The first Plath biography to benefit from the new Ted Hughes archive at the British library, which includes 41 letters from Plath and Hughes as well as other unpublished papers; new information and insight into Plath’s early reading and addiction to popular radio shows like Jack Benny, Superman, Stella Dallas, and The Shadow; new interviews with several of Plath’s friends at Smith College and with students she taught; photographs of Plath and her children published for the first time; new details about the mysterious Richard Sassoon, the only male ever to rival Ted Hughes in Plath’s imagination; revealing discussions of the letters that Sylvia’s mother did not include in Letters Home, as well as of Aurelia’s later comments on the Plath legend in the material Aurelia deposited at Smith College; an account of a court deposition dealing with Plath’s misgivings about her decision to marry Ted Hughes; fresh statements and corrections of the biographical record from David Wevill, husband of Ted’s Hughes’s lover, Assia Wevill, and from Elizabeth Compton Sigmund (one of Plath’s Devon neighbors); startling new details about Plath’s final days and the pivotal role critic A. Alvarez played in the fraught Plath-Hughes marriage and what Plath wrote in the journal Ted Hughes “lost” or destroyed.

PRAISE FOR American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath

"Carl Rollyson's impeccably researched, compulsively readable life of Sylvia Plath is likely to remain for years to come the definitive biography of this complex, fascinating woman. I could not put the book down." --Donald Spoto, author of The Kindness of Strangers: The Life of Tennessee Williams and Marilyn Monroe: The Biography

"Garbo, Garland, Monroe, Plath, thrilling divas one and all. Carl Rollyson’s American Isis is a tour de force that reinvents Sylvia Plath for the 21st century. I was sorry to turn the final page."--Marion Meade, author of : The Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney

“An illuminating work on Plath by an accomplished biographer. While not underestimating Plath's troubled nature, Rollyson recognizes her as the agent of her own fame: a skilled mythmaker who worked hard to become not only a great poet but also an intellectual celebrity. Like Marilyn Monroe, who influenced her, she both shaped and reflected her times, becoming a symbol for our age.”-- Lois Banner, Professor of History and Gender Studies, University of Southern California. Author of Marilyn Monroe: The Passion and the Paradox


Columns on Sylvia Plath

Review Highlights

Rollyson begins with a line as audacious and provocative as Plath's last poems: "Sylvia Plath is the Marilyn Monroe of modern literature." Monroe is among Rollyson's previous biographical subjects, as are Martha Gellhorn, Susan Sontag and Norman Mailer. This gambit suggests his fearless approach and the moments of swashbuckling verve to be found in this book. Rollyson compresses material into time lines, impatient with contextual aspects he regards as secondary. This approach reminds me of Plath's words about poetry as "tyrannical discipline, you've got to go so far, so fast, you just have to burn away all the peripherals".—The Australian

. . . he tells his story with the verve of a thriller . . .--The Economist

"[a] a refreshing and often eloquent portrait"—Washington Post

Mr. Rollyson's insightful account of Plath's life is certainly the most satisfying and complete . . .It will likely stand as the definitive version at least until 2022, when further material in Emory University's Ted Hughes papers will be unsealed.—Wall Street Journal

”Concise, fast-­moving and reliable” —New York Times Book Review

"consummately written"—Salon

Rollyson presents a fresh, focused, and clarifying interpretation . . .—Booklist

Rollyson makes a strong case that there is a fascinating cultural biography to be written of Plath - on what it meant to be a female artist in mid-20th century America and Europe. "American Isis" goes some distance toward being this.—San Francisco Chronicle

A highly readable, well-researched biography of a great American poet . . ."—Shelf Awareness

"The figure that emerges from Rollyson's study is certainly compelling, and very much a woman of her moment and culture." —Publishers Weekly

Despite restrictions on sources mandated by the estates of Sylvia Plath and her husband, poet Ted Hughes, Plath has been the subject of a dozen previous biographies, as well as memoirs and critical studies. Rollyson (journalism, Baruch College, City Univ. of New York), whose previous subjects include Marilyn Monroe, Susan Sontag (CH, Mar'02, 39-3846), Rebecca West , and Norman Mailer, among others, nevertheless argues that no biographer has portrayed Plath as he sees her: an ambitious, precociously successful woman driven to achieve fame--a megalomaniac with an "overwhelming desire to be a cynosure, a guiding force and focal point for modern women and men." In making his case, Rollyson draws on available archival material (some newly deposited), published letters, and interviews with 15 Smith College alumnae and several close friends of Plath and Hughes. To avoid duplicating other books, Rollyson offers minimal family history and explication of Plath's poetry. Instead, this gossipy, fast-paced narrative is propelled largely by letters that circulated among Plath, her family, friends, and many lovers. Although comparisons of Plath to Monroe and Sontag sometimes seem strained, Rollyson succeeds in offering a fresh portrait of a strong-willed, self-aggrandizing, yet emotionally fragile woman drawn to glamour and lusting after praise and admiration. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All readers.
--Choice September 2013

Sylvia Plath Websites

American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath

The paperback will be published on March 4, 2014.

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.


January 2013

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

Kirkus Reviews
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.

Shelf Awareness

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.

The Plath house in Wellesley

That flat in Chalcot Square, where Plath & Hughes first settled in London

Where Plath ate pizza in Northampton when attending Smith College.

Selected Works: Click on titles for reviews

A documentary approach to the life and legend. With details of her childhood, her young adult years, her ascent to superstardom, and the hour by hour moments leading to her tragic early death, this volume supplements—and, in some cases, corrects—the accounts of previous biographies.
A riveting examination of Amy Lowell’s private life and lover, Ada Russell, who did so much to make Lowell’s career possible The startling discovery of a new Amy Lowell lover who perished on the Lusitania. A compelling window into Lowell’s gregarious character. Concise readings of Lowell’s most important poems reveal the depth and range of her erotic imagination. An astute analysis of the way biographers and critics have maligned Lowell as a person and poet.
A revisionist view of the poet, her fellow writers, and their biographers
A biography of the great film noir actor.
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.
The first biography that truly shows the actress at work.-- Ellen Burstyn Forthcoming in a new edition from University Press of Mississippi.
America's most controversial radical playwright
The first biography of Gellhorn, relying on key archival sources and interviews with her friends and associates.
Delves beneath the surface to examine the forces that made Sontag an international icon, exploring her public persona and private passions, including the strategies behind her meteoric rise to fame and her political moves.
The first book to survey the broad range of Sontag's work.
Twenty-five years of writing about female icons and biography.
The standard biography of one of the 20th century's greatest prose stylists
The first book to explore the entire corpus of her extraordinary career.
Religion, politics, and the writing of biographies.
Filmmaker, feminist,, wife--a twentieth century woman.
The first literary biography of Norman Mailer, updated and revised
Essays in Biography is a play on words conveying an attempt to explore the nature of biography in pieces about the history of the genre and in portrayals of biographers (Plutarch, Leon Edel, and W. A. Swanberg), literary figures (Lillian Hellman, Jack London), philosophers and critics (Leo Strauss and Hippolyte Taine), political figures (Winston Churchill and Napoleon), and artists (Rembrandt and Rubens).
For those addicted to reading biography, enhancing their pleasure by providing insight (or you might say, the inside word) on how biographies are put together.
Provocative reviews of American subjects, originally appearing in The New York Sun.
A candid and revealing account, by an expert in the minefield of the biographer’s contentious work
A terrific companion for biography writers and lovers.-- James McGrath Morris, editor of the monthly "The Biographer's Craft"

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