25 January 2013

Guest Post: In defence of (Sylvia Plath) biography

The following guest post is by Cath Morgan and is in response to Hadley Freeman's recent Guardian article "Sylvia Plath: 50 years later and the same bitter arguments rage on."

In defence of (Plath) biography
Cath Morgan

There's a lot of Plath moralising about at the moment – no doubt as a consequence of the articles emerging at the 50th anniversary of her death/publication of The Bell Jar. The Plath story makes it hard to avoid moralising and here is a prime example, arguing that ultimately readers should not engage with Plath's life and stick to the poetry:

Mark the anniversary of Plath's death by reading her work: the rest, to borrow a phrase that Plath, Ted and Frieda Hughes all employed for their voyeurs, is for "the peanut-crunching crowd".

Some reasons why I think the 'sticking to the poetry' argument as offered in this piece is untenable.

1. Plath led an interesting life. Plath was an extraordinary person and in many ways, atypical of men and women in her time. She packed a lot into 30 years in terms of her education, her employment history, her travelling and her interactions with other people, often of cultural or historical significance themselves. Marriage and personal relationships aside, Plath's life story is worth reading about. As are the lives of other poets and writers: in this article, the author contrasts Plath with other people who killed themselves – Ernest Hemingway, David Foster Wallace, Spalding Gray and Virginia Woolf – but were well-established authors (which she suggests affects our view of Plath). How would she be able to make this point if she did not know this i.e. had acquired some biographical information about them?

2. On the other hand, extraordinary people spend part of their lives doing ordinary things. The biography of an individual provides insights into broader social and cultural history. Through the description of quotidian activities such as dressing, cooking, going to work, socialising, vacations, we learn about the norms, values, beliefs, practices and lifestyles of a different era. Passages in biographies and Plath's diaries about her cooking are fascinating and her account of clothes shopping in 1962 in Letters Home is a powerful evocation of mid-century styles (and her interpretation of them). If someone wanted to know how people (in the West) lived in the 1950s/60s, what they did and believed and thought and felt, I would recommend reading a Plath biography.

3. The author of this piece infers that marriages are private and should not be speculated about or intruded on. Relationships are private. Marriages are at least in part, public. They are constituted through a legal contract certified by the state and formed through a public ceremonial ritual. Get married and to a degree, you invite the public into your relationship.

4. The author staunchly defends Ted and Frieda Hughes's right to privacy in this article. The problem is, though, their actions in publishing Plath and releasing their own work into the public domain contradict their claims about intrusion into their lives and the life of Plath. The Plath industry isn't just a cash cow for literary critics and biographers – it is how members of Plath's own family have in part made their living and supported their own creative endeavours and as such I think this makes for a very difficult situation where they are dependent upon some degree of intrusion into their privacy but frustrated by the challenge of containing it or establishing its terms. Furthermore, both Ted and Frieda Hughes have published poetry which includes intimate details about their own lives and the lives of families and acquaintances. Birthday Letters and Capriccio are prime examples, but Ted Hughes had produced poetry prior to this which referenced the experiences of people he knew (e.g. his parents). Frieda Hughes meanwhile, possibly recognising a market for poetic memoir has published a volume of autobiographical poetry – 45 – which is arguably more confessional and revealing than anything Plath ever submitted for publication, in which Hughes amongst other things divulges:

  • She had the urge to kill herself using a knife at the age of 8 and had more suicidal ideation connected to razor blades at the age of 16.
  • Her dad remarried and she had a difficult relationship with her stepmother and felt rejected by her. She also made Frieda do the washing up and other chores that her brother was excused from and wouldn't allow her to go to her step grandfather's funeral.
  • As a child, an arsonist set fire to their house in Yorkshire and stole some of her belongings. People also stole property from their home in Devon.
  • She developed an eating disorder, lost lots of weight and three teeth which were damaged by vomiting. Also, she had dyslexia, hypoglycaemic blackouts, M.E., grade 2 cervical intraepithelial neoplasia, a uterine cyst, endometriosis and Crohn's Disease. She had a tonsillectomy, hysterectomy and an operation on a twisted colon.
  • In her late teens, she had a bad haircut, hung out with bikers and carried a knife.
  • She started smoking at 17 and smoked 80 cigarettes a day until she quit at 33.
  • She severely injured her legs in a serious car-crash, cut her foot open in Angola and tore a shoulder muscle in Australia.
  • She was married to a chauvinistic farmworker for three years and was a victim of domestic violence. This was followed by a relationship with a man who cheated her and others out of money and left her to deal with the consequences of his financial misdeeds. She got married for a second time to an estate agent, though she didn't want to and regretted it, left her husband and moved to Australia, where she divorced him and married for a third time.
  • Her father died and she was estranged from her stepmother by what she perceived as a betrayal of her father's wishes for his estate and she then wrote some allegorical poetry about it.

