06 February 2011

An Inessential Book

First off, please read P. H. Davies' review of this book, it is far better written and more balanced than what you will read below...

I wrote this last October but waited until the book was officially published in 2011. Lucas Myers's An Essential Self: Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, A Memoir is a book to skip. This review is no good, but I couldn't help but write it. When I was growing up my parents always told me "If you don't have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all." But as an adult I feel like I can something that is not nice. This book kills the genre of the Sylvia Plath memoir for me. And it is more about Myers and Hughes than Plath; but only the latter really holds any interest for me. Myers, I have been told by several people, is a nice man. And I believe it. So if you are reading this Mr. Myers, sorry...

An Essential Self, grew out of his essay "The Voices of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes." which appeared in Saint Botolph’s Review No. 2. At its most basic level it is a defense of Ted Hughes and a castigation of Plath (and Alvarez). He's throwing a long dead woman onto the tracks of an oncoming train. The Myers Express: Choo-choo. He has written a book he could not - and dare not - have written while Ted Hughes was alive, which I think qualifies as an act of cowardice. A classic example within this poorly written, often redundant text, is that although Myers was given "pause" at Plath's story "The Fifty-Ninth Bear," he did not voice his concerns to Ted Hughes, whose fictional representation was mauled, but to this sister Olwyn. Another example occurs late in the book (and in other texts). Myers expresses great embarrassment at Plath's excessive Americanisms in 1956 and likely beyond. This is childhood playground stuff. Myers is simply guilty of failing to try to get to know her or understand Plath in order to clarify or gain understanding to her actions and mannerisms. Clearly Hughes was the better man for Hughes "was in no way inclined to make fun of her, which was the general response" (110). He has expressed in the past that he couldn't see or understand what Hughes saw in Plath. Well, that's not really any of Myers' business is it? What goes on between two people and what attracts them to each another is purely between them. A good friend supports his or her friend when the said friend is falling in love. These are "high road" statements but I'd much rather be on that road than the one Myers is travelling down.

The book is littered with errors that Myers should not have made in the first place and that an editor or reader/fact checker worth their salt should have caught in the second place. (I was going to offer to send a list of these errors to the press in an email but decided it wasn’t worth it.) A few of my favorites; however, are "Edna Higgins Prouty" (p. 10), "Poems for a Birthday" (48) and "Among the Butterfiles" (pp. 48, 95). "Among the Butterflies" is particularly bad considering Myers calls it one of his favorite stories by Plath! (To be fair he does get it right at least once.) His reading of "Metaphors" is laughable, "a poem about a woman who had eaten a bag full of apples and had boarded a train there was no getting off" (64). Wow, really? Even I could do better than that!

Why. Why Mr. Myers, why?

What I take away from this book is that Myers (and many in that Cambridge group) was clearly jealous of Plath because she got 'the man.' To write a book like this seems ungrateful despite a very lovely gesture that Plath did when she published a poem of his, "Fools Encountered," in American Poetry Now, the Critical Quarterly Poetry Supplement Plath edited in 1961. His poem was even sandwiched between Richard Wilbur and Adrienne Rich, a position that would certainly considered especial. Despite having met Plath on several occasions, I am really not certain Myers ever had any idea of who she was. He makes claims against others, particularly Al Alvarez, saying "Alvarez did not know Sylvia profoundly" and "he did not know Sylvia well enough to have the evidence [i.e. information about the breakup of the marriage of Plath and Hughes]" and "he did not know her well enough to understand her mentality or her reasons for committing suicide" (78-9). I think these are incredibly false, disingenuous statements. Myers admits "It is hard to get trustworthy and historical information from anything that has been written about Sylvia..." (82). This is especially the case when the source of the information is suffering from his own bitter fame. Myers' biases, jealousies, and bitterness call into question the validity and appropriateness of his motivation in writing a memoir: and a second one at that!

Very often people in the Hughes camp attempt to discredit Plath's friends such as Elizabeth Sigmund, Al Alvarez, and maybe even Jillian Becker, etc. And to be even, there are certain Plath supporters who are equally aggressively anti-Hughes. But doesn't it strike you as odd and/or defensive? Massive discrediting of first hand accounts or opinions, I guess, really started when Alvarez published part 1 of "Sylvia Plath: The Road to Suicide" in 1971. And then the biographies started to roll in, which opened the doors of name-calling against Elizabeth Sigmund. Becker's memoir was published so late it seems to have missed this. All three of those friends of Plath's - Becker, Alvarez, and Sigmund - were the most privy to information about the demise of Plath's marriage to Hughes and Plath's last few days, weeks, and months. As a consequence, these people had possibly the most dirt on them. But this is a whole different can of worms. (And Assia Wevill herself routinely fed information to Nathaniel Tarn who was good enough to take notes. But how reliable can even her words be?) Had the Hughes side not been so secretive and cover-upish and was more forthcoming and better editors and more responsible Estate managers and less intimidating and bullyish, the whole mess might have been avoided. But as it is, they gathered the "tatty wreckage of [her] life" - as Plath wrote in The Bell Jar - lit the match and stoked the coals.

To quote Marianne Moore, "I do like to like a book, especially anything [about] Sylvia Plath." But Lucas Myers' book An Essential Self is beyond likability. I was not going to review this book, not having anything nice to say about it, and I've likely carried on too long to the point where the review lost its focus (if it even ever had focus). But as I read An Esstential Self (and I read it three times in October) the itch to write something grew stronger and stronger, and so I found myself scratching. I cannot even claim to feel better when now it is done: this is a traveling itch. Relief will be hard to come by.


magiciansgirl said...

