The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath

By Carl Rollyson

Carl Rollyson’s refreshingly judicious and often eloquent portrait of Sylvia Plath, the sixth major biography published in the half-century since the poet’s death in 1963 at age 30, arrives at an interesting moment. The confessional style, which Plath made famous with the searing lyrics of “Ariel,” written during the months following the breakup of her marriage to the poet Ted Hughes, is no longer dominant. Robert Lowell, credited with starting the movement and with whom Plath studied, didn’t make it into the top-10 list of 20th-century American poets recognized last year in a series of U.S. postage stamps. Plath was the only one of the best-known Confessionals to qualify, and her celebrity status as author and thinly disguised heroine of “The Bell Jar” may have helped her case.

Both Lowell and Plath would have been surprised to find Lowell’s friend Elizabeth Bishop, whose work Plath dismissed as “lesbian and fanciful & jeweled,” in the lineup. But these days, Bishop’s style, marked by emotional restraint, sharp description and formal play, has gained the ascendancy, a victory amply illustrated in a villanelle on marital dissolution by Mary Jo Salter, a former student of Bishop’s, recently published in the New Yorker, the magazine that maintained a first-read contract with Plath during the last years of her life. Salter reveals little of herself in the poem, preferring instead to toy artfully with “complaint for absolute divorce,” a phrase extracted from a legal document, which serves as the title and refrain. Contrast that with the furious truth-telling of Plath’s reactions in verse to her betrayal by Hughes: “The Other,” “Words Heard, by Accident, Over the Phone” and “Burning the Letters.” Fifty years have wrought significant changes in literary taste, and “Sylvia mania,” in Hughes’s terms, has largely abated.

“American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath” by Carl Rollyson (St. Martin’s)

And so, surprisingly to those who followed the “biography wars” that began within a few years of Plath’s suicide, there may be many readers in need of a book that aims simply, as Rollyson puts it, to tell “what she was like and what she stood for.” Even those who kept track of the skirmishes — beginning with Hughes’s destruction of a key Plath diary and continuing through the decades as the couple’s friends and family members took sides and offered up contradictory accounts — could use some sorting out.

Rollyson opens by announcing that he has “dispensed with a good deal of the boilerplate most biographers feel compelled to supply,” such as background on Plath’s parents and Smith College, where she earned her undergraduate degree as a scholarship student. He will “do very little scene setting,” choosing not to duplicate the work of previous biographers.

Such streamlining is his usual preference: “Biography strips bare,” Rollyson wrote in a 2008 manual on the form. His approach signals a writerly affinity for Plath, whose best work achieved a tightly focused immediacy. The author of nine other biographies of subjects including Susan Sontag, Norman Mailer and Marilyn Monroe, Rollyson writes with assurance and as an advocate of this “American Isis,” as he titles the book, who “wanted to be an ideal mother and wife — but with her power, her magic, intact.” His primary interest is in conveying the quality and meaning of Plath’s relationships as they can be traced through the available journals and correspondence, as well as the published poetry and fiction, in which Plath “deliberately transgressed the separation of art and autobiography.” Rollyson adds to this written record his own interviews with Plath’s associates at Smith and others willing to talk — an unfortunately small number given Ted Hughes’s injunction to at least one friend: “The truth about Sylvia can only be told when you are dying.”

Rollyson’s account credibly outlines the claustrophobic effects on Plath of social, familial and marital pressures that may have proved her undoing. Rollyson cites her reading of Philip Wylie’s popular “Generation of Vipers” with its notion of the suffocating mom, which may have fed Plath’s animosity toward her widowed mother. Less convincing are his recurrent allusions to Plath’s sister-suicide Marilyn Monroe, in which he stresses similarities in their marriages to powerful male intellectuals. But Monroe’s lethal anguish was surely abetted by the knowledge that a screen actress’s career could be over at 30; a poet, even one so determinedly precocious as Plath, has time on her side.

The even-handedness of Rollyson’s rendering of the Plath-Hughes relationship, which presents the volatile marriage as one made impetuously by two people of mismatched backgrounds but dangerously alike in ambition and competitiveness, breaks down in a final chapter on the aftermath of Plath’s suicide. He blames Hughes for a “dogged but futile effort to dictate the gospel of Sylvia Plath’s biography.” But here too, Rollyson offers a biographer’s sympathy: “It does not seem possible to discern any consistency or logic in Hughes’s management of his papers and Plath’s, perhaps because his view of their marriage kept changing.” Had Hughes lived to read “American Isis,” even he might have found passages to admire in this reverent work of resurrection.

Marshall, a former student of both Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, is the author of the forthcoming biography “Margaret Fuller: A New American Life.”

American Isis

The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath

By Carl Rollyson

St. Martin’s.
319 pp. $29.99