivors, who to this day are like birds covered with black ooze." She realizes that some of the survivors helped create the oil spill. In 1975, Plath's mother published Letters Home, a volume of her daughter's good-girl correspondence. Mr. Hughes published Plath's journals in 1982. But those facts don't erase the image of the Hugheses covered in slime.
Ms. Malcolm praises Anne Stevenson, whose 1989 book, Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath, presents the poet as a difficult, selfish, abrasive personality. The biographer's cooperation with Olwyn Hughes was fraught with the kind of journalistic danger that was bound to intrigue Ms. Malcolm. The situation echoes a case Ms. Malcolm wrote about in The Journalist and the Murderer, the 1990 book on journalism to which The Silent Woman becomes a companion piece. In the earlier work, Ms. Malcolm examined a literary lawsuit and turned it into an essay on journalistic ethics. Jeffrey MacDonald, a convicted murderer, sued Joe McGinniss for fraud and breach of contract. Mr. McGinniss made a deal to write the MacDonald story, acted like a friend, then published Fatal Vision, which made Dr. MacDonald look guilty.
Ms. Stevenson made no deal with the Plath estate. But for years Olwyn Hughes fed her facts, sources and ideas. In exchange, she expected—and almost got—control over the book's content. Olwyn Hughes's encouragement was a "spider's invitation," Ms. Malcolm says, and cheers the biographer for breaking free. Still, she assumes the generous attitude that when Olwyn Hughes interfered with writers, it was done for the sake of protecting her beleaguered brother.
It is in the portrait of Ted Hughes that Ms. Malcolm loses control, romanticizing him almost as much as the young, infatuated Sylvia Plath did. He is compared to Prometheus and to Chekhov. He suffers "punishment by biography." Even his letters to other people make Ms. Malcolm react with "intense sympathy and affection," as if she were in the throes of a schoolgirl crush.Mr. Hughes's heroic status owes much to the fact that Ms. Malcolm never meets him. She wrote to him at the start of her project, in care of his sister (the recommended way to reach him), requesting an interview. Olwyn Hughes answered the letter and met with the author. If Ms. Malcolm ever met Ted Hughes—or even tried again to reach him—she doesn't mention it here. She snoops outside his house once, and is deeply ashamed of herself for doing so. Another reporter might have carried away some delicious detail. She sees "a fully stocked bird feeder," which prompts "a return of my feeling of tenderness toward Hughes."
She even turns around Plath's best-known poem, "Daddy," citing the lines "Daddy, you can lie back now. / There's a stake in your fat black heart." In Ms. Malcolm's metaphor, "Hughes has never been able to drive the stake through Plath's heart and free himself from her hold." He is tormented by biographers and curiosity seekers, "stand-ins for the Undead woman herself."
Ms. Malcolm is more convincing in those rare moments when she achieves a conscious "hardening of the heart against Ted Hughes." He allowed Plath's autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, to be published posthumously in the United States because he needed money to buy a house (his third). "He had evidently exchanged his right to privacy for a piece of real estate," she writes. One of the disillusioning truths offered in The Silent Woman is that all biographical subjects eventually become pieces of property, with writers feuding over the corpus left behind.
Ms. Malcolm finally had her own skirmish about permission to quote from Plath and from Ted Hughes's letters. She refused to let Mr. Hughes read her manuscript before making his decision, as he had asked through his publisher. She compromised and let him see the paragraphs on either side of the quotations. If she had stood on principle, Mr. Hughes would not have seen any of her writing. But then he might have refused to let her quote what she needed; the book would have been damaged or even destroyed. Ms. Malcolm's idealized journalistic self has vanished from this incident, replaced by a pragmatic one.
Her version of Woodward and Bernstein turns out to be the reporter as antihero. That is what makes The Silent Woman such an astute journalistic chronicle, disturbingly in touch with its times.
Michiko Kakutani (review date 5 April 1994)
SOURCE: "Taking Sides in Polemics Over Plath," in The New York Times, April 5, 1994, pp. C13, C17.
