Revisionist Biography


Carl Rollyson

My last column on Marilyn Monroe set me to thinking once again about how reviewers, and even my fellow biographers, respond to a new biography of an all-too-familiar subject. I can almost hear the groans: “Not another Napoleon.” So why do publishers buy such books? Surely they are as jaded as the reviewers are.

Of course, most publishers don’t buy these books. Dozens of publishers may turn down a new Napoleon biography, but as an agent of mine once said, “It takes only one”—one publisher to believe in the book to get it sold. And nowadays what publishers buy is usually a proposal and a sample chapter. Maybe a best-selling or renowned author at the high end of publishing can get away with less (or write the book) before getting a contract, but most of us in the middle have to plug and pitch and bring along our samples to get the sale.

The agent is crucial. She (I am thinking of my new agent) has to make sure that the proposal is pitch-perfect, so that she can be the advance man (a gender neutral term in this case). This agent-and-proposal phenomenon can create much drama. Who gets to see the book first? How many get to see the book on the initial round of submissions? If an editor expresses an interest in the proposal, then that editor has to be wondering who else might want to grab it up. Publishers find all sorts of reasons to reject proposals, but if even one editor bites, others suddenly seek the hook. Much of this expeditionary excitement is illusory for all concerned, but I have concluded that publishing is based on precisely this kind of make-believe. It is infectious and exciting. An aura envelops a proposal. Even the author (speaking for myself, anyway) gazes at himself in wonder. How did I pull this off? What a great chap am I! They believe in me! Lunches follow—between author and acquiring editor, agent and acquiring editor.

Reviewers and even biographers, when they are not writing and shopping proposals, remain apart from this birthing process. With no emotional investment in a topic already considered shopworn, the reviewer only grants respect to a mighty good book. And even then quite good books, as I think we all know, can get trashed. And yet, the biographies keep coming. I know of another Hemingway biography that is in the works and also one of Sylvia Plath, which just happens to be what I’m writing.

So let me tell you how yet another fantasy project of mine came about. In 2004, Jillian Becker published a memoir of Sylvia Plath, and in 2007, Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev published a biography of Assia Wevill, Ted Hughes’s lover, who also committed suicide, taking the life of their daughter as well. I wrote about these books for the New York Sun in both “Visions of Sylvia” and “To Speak of Woe That Is in Marriage,” expressing my conviction that a new biography of Plath was needed, and that I was the one to write it. No one answered my call.

Then, at a party for the Sun, I broached the idea to a literary agent. She said, as I feared, that there were too many biographies already. Later, a good friend of mine, a biographer, also seemed quite skeptical. I dropped the idea, I thought—but then I noticed that the first annual meeting of the Biographers International Organization (BIO) would have sessions on speed dating with agents. I decided to have a go, bringing along my two New York Sun articles and the pitch I would make during these ten-minute dates. I’ve written about this experience in the April issue of ASJA Monthly and won’t repeat myself here. Suffice it to say that I found the right agent and soon was able to secure a publisher, St. Martin’s Press, without having to go through a second round of proposal submissions. What I want to show here is the first part of the proposal, written to entice publishers who can easily turn down very good proposals and who nonetheless sometimes find one that they cannot resist. They have to buy something, after all, even if, afterwards, they suffer buyer’s remorse. Publishers, like authors, never learn. Or rather, when they put on their reviewing paraphernalia, authors suddenly are not buying it and come to the book resisting the heady enthusiasms of its blurbs (what the British call “puffs,” a wonderful word because that is just how books arrive in the reviewer’s mail box: all puffed up). The biography will undoubtedly have a press release, and after reading it, the reviewer may well feel rather bloated with all the gaseous praise for the masterpiece about to be read. Having worked both sides of the street, I understand: I can be the shrewd reviewer one week, the promoter the next.

