Sylvia Plath (October 27, 1932 – February 11, 1963) was an American poet, novelist, and short story writer.
Known primarily for her poetry, Plath also wrote a semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, detailing her struggle with depression. Along with Anne Sexton, Plath is credited with advancing the genre of confessional poetry that Robert Lowell and W.D. Snodgrass initiated.
Plath was born on October 27, 1932 in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts to Aurelia Schober Plath, a first-generation American of Austrian descent, and Otto Emile Plath, an immigrant from Grabow, Germany. Plath's father was a professor of zoology and German at Boston University and a noted bees specialist.
During the summer after her second year of college, Plath received the position of guest editor at Mademoiselle magazine, during which she spent a month in New York City. The experience was not at all what she had hoped it would be, beginning within her a seemingly downward spiral in her outlook on herself and life in general. Much of the events that took place during that summer were later used as inspiration for her novel The Bell Jar. In her junior year at Smith College, Plath made her first medically documented suicide attempt by crawling under her house and taking an overdose of sleeping pills
Plath and Hughes spent from July 1957 to October 1959 living and working in the United States, where Plath taught at Smith. They then moved to Boston where Plath sat in on seminars given by Robert Lowell. Also attending Lowell's seminars was Anne Sexton. At this time, Plath and Hughes also met, for the first time, W. S. Merwin, who admired their work and was to remain a lifelong friend.
Wife, mother and poet
Plath took her own life on the morning of February 11, 1963. She left out bread and milk and completely sealed the rooms between herself and her sleeping children with "wet towels and cloths."
Plath began keeping a diary at age 11, and kept journals until her suicide. Her adult diaries, starting from her freshman year at Smith College in 1950, were first published in 1980 as "The Journals of Sylvia Plath," edited by Frances McCullough. In 1982, when Smith College acquired all of Plath's remaining journals, Hughes sealed two of them until February 11, 2013 (50 years after Plath's death).
During his last years of life, Hughes began working on a fuller publication of Plath's journals. In 1998, shortly before his death, he unsealed the two journals, and passed the project onto Frieda and Nicholas, who passed it on to Karen V. Kukil. Kukil finished her edits in December 1999, and in 2000 Anchor Books published "The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath." According to the back cover, roughly two-thirds of the "Unabridged Journals" is newly released material. The publication was hailed as a "genuine literary event" by Joyce Carol Oates.
Hughes faced criticism for his role in handling the journals: he destroyed Plath's last journal, which contained entries from the winter of 1962 up to her death. "I destroyed [the last of her journals] because I did not want her children to have read it (in those days I regarded forgetfulness as an essential part of survival)": Hughes, in the Foreword to Plath's "Journals" 1982.
Plath has been criticized for her controversial allusions to the Holocaust, and is known for her uncanny use of metaphor. Her work has been compared to and associated with Anne Sexton, W.D. Snodgrass, and other confessional poets.
While the few critics who responded to Plath's first book, The Colossus, did so favorably, it has also been described as somewhat staid and conventional in comparison to the much more free-flowing imagery and intensity of her later work.
The poems in Ariel mark a departure from her earlier work into a more personal arena of poetry. It is a possibility that Lowell's poetry—which is often labeled "confessional"—played a part in this shift. Indeed, in an interview before her death she listed Lowell's "Life Studies" as an influence. The impact of Ariel was dramatic, with its descriptions of mental illness in autobiographical poems such as "Daddy" and "Lady Lazarus".
In 1982, Plath became the second poet to win a Pulitzer Prize posthumously (for "The Collected Poems").
In 2006, a graduate student at Virginia Commonwealth University discovered a previously unpublished sonnet written by Plath entitled "Ennui." The poem, composed during Plath's early years at Smith College, is published in Blackbird, the online journal.
As Plath's widower, Hughes became the executor of Plath's personal and literary estates. This is controversial, as it is uncertain whether or not Plath had begun divorce proceedings before her death: if she had, Hughes' inheritance of the Plath estate would have been in dispute. In letters to Aurelia Plath and Richard Murphy, Plath writes that she was applying for a divorce. However, Hughes said in a letter to The Guardian that Plath did not seriously consider divorce, and claims they were discussing reconciliation mere days before her death. However, he oversaw the publication of her manuscripts, including Ariel (1965). He claims to have destroyed the final volume of Plath's journal, detailing their last few months together.
Many critics accused Hughes of attempting to control the publications for his own ends, though he denied this. Examples cited include his censoring of parts of her journals that portrayed him unfavorably, and his editing of Ariel, changing the order of the poems in the book from the sequence she had intended and left at her death, as well as removing several poems. Critics argue this prevented what was intended to be a more uplifting beginning and ending of Ariel, and that the poems removed were the ones most readily identified as being about Hughes.
Hughes hired an accountant to keep track of the estate, but the accountant did a poor job. A large and looming tax bill caused Hughes to convince Plath's mother, Aurelia, to publish The Bell Jar in the United States. Because of this, she later asked Hughes' permission to publish a volume of Plath's letters, to which he agreed with strong reservations.
Ironically, Hughes' sister Olwyn--never close to and often openly hostile towards Plath during her life--eventually took over much of the duties of executor of the Plath estate. Like her brother, Olwyn Hughes was seen as being overly aggressive in limiting permissions if the works cast him in an unfavorable light.
In the reams of criticism and biographies published after her death the debate about Plath's work resembles a struggle between readers who side with her and readers who side with Hughes.
The Ted Hughes controversy
The Colossus and Other Poems (1960)
Three Women: A monologue for three voices (1968)
Crossing the Water (1971)
Winter Trees (1972)
The Collected Poems (1981)
Selected Poems (1985) Poetry
The Bell Jar (1963) under the pseudonym "Victoria Lucas"
Letters Home (1975)
Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams (1977)
The Journals of Sylvia Plath (1982)
The Magic Mirror (1989), Plath's Smith College senior thesis
The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, edited by Karen V. Kukil (2000) Prose
The Bed Book (1976)
The It-Doesn't-Matter-Suit (1996)
Collected Children's Stories (UK, 2001)
Mrs. Cherry's Kitchen (2001) Children's books
Poetry of the United States
Sylvia Plath effect Biographies
The 2003 motion picture Sylvia, starring Gwyneth Paltrow, tells the story of Plath's troubled relationship with Hughes.
Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, and the Story of Birthday Letters (2002, W.W. Norton) by Erica Wagner | ISBN 0-3933-2301-3
Giving Up: The Last Days of Sylvia Plath by Jillian Becker (a friend with whom Plath spent her last weekend) (Ferrington, London, 2002).
Sylvia Plath: The Wound and the Cure of Words (1992, Johns Hopkins University) by Steven Gould Axelrod | ISBN 0-8018-4374-X
The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (1995, Vintage) by Janet Malcolm | ISBN 0-6797-5140-8
A psychobiographical chapter on Plath's loss of her father, and the effect of that loss on her personality and her art, is contained in William Todd Schultz's Handbook of Psychobiography (Oxford University Press, 2005).