Lady Lazarus Rises Again in ‘American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath’

[6 March 2013]

By Diane Leach

Carl Rollyson’s contribution to the ever-expanding library of Sylvia Plath biographies is a mixed blessing. When focused on the poet’s life, American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath, is a meticulously researched, enjoyably readable work. But Rollyson can be a cranky, highly critical writer. He attacks fellow biographers, the sealed archives respecting the Plath Estate, those unwilling to speak with him, and most viciously, Ted and Olwyn Hughes. Rollyson appears to forget, however unsullied his intentions, thatPlath’s surviving friends and family must share her with a voracious industry eager for every last bloody scrap.

As for Plath, she longed for fame, and she got it. The question is whether this was the sort of fame she wanted. 

Readers searching for an in-depth biography should not begin with American Isis. Rollyson prefers searching for “the intensity of the person who was Sylvia Plath.” To that end, he writes:

“…I have dispensed with a good deal of the boilerplate most biographers feel compelled to supply. I say little… about the backgrounds of Plath’s parents. I don’t describe much of Smith College or its history. I do very little scene setting. Previous biographers do all this and more, and what strikes me about their work is how distracting all that background is for someone wishing to have a vision of Sylvia Plath…” (Author’s note)

Having defensively stated his case for yet another Plath biography, Rollyson opens with a sentence giving even the most cursory reader pause: “Sylvia Plath is the Marilyn Monroe of modern literature.”

Rollyson suggests both women wanted more than fame: they hoped for “nothing less than to become central to the mythology of modern consciousness.” Rollyson is a biographer (whose books include a Monroe biography) and professor of Journalism at Baruch College whose writing straddles the line between popular writing and academic assertions. 

Comparisons like the above remind me why I left academia. We have no way of knowing what either woman truly thought about dominating the modern consciousness, however grandiose their ambitions. Rollyson carries the Monroe/Plath comparison throughout the book, even more so than his Isis/Osirius metaphor, claiming Plath was a modern incarnation of the goddess, the ideal mother and wife whose “magic is intact”. Both comparisons are unnecessary and increasingly irritating, detracting from the material at hand—the complex, brilliant, disturbed Plath. American Isiswould be a fine book without the mythologizing or Monroe. Rollyson’s excellent portrait of Plath more than suffices.

Though Rollyson moves quickly through Plath’s childhood, we learn of her precocity. Her love of writing and drawing emerged early and was encouraged by her father, a German etymologist with impossibly high standards. Otto Plath was a difficult, demanding man. A diabetic, he refused to stop eating the heavy German foods, high in sugars, that led to his early death. The impact is felt across his daughter’s poetry: “Daddy” is of her most famous poems.

Each chapter begins with a brief timeline establishing setting. These are generally helpful, with the exception of “1950-51: Plath begins dating but does not find her Mr. Big.” Sex and the City’s final episode was nine years ago. And do we really need to know that Playboy debuted in 1953 with Monroe on the cover? Picky, yes. But the reference to Mr. Big will soon puzzle readers as the show fades from memory. 

When Rollyson focuses on Plath, matters improve rapidly. Much of the book is devoted to Plath’s letters—those she wrote and those she received. Of all her admirers prior to Ted Hughes, Eddie Cohen is notable for his honesty. Most of Plath’s boyfriends kowtowed or buckled beneath the pressure of her intellect and needs. Cohen never did, yet was endlessly supportive through Plath’s 1953 breakdown and suicide attempt. 

Plath’s letters, to her mother, friends, and boyfriends, convey the desperation defining most of Plath’s brief adulthood. Beautiful, talented, intelligent, living before women’s liberation, Plath wanted it all but had no idea how she would balance writing and domestic life. She wanted a mate who could best her intellectually while helping scrub pots and rear children. She didn’t get him. Women still face this conundrum—see the “opt out” phenomenon and this article by Anne Marie Slaughter, written only last year.

Rollyson is excellent on Plath’s years at Smith College, where she slaved mightily to achieve academic excellence. Plath devoted equal energies to cultivating her popularity. Unlike her wealthier classmates, Plath was not moneyed, but strove to maintain a façade of expensive clothing and perfectly coiffed hair. She thrived intellectually yet suffered beneath self-imposed strains. She wrote throughout, sending poems and short stories out to magazines, entering contests, and racking up an impressive curriculum vita

Plath’s sexuality is examined in-depth. In a puritanical era, she was a woman of strong appetites. Shockingly, she dated Edwin Atkutowicz, a professor known for his predatory behaviors. When Atkutowicz raped Plath, she had to seek medical attention. Worse, she continued dating him. Relationships with Dick Norton, the weak “Buddy” of The Bell Jar and Gordon Lameyer were unrewarding.

Her relationship with Richard Sassoon was more equable, though Sassoon later dumped her. Sassoon is apparently still alive, but has spent his life evading Plath’s biographers, including Rollyson. 

In 1955, Plath went to Cambridge, England on a Fulbright Scholarship. There she met poet Nicholas Hughes. The two crashed into a cataclysmic relationship that has been endlessly unraveled, analyzed, dissected, and written about.  For the non-bookish among us, there is the 2003 film Sylvia, decried by Plath’s daughter Frieda, starring eye candy Gwyneth Paltrow and a pre-007 Daniel Craig. 

Perhaps nowhere else in the literature about Plath can one see the biographer’s difficulty than in dealing with the Plath/Hughes marriage. Certainly Plath made it easier than many subjects, leaving journals, short stories, The Bell Jar, Johnny Panic And The Bible Of Dreams, and the poems.  Still, even Rollyson admits we were not there. This is useful information to remember, as Rollyson excoriates Hughes for everything from his personal hygiene to his adultery. I’m not saying Hughes is a maligned saint; I’m saying we weren’t there the morning Hughes kept count of how many times Plath interrupted his writing. He stopped counting at 104.

Married life was a pendulum of joy and blackness, dictated by Plath’s mental instability. Motherhood and domestic life did bring Plath great happiness; by all accounts she was an excellent parent. She was also an avid cook and fanatic housekeeper. For a time Plath emulated her father and kept bees.

When Plath realized Hughes was having an affair with Assia Weevil, the marriage disintegrated. Plath never regained her fragile equilibrium. Weevil was also deeply troubled. In 1969, she copied Plath, placing her head in an oven, taking daughter Shura with her.

Rollyson’s description of Plath’s final days and death is no less harrowing for its multiple tellings and time’s passage. Blame is pointless; Hughes may have been a lousy husband, but he didn’t wish Plath dead. 

The writing after Plath’s death reverts to Rollyson and his views. Olwyn Hughes, clearly an unpleasant woman, is presented in all her venality. For some reason, Rollyson reserves particular vituperation for Janet Malcolm and her book The Silent Woman. The kindest observation I can make is his attack on Malcolm’s work is unprofessional and, like his endless comparisons to Monroe, which reappear with renewed gusto, unnecessary. 

Hughes is in for a final round of vilification. His maintenance of the Plath estate is “appalling”, his book of poetry about Plath, Birthday Letters, an “apologia”, “a crafted memory of what Sylvia Plath meant to Ted Hughes.” What is memoir of any kind but “crafted memory”?  For that matter, the same argument could be posited about biography, particularly those where biographers have clearly stated agendas.

Public appetite for celebrity of all kinds has only grown greedier with time; social media means constant access to all manner of useless information. Reading about Lindsay Lohan or Chris Brown’s latest antics does nothing for our collective intellect (or lack thereof). But when that insatiable appetite turns to serious artists, we, as consumers, must step back and ask ourselves where to draw the line. How much do we truly need to know? Famous suicides leave behind parents (was Plath’s mother, Aurelia, a monster or a saint?  We’ll never know.), spouses, children.

In Plath’s case, only daughter Frieda survives, her son Nicholas having committed suicide in 2009. Frieda Hughes, herself a writer and artist of great accomplishment, is now 52-years-old and a fierce protector of her father’s legacy. Apparently it’s impossible not to take sides. 

Despite serious drawbacks,American Isis successfully presents Plath’s character anew, in all its intensity, genius, vibrant health, and fatal illness. Had she survived, Plath would now be 81 years old. Imagine.

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