November 9, 2000
Sylvia Plath, Forever an Icon
By MARTIN ARNOLD
New York Times
For many people of a certain time and age, the great romantic myths are Marilyn Monroe and James Dean. But if the movies can have such almost fantasy legends, why shouldn't literature, book publishing and academe? Otherwise, why would the life and fate of a 30-year-old poet who committed suicide so infatuate that the scholarly and quasi-scholarly examinations of her work have been turned into a cottage industry?
Perhaps the answer is no more complicated than that everyone needs a dash of romance. Hence the legend and death of Sylvia Plath, the stuff of exhaustive, unstinting examination and glamorization.
There are 104 books in print either entirely about Plath or in which her life and work are prominently discussed. The latest is "The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962" (Anchor Books); a review by Joyce Carol Oates was highlighted on the cover of The New York Times Book Review on Sunday. Now let's stipulate right off that many consider Plath a great poet. But by comparison, in the poets' corner there are 93 books in print about W. H. Auden, 50 on Robert Lowell and 17 about Anne Sexton, who was also a confessional, death-obsessed poet who committed suicide.
So why has Plath, seemingly above all other postwar poets, continued to fascinate generations of readers and the publishers who serve them? Like Monroe and Dean, she is a myth as much as an artist and perhaps she resonates so powerfully because of the modernism of her life story. She was a genius surely, but still faced the questions women of her era started to ask: Am I going to be me, or am I going to be a mother? Am I going to be me, or a wife?
By the time she took her life in February 1963, she had published one volume of poetry, "The Colossus" (Heinemann, 1960), and "The Bell Jar," a novel that was to achieve cult status and was published by Heinemann a month before her death. Her second book of poems, "Ariel" (Faber & Faber), was published in 1965; her "Collected Poems" (Harper & Row) won the Pulitzer Prize in 1982. This book was edited by Ted Hughes, the British poet, who was known as much for his troubled marriage to her as for his poetry. Indeed, his last published collection, "Birthday Letters" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), was a best seller because it was about her, his answer to charges that it was his callousness that led to her suicide. He died two years ago.
Plath, the mythical icon. "She died young, in very dramatic circumstances, having been mistreated by a man, which made her in the eyes of many a martyr," is the way Ms. Oates explained her power to enthrall in a discussion the other day. "She was an excellent poet, but there were other excellent poets, and she was a major figure in the 20th century but other poets as good who lived and died a regular life were not taken as seriously." Ms. Oates said that she had "already received angry faxes about her book review."
"Plath admirers get very angry if she is not absolutely praised all the time," she said. Another similarity with Marilyn Monroe: "When I wrote about Marilyn taking drugs and having sexual experiences it was as if I had insulted her, and I got a lot of angry responses," said Ms. Oates, whose novelization of Monroe's life, "Blonde" (HarperCollins), was published this year.
It must be reiterated that Plath is more than the sum of the drama in her life that pushed her to such literary heights. Katha Pollitt, a poet and essayist, said that Sexton "who led a similar life," committed suicide at a relatively young age, 45, "and was really tremendously successful and popular, doesn't get the same level of interest because she wasn't as good." "Plath really was a genius whose poems are as fresh now as they were the day they were written," she said.
She added: "She was given this fantastic education," at Smith College, and was "told she had to succeed, you're great, you can do anything, have the boys like you, withhold yourself sexually if you want, marry.
"She incarnates in her life all that 50's garbage and then she speaks to people in this complicated but very direct way." The awe with which one approaches Plath doesn't seem to fade. Helen Vendler, a sort of poet king maker at Harvard, said it was the marvel of Plath's poetry, "the passion and control, that has made her a cottage industry."
"People are thirsty for the work of talented artists," she said. "Christopher Marlowe had a dramatic death; Whitman's life, no one cares about that now — the drama was interesting for 15 minutes." Diane Middlebrook, who is writing a biography of Ted Hughes, said that Plath "is a Keats figure, a person who dies young, after producing works of genius."
"You discover a breathtaking clarity in work that is astounding," she said. One wonders if Yeats was so praised. LuAnn Walther, the editorial director at Anchor, said that Plath "is one of the those great Rorschach icons in which everyone sees something different in her work."
"She lived in extremes, depressed one day, completely alive another day," she said. "One day she hated her husband; the next day, she was baking him a lemon meringue pie."
Still, you have to ask how important her suicide was to her mystique, even granting her greatness as an artist. Marty Ascher, publisher of the unabridged journals, said that "when you die young like Dean or Monroe or Sylvia Plath, when your life ends in disaster, then you live on in legend, and you remain forever young."
Which is why Anchor Books has 55,000 copies of "The Unabridged Journals" in print, a large number indeed for this genre.
Sadly, even when the work is great, there still appears to be no better career-enhancer than a violent death, preferably a suicide. Unfortunately, the writer is not there to glory in the enhancement.