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Authors: Carl Rollyson

American Isis

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To Lisa



Title Page

Copyright Notice


Author's Note


Primordial Child of Time (1932–50)

Mistress of All the Elements (1950–53)

Queen of the Dead (1953–55)

I Am Nature (1955–57)

Queen of the Ocean (1957–59)

The Universal Mother (1960–62)

Queen Also of the Immortals (1962–63)

In The Temple of Isis: Among the Hierophants (1963–)

Appendix A: Sylvia Plath and Carl Jung

Appendix B: Sylvia's Plath's Library

Appendix C: David Wevill

Appendix D: Elizabeth Compton Sigmund






Also by Carl Rollyson

About the Author




I wrote this biography, in part, because I felt there were aspects of Sylvia Plath other biographers have overlooked or misunderstood. I confess, however, that as I wrote the book I reread my predecessors—usually after writing a section of my book. I checked to see how others had handled the same material. I think my practice in doing so is worth mentioning because I have dispensed with a good deal of the boilerplate most biographers feel compelled to supply. I say little, for example, 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, of what she was like and what she stood for. To put it another way, since earlier biographers have done so much to contextualize Plath, I have not wanted to repeat that exercise, as valuable as it can be for the Plath novice. Instead, I have tried to concentrate on the intensity of the person who was Sylvia Plath, restricting my discussion of her writing to crucial pieces that advance my narrative. As a result, certain important poems and stories do not appear in my narrative, and others do so only briefly. I cut even paraphrases of poems and stories to an absolute minimum, assuming that the knowledgeable Plath reader will not need them. At the same time, I have tried to write a narrative so focused—without timeouts for exposition of her work—that a reader new to Plath biography may feel some of the exhilaration and despair that marked the poet's life. The timelines at the top of each chapter tell you where we are headed, so that I can get on with the story.

The advantage of my approach, I believe, is that it allows me to do justice to Plath's correspondents, whose letters I read carefully in various archives so as to gauge the impact of their voices on Plath. It is striking, for example, how banal Dick Norton's letters are compared to Eddie Cohen's, and how precious and effete Richard Sassoon's seem in relation to Cohen's robust prose. To read Gordon Lameyer's long letters to Sylvia—especially those written during her treatment in the summer of 1953 after her suicide attempt—is to appreciate how terrifically important she was in guiding his own sense of vocation. Through reading these letters, I came to see how hard Plath tried to live many different sorts of lives, and to be many different things to her correspondents. Of course she did not live by these letters alone, but securing a more prominent place for her correspondents seems to me a way of enforcing the point of this biography: Sylvia Plath was a great poet, yes, but she was also great in other ways that no earlier book has evoked.



I am nature, the universal Mother, mistress of all the elements, primordial child of time, sovereign of all things spiritual, queen of the dead, queen of the ocean, queen also of the immortals, the single manifestation of all gods and goddesses that are, my nod governs the shining heights of Heavens, the wholesome sea breezes. Though I am worshipped in many aspects, known by countless names … some know me as Juno, some as Bellona … the Egyptians who excel in ancient learning and worship call me by my true name … Queen Isis.

The Golden Ass

Sylvia Plath is the Marilyn Monroe of modern literature. Plath occupies a place no other writer can supplant. Sister poet Anne Sexton recognized as much when she called Plath's suicide a “good career move.” That crass comment reveals a stratospheric ambition Plath and Sexton shared. They wanted to be more than great writers; they wanted nothing less than to become central to the mythology of modern consciousness. Plath has superseded Sexton because—as Marilyn Monroe said, speaking of herself—Plath was dreaming the hardest. At the age of eight Plath was already working herself into the public eye, later winning prizes and exhibiting herself as the epitome of the modern woman who wanted it all. And, in having it all, she would make herself and what she wrote both threatening and alluring, deadly and life affirming. Biographers have puzzled over what Ted Hughes meant when he claimed, rather dramatically, “It was either her or me.” This much is clear: He did not want to play Osiris to her Isis. Although he began their marriage thinking she needed him to complete herself, he gradually realized his role was to act as a consort in her mythology.

Biographers have misconstrued Plath, becoming fixated on her psychological problems, on what Ted Hughes did to her—and on one another, with Janet Malcolm heading up the forensic team of those who suppose that it is somehow unseemly to rake up the life of a “silent woman” who cannot speak for herself. In truth, Plath wanted to be wholly known. Hughes was astonished to learn that his wife had entrusted his love letters to her mother. But Aurelia Plath was not surprised, having raised nothing less than a primordial child of time, a woman who wrote for the ages and was unconcerned about her husband's petty notions of privacy.

