A morbid anniversary: two new books mark the half-century since Sylvia Plath’s suicide

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plath6Gosh, Terry Castle is a brave writer.  And a bracing one.  She is still recovering from the bashing over her Susan Sontag piece of oh, a decade ago, and here she leaps into the fray with a fire-eating piece on the Sylvia Plath morass in this week’s New York Review of Books. The avalanche of letters she’s triggered may never, ever stop.  She begins:

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the suicide of the poet Sylvia Plath (1932–1963), and as one might expect given the sensational details of her short and appalling life, both her US and UK publishers are celebrating the occasion with a kind of vulpine festivity. Faber has just issued an “anniversary” edition of The Bell Jar (1963)—the harrowing autobiographical novel Plath had just published at the time of her death—and has been marketing it, distastefully enough, as “chick lit” avant la lettre. A clutch of new biographies … are likewise among the morbid tie-ins. “Sylvia Plath may be the most fascinating literary figure of the twentieth century”—so the publisher’s copy for one of them gushes. “Even now, fifty years after her death, writers, students, and critics alike are enthralled by the details of her 1963 suicide and her volatile relationship with Ted Hughes.” Such ambulance-chasing fans no doubt also dote on Frida Kahlo’s near-fatal impaling by the tram rail.

Given this opening, it’s not hard to figure out that Terry is not a Plath fan, given the poet’s “shocking necrophilia and refusal of life.”  She claims “Plath’s verse lacks wisdom and humor and the power to console. She invariably scours away anything sane or good-natured.”  I wrote last year (here) about underestimating Plath’s over-the-top sense of the ridiculous – and that her “Daddy” was meant to be dark and above all fun, anticipating Mel Brooks‘s The Producers by five years.

I’m glad April Bernard took up the cry earlier this month in the New York Review of Books:

Plath can cause embarrassment through overstatement—going a little too far is her signature move. (One line from “Elm,” another late poem, that best captures her veer towards overstatement is, “I have suffered the atrocity of sunsets.”) But if we consider embarrassment as an aesthetic strategy rather than as a mistake, we begin to see how funny Plath often is. I confess I had read and admired Plath for several years before her humor struck me full-force—the first time I heard a now-famous BBC radio recording in which she reads “Daddy” with a discernible wave of laughter in her voice. (And yes, there is also rage, and profound sorrow.) I re-read the poem, and realized for the first time that her exaggerations and preposterous claims, which link the Holocaust with an American middle-class “family romance,” were meant to be an elaborate joke, one in extreme bad taste, right on the edge of kitsch.

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Not a fan.

Terry’s task at hand is two new additions to the Plath library:  Carl Rollysons “diverting, gossipy” American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath, which “bounces along, jalopy-like, at a madcap pace. No slack metaphor, shameless cliché, or laughable anachronism can slow the authorial juggernaut.”  Curiously enough, she doesn’t mention that one of Rollyson’s more controversial efforts was a biography of Terry’s own bête noir, Sontag.) Andrew Wilson‘s more judicious work, Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted, turns over a few new stones – he even had the partial cooperation of Plath’s so-far-silent lover Richard Sassoon.

Could it all have been different?  Counterfactuals abound. A chance meeting at a party Ted Hughes hadn’t planned on attending, interrupting a serious affair in Paris with Sassoon.  Terry writes:

plath5A striking effect of the chronology is to take away some of the fatal glamour one associates with Hughes. He seems less the craggy, carnal bogeyman of Plath mythology here and more just another contender for Plath’s widely broadcast sexual charms. It all could have gone a different way. “Plath’s feelings for Sassoon were so intense,” Wilson argues, “that, had Richard decided to stay in Paris, it’s highly probable that [Plath] would never have returned to England to marry Hughes. It was his rejection that catapulted Sylvia into Ted’s arms.” Waiting in vain for Sassoon to return to Paris, she wrote to a friend, “If he would come today I would stay here with him.”

And here once again, the fancy that Wilson’s book—a study at once stately and strange—so often elicits: how easily the “life before Ted” might have become the “life without Ted.” Would such a tweak in the course of destiny have meant more years—with or without poems—for Sylvia? Sanity, self-possession, and an escape from the prescribed doom? Or merely some other kind of agony and mental collapse?

She tips her hat to a former colleague: with about fifteen Plath biographies in English to date — “some adversarial in tone, others less so” – then rates Diane Middlebrook’s elegiac Her Husband: Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath—A Marriage as “one of the more balanced and sensible.”  She also credits Eavan Boland for her kindly assessment of Plath’s legacy.  But she has limits to her charity.

At times, Terry seems to be judging the person rather than the poet, even blaming Plath for “creating tragic inhuman mischief from beyond the grave,” with the suicide of her son a few years ago, after a largely lonely life.  She hints that he lacked a mother’s love.  It is a great misfortune to lose one’s mother so young.  But … didn’t he also have a dad somewhere?

Read all of Terry Castle’s piece here. It’s better than coffee for a jolt.  Really.


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3 Responses to “A morbid anniversary: two new books mark the half-century since Sylvia Plath’s suicide”

  1. Anderson Says:

    I’m not clear what is “brave” about a callous, misogynistic attack on a dead poet, one that concludes by wishing Castle could have murdered Plath herself. The article tells us a lot more about what is wrong with Terry Castle than with Sylvia Plath.

  2. sueel Says:

    One problem I see with Castle’s essay (beyond the fact that yes, she does miss Plath’s humor) are the factual mistakes, for example, she claims Assia Wevill was Hughes’ second wife when Hughes never married her (interestingly Ms Castle mentions Wevill’s own suicide but not her murder of her and Hughes’ young daughter, Shura.) Surely if Castle can conclude that Plath contributed to her son’s suicide at age 47 (he was barely a year old when Plath died), an altogether different conclusion could be made about a man whose wife, mistress, and son all committed suicide (and in fact, Nick Hughes spent more time knowing Assia Wevill, some 7 years, than he ever did with Sylvia Plath.)

  3. james Says:

    yes, in an effort to make a name for herself, brave ms castle, the self-proclaimed “english expert,” has given us her flawed and terribly offensive views of mental illness. thanks for nothing.

    unethical academics should not be paid to write about topics about which they don’t really have a clue.

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