Sylvia Plath and the Nature of Biography - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sylvia Plath and the Nature of Biography

With the advance publication of The Silent Woman (1994) in the New Yorker in August 1993, Janet Malcolm reopened debate about the life of poet Sylvia Plath and raised some larger issues about the nature of biography itself. Suggesting that the motives of biographers are less than altruistic, if not intrusive, Malcolm's book concentrates on her lengthy research process, particularly dealing with Olwyn Hughes, the executor of Plath's literary estate, and interviewing other Plath biographers to discuss how writing their biographies affected them personally. Among the issues Malcolm addresses is the right to privacy of living persons who were associated with the biographer's subject and how those rights interfere with the biographer's attempt to produce an accurate portrait. Indeed, Malcolm questions the efficacy of the biographer's project—capturing a person's life—and wonders if the biographer is, in fact, more of a burglar than a benefactor. Several other writers have also pondered this predicament. B. L. Reid, for instance, argues in Necessary Lives (1990) that "biography ought to be as well written as a novel; but it should not try to be, or to feel like, a novel. Biography becomes a fine art when it performs superbly within the right limits of its own nature…. One must be wary of the tempting 'high Priori road,' as Pope calls it: of fitting data into preconceived designs, the temptation to neaten and intensify and thereby to falsify the often disorderly order of time. Biography's strength and its integrity are ones of subject matter, of honorable and tasteful treatment of an interesting subject."

What makes biographies of Plath so controversial is that her widower, the English poet Ted Hughes, is still an active writer who insists, through his sister Olwyn Hughes, on maintaining a high degree of privacy concerning his years with Plath. This has made research difficult for Plath's biographers, who have been denied access to many of Plath's journals and letters, key sources that biographers of other individuals often take for granted. Once considered a noble genre, whose standard was James Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson (1791), biography in recent years has become increasingly dependent on the lurid details of its subject's life, becoming a psychology of an artist's pathology instead of an exploration of the guiding principles and philosophies that underscored a person's life. This penchant for deviant details—a trait Malcolm readily recognizes in her own biographical pursuits—prompts her to compare the biographer to "the professional burglar, breaking into a house, rifling through certain drawers that he has good reason to think contain the jewelry and money, and triumphantly bearing his loot away …" and to characterize biography as "the medium through which the remaining secrets of the famous dead are taken from them and dumped out in full view of the world." Thus, she defends Hughes's noncooperation with Plath's biographers as his attempt to guard his privacy and honor his wife's memory.

Representative Works Discussed Below

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Hamilton, Ian
  Keepers of the Flame: Literary Estates and the Rise of Biography (criticism) 1992
Malcolm, Janet
  The Journalist and the Murderer (nonfiction) 1990
  The Silent Woman (biography) 1994
Plath, Sylvia
  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
Stevenson, Anne
  Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath (biography) 1989
Wagner-Martin, Linda
  Telling Women's Lives: The New Biography (criticism) 1994

The Nature Of Biography

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 19263 words.)

Reviews Of The Silent Woman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 7785 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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....

(The entire section is 703 words.)