[In the following review of The Silent Woman, Kakutani outlines the longstanding libel case against Malcolm for her previous book, The Journalist and the Murderer (1990), and its relevance to Malcolm's biography of Plath.]
Before we get to Janet Malcolm's vexing new book, The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, which originally appeared in different form as a single voluminous article in The New Yorker last year, a little history is in order.
To begin with, the volume stands as a kind of bookend to Ms. Malcolm's earlier book The Journalist and the Murderer (1990), a heated attack on the author Joe McGinniss for betraying the trust of the convicted murderer Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald. For Ms. Malcolm, Mr. McGinniss's act—befriending Dr. MacDonald and subsequently writing a defamatory book about him—was a paradigm for the relationship between journalists and their subjects. Indeed, she went on to make a damning generalization about journalists as a group.
"Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible," she wrote in The Journalist and the Murderer. "He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse."
Curiously enough, the vague accusations Ms. Malcolm was hurling at fellow journalists were also being hurled—very specifically—at her by Jeffrey M. Masson, a principal subject of a 1983 article she wrote for The New Yorker. Last June, a Federal jury concluded that Ms. Malcolm had indeed defamed Mr. Masson with five fabricated quotations, but deadlocked over damages. A retrial is scheduled.
All of which brings us to Ms. Malcolm's latest book, The Silent Woman, a book that's meant to do for biographers what The Journalist and the Murderer tried to do for journalists. The volume draws analogies between the biographer at work and "the professional burglar," who breaks into a house, rifles "through certain drawers" and triumphantly bears his loot away. Ms. Malcolm says in passing that the book was shaped by her own experience (during the Masson trial) of being "attacked in the press."
"I had been there—on the helpless side of the journalist-subject equation," she writes. "Now my journalist's 'objectivity' was impaired."
Given the evidence presented at the Masson trial, one must certainly question what sort of "objectivity" Ms. Malcolm ever possessed, and The Silent Woman serves only to ratify this perception.
On the surface, the volume gives us some interesting insights into the continuing literary feuds being fought over the memory of the poet Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide in 1963. On one side are Plath's former husband, the poet Ted Hughes, and his sister Olwyn Hughes, who have controlled access to Plath's papers. On the other side are those Plath friends, critics and biographers who suggest that the Hugheses have been obstructive in their handling of the estate. To some Plath admirers who have tried to portray Mr. Hughes as an overbearing husband who dominated his wife in life and death, Mr. Hughes has responded that critics and biographers have willfully tried to reinvent the image of his wife and their marriage, while cruelly ransacking his own psyche.
Ms. Malcolm comes down firmly on the side of Ted Hughes, whom she depicts as a kind of archetypal victim of the predatory biographer: "Like Prometheus, whose ravaged liver was daily reconstituted so it could be daily reravaged, Hughes has had to watch his young self being picked over by biographers, scholars, critics, article writers and newspaper journalists."
Ms. Malcolm also hails Mr. Hughes's literary gifts ("he writes with brilliant, exasperated intelligence and a kind of Chekovian largeheartedness and melancholy"), his physical attractiveness and his "helpless honesty." She writes of the "tenderness" she feels for the man, and even of the "identification" she feels with his typing style.
In fact, Ms. Malcolm's belief in Mr. Hughes is so ardent that it makes her want to find ways to dismiss the work of critics whom Mr. Hughes has opposed, including Jacqueline Rose's critically acclaimed book The Haunting of Sylvia Plath.
"In another context—if, that is, I had read The Haunting of Sylvia Plath as a book on a subject in which I had no investment—I would have felt nothing but admiration for it," Ms. Malcolm writes, "since I tend to support the new literary theorists in their debate with the traditionalists. But in the Plath-Hughes debate my sympathies are with the Hugheses, and thus, like a lawyer defending a case he knows to be weak and yet obscurely feels is just, I steel myself against the attractions of the opposition's most powerful and plausible witness." In other words: don't bother me with evidence; my mind's already made up.
