The Marilyn Monroe in Sylvia Plath: A Q&A with Plath’s Latest Biographer

Carl Rollyson has written biographies of several iconic women, including Susan Sontag, Rebecca West, Martha Gellhorn, and Marilyn Monroe. His latest book is “American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath,” a biography of Sylvia Plath, published on the fiftieth anniversary of the poet’s tragically early death. In part one of this two-part interview, Signature spoke with Rollyson about who the renowned poet really was throughout her life, leading up to her tragic end.

You begin your book by calling Sylvia Plath “the Marilyn Monroe of modern literature.” Can you say more about that comparison, and how it shaped your writing?

It’s always struck me that Sylvia Plath was unusual for a woman of her generation in the range of her interests. She had such an interest in poetry, in prose, and in wanting to be a greater poet, but at the same time she saw no problem with also being a popular writer, for Ladies’ Home Journal, The Saturday Evening Post, and other kinds of magazines. When you look at her journals, she really wanted to have a wide range of appeal. That made me think of Marilyn Monroe, in part because Sylvia Plath dreamed about Marilyn Monroe, and I thought that for a writer of Plath’s age and seriousness, to dream about Monroe was really quite striking – and not only to dream about her, but to take Monroe seriously as someone who would give her advice, comfort her, appear as a kind of fairy godmother. When I read biographies of Plath, biographers would say that this was odd or strange, but because of my own work on Monroe I thought no, that’s exactly what Sylvia Plath is. This is a woman firing on all cylinders, who wants to be that kind of cynosure or center of attention, that marks her as a figure in the culture.

It’s a fascinating connection that you develop as the biography moves forward: Marilyn Monroe’s relationship with Arthur Miller, for instance, has several parallels to Plath’s with Ted Hughes.

Marilyn Monroe was always looking for, in some sense, a father figure, and Arthur Miller served that function, as well as being her lover and a man she respected for his writing. Well, look at Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes – in her poetry, and Hughes’s own poetry, in “Birthday Letters,” he emerges as a kind of replacement for Plath’s father, and also of course as a respected writer, someone with whom Plath could identify in that way.

You have a line I loved about the relationship between individuals and culture. You write that culture is “fixed in the human psyche like the grooves of a long-playing record.” It seems that much of Plath’s experience as a young, ambitious woman in the 1950s, so many of the tensions within her which were pathologized and treated as her own illness, were also pathologies in the culture of the time. She was torn between the intellectual ambitions nurtured at Smith, and the conflicting pull toward domesticity, that was just unavoidable.

Yes, she was very much picking up those cues from the culture. Again like Marilyn Monroe, she’s one of these great transitional figures in the culture. Monroe wanted to have a family, to have the life that her culture was teaching her would make her a full woman, a complete woman – and I think Plath was susceptible to all those feelings as well. And yet at the same time, here’s this powerful intellect, this independent woman – you can see the seventies and eighties and beyond also emerging in Sylvia Plath. I think that’s what’s going to make her last. When people say, “Oh, it’s because she died young, and she was beautiful” – that’s true, but it’s just not enough. It doesn’t explain enough.

The picture that emerges so strongly from your book is of Plath as a relentlessly professional writer: constantly entering contests, and competing for writing prizes.

It’s absolutely true – there was a relentless ambition in her, and an interest to learn not only her craft, but to learn what worked, what sold, what would catch people’s attention. She wrote forty stories for Seventeen before a story was published. You have to work very hard to become Sylvia Plath.

Yet we tend to think that if someone is published or is on their way to fame very young, that it somehow landed in their lap, that it happened by some miracle.

When I talked to Plath’s classmates at Smith, they told me that they’d say to her, “Oh, fantastic, you got a story published in Mademoiselle! and Sylvia would say, “Let me show you the forty rejection slips I have.”

And her professionalism and hard work also guided Ted Hughes – she understands where Ted is likely to be published, what his strengths are, what publishers are going to respond to his work.

Absolutely. She brought him up to speed. He was a poet already; I’m not suggesting she should take credit for that at all, but in terms of professionalism, I think it would have taken him several more years to develop and to reach an audience. That’s what Plath helped him do: cultivate an audience. She was a master at that.

Check back on Signature tomorrow for part two of our interview with Carl Rollyson, author of “American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath.”