I haven't read the new memoire, but hasn't Myers covered all this territory before in Crows Steered and the Bitter Fame appendix? If he had all of a sudden changed his mind about Plath that might have made the book interesting, but clearly he has not, so no surprise there. I don't know how much someone would get paid to write a book like this, but I can only assume, having nothing new to say, the impetus to write the book is monetary or a desire to add one more book to his Who's Who entry. So, the Plath in BL is unrecognizable to Myers? Who is to say that anyone can be really known? People have many facets, many of which they do not show to certain people. It's difficult to know oneself in some ways, so books that claim to tell a truth about a person or a relationship are always suspect. I do think it is easier to write about a person when you don't know them, otherwise your own feelings and views tend to color your work. So, thanks for posting this, Peter, I think I'll give this one a pass. kim

P.H.Davies said...

A brilliant and perceptive review full of the usual detail I often miss. It's such a shame that Myers disliked Plath so much yet has taken to write about her on so many occasions. Perhaps his ultimate failure is the profound jealousy he appears to feel for Plath's fame, readership, and universal appeal - something he was unable to achieve on his own terms.

Julia said...

I think when you said, Peter, that Myers was jealous of Plath because she "got the man," that is exactly right. Ted Hughes seemed to charm men and women in a strong way; he certainly treated them differently, but to read all his tributes and the memoirs of him, even the men were sort of in love with him. He was a Man's Man, and a Ladies' Man.

I thought Crows Steered had some good information (for my work), and it was very valuable to me. But it was also sloppily done. I remember Sylvia's name misspelled a number of times, which just seemed beyond careless and would have been so easy to fix with a simple spell-check. Errors like that are unforgivable.

Like Kim, I can't believe Myers has anything new to tell us anyway.

panther said...

Can't help but agree with Julia's analysis : Myers' palpable dislike of Sylvia seems to stem from jealousy. He appears to lack insight into his own motivation which, after more than fifty years, is a bit scary.

And as for laughing at Sylvia's "Americanisms", well, this is just puerile and unkind. What did he expect ?! Perhaps she was secretly giggling at HIM, who knows ?

Anonymous said...

A bag full of apples!

Peter K Steinberg said...

Thanks everyone for your comments. I too agree with Julia, there are some big issues that can be read into Myers unflinching dislike of Plath. And, I too agree with P.H. Davies and Kim.

My great hope is that the book was printed on recycled paper.

panther said...

I don't think someone necessarily has to adore SP in order to write about her. Or even like her, especially. I do think it's important with any project of this kind to be genuinely interested in the person you're discussing. Myers seems to think (I'm basing this remark on your summary, Peter, and on a few things I've read elsewhere) that SP was just annoying. By flagging this up in not one but two books, he risks coming over as merely petulant. Doing a bit of a Dido Merwin, in fact !

Advice to anyone writing a biographical piece : never do a Dido Merwin.

Anonymous said...

Totally agree panther. He does come off as petulant, or as Peter says, Myers "is suffering from his own bitter fame." He probably wants to stay relevant. Join Facebook! If Myers has something different or "contradictory" to "proffer" in private conversations why not look like less an arse in public.


Anonymous said...

@NME and @panther got it spot-on; why would Myers prefer to come off sounding like a dick (@Nicholas Alahverdian's "malformed portrait") if he could in fact have come across as less bitter and more sympathetic about Ted Hughes' first wife?

J.J. said...

This review kind of makes me want to read the book, actually. Even bad press is press. I'll wait until I can read it for free to not encourage Myers, however, to write trash. Thanks for the review!

Maggie said...

Rest in peace Ted and Sylvia - the rest is just noise.

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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 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.
  • 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." Plath Profiles 2. Summer 2009: 183-208.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath. Oxford: Fonthill, 2017.
  • 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)
  • Gill, Jo. "Sylvia Plath in the South West." University of Exeter Centre for South West Writing, 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Helle, Anita Plath. The Unraveling Archive: Essays on Sylvia Plath. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007. (Photographs used, acknowledged in)
  • Helle, Anita. "Lessons from the Archive: Sylvia Plath and the Politics of Memory". Feminist Studies 31:3. Fall 2005: 631-652.. (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. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. New York: Anchor Books, 2000. (Acknowledged in)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil (eds.). The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 1, 1940-1956. London: Faber, 2017. Forthcoming.
  • Plath, Sylvia. Glassklokken. Oslo: De norske Bokklubbene, 2004. (Photograph used on cover)
  • Reiff, Raychel Haugrud. Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar and Poems (Writers and Their Works). Marshall Cavendish Children's Books, 2008.. (Images provided)
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'A Fetish: Somehow': A Sylvia Plath Bookmark." Court Green 13. 2017.
  • 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. "A Perfectly Beautiful Time: Sylvia Plath at Camp Helen Storrow." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 149-166.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Proof of Plath." Fine Books & Collections 9:2. Spring 2011: 11-12.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Sylvia Plath." The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath. London: British Library, 2010.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Textual Variations in The Bell Jar Publications." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "The Persistence of Plath." Fine Books & Collections. Autumn 2017: 24-29
  • 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. "Writing Life" [Introduction]. Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning. Stroud, Eng.: Fonthill Media, 2014.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. Sylvia Plath (Great Writers). Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004.