What would happen if a publisher actually said: “This is a pretty good biography,” or “Not bad”? Well, that can’t be done of course: “It must be really bad, if that is all that can be said for the book,” the reviewer thinks. I see no way around this gulf between producing the book and reviewing it. I guess all I want to show here, in what remains of this column, is how—contrary to what most readers would suppose—another biography of Sylvia Plath is necessary. I should also say I was stimulated to write this column after telling an editor of the Barnes & Noble Review at a NBCC luncheon that I was writing a Plath biography. She was polite, but I could see the wheels turning: “He must be kidding.”

Thanks to my wife, Lisa Paddock, I came up with a nifty title, “American Isis: The Life and Death of Sylvia Plath,” before letting rip in my proposal, which begins with this epigraph:

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.  
     —Apuleius, 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 writing 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, 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 said, “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 when, 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, 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 are enormous, and understanding such pressures and her responses to them will yield a fresh and startling biography that makes Plath’s writing, her marriage, and her suicide essential reading for anyone wishing to fathom the workings of the modern mentality, 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 was as attracted to best-selling 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 Seventeen magazine, and she soon became a protégé of Olive Higgins Prouty, author of Stella Dallas and Now, Voyager. Ted Hughes was baffled by Plath’s desire to write popular prose because like most “serious” writers of his generation he drew a line separating vulgar from fine art. His friends did not like Plath—indeed they saw her as an American vulgarian—but she persisted in her multi-tasking 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.

Susan Sontag is often treated as a master of melding highbrow and pop that occurred in the 1960s, but in fact Sontag abhorred mass entertainment and retreated to Parnassus as soon as she saw the consequences of converging 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 everything her society had on offer. Witness, for example, Plath’s journal entry for October 4, 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.” Ronald Hayman in The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath calls the audience with Monroe one of Plath’s “less disturbing” dreams. These inept characterizations are typical of the kind of misdirected narratives that plague Plath’s legacy.

Plath imagines Marilyn Monroe as a healer and source of inspiration at a time when most women and men regarded the actress as little more than a sex symbol, the embodiment of a male fantasy. “What a doll!” the apartment superintendent keeps declaring in The Seven Year Itch.  And yet, in the same film Monroe functions as a soothing and supportive figure for the clumsy Tom Ewell, telling him he is “just elegant.” And she does so in exactly the kind of maternal, fairy godmother way that makes Plath’s dream not strange but familiar. Marilyn Monroe “chats” with Sylvia Plath. The sex goddess girl-talks Sylvia. This concatenation of high and low segues into the reference to T. S. Eliot, whom Plath and Hughes were going to meet shortly. Plath was anticipating an Eliot who might be a great poet, but who was also someone she could chat up.  The “audience” becomes, in Plath’s dream, a very American talk.

Who in 1959 thought of the marriage of Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller as a role model? Only Sylvia Plath, who regarded Hughes as her hero, as Monroe looked up to Miller. The Plath-Hughes and Monroe-Miller marriages both occurred in June of 1956. Like Miller, Hughes wanted his work to be critically praised and also broadly accepted. Both men glommed onto wives who would extend their range by expanding their audience. And just as Miller wrote for Monroe’s movies, Hughes dreamed of selling his children’s fables to Walt Disney. He saw his wife Sylvia as a symbol of America and a conduit to success—even though he understood next to nothing about her native land or her motivations. Their marriage broke down, in part, because Hughes, like Miller, failed to comprehend his wife’s ambition. Indeed, both men shrank from their wives’ all-consuming aspirations.

That Monroe could give Plath an “expert manicure” seems strange only to a biographer who does not understand that Monroe’s gift is to appear as available and anodyne. Plath, always meticulous about personal hygiene, conceived of a domesticated Monroe, now ensconced in a happy union with a great writer—the same fate Plath imagined for herself, avoiding the “horrid cut” her culture imposed even on women of achievement. Marilyn Monroe was all promise for Sylvia Plath.

