A New, Monumental Biography Shows Sylvia Plath as a Woman of Her Time
Emily Van Duyne on Heather Clark's Red Comet
Most big Plath projects arrive with a flurry of press asking what more can be said about her. In 2013, Plath’s biographer Anne Steveson wrote to the New York Review of Books that two newly published biographies of Plath “…give us [nothing] but more gossip to augment an obviously thriving and ever-profitable Plath industry” (she admitted in the same sentence she had read neither). I’m not sure an outfit with less than 20 distinct products classifies as an industry—off the top of my head, I count 13 Plath biographies published over 57 years. What matters is how the term conveys the impression, consistent for decades, that the subject of Sylvia is overwritten, and in need of finishing: when Janet Malcolm published The Silent Woman 26 years ago, a jacket blurb announced that her book would make all future writing about Plath and Hughes superfluous, as Malcolm was “…the cat who had licked the platter clean.”
Apparently, the cats are still hungry (I count myself among them), or Heather Clark’s Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath wouldn’t exist. Just short 1000 pages, it is the most comprehensive Plath biography on record, evidence that, rather than a writer about whom we know everything, Sylvia Plath’s life has long been underwritten. There may be more than a dozen biographies, but many were completed with limited access to primary source materials, or, if the writers could access the archives, they were denied permission to quote by two estates actively hostile to biographers. Stevenson’s 1989 Bitter Fame was the single biography written with the cooperation of Ted Hughes and his sister, Olwyn, who acted then as literary agent and executor of the Plath estate. The result was a book so openly hostile to its subject, it included an appendix called “Vessel of Wrath: A Memoir of Sylvia Plath.”
Thus the need for Red Comet, which does not so much seek to correct the record as establish it in the first place. Clark’s is the first book, as she writes in the prologue, to incorporate all of Plath’s surviving letters, which number in the thousands. It also benefitted from the eleventh-hour sale of Harriet Rosenstein’s papers to Emory University in January 2020. Rosenstein, an intrepid early Plath scholar, was under contract with Knopf to write a biography in the 1970s based on her dissertation (it was never completed, and her dissertation on Plath remains under lock and key at Brandeis University). Her papers include interviews—typescripts and recordings—with many of Plath’s family, friends, and teachers, conducted less than a decade after Plath’s death. They reveal the complex double story of Plath’s life and her literary afterlife; of Sylvia, the woman they knew, and “Sylvia,” a then-developing myth, which they (mostly) rebuff. Red Comet impresses in that it uses much of this primary source material to better establish the facts of Plath’s life and art while debunking the suicidal priestess mythology that grew out of the public’s limited, often manipulated understanding of that same life and art.
This has much to do with the thorough treatment of Plath’s family history on both sides, and her early life. Clark takes a deep dive into the ancestral records of the Plaths and the Schobers (Plath’s maternal line). Doing so reveals a genetic component for depression, hospitalization, and suicide that places Plath’s lifelong struggles with her mental health into a 21st-century context. Plath’s paternal grandmother, Ernestine Plath, followed her husband Theodore in fairly short order when he emigrated to the United States from Germany (Theodore left in March 1901; Ernestine in December). She reunited with her husband in North Dakota, then moved with him to Oregon, where they lived until 1912. But at this point, Clark writes, “Ernestine vanishes both from the general record and from family anecdote.” Ernestine’s daughter Frieda wrote to Aurelia Plath, Sylvia’s mother, during her daughter’s famed suicide attempt and hospitalization of 1953 that various female family members had suffered depression and hospitalization, but that “‘all made some sort of recovery.’” But Clark’s research upends this: “Ernestine Plath died in September 1919 at the Oregon Hospital for the Insane.” Because Sylvia “‘so revered her father’s memory’” the information about her family history was kept from her, even after she recovered (Otto Plath, Sylvia’s father, died suddenly when she was 8 years old). Clark closes the section by telling us that Sylvia, “one of the twentieth century’s greatest chroniclers of mental illness,” died unaware that her grandmother had died in an insane asylum.
