If the article on "Sylvia Plath" in Alix Strauss' Death Becomes Them: Unearthing the Suicides of the Brilliant, the Famous, & the Notorious (Harper Collins, 2009) is typical of the others in the book, the general population that reads this work will, in the company of those who know something of the subject discussed, make fools of themselves.
There are some truly heinous mistakes in the Plath piece. I forced myself not to jump right to Plath and read with interest about Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, and Hunter S. Thompson. I looked forward to Anne Sexton after Plath. I admit I don't know much about the suicides of the other people in the book, but after the Plath chapter I was so completely turned off to the point that the book in my hand was replaced by chocolate.
There are far too many errors for me to try to correct here, but I'll just list a few because I cannot help myself. Before I continue, however, I do have to say that the book I received, kindly from Strauss' publicist, is an advanced, uncorrected proof. Some of these errors may have been corrected before the book was published. The copy of the book I browsed briefly in a Borders book store seemed to be very similar, textually speaking, to my proof copy. In writing this, I am reminded of something my mother always said to me: "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all." I've always been a bit stubborn (comments to the blog on this point will be removed).
The format will follow my previous reviews that have warrented such scrutiny. I'll list the page number, the quote from the book, followed by the "correction" or some other snarky or potentially offensive comment.
"Born: October 27, 1932, Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts." - Nope. Born in Boston, Massachusetts.
"Died: February 11, 1963, Court Green House, Devon England." - Nope. Plath died at 23 Fitzroy Road, London, England. Inconsistently, the location was correct later in the text.
"Discovered by: The nanny" - Nope. Myra Norris was a nurse not a nanny; and the construction person was a construction person. Inconsistently, Norris' occupation was correct later in the text.
"Funeral: Among the long list of eminent writers present at her funeral, close friend Anne Sexton gave a touching eulogy and talked openly about the two women's attraction to suicide." - Seriously? Is this fiction? This is grotesquely inaccurate and unintentionally laughable. The only eminent writer at her funeral was her husband.
At the risk of this review starting to look like Letters Home or The Journals of Sylvia Plath (1982), ... ... (omission) ... ...
"It took only a few months [following their wedding] for Ted to have an affair, with Assia Wevill..." - Nope. Way wrong.
"By 1960 Sylvia and Ted each had dueling books of poetry published..." - Not really. Scales were heavily in Hughes' favor.
"[At the time of her death Plath left] Ariel and Other Poems... on the table near the front door, like a present waiting to be opened." - No. The manuscript was in her study.
"...a folded towel acted as a substitute for a blanket, which she used to support her head on the stove's open door." - No. A report at the time of her death indicates that her head was deep in the oven.
"On February 15, friends and family piled into St. Pancras County Court..." - Not quite accurate.
"Shortly after Sylvia's funeral, her friend Elizabeth was sent a letter by Assia, now Ted's wife." - Nope. Ted Hughes never married Assia Wevill. He did refer to her in a letter as his "true wife" at one point, but as far as I know astrological or cosmic marriage is not a recognized form of marriage.
There is more, the following comments on inaccuracies and errors in the book are from Gail Crowther. I'd quote at length from Strauss' text but likely won't obtain permission to reprint the WHOLE THING.
p. 61 The order of the writing of the poems is just all wrong, wrong, wrong.
p. 62 SP moved to London with the "naivete of a child" - What??? Has Strauss never read her letters?
p. 62 I believe from other sources that Horder sent SP the name of a female psychiatrist who he thought would be suitable but that the letter arrived after her death.
p. 62 SP 'wrote several notes' the night of her suicide - Sources/Evidence for this claim?
p. 63 'tea soaked clothes' - This detail is not mentioned in the inquest notes or the recording of the inquest. They were simply described as clothes and tape.
p. 63 'as if finishing the botched job she began twenty years before' - 20 years after her first attempt? ... So she was 10 then the first time she tried??? You're reading "Lady Lazarus" too literally.
p. 63 Plath was on the National Health Service, thus pills were free. Thus, gas was more expensive than pills.
p. 63 SP died at 6am? I thought Horder claimed she was still warm at 10.30 and therefore he thought she had died around 8am?
p. 63 Trevor Thomas was neither unconscious nor taken to hospital. According to his account he woke groggy in the afternoon, went to work to apologise and Horder looked him over and told him he had been affected by the gas.
p. 63 The quote on SP's grave is not from the Bhagavad Gita but from the Buddhist text 'Monkey' by Wu Ch'Eng-En.
p. 65 Assia Wevill was not "expecting TH home" they had just got back from a trip to Manchester and they didn't live together anyway.
p. 66 Assia Wevill didn't use water to wash down her pills - it was orange juice for Shura and whisky for herself.
And, there is still more! I'd include them but don't want to appear to be too nit-picky.
Each article in Death Becomes Them includes an "Unearthed" section as well as other bits of information such as career highlights. The Unearthed section, I thought, would reveal something new about the Plath's death, but for Plath is was just a summary of or brief history of British suicides by coal gas. Like Plath when she visited her father's grave in Winthrop, I felt cheated. Following the main text on Plath, there is a section called "Two Wives, Same Method" - which of course is wrong from the start as, we know, Ted Hughes's second wife - at this time of writing - is still living. Thus also, Hughes could not have been Assia's fourth husband, as is claimed on page 66.