From time to time, Ms. Malcolm seems to realize just how superficial and blindered her polemical approach to the Plath-Hughes debate really is. But instead of working harder—interviewing people in greater depth, talking to additional sources, collecting further facts—she tries to extrapolate her own limitations to the genre of biography-writing in general.
After a brief afternoon chat with one of Plath's former friends and her husband, Ms. Malcolm sighs: "What did I know about them? How inadequate and off the mark my account must be! The biographer commits the same offense when he proposes to solve the mystery that is a life with 'data' no less meager (when you consider the monstrous mass that accrues from the moment-by-moment events of a life) and interpretations no less crass (when you consider what a fine-tuned, custom-made instrument human motivation is)."
The thing is, there is a serious problem with Ms. Malcolm's reasoning here. Yes, there has been a deplorable rise in recent years of biographical smear jobs, and yes, all biography and history are to some degree fragmentary and provisional. This does not mean, however, that all efforts to discern the truth are futile or that all efforts to do so are equal or equally suspect.
Fortunately for the reader, the sloppy journalistic ethics evinced by Ms. Malcolm (in her reporting on Jeffrey Masson) and Joe McGinniss (in Fatal Vision and The Last Brother) aren't shared by all reporters. And for Ms. Malcolm to suggest that her own shortcomings are in any way representative of the vocations of journalism or biography writing in general seems not only solipsistic, but profoundly disingenuous.
Mary Cantwell (review date 17 April 1994)
SOURCE: "Plath, Hughes and Malcolm: A Metaphysical Ménage à Trois," in The New York Times, April 17, 1994, p. E16.
[In this brief review of The Silent Woman, Cantwell stresses the elusive nature of biography and the futility of its quest to summarize a person's life.]
On Feb. 11, 1963, a young American named Sylvia Plath stuck her head in the gas oven of her London home. It was not the first time she had attempted suicide. This time she succeeded. Ms. Plath was survived by her husband, two children, her mother, her brother, some short fiction, a brief autobiographical novel and many poems. The last of them, collected in a book called Ariel, were written with a passion that insures their permanence—as their author was the first to realize. "I am writing the best poems of my life," she wrote her mother a few months before her death. "They will make my name."
Since February 1963 Sylvia Plath has captured the attention of several biographers, countless English professors and a legion of women who saw in her work, and in her life and death, some curious reflection of themselves. Her husband, to whom she once gave the kind of encomium Emily Brontë might have given Heathcliff, also fascinates.
"I met the strongest man in the world," she wrote on the coming together of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, "… with a voice like the thunder of God—a singer, storyteller, lion and world-wanderer, a vagabond who will never stop." When she died, they were divorcing. His eye had moved elsewhere.
Thirty-one years later the vagabond is England's poet laureate, Ariel still flies from bookstores and the Plath legend has attracted yet another recorder, Janet Malcolm. Only what Ms. Malcolm is recording, in The Silent Woman, is less the legend itself than the difficulties faced by those who would record it. "The strongest man in the world" is their greatest difficulty: he controls Plath's estate, maintains an almost palpable silence about their marriage and admits to having misplaced, perhaps for all time, one of her journals and to destroying another. Even so Ms. Malcolm, who has previously concentrated much of her formidable intelligence on the sins of journalists, has not the heart to damn him.
Not only is she on his side, she even sounds a bit like the young, besotted Plath when she describes the trials he has endured as a suicide's relict. "Like Prometheus, whose ravaged liver was daily reconstituted so it could be daily reravaged, Hughes has had to watch his young self being picked over by biographers, scholars, critics, article writers and newspaper journalists."
The picking over will presumably continue long after Mr. Hughes is as absent from this earth as his first wife. By then the misplaced journal may have surfaced, along with ream after ream of new material about this talented woman and this talented man.
Chances are, however, that neither of them—and Ms. Plath in particular—will ever be truly pinned down to paper. The reason, though, will have little to do either with material too fragile to build upon or with material so copious it hides the telling details. Rather it has to do with the sheer, but endlessly alluring, impossibility of the biographer's craft.
Richard Holmes, who has written books about Shelley and Coleridge, parsed the problem perfectly in his magical Footsteps of a Romantic Biographer. Mr. Holmes had tried, and failed, to "find" Robert Louis Stevenson by duplicating the journey Stevenson described in Travels With a Donkey. In doing so, however, he found his métier.
"'Biography,'" he wrote, "meant a book about someone's life. Only, for me, it was to become a kind of pursuit, a tracking of the physical trail of someone's path through the past, a following of footsteps. You would never catch them, no, you would never quite catch them. But, maybe, if you were lucky, you might write about the pursuit of that flying figure in such a way as to bring it alive in the present…. You cannot freeze them, you cannot pinpoint them, at any particular turn in the road, bend of the river, view from the window. They are always in motion, carrying their past lives over into the future."
Anna Fels (review date 16 May 1994)
SOURCE: "The Flash of the Knife," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 258, No. 19, May 16, 1994, pp. 670-73.
[In the following review of The Silent Woman, Fels praises the intensity of Malcolm's writing and maintains that it is Ted Hughes, Plath's husband, who is the silent one.]
Janet Malcolm's new book, The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, is a brilliant literary tour de force that reads like a thriller. On one level Malcolm's subject is biography, the psychological complexity and potential destructiveness of this genre. She explores the legacy of the poet Sylvia Plath and its impact on those who knew her—or tried to write about her. But on another level it is about the crimes that people commit against one another. Malcolm's awareness of these crimes gives the book a kind of lurid intensity. Murder, burglary, brutal attacks, women brought to their knees—the metaphors she chooses have a striking violence. Nor is it only the metaphors. In this and in her other books real crimes have occurred. There are bodies. The question of whodunit has a real as well as a psychological dimension.
But this is no Agatha Christie tale in which a large group of suspects is rounded up and alibis checked. Malcolm's subject has always been dyads, two-person relationships and the distortions and violations to which they inevitably give rise. The two members can be husband and wife, mother and child, psychiatrist and patient, biographer and subject, journalist and interviewee. Often several of these dyads are linked, forming chains of culpability and victimization. In The Silent Woman Malcolm writes about Anne Stevenson, a much-criticized biographer of Plath, Stevenson's relationship to Ted Hughes (and his sister Olwyn Hughes, who has long served as his stalking horse) and finally Hughes's relationship with Plath.
In her earlier books Malcolm was a relatively inconspicuous observer of such relationships. But several years ago she found herself embroiled in a lawsuit brought by one of her subjects. Perhaps because of this development, Malcolm has now included herself prominently in the series of relationships she explores here—she, too, is a link in the chain. Her self-examination in the biographer's role is the thread that holds the book together.
But it is a sharply conflicted role. Malcolm bitterly attacks biographers as exploitative and self-serving, brutalizing their subjects for their own gain. At the same time, she is engaged in her own obsessive pursuit of a subject who is opposing her project: Ted Hughes denied her any interviews. This contradiction in her stance gives the book a strangely gripping, almost poignant quality. Malcolm herself is trapped within the matrix she describes, showing us her own struggles with voyeurism, manipulation and covert agendas even as she enacts these dramas with Plath's family and friends. Malcolm tries to convince us that she is supremely aware of what she is doing, letting us in on her writerly crime even as she commits it. But at times the reader is left wondering if this self-observation is not serving as the most disarming of cover-ups. Nor is it clear that Malcolm is always aware of what she is up to. In this Dostoyevskian tale of biographical "soul murder," Malcolm is at once Raskolnikov and the police inspector.
