“I suppose one owns the facts of one’s own life,” Ted Hughes once said, complaining about the biographers who had appropriated his. My answer would be: “You started it.” No one put a gun to Hughes’s head and said, “You must appear on BBC radio with your wife Sylvia Plath and explain what your marriage and creative partnership means to you.” But that is what he did, and in the process he projected an idea of himself, his wife, and his marriage that was a myth. I don’t mean this idea was a falsehood. It was, rather, a story that appealed to him, a story that Sylvia partially believed in—and then set out to dismantle as soon as he left her. As she did so, she began writing letters and poems that recast the narrative of their lives. Whatever her motivations, the result was an appeal to the world that the world has happily acknowledged in biographies and dozens of other books that set out to understand what happened.
Ted Hughes took the position that biographers have no right to muck about with his life and that he knew better anyway since he was there when it all happened. Tell that to the judge, Mr. Hughes, the judge who knows that eyewitness testimony is not always reliable, and that those who arrive on the scene after the event and begin collecting forensic evidence often have a better perspective than do the parties who participated in the event. Of course, biography is not a science, and biographers, like scientists, make mistakes. But to suppose that there is a somehow an absolute truth, an infallible standard by which biographers can be judged, is preposterous.
Over the course of his post-Sylvia Plath life, Hughes himself changed his mind about many things, including the reasons for her suicide, as I will document in my forthcoming biography, American Isis: The Life and Death of Sylvia Plath. But for now I want to attack those librarians, archivists, and other custodians of literary papers and call them out for what they are: TOADIES. If you go to the Sylvia Plath collection at the Lilly Library in Indiana, you can read through her papers and those of others connected to her. But you may not photocopy without express permission from the Plath estate, which may very well deny your request—especially if you are a biographer. Head down to Atlanta to the Ted Hughes Papers and you receive the same welcome. And pretty much the same is true at the British Library, which has the papers of Olwyn Hughes, Ted’s sister—or as I like to call her, Olwyn the Ogre, who until recently relished her role as the gorgon whose job it was to repel the brood of biographers on the trail of the sister-in-law Olwyn hated.
Certain libraries aid and abet literary estates that seek to define literary history on their own terms. You would think a librarian who is supposed to disseminate knowledge would feel some compunction about slavering after the papers of the renowned. But instead, many of them have heeded the siren call of the later Howard Gotlieb, the entrepreneurial head of special collections at Boston University's Mugar Memorial Library. Howard promised writers like Martha Gellhorn that he would lock away her papers and exhibit them only to a select few—otherwise known as authorized biographers. Poor Howard used to get hectoring calls from not so poor Martha, who would berate him with oaths about that rogue Rollyson who had not sought and did not wish her blessing.
The literary papers of canonized writers are like the gold in Fort Knox. The papers are there to establish the full faith and credit of the archive. The papers accrue in value to the extent that no one gets to see them. Thus proprietary biography is born. And the authorized biographer becomes part of a franchise.
Not all research collections are so administered, I am relieved to say. And so I can go to Smith College, enter the Mortimer Rare Book Room, and see everything in the Plath collection, have it photocopied, even take pictures of it with my iPhone. And this means that not only Plath scholars, but generations of undergraduates at Smith have been able to examine firsthand Plath’s writings as she first set them down on the page. They can read her mother’s letters and much else. The other day I was reading Aurelia Plath’s annotations to a scholarly study of her daughter’s poetry, something Ted Hughes never saw and would never permit access to if he had his way.
Hughes sent a trunk to Emory University that is sealed until 2023. Who knows what is in it? Whatever revelations it may contain will probably be attached to yet another permission form, holding back history, bludgeoning biography into submission, in a futile effort to own, rather to own up to, what he has done.
Books mentioned in this column:
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 two Scotties. Contact Carl.