Previous to Plath’s own fame, her suicide was also frequently covered up or euphemized. Her mother told Harriet Rosenstein in a 1970 interview that she kept not only the manner of Plath’s death, but the death itself, from a number of family members, including her own brother and father, “to spare feelings.” Rosenstein’s last note on the penultimate page of the interview is, “Did she ever once use the word ‘suicide’?” Upon Plath’s death, Ted Hughes, telegramming Plath’s aunt—not, notably, her mother—said simply, “Sylvia died yesterday.” It was up to Plath’s brother, Warren, who flew to England for her funeral, to tell their mother the truth. Thus we see how, from the earliest days after Plath’s death, its circumstances were hazy, often deliberately obscured by those closest to her, and how this lent itself to building a legend, as opposed to untangling a life.
Every suicide leaves behind the unsolved why. The mythologized Plath has long been subject to ludicrous debates about the role her poetry played in her death, with prominent poets and critics, Hughes among them, arguing that the poems of Ariel were responsible for her death. Robert Lowell wrote in 1966 that they were “playing Russian Roulette with six cartridges in the cylinder.” Almost 30 years later, in a documentary on Plath, Al Alvarez called Plath’s writing of 1962-63 “poetic terrorism,” leaving the viewer to wonder who else it might have destroyed. Clark resists this suggestion admirably. As her monumental work rounds to its end, she writes that Ted Hughes and Aurelia Plath “came to believe that reliving the events of The Bell Jar” played a role in Plath’s death (the book was published in England on January 14, 1963; Plath died almost exactly 30 days later). “Neither,” Clark writes, “could bring themselves to admit that her depression simply was.”
In other words, poetry (and novel writing) did not, as it has too often been claimed, kill Sylvia Plath. Depression did. In this estimation, Clark joins acclaimed critic Diane Middlebrook, who ended her discussion of Plath’s suicide in her 2006 biography Her Husband with the then-radical statement, “Depression killed Sylvia Plath.” Clark’s research here, though, is once more fresh: it was depression in conjunction with a grim cocktail of drugs, both prescribed and those, like codeine, which in the 1963 London where she died you could buy over the counter. Plath’s trusted physician, Dr. John Horder, was “sure her depression was biochemical,” and prescribed an old-class antidepressant, but Clark points out that Horder, while well-intentioned, was a general practitioner, not a psychiatrist familiar with those drugs. Plath was also taking a sleeping pill that contained both amphetamines and barbiturates, a “pep” pill to help her wake, and the aforementioned opiate (she suffered continuously from sinus infections and what she termed “flu” in the months before her death). This dovetails with descriptions from Plath’s London friends at the time. The woman they had come to know and love was normally fastidiously put together, a bright, funny conversationalist. Plath, near the end of her life, often appeared “flat”: exhausted or drunk, slurring her words.
I don’t want to give the impression that Clark spends the entire book leading up to Plath’s death. On the contrary, she writes in the prologue that she refuses to read each act of Plath’s life as a precursor to suicide. Instead, we understand Plath’s personal and artistic choices as grounded in the totality of her life experience. Red Comet gives us a nuanced discussion of the role class played in her childhood in the affluent suburb of Wellesley, Massachusetts. Plath was raised by a widowed single mother; she lived in a small home with her mother, brother, and maternal grandparents. Her grandfather was the head waiter at a local country club who boarded there during the week to save money and time. To help out, Plath took a job dusting the principal’s office at her middle school. When “[w]ord got around that she was available for house cleaning,” a local woman hired her.
Some of Plath’s friends, she writes, were so wealthy they had live-in maids. Clark connects this and other similar incidents to Plath’s early fiction and playwriting, much of which is heavily invested in the idea of young, working-class women “trapped in poverty by economic and social forces beyond their control,” trying to find a better life. This development of Plath’s social conscience is traced to her single published novel, The Bell Jar. Traditionally understood as a roman à clef about depression and suicide, Clark argues that it’s one of the great social protest novels of the 20th century, rooted in the leftist traditions of working class playwrights such as Sean O’Casey, whom she read while in high school.