Throughout the book we see Malcolm traveling around a raw, wintry England interviewing the aging friends and acquaintances of Plath. They themselves are a chilling sight—fragile with their swollen, arthritic limbs, but undiminished in their passionate, deeply partisan views on Plath. Malcolm captures these encounters in her breathtakingly lucid, observant style, rendering the smell and feel and look of their rooms and their lives. The clarity and wit of her portraits make for reading that feels like a clandestine pleasure. Jacqueline Rose, a poststructuralist who has written an acclaimed book on Plath, is described as "a small, attractive woman in her early forties, wearing a short and close-fitting skirt and a sweater, whose face was framed by a great deal of artfully unruly blond hair, and whose whole person was surrounded by a kind of nimbus of self-possession." The hapless spouse of an interviewee who wanders into Malcolm's view is immortalized in a thumbnail sketch: "William brought a pot of tea and a plate of cookies made from blameless natural ingredients. He then retired to his office, a room filled with computer equipment and a photocopier." The characters that emerge from the gloomy British landscape range from the heroically portrayed Hughes to the low comedy figure of Plath's downstairs neighbor, Trevor Thomas, who sourly recites his litany about Plath's last days. The complexity, contradictions and self-interest of their differing views are deftly set forth.
But beneath this carapace of observations about how people experience one another and the uses to which they put their knowledge, Malcolm, like all the other characters in the book, has chosen a specific tale to tell about Plath—and she has her own reasons for telling it. In Malcolm's inimitable words, "The writer, like the murderer, needs a motive." In her forthright way Malcolm states that "I, too, have taken a side—that of the Hugheses and Anne Stevenson—and I, too, draw on my sympathies and antipathies and experiences to support it…. In the Plath-Hughes debate my sympathies are with the Hugheses … like a lawyer defending a case he knows to be weak yet obscurely feels is just…."
Given the stylistic brilliance and intellectual sophistication of this book, the story Malcolm chooses to tell has an oddly girlish quality. It's a story about three women—Janet Malcolm, Anne Stevenson and Sylvia Plath—all of whom came of age in the United States in the 1950s, all of whom became renowned writers, and two of whom moved to England and married Englishmen. Malcolm knew of Stevenson in college, and Stevenson was to Malcolm what Plath would later become to a generation of women: "She was in a different sphere, a higher, almost sacred place—the stratosphere of poetry. Moreover, she had married an Englishman." Importantly, Stevenson, like Plath, had a daring sexuality, "with an atmosphere of awkward intensity and passion about her, gesticulating, surrounded by interesting-looking boys."
The subplot of this book is Malcolm's rendering of the relationships of each of these women to Ted Hughes—Plath's stormy and ultimately destructive relationship, Stevenson's well-meaning but bungled attempt to collaborate with Hughes and finally Malcolm's own (literary) rescue of him. In her depictions of these two other women, you feel Malcolm's willed effort to be fair, but their portraits, like the one of Rose, have little warmth or generosity. Praise given on one page is often undercut on the next. Stevenson, whom Malcolm purports to champion, in fact is characterized as a rather bedraggled figure; talented, striving to do the right thing, but insecure and inept, an ex-alcoholic with a confused, chaotic life.
Only once does Malcolm appear to have a glimmer of the dynamic underlying her description of these women. Meditating on a subtle awkwardness, a "charged 'moment,'" that occurred in a conversation with Rose, she briefly has the conviction that "something unexpected and complicated had occurred. I remember feeling that she and I were struggling over something—were having a fight about some central, unacceptable thing…." She then goes on to simultaneously identify and deny the "unacceptable thing": "Jacqueline Rose and I were fighting over Ted Hughes." No sooner is this said than she hastens to repudiate it. The observation is embedded in a description of the unreliability of such conclusions and of biographical information in general.
That Malcolm decided to wade in to rescue such a "weak case" as Hughes should not come as a surprise to anyone who has read her recent books. One could argue that in each of the last three books she comes to the defense of a beleaguered man accused of a crime. And that in each case Malcolm takes elaborate pains to discredit the accusers. She indirectly "saves" Freud from Masson's allegation that Freud willfully ignored the sexual abuse of women patients. She pillories the author Joe McGinniss and raises the possibility that his subject, Jeffrey MacDonald, may not have murdered his wife (and children). And now Malcolm has chosen Hughes, a man who has had two wives commit suicide and who has been widely vilified for his treatment of Plath.