Plath needs a new biography, one that recognizes her overwhelming desire to be a cynosure, a guiding force and focal point for modern women and men. The pressures on a woman who sees herself in such megalomaniacal terms were enormous, and understanding such pressures and her responses to them yields a fresh and startling perspective that makes Plath's writing, her marriage, and her suicide finally understandable in terms of the way we live now.

Unlike other writers of her generation, Plath realized that the worlds of high art and popular culture were converging. As a young child, she listened to
The Shadow
on the radio. She devoted a letter to a parody of
She was as attracted to bestselling novels as she was to high art. Before she graduated from high school she had read
Gone with the Wind
three times. Before entering college she published a story in
magazine, and she soon became a protégé of Olive Higgins Prouty, author of tearjerkers such as
Now, Voyager
Stella Dallas,
which ran as a radio serial from 1937 to 1955.

During her Fulbright term in England, Plath posed for a photo layout in
Cambridge University's newspaper, to accompany her article, “Sylvia Plath Tours the Stores and Forecasts May Week Fashions.” In addition to pictures of her in a ball gown and a white cocktail dress, the piece features a shot of her wearing a typical 1950s cheesecake swimsuit ensemble. One picture shows off the 5' 9" model's long legs, recalling America's iconic World War II pinup. “With love from Betty Grable,” Plath amusingly styled herself on clippings she sent to her mother. Plath was certainly not the first American woman poet to glamorize herself—Edna St. Vincent Millay and Elinor Wylie come to mind—but none of her predecessors pursued public renown in quite this determined and strategic way. Plath was a relentless applicant for writing prizes, not only because of their monetary value, but also because they kept her in the public eye. She was no Emily Dickinson, who wrote primarily for herself and let posterity take care of itself. For Plath, an audience had to witness the spectacle of what it meant to be Sylvia Plath.

Ted Hughes was baffled by Plath's desire to write popular prose. Like most “serious” writers of his generation, he drew a line separating vulgar from fine art. He dismissed her efforts to write conventional fiction as “a persistent refusal of her genius.” Plath knew better. In college, she tried writing a story for
True Confessions,
only to shrewdly observe in her journal that doing so took “a good tight plot and a slick ease that are not picked up over night like a cheap whore.” She knew there was an art to the creation of potboilers, and she wanted to master the form. It was all part of what it meant to be Sylvia Plath. Hughes understood up to a point. After all, in his introduction to
Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams,
a collection of her stories, he perceptively argued, “It seems probable that her real creation was her own image, so that all her writing appears like notes and jottings directing attention toward the central problem—herself.” But he could not live with the consequences of her all-consuming quest, forestalling biographical inquiry and behaving as though protecting Plath was his business.

Ted's friends, who cared only about poetry, did not like Sylvia—indeed they saw her as an American vulgarian—but she persisted in her multitasking approach to literature. Although much emphasis has been placed on her last brief but brilliant period as a poet, in fact during this time she was also planning and writing two new novels and contemplating a career beyond poetry. “Poetry is an evasion from the real job of writing prose,” she wrote.

Susan Sontag, born just a year after Plath, is often treated as a master of melding highbrow and pop in the 1960s, but in fact Sontag abhorred mass entertainment and retreated to Parnassus as soon as she saw the consequences of mingling mainstream and minority (elitist) audiences. Indeed, in an interview, Sontag explicitly rejected Plath's need for popular approval. Sontag could not conceive of an artist who performed on all levels of culture at once. Plath—much bolder than Sontag and a much greater artist—took on
her society had on offer.

Witness, for example, Plath's riveting journal entry for 4 October 1959:

Marilyn Monroe appeared to me last night in a dream as a kind of fairy godmother. An occasion of “chatting” with audience much as the occasion with Eliot will turn out, I suppose. I spoke, almost in tears, of how much she and Arthur Miller meant to us, although they could, of course, not know us at all. She gave me an expert manicure. I had not washed my hair, and asked her about hairdressers, saying no matter where I went, they always imposed a horrid cut on me. She invited me to visit during the Christmas holidays, promising a new, flowering life.

No passage in Plath's writings better displays her unique sensibility. And yet her biographers have ignored or misconceived this crucial evidence. In
Rough Magic: A Biography of Sylvia Plath,
Paul Alexander calls the dream “strange.” In
The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath,
Ronald Hayman calls the imagined audience with Monroe one of Plath's “less disturbing” dreams. These characterizations typify the misdirected narratives that plague Plath's legacy.

BOOK: American Isis
9.8Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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