My biography will be about what happened to that promise and why, ultimately, figures like Ted Hughes could be of no help to Sylvia Plath. He wanted a private world that went against the very grain of the persona Plath was in the process of building. He let her down in ways far more disturbing than his infidelity.

In Her Husband, Diane Middlebrook has written persuasively about how Hughes perceived Plath as an incarnation of Robert Graves’s white goddess. But Plath saw herself quite differently. She resembles, it seems to me, an American Isis. She wanted to be an ideal mother and wife—but with her power, her magic, intact. Isis, especially in her earliest Egyptian incarnation (before the imposition of the Osiris myth), seems a perfect metaphor for Plath, since the mythology includes the goddess’s association with all levels of society, rich and poor. Hughes mistakenly thought Plath wealthy because she went to the best colleges and dressed well, although in fact these privileges were hard won effort by Plath and her mother, who worked long hours to ensure her daughter’s place in society. Hughes—biographers have failed to notice—was a naïf compared to Plath, who worked a hard eight hours per day as a field hand the summer before she entered Smith so that she would have enough money to afford the clothes and books her scholarship did not provide.

Small wonder Plath has become such a revered figure. This was a domestic goddess who loved to cook and clean—not as diversions from writing, as Hughes and Plath biographers have supposed, but because she appreciated the joys of everyday life that were part of being a whole woman. Linda Wagner-Martin misguides the reader with speculations that demean Plath by making the latter’s housework symbolic of her rivalry with Hughes: “Perhaps her tenacious hold on such household duties as keeping accounts and cooking was a means of claiming equality in their stormy partnership.”

Ted Hughes did not know how to balance a checkbook. Sylvia Plath did. He never washed his clothes. Sylvia Plath did. He did not know how to compete in a quickly changing literary world. Sylvia Plath did. He drew back from her satire of friends and family in The Bell Jar, completely misconceiving her art, which deliberately transgressed the lines between art and autobiography.

Plath is a genre breaker and a cross-cultural heroine. She bridges cultures like the Isis who eventually became a beloved object of worship throughout the Greco-Roman world. Plath has become the object of a cult-like following, her grave a pilgrimage site—like the sanctuaries erected in honor of Isis. The defacing of Plath’s grave markers, so that “Sylvia Plath Hughes” reads “Sylvia Plath,” is more than just retribution against Ted Hughes—it is an assertion that his very name is an affront to the mythology of Sylvia Plath.

The Isis-like Plath encompasses characteristics that would seem at odds. Plath’s suicide—and particularly her poems that flirt with death—have become part of the Eros and Thanatos of her biography. And it is precisely this sort of tension between conflicting elements that transforms Plath into a modern icon, one that will continue to enchant and bedevil biographers. “Another biography of Sylvia Plath?” a publisher will ask. The same question was put to me about my biography of Marilyn Monroe, which first appeared in 1986 and is still in print despite twenty or more books about Monroe that have followed. The time to define the Plath myth for a new cohort of readers and writers is now.

Books mentioned in this column:
The Silent Woman by Janet Malcolm (Vintage Books, 1995)
Rough Magic: A Biography of Sylvia Plath by Paul Alexander (Da Capo, 2003)
The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath by Ronald Hayman (History Press, 2003)
Her Husband by Diane Middlebrook (Penguin Books, 2004)
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (HarperCollins, 2006)


Carl Rollyson is Professor of Journalism at Baruch College, The City University of New York. He reviews biographies regularly for The Wall Street Journal, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and other newspapers and periodicals. Carl is the author of a dozen biographies, including Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress, Rebecca West: A Modern Sibyl, and with his wife, Lisa Paddock, Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon. His studies of biography include: A Higher Form of Cannibalism: Adventures in the Art and Politics of Biography and Biography: A User's Guide. More about Carl and his work can be found at his website. He is currently completing a biography of Dana Andrews and beginning work on a biography of Sylvia Plath. When not writing, he is playing with his three Scotties. Contact Carl.



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