The section on Plath’s 1953 suicide attempt—the central act of The Bell Jar—makes clear the the barbarous treatment Plath received at the hands of mid-century American psychiatry. While this is not new territory, what differs is how Red Comet places Plath squarely in context. In the past, Plath has often been read and written about as anomalous, a mad poet fallen from a cold star to land briefly among the living. Red Comet insists on her as a woman of her time. Writing of Plath’s famous “botched” out-patient shock treatments of 1953—Plath was given no muscle relaxers or sedatives, an experience she immortalized as being electrocuted in The Bell Jar—Clark writes that countless people were treated in this manner, carrying the argument further to describe how ECT was often used to subdue “troubled” or “difficult” women, and therefore seen as punitive. After her first outpatient shock treatment, Plath’s Bell Jar protagonist Esther Greenwood wonders what she has done to be punished in this way. Clark reveals that Valley Head Hospital, where Plath was treated, was also the place a young John F. Kennedy sent his wife Jacqueline for shock treatments “after a particularly brutal fight about his infidelity.”
Some Plath biographies leave the reader with the impression that Plath was at all times grimly cerebral, living miserably in her head until her inevitable death. Reading these alongside Plath’s journals, with their complex descriptions of what was obviously an active, sometimes wild social life, feels like cognitive dissonance. But Red Comet is alive with Plath’s countless dates, love affairs, and general escapades. At Cambridge University, where she studied on a Fulbright fellowship from 1955-57, she moves from brilliant boyfriend to brilliant boyfriend until (famously) meeting Ted Hughes at a raucous party on February 25, 1956. Her contemporaries, many of their recollections in print here for the first time, describe her as glamorous, beautiful, a celebrity on campus. Hughes, seeing her for the first time, with her blond hair, red bandeau headband, and, as he later put it in a poem, “legs that simply went on up,” thinks she must be Swedish. Later, he thought the same when he met Susan Alliston, the American poet he was in bed with the morning his wife gassed herself.
Plath’s Ariel poems are too-often understood as an apotheosis, which does nothing for a reader curious about Plath’s craft or methodology. Red Comet delivers much in this regard, treating the poems of the last two years, and especially the last four months of her life with subtlety and context. Poems like “Tulips” and “Ariel” are cast back to Plath’s very early poetry from middle and high school, and then back out to the grim political situation of the time—“Ariel” (October 1962) and its companion poems (“Daddy,” “Lady Lazarus,” “Medusa,” and others) were written at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis tensions. Plath, always politically engaged, would have watched the news of this closely, even from a distance in England. One way the book disappointed me, though, was its neglect of the racist language and tropes Plath employed in many of these canonical poems. Discussions of her appropriations of Jewishness abound in the critical canon, and Clark does mention the anti-Semitic language she used to describe the Hugheses in letters from the same period.
But I have yet to read a serious treatment of Plath’s gross use of “nigger” in “Ariel,” or of “The Jailer,” when her speaker, a woman in a cage, becomes “a negress with pink paws.” Clark is not the first to note that the “first draft” of “Ariel” is a 1959 poem by Plath called “Whiteness I Remember”—Meghan O’Rourke made the same argument during a 2013 AWP panel on Plath and craft. Then, and now, I hoped for a discussion of the ways whiteness operates as a controlling factor in these poems (and others) from the time; how it overpowers a passive Black watcher who is subsumed and dehumanized into the landscape; how the roots of this can be found in journal entries from Plath’s high school years; how Plath’s famous “otherness” is, too often, just racist. Then, as now, there was nothing.
In the same way Plath’s anti-Black racism is left out of the narrative, I was discouraged by Red Comet’s analysis of her love affair with the critic Al Alvarez in the fall of 1962. The book is the first Plath biography to openly claim, and then detail, that Plath and Alvarez likely slept together in November 1962. Clark uses the phrase “in love” to describe Plath’s feelings for Alvarez, who died this past winter at the age of 90. He had avoided discussing the affair his entire life, alluding in his memoirs to a mere flirtation that didn’t pan out. Plath was similarly mum, confiding only to her journals about it. Hughes famously lost or destroyed those journals (he claimed both at various points), but not before reading them, and allowing Olwyn Hughes to read them. What we know of the affair, then, is largely secondhand. Clark quotes a letter Olwyn wrote to Al Alvarez in 1990: “…I read [the journals] in 63-64… her involvement with you is one of the keys.”