The section on Nicholas Hughes' suicide earlier this year is painful to read. I suppose Strauss couldn't help herself? Lastly, the Career Highlights is equally flawed. According this this, The Journals of Sylvia Plath won the Pulitzer Prize in 1982. No. That would be Plath's Collected Poems. The final sentence is off the mark, as well, "Today, two of her journals are on exhibition at Smith College, where they will remain until 2013, the year marking the fiftieth anniversary of her death." What I think she meant was that two journals were sealed until 2013; however, 11 years ago these were unsealed and were included in Karen V. Kukil's The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath published in 2000. The reliance on earlier Plath biographies is apparent.
Even a little carefully conducted research could have avoided 95% of these errors. It's really a shame that some bad facts just keep getting recycled by careless, clumsy, or otherwise lazy, presumably hasty writing. There is very little either new or interesting or unearthed about Plath or her suicide in this chapter - which is really, as a coworker of mine said, the only thing I care about. It is writing like this that pulls the focus clearly away from Plath's writing and wrongfully places it after her life. Perhaps I'm just over-deathed at the moment, having just finished a book about Jack the Ripper, but I found the work excessively and obsessively morbid. Alix Strauss' coverage of Sylvia Plath in Death Becomes Them is potentially one of the worst pieces of writing on Plath I've ever read. Big statement.
Stepping off the soapbox now.
I promise a positive review of something later this month.
Publications & Acknowledgements
- BBC Four.A Poet's Guide to Britain: Sylvia Plath. London: BBC Four, 2009. (Acknowledged in)
- Biography: Sylvia Plath. New York: A & E Television Networks, 2005. (Photographs used)
- Connell, Elaine. Sylvia Plath: Killing the angel in the house. 2d ed. Hebden Bridge: Pennine Pens, 1998. (Acknowledged in)
- Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives." Plath Profiles 2. Summer 2009: 183-208.
- Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives, Redux." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 232-246.
- Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 3." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 119-138.
- Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 4: Looking for New England." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012: 11-56.
- Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 5: Reanimating the Past." Plath Profiles 6. Summer 2013: 27-62.
- Death Be Not Proud: The Graves of Poets. New York: Poets.org. (Photographs used)
- Doel, Irralie, Lena Friesen and Peter K. Steinberg. "An Unacknowledged Publication by Sylvia Plath." Notes & Queries 56:3. September 2009: 428-430.
- Elements of Literature, Third Course. Austin, Tex. : Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2009. (Photograph used)
- Helle, Anita. "Lessons from the Archive: Sylvia Plath and the Politics of Memory". Feminist Studies 31:3. Fall 2005: 631-652.. (Acknowledged in)
- Helle, Anita Plath. The Unraveling Archive: Essays on Sylvia Plath. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007. (Photographs used, acknowledged in)
- Holden, Constance. "Sad Poets' Society." Science Magazine. 27 July 2008. (Photograph used)
- Making Trouble: Three Generations of Funny Jewish Women, Motion Picture. Directed by Rachel Talbot. Brookline (Mass.): Jewish Women's Archive, 2007. (Photograph used)
- Plath, Sylvia, and Karen V. Kukil. 2000. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. New York: Anchor Books. (Acknowledged in)
- Gill, Jo. "Sylvia Plath in the South West." University of Exeter Centre for South West Writing, 2008. (Photograph used)
- Reiff, Raychel Haugrud. Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar and Poems (Writers and Their Works). Marshall Cavendish Children's Books, 2008.. (Images provided)
- Plath, Sylvia. Glassklokken. Oslo: De norske Bokklubbene, 2004. (Photograph used on cover)
- Steinberg, Peter K. Sylvia Plath (Great Writers). Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004.
- Steinberg, Peter K. "'I Should Be Loving This': Sylvia Plath's 'The Perfect Place' and The Bell Jar." Plath Profiles 1. Summer 2008: 253-262.
- Steinberg, Peter K. "'They Had to Call and Call': The Search for Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 106-132.
- Steinberg, Peter K. "Sylvia Plath." The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath. London: British Library, 2010.
- Steinberg, Peter K. "This is a Celebration: A Festschrift for The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3 Supplement. Fall 2010: 3-14.
- Steinberg, Peter K. "Proof of Plath." Fine Books & Collections 9:2. Spring 2011: 11-12.
- Steinberg, Peter K. "A Perfectly Beautiful Time: Sylvia Plath at Camp Helen Storrow." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 149-166.
- Steinberg, Peter K. "Textual Variations in The Bell Jar Publications." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012.
- "Banking on his passion for Plath" by Melissa Davis Haller. UMW Today. Spring 2005.
- "Sylvia Plath's Three Women to be staged in London" by Alison Flood. The Guardian. 3 December 2008.
- "FBI files on Sylvia Plath's father shed new light on poet" by Dalya Alberge. The Guardian. 17 August 2012.
- "There Are Almost No Obituaries for Sylvia Plath" by Ashley Fetters. The Atlantic. 11 February 2013.