Perhaps because of the impulse that Malcolm feels to defend Hughes, as she moves from her wonderful, tough descriptions of the more peripheral characters toward her two central characters—Plath and Hughes—her portraits become less convincing. Her admiration for Hughes, despite (or perhaps because of) never having met him, is surprisingly starry-eyed. He is for her, as for Plath, the "overgrown Adonis/Aryan superman." He is described as having a "Chekhovian largeheartedness" and is compared to Prometheus; women are said to become literally weak in the knees at the sight of him. "When he writes about Plath he renders all other writings about her crude and trivial."
Malcolm's prose at times has an almost swooning quality. She writes that, reading a letter of Hughes to Stevenson, "I felt my identification with its typing swell into a feeling of intense sympathy and affection for the writer…. Critics will wrestle with the question of what gives [the letters] their peculiar power, why they are so deeply, mysteriously moving." In one amazing scene, she makes a pilgrimage to look at Hughes's house and has a frisson of pleasure as she realizes from a recently filled bird feeder that "the Hugheses were not away, that my intrusion might not be going unmarked…. I felt a return of my feeling of tenderness towards Hughes."
But although Malcolm succeeds in demonstrating that Hughes's life has been deformed by Plath's death, she never addresses the many contradictions in Hughes's chosen role as victim. Malcolm has the writerly integrity to supply us with enough facts to make the inconsistencies evident, but we are left without an explanation that is consonant with Malcolm's characterization. Hughes bitterly denounces the invasion of his privacy and the opportunistic use of Plath's writings by scholars. Yet he sold The Bell Jar to buy a second country house—despite the pain this move caused Plath's mother. The sale of the book then provoked further disclosures by Plath's mother in an effort to exonerate herself. Hughes destroyed at least one and possibly two of Plath's notebooks, pleading that he did it to protect their children. But obviously these could have been preserved in a library and made unavailable for the next century if he had wished: Hughes was protecting himself. Hughes's infidelities are also dismissed. It's a situation, Malcolm writes, that "perhaps more couples find themselves in than don't…." Surely two wives who committed suicide and the murder of one of his children by his second wife go beyond the normal course of youthful mistakes and marital woes. This unsettling theme is neither examined nor explained.
Malcolm's uncritical portrait of Hughes has as its counterpart the largely unflattering portrait of the Silent Woman—Sylvia Plath. Amazingly, Plath, at first glance the victim of the piece, is revealed to be the murderer—a sleight of hand Agatha Christie would be proud of. Her death itself, her "silence," turns out to be the murder weapon: "It is Plath's (Medusan) speechlessness that is the deadly, punishing weapon." Her silence is described as threatening, unnerving—aggression. Malcolm's admiration of Plath's poetry is grudging. The Ariel poems are described as the "waste products" of her madness. During the last months of her life, when Plath was suffering from a severe clinical depression in the setting of her recent separation, she is described as "running actual fevers as well as figurative ones of jealous rage and bathetic self-pity."
Malcolm's depiction of Plath as the Silent Woman is perhaps the strangest distortion of the entire book. Plath is, after all, the only person mentioned in this book who will undoubtedly continue to be heard from for a long time to come. Each time her poems are quoted in the book this fact is underlined. It was even more striking when the book was published as an essay in The New Yorker with the full texts of many of Plath's most powerful poems alongside it. In letters, fiction, journals and poems, Plath is very far from silent. The book includes a wonderful quote from Elizabeth Hardwick, who heard Plath in a BBC recording: "These bitter poems … were 'beautifully' read, projected in full-throated, plump, diction-perfect, Englishy, mesmerizing cadences, all round and rapid, and paced and spaced. Poor recessive Massachusetts had been erased. 'I have done it again!'" It is hard to think of Plath as silent. Paradoxically, it is of course Hughes who has been silent and has refused to speak to anyone writing on Plath. Destroying Plath's writing is certainly the imposition of an irrevocable silence.