Clark’s book initially uses the affair to shed fascinating new light on how it affected Plath’s poems of the time. Alvarez had written a 1962 essay called “Beyond The Gentility Principle” endorsing a savage facing of the horrors of the world in contemporary poetry—it’s clear that Plath read this as encouragement, if not confirmation, of the direction her new poems were going. Alvarez was also obsessed with the Holocaust, which plays an infamous role in these same poems. Her poem “Letter In November” combines these themes with the language of romantic love—the speaker is “flushed and warm,” “enormously happy” as she walks through the orchard trees on her property which are nonetheless held in “a thick gray death-soup.” The poem ends with a reference to Thermopylae. It was a love poem to Alvarez. Clark writes that the poem “describes real feelings in real time, largely unobscured by symbols and myth,” a beautiful observation of a rare tender poem from the time.
From there, though, it devolves into a lengthy, sympathetic treatment of Ted Hughes’s outrage about Plath’s involvement with Alvarez. She quotes Hughes’s close friend Daniel Huws: “Alvarez was a dirty word.” Hughes, Clark writes, “felt doubly betrayed” when Alvarez, in the early 1970s, “positioned himself as Plath’s champion when feminists began to attack Hughes.” But Alvarez was Plath’s champion—he was the first person she read her Ariel poems to, and he never stopped celebrating her work, writing to Hughes in 1981 upon the publication of her Collected Poems, “It’s a wonderful book and confirms what I’ve thought for years: She’s a major poet—by any standards—of any age.”
Clark takes pains throughout the book to point out the sexist double standard Plath faced at nearly every turn of her personal life and career. But here, her writing falls prey to that same double standard. At the time of Plath’s romance with Alvarez, Ted Hughes was having open, multiple affairs all over London, which in 1962 was not yet swinging. Plath was understood by most of her friends as unreasonable and stringent for wanting to end the marriage, and she was expected to turn the proverbial blind eye to Hughes’s infidelities. This was an impossible task, as one of the women, the aforementioned Susan Alliston, was fascinated by Plath’s work and sent her social notes, asking if they could meet. Alliston was also the ex-wife of Clement Moore, Plath’s brother’s roommate and best friend at Harvard. He knew Plath well, making the affair all the more anguished for Sylvia, as she feared the news would make its way back to her small Massachusetts hometown and cause her further humiliation. Given that Plath had chosen as her first sexual encounter outside of her marriage someone she already deeply trusted and loved; given that Hughes’s lovers were alternately trying to get Sylvia to come talk shop over coffee or about to be pregnant with his child; given a great many things—I was hard-pressed to understand why any reader was meant to care how Hughes felt when Plath finally, in the last months of her life, allowed herself some enjoyment with someone who cared for her.
As Plath dies in Red Comet, the 60s are born: her body was discovered as the Beatles crossed Regent’s Park to record Please, Please Me at Abbey Road Studios, on February 11, 1963. I was moved by this image, both its contrast and its context. In my mind, Plath’s death, read as it generally is through the lens of Hughes’s rage and grief, typically languishes in darkness. In Red Comet, it is another day. The sun is rising. The world sits on the edge of bright change. In her own way, in different circles, Plath would be as emblematic of the 60s as John, Paul, George, and Ringo; her poems would have the kind of wide influence on literature as their music would on popular culture. In fact, Plath preceded them: the savagery of poems like “Daddy” and “Edge” came years before “Helter Skelter,” before album covers of the band covered in bloody doll heads were deemed too grim for public consumption.
“The answer to any biography is always another biography,” Plath biographer Carl Rollyson told me this past summer. No one ever asks when we will be “done” with the Beatles. As recently as April of this year, Rolling Stone ran an article called “The 10 Best Beatles Books”—contrast this with the New York Times 2003 headline, “No More Plath, Please.” Thankfully, Red Comet opens up new avenues of conversation and inquiry about not only Plath’s life, but that life’s role in the 20th century and beyond. It’s an entrée to Plath’s famous dictum that she “[has] a self to recover, a queen.” It reminds the reader: keep searching.