A WRITER'S WIT
My Book World
This impressive biography of the famed poet may be the most comprehensive literary biography I’ve ever read. Clark, who took more than ten years to write this book, utilizes a broad range of sources, including Sylvia Plath’s diaries, letters (some never before seen), journals, and poems. Clark also includes the story of Plath’s famous poet husband, Ted Hughes. It would be like telling the story of one conjoined twin without including the other; that is how inextricably woven their lives are, right up to Plath’s infamous suicide, in 1963. The acknowledgement page and Clark’s notes section are filled with other sources, she having visited England to conduct research as well as interviews, and having combed U.S. libraries from coast to coast.
The book reads more like a novel, achieving a fiction-like narrative arc. We learn of Plath’s early childhood, the loss of her father, her dominating but generous mother. We learn of Plath’s education, particularly her four years at the prestigious Smith College. We learn of her creepy attempt at suicide, almost succeeding, when her near-dead body is discovered in a crawl space beneath the family home, her electroshock therapy at a draconian institution in Massachusetts. We cross the Atlantic where Plath continues her education at Cambridge University, where she meets her match intellectually as well as future husband, Ted Hughes. This narrative continues to build as we learn of her struggle to cope with a male dominated literary life in London. She is alternately elated and deflated as some of her work is accepted with accolades and “her best work” rejected by the likes of the New Yorker as well as prestigious English journals. It would have been a mistake for her to eschew her British education because the Brits seem, at times, more open to her raw style than the Americans.
We live through the Plath-Hughes tempestuous marriage and become acquainted with their two children. Plath’s death comes with fifty pages to go. It is the climax, all right, but it is not the end of Plath’s story. All throughout the biography Clark intersperses lines from Plath’s and Hughes’s work to demonstrate not only biographical elements but fascinating literary observations, as well. But even Plath’s death is deconstructed in such a way that we may understand it differently from earlier biographies (Anne Stevenson’s “famously negative” one, for example). With twenty-twenty hindsight, we see that Plath’s suicide (as many are) is mere minutes away from being another failed attempt. Plath is always, in the damp English climate and because she runs herself ragged, having bouts of a cold or the flu. As a result she takes a number of OTC medications, as well as a merry-go-round of prescription drugs, including antidepressants, sedatives to sleep, other drugs to wake her up so she can work—all of these interacting horribly as a perfect storm to help end her life (some experts understand that those particular antidepressants may have intensified her depression before finally kicking in).
And it isn’t as if she doesn’t try to live. She consults doctors and psychiatrists galore. She corresponds with an American psychiatrist across the Atlantic. She fights like hell to stay out of British psychiatric wards because she is terrified she will be subject to shock therapy again, which she believes, has altered her brain and her life forever. For fans or nonfans alike this biography is a must-read. It generously takes all we knew about Plath before, all the research that has come earlier, and adds or even convincingly contradicts a great deal of the old. I can’t see any biographer attempting to top it for a long time to come. Indeed, the book may finally put her story to rest alongside her grave atop a lonely spot near where her husband grew up at Heptonstall—a simple granite marker worn down now by nearly sixty years of inclement weather.
TUES: AWW | Mary Shelley
WEDS: AWW | Eldridge Cleaver
THURS: AWW | Jesse Kellerman
FRI: My Book World | Colin Barrett's Homesickness: Stories