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.