There is something different in the way culture approaches female and male artists. Ernest Hemingway had multiple marriages and received electroshock therapy for severe depression before taking his life in 1961. While these facts are well known, they don’t overshadow his works. The same cannot be said of Sylvia Plath, who killed herself less than two years after Hemingway, but whose poetry and novel The Bell Jar are inextricably linked with the morning she sealed her two sleeping children in their room, and then put her head in the oven.
Since that day, more than a dozen books have been written on Plath, detailing her depression, her early suicide attempt and her marriage and separation from the English (and now notoriously adulterous) poet Ted Hughes. The additional controversy among scholars over her estate (Hughes inherited control over her written works and let people know it) has made Plath a legend, if less for her writing than her story.
Unsurprisingly, on the 50th anniversary of her death a new biography has arrived, this one by Carl Rollyson, also a biographer of Marilyn Monroe and Susan Sontag. American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath is the first biography to draw from the Hughes archives, but its very presence as yet another biography is more revelatory, forcing us to ask: Why do we still care about Plath’s life? Should we? And what does it say about us that we do?
One answer is that her tale is titillating — in a damsel-in-distress sort of way — but perhaps that’s too easy. Female artists may simply make more captivating biographies than male ones. That Mark Twain is a pen name is noteworthy; that George Eliot is also a pen name, but for a woman, opens up a can of worms (albeit some very cultured worms). Artists are always outcasts, but the particular constraints of women’s “duties” as women arguably interfere more with their artistic ambitions than those men face.
Plath juggled this conundrum her entire life. She worried, Rollyson notes, that “Marriage itself … might drain her of creativity, although she conceded that having children might do just the opposite, making her a more fulfilled artist.”
She longed for an artistic male counterpart, but even when she found one in Hughes, her gender had to be worked around. It influenced how she wrote and where she published — often in women’s magazines, adhering to a standardized form.
Frustrated, she confided to her brother in 1958 that she was working on “overcoming a clever, too brittle and glossy feminine tone.” By 1962, when she wrote her best work, Ariel, her poetry was fierce and all her own, but the transition wasn’t painless. Many poems from it were rejected by her usual publishers as “too extreme.”
With these insights, Rollyson makes a strong case that there is a fascinating cultural biography to be written of Plath — on what it meant to be a female artist in mid-20th century America and Europe. American Isis goes some distance toward being this. Rollyson respects Plath’s art and duly argues that she held her own in a field and house full of machismo (although, it’s worth noting, hardly a bad word can be found about her in Hughes’ archives).
Nevertheless, while the book is good, it’s not groundbreaking, and, like many before it, ultimately emphasizes Plath’s romantic downfall over her intellectual achievements. We hear more about her college suitors than her literary influences. And we know that she paced the floor hours before her death, but we hardly know how she felt when her first book was published. The event comes and goes in about two paragraphs.
The result is not titillating, exactly, but it does suggest something disturbing about how we view — or at least market — female intelligence. Perhaps it is a question of packaging. We all have insecurities, but only when selling an articulate, ambitious woman does it seem necessary that the wrapping be made of weaknesses.
Plath knew this problem well. She was consumed with the idea that women’s lives are lived as if onstage and melded her life and art accordingly. While best known for them, Plath hardly shrank from her vulnerabilities. Her finest poems address them — and our need for them. “For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge,” she wrote in Lady Lazarus. The poem scolds those who dwell on her miseries more than what she did with them and how.
At his best, Rollyson appreciates this. “Plath’s great achievement is precisely her refusal to be temperate” — to be bold in a world that didn’t want that of women, that preferred them more glossy and feminine, less extreme.
Ashley Nelson reviewed this book for The San Francisco Chronicle.