So both Plath, her husband and her daughter have written personally revealing poetry which they submitted for publication, yet according to the author of The Guardian article, they despise their readers as 'voyeurs'. Is it voyeurism if the subject of the gaze invited it?

5. Plath's letters and diaries and biography help us understand and enjoy her poetry. It stands on its own, but the details of her life, beliefs and feelings enhance interpretation. Plath was a masterful poet. She describes the poem in 'A Comparison' (from Johnny Panic & the Bible of Dreams) as follows: 'A door opens, a door shuts. In between you have had a glimpse….And there is really so little room! And so little time!' A poem is precise, concentrated, a 'closed fist', an insistent pattern, a door shutting with 'unanswerable finality'. Plath was true to her poetic remit: she was an extreme elisionist, a consummate contractor of words and digested imagery and metaphor to produce the 'pure' small world she refers to in 'A Comparison'. The poetic journey is cut to the bone in the finished article; the drafts of her poetry show something much longer and are often revealing about the choices made along the way – see the discussion of the drafts of 'Sheep in Fog' in Ted Hughes's Winter Pollen by way of an example. The biographical materials provide additional insight into the poetic process and 'glimpses' Plath offers us and show us how she turned her base metals (everyday life) into gold. We can therefore both read Plath's work in different (complementary) ways.

On a final note, could I implore journalists, biographers, bloggers, tweeters and writers of all hues to observe a moratorium on use of the expression 'peanut-crunchers' to describe those of us who read books and articles about Plath in addition to those by her. It is such a banal and overused clich̩ and does not deliver the crushing rhetorical blow that the person using it seems to assume. Perhaps we could update it to reflect more accurately the nature of a mob that mindlessly consumes tawdry spectacle in the 21st century. How about, nacho-muncher? Coke-swiller? Pick and mix-chomper? Or how about calling us what you really mean Рa bunch of prurient c***s?

13 comments :

Joseph Hutchison said...

I'm glad you linked to Hadley Freeman's article before presenting Morgan's response. It's clear to me that Freeman is not attacking biography per se or Plath biographers and the people who read them. She is attacking "peanut crunchers" (sorry, Ms. Morgan) who don't care about Plath or Hughes as people, their place in the "broader social and cultural history," their poetry, their prose, or their thoughts on any subject whatsoever.

The people Freeman is talking about are like those obsessives who become so emotionally involved with their chosen celebrities that they believe they "know" them. What really goes on with these people, of course, is that their celebrities serve to focus and exalt their own excruciatingly ordinary lives. Peanut crunchers do not become biographers, and when reading biographies tend to misread them, as Freeman shows with the sad/funny tweet she quotes in her article.

As for Frieda Hughes's collection of autobiographical poetry, which I haven't read, isn't it odd that Ms. Morgan cares to comment only on its "confessional" content rather than its value as poetry. How dare Hughes write about her own life while denouncing the peanut crunchers!

But surely there's a difference between taking control of one's story and ceding it to the celebrity obsessives who, let me say again, care nothing about one as a person or as an artist. These are not the readers for whom anyone writes poems of any kind, and I see no contradiction in a writer loving his or her readers while despising the voyeurs who read through the work in order to gratify their own manias.

Before claiming that Ted or Frieda Hughes have "invited" their voyeurs, Morgan would do well to remember the standard dictionary definition of the term:"a person who gains sexual pleasure from watching others when they are naked or engaged in sexual activity" or "a person who enjoys seeing the pain or distress of others." The suggestion is absurd and insulting to both these poets and the vast majority of their readers. To claim that these poets have "invited" voyeurism is akin to saying that a rape victim "invited" her attacker.

Furthermore, the subtext of Morgan's claim betrays the underlying attitude Freeman's "stick to the poetry" stance is meant to counter: the notion that writers—as a subset of celebrities—have no right to control their own lives. Somehow, