APRIL 30, 2013
A FEW MONTHS AGO, the London publishing house Faber and Faber put out a new edition of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. It is not an exaggeration to say that the cover they chose for it nearly set the internet aflame. The image in question shows a young woman — well, her mouth anyway — applying lipstick with the aid of a mirror compact. The lipstick is bright red, the palette very Mad Men, but somehow the offense was not softened — indeed, it might have been amplified — by the commercial blandness of the art. We have learned to read the signs, and the image here was intended to style The Bell Jar as a sort of chick lit book, an item for that person in your life who gravitates to novels about the travails of shopaholics. It was generally agreed that The Bell Jar did not belong in this category. It was further generally agreed that a canonical, semiautobiographical account of an attempted suicide deserved better than a cover that could double as a Revlon promotional tie-in.
So it feels a mite strange to encounter, just a few months later, a new book on Plath — Elizabeth Winder’s Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953 — which abruptly insists, in its prefatory author’s note, that:
Sylvia Plath was fully immersed in the material culture of her time. She took real pleasure in clothes, makeup, magazines and food — a fact that runs counter to the crude reductions of Plath as a tortured artist.
The bras, lipsticks, and kilts included in the book are vital (Plath’s favorite word) to understanding Sylvia as both participant and product of midcentury America.
It is generally a bad sign when a book arrives in your hands already on the defensive. More curious is that this is the only attempt at an argument this slight book contains. Elsewhere, all conclusions are simply stated in conclusive-sounding fashion: “Sylvia loved being surrounded by fabrics and trinkets.” “Sylvia: Blond tangles. Crumpled frocks.” “One of the most appealing things about Sylvia was her passionate eagerness — she had no desire to seem jaded or cool.” Biographers typically traffic in these kinds of statements, but they are usually obliged to explain why. This, Winder does not feel obliged to do.
Instead she relies on the pure force of chronology to whirl herself and her readers through the book, which, as its subtitle suggests, focuses on the summer of 1953, when Plath was living in New York City, working as a guest editor at Mademoiselle. This is the infamous Bell Jar summer, and because the novel is so heavily autobiographical there has never been much call for a more fulsome depiction of the period, at least not one at book length. Occasionally this means that Winder is more or less repeating what The Bell Jar already reports. Compare this, from Plath:
I wore a black shantung sheath that cost me forty dollars. It was part of a buying spree I had with some of my scholarship money when I heard I was one of the lucky ones going to New York. This dress was cut so queerly I couldn’t wear any sort of a bra under it, but that didn’t matter much as I was skinny as a boy and barely rippled, and I liked feeling almost naked on the hot summer nights.
To this, from Winder:
On April 27, 1953, with her job at Mademoiselle now only a month away, Sylvia had shopped the boutiques of Green Street, Northampton, and spent a grand total of $85. First, a black shantung sheath in pure silk, with slippery shoestring straps and a matching bolero-style jacket. The dress was cut lissome and lean — it left a lot of skin bare and was perfect for dancing.
Winder justifies her contribution to the literature with new interviews of Plath’s companions of that summer, who included the novelist Diane Johnson. But their quotes are simply presented, often without context and usually without any sign of discernment on the interviewer’s part. For example, apropos of the dance that was the big formal celebration of the guest editorship:
“They had lined up attractive young men for us to go out with,” remembers Diane Johnson. “My date was a Southerner with a Faulknerian name, and they all seemed wonderfully sophisticated. I’m amazed at how much I can’t remember — the dance was evidently not memorable to me. But I do remember the attractive guy!”
No such half-remembrances appear to have gone omitted. Some are, in a typographical innovation I’ve never seen employed in biography before but which is common in celebrity magazines, presented in sidebars.
The overall effect is airy, and more than a bit lazy. Pain, Parties, Work seems cobbled together, like a scrapbook, and a lackadaisically assembled one at that. The flighty aura may be intentional, designed to combat the “crude reductions” of (this is what one assumes Winder means) the works of actual scholarship that have been written on Plath. But even here Winder is vague on what specific reductions she is looking to combat. Maybe she actually means the 2003 Gwyneth Paltrow movie Sylvia? It’s hard to say. Turn to the back of the book and you will find that Winder cites only a single biography: Paul Alexander’s 1991 Rough Magic, a fairly random selection. Her other source is Plath’s journals themselves, which funnily enough do not even cover the month Winder’s book does, beyond a couple of fragments. Ferreting out the truth can’t be what’s intended with such thin research. There’s something else going on, something about presenting Plath in a way that’s amenable to Winder’s own concerns — putting a favorite outfit on her, as it were.
The thing is, though I didn’t like it much, the very insubstantiality of Winder’s book points to a critical juncture of biography and celebrity which is both a hallmark of Plath studies and particular to 2013. In 1992, Janet Malcolm wrote an entire (brilliant) book on that juncture: The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes detailed the Plath estate’s struggles to protect its privacy against marauders who rifled through “other people’s mail” in the name of scholarship. These concerns about the incursion of celebrity narrative into literary history, and our unseemly curiosity about the personal lives of (in Malcolm’s case, still-living) subjects, seem a little quaint today. We live in an age without much of an appetite for serious scholarship, but which is happy to hear about writers’ personae and lives. This extends to the dead as well as living. Gossip and literary appreciation are closer than ever today, especially on the internet — and this isn’t wholly a bad thing. Keeping literature current today depends, to an extent, on the proliferation of Tumblrs and blogs like Writers and Kitties. A fandom model of celebrating the works of great writers has its benefits; go through Tumblr’s Sylvia Plath tag and you’ll find young women citing her poems and fiction alongside items of clothing they’ve flagged for purchase. It is difficult to see where the harm is in coming to Plath by bits, in cobbled-together photographs and excerpts of poems, next to beautiful hair ribbons and artful dresses drawn from the websites of overpriced women’s clothing boutiques.
But it does become harder to take when this sensibility is transposed into book form. Sure, let’s capture the audience who wants to post a picture of Revlon’s Cherries in the Snow lipstick alongside “Lady Lazarus.” But let’s not forget that there’s more to Plath than product placement. Simply citing the kind of dress she wears, or the name of her shade of lipstick, doesn’t really give us great insights into her personality, let alone her work. And Winder not only doesn’t delve deeper into interpretation, she barely bothers with description; the products’ names are, apparently, enough to express a meaning already conferred upon them by the magicians on Madison Avenue.
There is, of course, a feminist argument to be made that, for better or for worse, modern women have had to form their identities within the context created by makeup and fashion. To condemn a woman simply for mentioning what she’s wearing is to miss the point that she has no choice but to wear something, and that the world we live in is such that people will derive meaning from her clothes in a way they do not from the spaghetti-sauce stains and baggy khakis of the male-poet set. Letting that reality pass without comment is simply willful blindness, not devotion to “seriousness.” But Winder doesn’t make that feminist argument; she assumes, with the world, that these things are important in and of themselves.
It’s not that Winder wholly misunderstands the interplay between commercialism and self-expression in Plath’s life and work, but rather that her rendering of the theme gives us a flat, lifeless Plath who comes to us primarily through the objects that link up with lines in her journals and the vague quotes of these acquaintances. Leafing back to Winder’s author’s note, my eye kept falling on that stiff phrase “participant and product.” One cannot help but feel that it is a description Plath would have resented. It is, actually, a description most of us would resent, with its connotation of, at best, obedience and, at worst, enslavement to the commercial concerns of the day.
And there was something altogether more vigorous about Plath than all that. She was aware of the material constraints of her life, of course, but she struggled with them. The haunting thing about Plath’s story is how the pretty things, the lipstick, the affair with the romantic Yorkshireman — what Malcolm once called “the girls’ book” nature of her life — eventually soured. Whether it soured because of clinical depression or righteous feminine rage doesn’t much matter. The point is that, whatever feminine pleasure Winder insists she took in “clothes, makeup, magazines, and food”, it did not ultimately sustain her. At some point, the mindset Winder tries to reclaim for Plath here (or her for it) wouldn’t do any more. Think of those lines from “Daddy,” by now so famous its cadences sound like they must have been chiseled in stone somewhere:
You do not do, you do not do,
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.
Winder tries to force Plath back into the shoe we all know she could no longer stand.
But what am I saying? What do I know about Sylvia Plath, and who she really was? I certainly recognize that it is a question in which both everyone and no one is interested. So much ink has been spilled on Plath’s life that it’s trite to even make an observation about how much ink has been spilled.
The outlines themselves are familiar to the point of exhaustion: Poet has burst of amazing productivity for a year or two, during which her marriage collapses from the husband’s infidelity. Poet shuts up her children in their bedroom, seals the door, dies alone, perhaps not meaning to have taken it that far given the note to call the doctor. The work poet produces in her personal dénouement proves brilliant when published, and arrives at a time when the culture has an appetite for believing that women could be rescued from the particular tragedy of being female, which is to say: from having their own brilliance go unrecognized. Poet’s husband (also a poet) spends the rest of his life fending off accusations that his philandering killed her, though he is neither the first nor the last poet, or man for that matter, to discard a wife. (His self-defense on that score becomes rather murkier when the second of his paramours, and possibly the one he left poet for, kills herself too.) Pronouncing on the Plath-Hughes marriage, as Malcolm noted over 20 years ago, has become an industry of its own.
Winder, of course, deliberately sidesteps this entire issue by focusing only on 1953, before Plath and Hughes met. But Malcolm’s great insight, in The Silent Woman, still applies. Biography, she writes, is a “flawed genre” because it makes a promise it cannot keep: “The biographer at work, indeed is like the professional burglar, breaking into a house, rifling through certain drawers that he has good reason to think contain the jewelry and the money, and triumphantly bearing the loot away.” But he is, after all, just a burglar. Most biographers do not know their subjects personally, and only rarely are they able to offer the depth of understanding that can come of long friendship, rivalry, or even casual association. Malcolm quotes a letter from Ted Hughes to one of their friends, the critic Al Alvarez, who was the first to give an “insider’s” account of Plath’s suicide:
It is infuriating for me to see my private experiences and feelings re-invented for me, in that crude, bland, unanswerable way, and interpreted and published as official history — as if I were a picture on a wall or some prisoner in Siberia. And to see her used in the same way.
Whatever Hughes’s culpability in these matters, his frustration here is not hard to understand or sympathize with. A lot of writers — journalists, memoirists, a certain kind of novelist — deal with this issue, when the people they’ve written about feel unfairly depicted. But biography is different, because a biographer stakes her claim on understanding someone she has never met better, in some ways, than they have understood themselves. The memoirist, the journalist, and the novelist can hide behind the idea that they are simply relating their experience of a person, rather than exposing her essential truth. The biographer can’t quite say this: we don’t care about their experience; we care about the subject’s truth. And those, like Winder, who write without serious engagement of the problems of their subject’s life or their craft, ends up appearing either oblivious, disingenuous, or both. It is not so much that she must abandon the idea of biography altogether. But she cannot hope that pure froth can substitute for insight, either.