SYLVIA PLATH

A Biography

By Linda Wagner-Martin

Simon and Schuster. 282 pp. $18.95

TO THE general public, the name Sylvia Plath may well be more familiar than that of any other postwar American poet. People may not know Plath's poetry, but -- thanks largely to her autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar -- they know of the morbid anxiety that plagued her during her Massachusetts childhood and her college days at Smith. And they know, of course, of her suicide, which occurred in London in February, 1963, when she was 30, the estranged wife of Ted Hughes (now Britain's poet laureate) and the mother of two small children. Though she was hardly the only major poet of our era to kill herself, Plath, alone among the postwar poet-suicides, was someone that a typical American could understand and identify with -- and could even, if so inclined, choose to regard pityingly as a failure, a potential middle-class wife and mother gone astray into poetry and neurosis.

For unlike John Berryman, say, or Hart Crane, Plath longed conspicuously for conventional success and public approval. From her father, Otto -- a German-born entomologist who, as Linda Wagner-Martin writes in her new biography, "created the image of father as critic, judge, someone to be pleased" -- Plath learned early that "doing things for the fun of doing them was less important than doing them because she could do them better than most people." So driven was she to succeed scholastically that even on the morning after Otto died (Sylvia was 7 at the time) she refused to miss school.

If she felt obliged to be an exceptional student, she also felt obliged to be light and gay -- to act, that is, the part of the carefree young lady, and to hide, as fully as possible, the darker thoughts that tormented her. "Like a child," Wagner-Martin explains, "Sylvia seemed to believe that pretending would make any situation improve." Only in her poems and journal, and in a very few letters, was she able to admit her despondency. At Smith, for example, she wrote to a confidante that "Life is loneliness, despite all the opiates, despite the false grinning faces we all wear . . . Yes, there is joy, fulfillment and companionship -- but the loneliness of the soul in its appalling self-consciousness is horrible and overpowering."

Her life, then, consisted of an ironic combination of extraordinary accomplishment (numerous academic honors, precocious publication, a brilliant marriage) and profound emotional torment. Her greatest college triumph -- a summer editorial internship at Mademoiselle -- was followed almost immediately by a suicide attempt. Afterwards, Plath characteristically regarded the incident as a demonstration of her failure to be the ideal co-ed. "If I could only be a freshman again," she lamented to her mother. "I so wanted to be a Smith woman."

Plath's story has already been told by Edward Butscher, in a substantial 1976 biography. What Wagner-Martin has done is to pare the life down to its bare narrative essentials -- at times, indeed, this book reads like a synopsis of a biography -- and to cast it in largely feminist terms. She sees Plath as the victim not only of her father's insistence upon academic success but also of the image of the "perfect American girl" propagated by such magazines as Ladies' Home Journal and Seventeen. These middlebrow magazines, Wagner-Martin argues, taught Plath that "the only happy woman was the married woman." Her ambitions warred with her responsiveness to her own culture.

But the important question is, why did pop-culture stereotypes and philistine values matter so much to Plath in the first place? At a time when many other intelligent, creative American women (with less sophisticated parents) managed to look beyond Ladies' Home Journal notions of womanhood, why did Plath take these notions so seriously? Wagner-Martin is less interested in addressing this critical question than in repeating simplistic feminist formulas and making sweeping cultural indictments.

Moreover, though she does have some perceptive and interesting things to say about The Bell Jar -- about, for example, its borrowings from The Catcher in the Rye, about Plath's use of symbology based on "the Christ legend," and about the effect of its writing on Plath's poetic voice -- Wagner-Martin doesn't devote as much space as one would like to discussions of Plath's verse. This neglect is particularly surprising in view of Wagner-Martin's high regard for Plath's poetry. She seems to take for granted the importance of the poetry and the greatness of the intense, violent poems -- the notorious "Daddy" and "Lady Lazarus" among them -- that poured out during Plath's last tragic year. As a reader who rates Plath's poetry a good deal less highly, I had hoped that Wagner-Martin might help me to see these poems through her admiring eyes. (In part, to be sure, Wagner-Martin's failure to discuss the poetry in detail is not her fault; as she explains in her preface, the Hughes family prohibited extensive quotation from Plath's works.)

IF THERE is a villain in Wagner-Martin's book, it is Ted Hughes, who comes off in these pages as irresponsible and uncaring. Basing her conclusions on journals and letters that have only recently been made available, Wagner-Martin strongly implies that what precipitated Plath's suicide was Hughes' sudden distancing of himself from her, perhaps because he was having an extramarital affair. Wagner-Martin even says that, according to Plath's letters of late 1962, "Ted was taunting her with her earlier suicide attempt, saying that if she were to repeat that action, everything would be simpler for him." Hughes denies having said such a thing, and it is certainly conceivable that, given Plath's state of mind, she was lying or hallucinating; but Wagner-Martin buries Hughes' denial in her endnotes. She seems a bit too eager to believe the worst about Hughes; indeed, she seems almost to regard him, as Plath does in her manic late poem "Daddy," as a "vampire," an agent of a fascistic patriarchy.

Yet in her more lucid moments, even Plath appears to have recognized that her own worst enemy was not her father or mother or husband, but herself. In her college journal she criticized herself as "an Over-grown, Over-protected, Scared, Spoiled Baby" who was afraid of independence, afraid "to face the great huge man-eating world." "Stop thinking selfishly," she urged herself, "of razors and self-wounds and going out and ending it all. Your room is not your prison. You are." Alas, Wagner-Martin doesn't offer much in the way of insight into the complex, fascinating psychopathology that informs such journal entries.

Bruce Bawer writes regularly about modern literature for The New Criterion.