Taking On Sylvia Plath: A Q&A with Plath’s Latest Biographer

In part two of Signature’s interview with biographer Carl Rollyson, author of the new biography “American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath,” we discuss the challenges of taking on a subject so wrapped up in legend, and the lively and life-affirming picture of Plath that emerges from his biography. Read part one of our interview here.

Was this a daunting project to take on, given the weight of biographical legend around Plath?

I like to say that I write in a state of self-delusion. I write in the morning; if I were to write later in the day, or really thought about it when I’m out of the writing trance, I think it might be daunting. Already in 1986, when I was writing my Marilyn Monroe biography, publishers were telling me that there were too many biographies of her; what else could there possibly be to say? And people say the same thing about Plath, but we’re learning much, much more about these figures, as one biography responds to or answers the others.

Did you have difficulties in the process of writing the book, as Plath’s other biographers have had, with her estate, or with access to materials?

I realized right at the beginning that there was no way that the Plath estate – especially given my point of view – would cooperate with me. Anyone who knows anything about Plath and the previous biographies knows that biographers had a very hard time with her estate. So I made that decision early on that there was no way I could submit the manuscript or even ask for permission to quote from Plath’s work, that I would have to do this under fair-use standards. That also determined another aspect of the book: Although I do deal, at crucial points, with Plath’s work, it’s not a literary biography in the sense of dealing extensively with her poetry and her stories. I certainly mention a good deal of them and describe them, and try to point out to the reader the importance of this work in her life, but in most pages of the book you’re not reading a work of literary criticism. I’m quite conscious of that – I’m really treating Plath as a kind of cultural symbol. I think people reading my biography will find new ways to read her work, but since I couldn’t quote in any significant way from her poetry, it simply would not be possible to do that other kind of literary biography.

So the limitations actually end up producing a different kind of book.

I would certainly call it making a virtue of necessity. Every biography has its own challenges, and all that interests me as a biographer is, do I have enough to tell a story? If there have been other biographies of this subject, are there ways in which I’m telling this story that differ from them? If I convince myself of that, any other obstacles I have – like worrying that the estate is going to sue me – I really don’t worry too much about that. I have to tell you, though: I have a secret weapon. My wife is a lawyer, and for over twenty years now she’s been my constant companion, my in-house counsel. And in the end, the Plath book was vetted by attorneys hired by the publisher, because they want to be absolutely sure they’re not going to run into any trouble.

It does seem, from your chapter on the other biographies, that a lot more threatening goes on than actual legal action.

That’s right. In England, the laws of libel are very different: The burden of proof is on the person who’s accused – that is, on the author – and in this country it’s just the opposite, the burden of proof is on the plaintiff. As a result, many biographies that are published in this country do not get published in England. My Plath is not going to be published in England, because the law is against the publishers, and they’re not going to take that risk.

You made an interesting structural decision in the biography to sideline major events by listing them in the headnotes of each chapter, so readers run through them first. Why was that?

I’ve never written a book quite that way before. In terms of method, not just subject matter, I thought of this Plath book very much like my Monroe biography: There have been so many biographies of my subject, so if there’s going to be another one, I want the freedom to interpret my subject. But some readers have fixed expectations of what a biography is, and if they get into a chapter and they’re not exactly sure when something is happening, they might find it confusing, so I put the chronology for each chapter up front, to let the reader see where we’re headed, what follows what. I have a thesis, an argument in this biography. Some people like that and some don’t – some people want the biography just to tell the story. And although I do believe I tell the story, it certainly is a biography shaped by a vision, a point of view.

So by separating out the fixed events from the emotional flow behind them, what emerges is how difficult it is to track human emotions and motives. Plath comes across as someone with extreme moods, who is unpredictable emotionally, but she’s not really alone in that – other people are also unpredictable and do strange things that are hard to figure out. What do you hope this book will do for readers’ image of Plath, at this remove? What new picture of Plath do you think you’ve created?

Good question. I think it starts with the cover of my book, with that photograph, which was taken by one of her classmates in April 1954 – so that’s Sylvia Plath coming back to Smith after her first suicide attempt. But if you look at that picture, you don’t think it’s the picture of someone who’s going to commit suicide. We have a tendency to read back into Plath’s life, starting with her suicide, that her life was one long trajectory toward killing herself. I don’t think that’s true. I remember coming across a letter from her high school teacher, Wilbury Crockett, which I quote in the book, in which he says, “These biographers come and interview me and they want to know about Sylvia Plath’s sad life – and she was one of the most buoyant, exciting students I’ve ever had.” I hope the way I write the ending of the book shows that there was a whole complex of factors that led to her suicide, and it’s not so simple as saying that she had a certain “suicidal” sensibility. For Sylvia there was a brilliance and a joy to life. I hope readers understand that toward the end, for very complicated reasons, she came to feel that she couldn’t go on – but that she found tremendous value in life.

Read part one of our interview with Carl Rollyson, author of "American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath."