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Book Review

‘American Isis,’ ‘Mad Girl’s Love Song’ examine how it fell apart for Sylvia Plath

Jillian Tamaki for the Boston Globe

The fatal union of two poetic titans, the deadly foreshadowing of Sylvia Plath’s posthumously published “Ariel” poems, her appropriation by the feminist movement — all have combined to make Plath an irresistible (if perpetually resistant) biographical subject. Even Ted Hughes, the estranged husband and British poet laureate who controlled her estate, censored her work, and resisted interviews about her, managed to have his say before he died in the moving verses of “Birthday Letters” (1998).

And the deluge continues. With the 50th anniversary of her suicide approaching, two more biographers have plunged into the melee, assessing both Plath’s prodigious gifts and her dysfunctions.

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Carl Rollyson’s “American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath” has seemingly contradictory goals: to mythologize Plath as a latter-day Egyptian goddess and to strip away decades of encrusted lore by using primary sources to reveal the living woman. His Plath (who indeed compared herself to Isis) is wildly ambitious, “a genre breaker and cross-cultural heroine” who “would make herself and what she wrote both threatening and alluring, deadly and life-affirming.”

estate of Aurelia S. Plath.

Sylvia and Nicholas Hughes in Devonshire.

Overblown rhetoric aside, Rollyson, a Baruch College journalism professor and author of a Marilyn Monroe biography, has diligently combed the archives and interviewed Plath’s Smith College classmates and others who knew her. His workmanlike narrative gathers force when it reaches the inevitably fascinating marriage, which Rollyson compares to Monroe’s ill-fated union with playwright Arthur Miller.

It was not just Hughes’s infidelity with the beautiful Assia Wevill (who, in 1969, would also would take her life, and her daughter’s) that doomed the couple. Rollyson notes the tensions between Hughes’s need for privacy and Plath’s for acclaim; between her domesticity after their two children were born and his desire for freedom; between Ted’s sister Olwyn and Plath. “Much has been written about Plath’s mercurial moods,” Rollyson notes, but Hughes — no saint — “could turn from pliant to disdainful in a trice.”

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Andrew Wilson’s “Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted” foregoes the gossipy pleasures of dissecting the marriage. But it is likely to become the definitive account of Plath’s early years. Before she met Hughes, Wilson writes, Plath “had gone out with literally hundreds of men,” some of whom inspired her pre-“Ariel” poetry and prose. Wilson has tracked down an astonishing number of them, from obscure figures who romanced her briefly to the hitherto elusive Richard Sassoon, with whom Plath was enamored when she met Hughes.

Born in 1932, Plath grew up in Winthrop and Wellesley, Mass., the daughter of Otto, a German-born entomologist who died when she was eight, and Aurelia, an English and German teacher with whom Plath had a close, conflicted relationship. Her father’s death had a profound effect on Plath and her poetry, and, Wilson speculates, may have intensified her need for male companionship.

Both biographers underline Plath’s precocity. A literary prodigy, she was first published at age 8, and magazines such as Seventeen, Mademoiselle (where she was a guest editor), and Harper’s accepted her poetry and prose before she had graduated from college. In recommendations for a Fulbright grant, her Smith College professors described her as the best student they had ever taught.

Wilson pinpoints Plath’s youthful obsessions, along with reading and writing, as money and sex. Plath, forced to economize, itemized her spending with obsessive rigor. At the same time, she struggled to contain a powerful sexual drive in a 1950s America that emphasized sexual repression, especially for women. “Being born a woman is my awful tragedy,” she wrote in her journal.

Plath was lovely, and Wilson makes clear how charming and charismatic she could be. But he paints her as a deeply troubled young woman whose 1953 suicide attempt, involving an overdose of sleeping pills, was no fluke.

What exactly was wrong with her? Wilson, though wary of definitive diagnosis, seems to believe that Plath was bipolar, subject to manic episodes as well as depression. He also endorses the suggestion of her longtime correspondent and friend Eddie Cohen that she suffered from borderline personality disorder.

Much of “Mad Girl’s Love Song” (a reference to an early Plath poem) details Plath’s lack of a firm identity, her volatility and rages, and the “intense but problematic friendships and relationships” that characterize the disorder. Plath’s propensity for self-cutting with a razor blade is another classic borderline symptom.

Rollyson never mentions borderline personality disorder but his account of Plath’s behavior (and his comparison of her to Monroe) is consistent with it. Alternately histrionic and remote, Plath was adept at juggling suitors. In Hughes, though, she met her match — a brilliant, intense man whose electric appeal to women provoked Plath to fits of jealousy.

During the six-year marriage, Plath won a contract with The New Yorker and published her first collection, “The Colossus and Other Poems.” The pair separated after Plath discovered Hughes’s affair with Wevill, who was also married. In the last months of her life, while caring for their children, Frieda and Nicholas, in a freezing London flat, Plath ricocheted back and forth between trying to win Hughes back and ordering him to disappear.

In Rollyson’s account, her depression likely deepened when Al Alvarez, a close friend and influential poetry critic, rebuffed Plath’s sexual advances. In support of that hypothesis, he cites a letter by Olwyn Hughes to Alvarez referencing a revealing entry about Alvarez in a Plath journal that Ted Hughes had described as “lost.” Alvarez told Rollyson that he believed Plath had been in love with him.

Rollyson also, somewhat romantically, accords the poetic impulse some blame for the suicide. “The energy Sylvia expended in the early morning writing sessions stripped her of the power to deal with the rest of her day,” he argues.

What is inarguable is that the extreme imagery of Plath’s “Ariel” poems — in which her poetic double can “eat men like air” and flies “Into the red/Eye, the cauldron of morning” — repelled critics at first and later, as she had predicted, made her name. They conjure a woman in the fierce grip of emotions that she can control only on the page.

It is interesting to compare how differently Rollyson and Wilson treat two incidents. The first, fictionalized in Plath’s sole published novel, “The Bell Jar,” is her interaction with a sexually predatory mathematics professor. After a first date, Plath hemorrhaged so much blood that she had to be hospitalized. By way of explanation, she told her Smith roommate that she had been raped. But when Plath recovered, she inexplicably continued the relationship.

Rollyson, generally more sympathetic to Plath, believes the rape story, while calling her subsequent involvement with the professor “reckless.” Wilson theorizes that Plath may have welcomed the sex, if not its bloody aftermath, “as a way of expanding her erotic repertoire.’’

Also at issue is the rejection Plath received in 1953 from Frank O’Connor, who did not admit her to a creative writing class he was teaching at Harvard’s summer school. In part because no letter exists in Aurelia Plath’s meticulous archives, Wilson speculates that the ailing Aurelia might have invented the rejection to keep Plath home that summer. But Rollyson, without citing a source, says that O’Connor has confirmed rejecting Plath — but only because he believed her already “too advanced for his class.” If only the self-doubting Plath, who hurtled into her first suicidal depression shortly afterward, had known that — yet another “if only” to haunt her acolytes.

AMERICAN ISIS: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath

By Carl Rollyson

St. Martin’s, 319 pp., illustrated, $29.99

MAD GIRL’S LOVE SONG: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted

By Andrew Wilson

Scribner, 368 pp., illustrated, $30

Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review.
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