Wednesday, July 13, 2016
July 13, 2016: 20th Century Women Writers: Sylvia Plath
[This Wednesday, my summer hybrid grad course on 20th Century American Women Writers kicks off (we’ll be starting with a discussion of Sui Sin Far’s Mrs. Spring Fragrance!). So this week I’ll AmericanStudy some exemplary such writers, leading up to a weekend post on some of what I’m most excited for with that summer course.]
On the poet who reminds us not to settle for accepted narratives about any writer or works.
This past semester my Major American Authors of the 20th Century course spent two weeks with Sylvia Plath’s Collected Poems, the fourth time I’ve taught her and that book in that class; I have also twice spent two weeks with her novel The Bell-Jar (1963) in a post-1950 American novel class. As I wrote in the opening paragraph of this post, each time I’ve had the chance to read and study Plath’s work in these settings, I’ve found more—more depth and complexity, but also, and most importantly for my point here, more breadth and variety—in her writing. That might seem to be logical enough, given the benefits of in-depth study of any author, but I believe that my experiences with Plath, and the knowledge and perspective I’ve gained through them, actually and very significantly reveal two ways in which widely accepted, oversimplifying narratives can hinder our analysis and understanding if we’re not careful.
For one thing, there’s Plath’s biography, and more exactly the most famous detail from that biography: her suicide. It is indeed the case that Plath committed suicide at the age of 30, in February, 1963 by turning on her gas stove and sticking her head inside; it’s also the case, as both her confessional and heavily autobiographical poem “Lady Lazarus” and similarly autobiographical work in The Bell-Jar illustrate, that Plath had attempted suicide almost exactly a decade earlier, at the age of 20. So it’s entirely understandable that the narratives about Plath’s suicide—which are, to be clear, also the most prominent narratives about her writing—treat it as a final, unsurprising moment in a consistent psychological and emotional pattern. And that may indeed be a fair assessment, but I’m pretty sure that very few AmericanStudiers or readers of Plath’s works know the details of her life at the time of her suicide: Plath had moved to England to live with her husband, the English poet Ted Hughes, but in late 1962 Hughes left her and their two small children for another woman; the winter of 1962-1963 was one of the coldest ever recorded in London, and Plath could not afford to pay for consistent heat in her flat so she and her children were likely damn near frozen by February; her kids were also apparently suffering from the flu and had been for some time; and Plath was trying to write between roughly four and eight every morning, because it was the only time that was genuinely hers and because she needed to publish to earn enough to support her children. These facts do not necessarily elide the long-term psychological causes, nor do they answer the question (as noted in the hyperlinked bio above) of whether Plath hoped or planned to be discovered and saved. But knowledge of them does, I hope, make it impossible to treat Plath’s suicide as just the act of a disturbed or self-centered and –pitying person.
And for another thing, there are the poems. The Collected Poems, compiled by Hughes over the two decades after Plath’s death and published in one volume in late 1981, is most impressive for both the sheer number of poems it includes (224, all written between 1956 and 1962; and another fifty drawn from the many more she wrote prior to 1956) and for the variety and breadth of those poems (even those from the same year, and often from within a day or two of one another, are generally strikingly distinct in structure, style, imagery, and theme). I could point to a particular poem or two to make my case, but thanks to the magic of the web I don’t have to—just go to the Google Books version above or to this “Browse Inside” version and sample a few pages from anywhere in the volume (other than the eleven pages devoted to Plath’s longest single poem, “Three Women”). The poems of Plath’s that get anthologized and taught most frequently (including by me in my second-half American lit survey) are “Lady Lazarus” and “Daddy,” both produced in her final months of writing and collected in the posthumous Ariel (1966); each is well worth reading and analyzing, but that standard pairing and focus are in some ways hugely limiting to our sense of Plath, both as a poet (both poems over-use Nazi/Holocaust imagery) and as a person (both lend credence to the whole “depressed and fixated on death” narrative). To me, what the Collected Poems proves is that Plath was a prodigious talent, one of 20th century America’s most versatile and best poets—that is of course an opinion, but it’s a much better-supported one thanks to the book; and those narratives that seek to dismiss her talent, just like those that seek to oversimplify her suicide, had at least better be prepared to engage with the evidence.
That, ultimately, is the only broad point I’m trying to make here, but it’s a pretty key one. Sweeping narratives aren’t necessarily a problem, and perhaps are inevitable—I’m guilty of constructing plenty of ‘em I know—, but far too often they exist in spite of, rather than in conversation with, the available evidence. So at least we AmericanStudiers owe it our subjects, our audiences, and ourselves to read and engage with that evidence as best we can before we deploy, endorse, or even revise the narratives. Next writer tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other women writers (20th century American or otherwise) you’d highlight?