But if Malcolm's motives at times appear to overwhelm the material, at many others she's wonderfully clear-eyed. And when she does intrude, Malcolm tries to warn us about the writer's animus, her calculations. The distortions are there, but they are a price worth paying for the depth and insight and sheer pleasure in Malcolm's narrative. Despite her cautions we become transfixed by a story that has all the elements of a great mystery: sex, murder, betrayals, suicide. But in this tale the crimes are as hidden as the evidence. It is only as we follow Malcolm into her deep psychological investigation that we begin to see the lineaments of true criminality. Like the guileless interviewees described by Malcolm, who always agree to talk to the writer, her readers cannot help being drawn into her endeavor. As Malcolm put it in the last line of her prior book: "And still they say yes when a journalist calls, and still they are astonished when they see the flash of the knife."
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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.
Alexander, Paul, ed. Ariel Ascending: Writings about Sylvia Plath. New York: Harper & Row, 1985, 218 p.
Collects essays on Plath by such critics as Joyce Carol Oates and Elizabeth Hardwick as well as observations written by Anne Sexton, Ted Hughes, and Aurelia Plath.
Bredsdorff, Thomas. "The Biographical Pursuit: Biography as a Tool of Literary Criticism." Orbis Litterarum: International Review of Literary Studies 44, No. 2 (1989): 181-90.
Maintains that biography is a useful tool in critically assessing "less than perfect" literary works, such as Plath's poetry.
Butscher, Edward, ed. Sylvia Plath: The Woman and the Work. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1977, 242 p.
Includes memoirs written especially for this volume by seven people who knew Plath, as well as other previously published criticism.
Christiansen, Rupert. "Hanging Out the Washing." The Spectator 269, No. 8578 (5 December 1992): 45-6.
Negative review of Ian Hamilton's Keepers of the Flame. Christiansen argues that the book is "unfocused" and does not deeply explore the history of biography or sufficiently ponder philosophical and moral issues.
Frank, Elizabeth. "A Long Romance with Death." The New York Times Book Review (6 October 1991): 14-16.
Reviews The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath and Rough Magic. Frank applauds Hughes's silence regarding Plath but states that "no adequate biography can possibly be written as long as the Plath estate continues to exact editorial compliance as the price of full quotation."
Friendly, Fred W. "Was Trust Betrayed?" The New York Times Book Review (25 February 1990): 1, 41-2.
Discusses Janet Malcolm's claim that biography and journalism are voyeuristic as he reviews Malcolm's The Journalist and the Murderer, in which Malcolm asserted that Joe McGinniss, the author of Fatal Vision, misrepresented himself in order to gain access to the murder defendant Jeffrey MacDonald.
Pinsky, Robert. "Playing the Tragedy Queen." The New York Times Book Review (27 August 1991): 11.
Concedes that Anne Stevenson's suggestion in Bitter Fame that "Plath suffered the airless egocentrism of one in love with an ideal self" is plausible but notes that Olwyn Hughes's role in writing the book may leave many readers uncomfortable with the unsympathetic way in which the biography unfolds.
Rose, Jacqueline. The Haunting of Sylvia Plath. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992, 288 p.
Contends that various interpretations of Plath have arisen over the years because of the disturbing and troubling nature of her life and work.
Showalter, Elaine. "Risky Business." The London Review of Books 16, No. 8 (22 September 1994): 19.
Ambivalent review of Linda Wagner-Martin's Telling Women's Lives. Showalter traces the rise of the women's biography genre and takes issue with Wagner-Martin's belief that only women are qualified to write biographies of women.
Treglown, Jeremy. "Beware the Biographer." The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4674 (30 October 1992): 9.
Calls Keepers of the Flame "absorbing and drily funny." Treglown appreciates Hamilton's treatment of Henry James and Philip Larkin, but laments the author's failure to explore at length the ramifications of copyright legislation and the ethics of consent involved in biographical writing.
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