Sunday, May 5, 2013

Rough Magic: a Biography of Sylvia Plath by Paul Alexander

If you've read my blog for more than five minutes then you know that I'm a bit of a Plath fanatic. My love of Plath has manifested itself in many different ways since my first discovery of Plath when I was about 11 or 12 years old. It was about 1992 and my mom and I were in a gutted department store at the giant, annual library book sale. It was fire sale day. For $5 one could fill a giant paper sack full of books. And fill bags we did... lots and lots of bags. As a bookworm with a love for the classics I threw in every stinkin' book that even looked enticing or if I sense an author name was familiar into the bag it went.We went home -- the day was rainy -- with the car trunk loaded to the brim. It took us several weeks to get the books inside; we'd smuggle a few a day and add them to the shelves in an attempt to avoid a lecture on "too many books in the house" from my father.

A title that left the car on the first evening and found a home on my bookshelf headboard was a yellowed and battered copy of The Journals of Sylvia Plath (the Hughes-approved McCullough edition). I devoured the book. At this time I was hitting puberty, I was angry, I read voraciously, and I wrote poems that made no sense and usually involved ridiculous amounts of blood. Plath's journals -- at least this version -- focused on Plath the writer and Plath the Depressed. I believed these things had to go together if you're a girl. As Bikini Kill sings in Bloody Ice Cream Song:
 The sylvia plath story is told to girls who write
They want us to think that to be a girl poet
Means you have to die
Who is it
That told me
All girls who write must suicide?
I've another good one for you
We are turning
Cursive letters into knives
 My middle and early high school self worshiped Plath as a poet and as a mentally ill person. I truly believed that the sadder one was the better ones poetry (and we all know that isn't true). In fact, my mom would take away my Plath and Sexton and other women poets because she said they made me maudlin. I don't think they "made" me depressed, but it made it okay for me to be sad and angry and smart in a world that wanted me to be complacent and pretty and Christ-like.

In my later high school years my perception of Plath altered slightly. As a burgeoning feminist I was dismayed by Plath's death and personal life seemed to over shadow her genius as a writer. Other women writers I loved had the same issue: Anne Sexton, Shirley Jackson, Edna St Vincent Millay, and Virginia Woolf were all "broken." It was implied that this brokenness or illness caused these women to write or at the very least had a hand in the genius of the writing. On the contrary, Dylan Thomas and Ernest Hemingway and other "writers with issues" were primarily writers with personal lives, mental illnesses, and suicide seen as a mere footnote. To say I was pissed would be an understatement. I resolved to only adore my favorite authors, Plath was one of them, on the merits of the writing.

And then I had a baby my freshman year of college. I was pursuing creative writing and had plans to go to graduate school and travel and write books of poems and be a single mother to the most perfect little girl. And I was going to do all of it perfectly. Now Plath was back to being a writing role model and I felt a great personal affinity with Plath as a mother and a depressed woman. I understood her anger. I understood how goddamn hard it is to write and mother. I understood how greatly stacked the world still is against women - especially women who want everything. Yes, Sylvia, the Fig Tree spoke to me, too:

I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story.  From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked.  One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn't quite make out.  I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn't make up my mind which of the figs I would choose.  I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.  
~Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar, Chapter 7
 Now let's jump ahead to myself as a 33 year old married mother working in an academic library and, yes, still writing (although I don't share poems anymore). Having perspective and looking back on my life has allowed me to view Plath as an entire person. She wasn't just a sufferer of mental illness, or a scholar, or a writer, or a mother. She was a human. Her life had sadness and hardship and ended in an awful manner, but among all of that was happiness. Love. Kids. Success. Life. A whole lot of life.

Paul Alexander's biography of Plath, Rough Magic, is the first biography I've read of Plath that paints her as a human. Not totally good and not totally bad. Sad and ill at times and yet joyful and well other times. His discussion of Plath's last year was also incredibly balanced. I've heard academics argue that Plath died because of Writing or Being a Woman in that Time or Ted Hughes being a Douchebag.

Guess what? Plath died for many reasons. Her death is the culmination of pretty much every reason one would have for dying. Of course balancing life as a mother and a writer is one aspect and Hughes did behave badly which didn't help things. But there is also a family history of depression on her father's side and she may have had postpartum depression which wasn't recognized as a mental illness at that time, and actually mental health care wasn't all that great back in the day, and she had been ill with sinuses infections and the flu for months, and she was worried about money, and due to the awful weather the electricity kept cutting off and her flat was horribly cold. Alexander turns Plath from Poet-Goddess-Martyr into a flesh and blood human with a death that was sad, but not some fate-ordained ending. I even think he aptly portrayed Plath as fighting to live; her introspection and writing, her reaching out to friends and family, and her personally seeking therapy and medical help all point to Plath trying to fight against her illness. This romantic notion that madness begets poetry and of the Poetess "indulging" in sadness is bullshit. Alexander gets it right with his portrayal of Plath as a real person and not an icon of  "insert movement" or a victim of a particular "-ism."

I highly recommend this book to fans of Plath and those who enjoy well-written, non-fanatical biographies.

This book was read for my TBR Challenge!

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