American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath
Here, at last, is the true story of Sylvia Plath's last days and her estate's efforts to shape her husband's role in her death and the world's understanding of Plath and her work. Here, too, is a new Sylvia Plath, immersed in popular culture and proto-feminism, presaging the way we live now.
In spite of all that has been written about Sylvia Plath’s incendiary poetry, her doomed marriage to poet Ted Hughes, her suicide, and the vicious struggle over her literary estate, accomplished biographer Rollyson presents a fresh, focused, and clarifying interpretation of her “protean personality” and radical work. He kicks things off with a jolt: “Sylvia Plath is the Marilyn Monroe of modern literature.” On his way to substantiating this bold assertion, Rollyson draws on newly available materials, retrieves overlooked aspects of Plath’s life, decodes her fascination with the great deity Isis, and recognizes her intense, ultimately unsustainable ambition to be a paramount force. We see Plath as a high-IQ girl shattered by her father’s death, preternaturally close to her mother, and precociously devoted to writing and winning prizes. Rollyson offers intriguing insights into Plath’s ardor for popular culture, including such melodramatic fiction as Stella Dallas, by Olive Higgins Prouty, who became a mentor as Plath struggled to write both poetry and potboilers. In his true-life page-turner, Rollyson astutely deciphers Plath’s complicated love life and attempt to retain emotional distance, ex-pat life in England, jump-starting of Hughes’ career while relentlessly pursuing her own, and catastrophic depression. Rollyson unveils brilliant, driven, spotlight-craving Plath as an exceptional, trailblazing artist who pushed herself to be a goddess until she could do no more.
— Donna Seaman
November 1, 2012
The previous biographers of Plath (1932–1963) didn’t really get it, writes Rollyson (Journalism/Baruch Coll.; Hollywood Enigma: Dana Andrews, 2012, etc.).
On the first page, the author calls Plath “the Marilyn Monroe of modern literature,” and he continually returns to Monroe, whose relationship with Arthur Miller was igniting about the time as Plath’s with Ted Hughes. Rollyson also alludes repeatedly to the myth of Isis (see title) and periodically mentions other myths and some Shakespeare and Brontë—all to establish patterns and precedents for Plath’s story. Although such analogies can sometimes seem forced and extraneous, they do provide a different sort of context for this saddest of stories. Rollyson promises early that he will not write much about context or about Plath’s specific works, though he does some of each, discussing, for example, her early poem “Pursuit,” The Bell Jar, “Three Women” and numerous other works. The author pretty much just rehearses the Plath story, identifying various levels of villains (her mother, Hughes and his sister—and his lover, Assia Wevill, who also committed suicide), focusing on relevant letters but also reminding us of some small things that surprise and delight. At Smith, she once graded for Newton Arvin, and she endeavored, with Hughes’ encouragement, to memorize one poem per day. Important and poignant what-if moments also emerge. Her relationship with A. Alvarez, Hughes’ destruction of the diary of her final days—what might these have meant? What might we have learned?
A mostly successful attempt at a fresh understanding through analogies, but the enduring sadness of her loss threatens, as ever, to overwhelm.
There have been other biographies of poet Sylvia Plath, who killed herself at the age of 30. Carl Rollyson says those books have "misconstrued" her, focusing too much on her psychological problems. She needs a new biography, one that will "define the Plath myth" for a new generation of readers. In American Isis, he compares Plath to the Egyptian goddess worshipped as the ideal mother or wife, calling her a "domestic goddess." He also describes her as the "Marilyn Monroe of modern literature," and--using newly available correspondence--argues that she aggressively pursued public renown and success at Monroe-like levels. Plath wanted to be famous--to the general public and the literati alike.
Rollyson shows us a precocious child (her first poem was published when she was nine) who was raised by her mother after her father's death. Plath excelled at Smith College. One summer she interned at Mademoiselle in New York City; it inspired her novel The Bell Jar. In 1953, she made her first suicide attempt. After graduation, she went to England on a scholarship. There she met the poet Ted Hughes, fell in love and married, after knowing him for only a few months. Hughes doesn't fare well with Rollyson, who argues that Hughes never really understood Sylvia. In her copy of Henry James's Portrait of a Lady, Plath underlined the following: "It was her deep distrust of her husband--this was what darkened the world."
They moved to Boston, where Sylvia took a writing seminar with Robert Lowell. There she met the poet Anne Sexton. They would remain friends, helping each other out with their bouts of depression. The couple returned to England and she published her first collection, The Colossus, in 1961. A little over a year later, she learned of her husband's infidelity, moved out with the children, and a few months later put her head in an oven (although she may have thought she would be rescued). Sexton callously called it a "good career move." Sadly, she may have been right--Plath's reputation has grown ever since.
Despite some lapses into purple prose and a predilection to compare Plath to Monroe (the subject of one of his previous biographies) whenever he can, Rollyson does a fine job of capturing the tortured life of this young, frustrated Isis who felt she could never do enough. --Tom Lavoie
Shelf Talker: A highly readable, well-researched biography of a great American poet who died by her own hand way too soon.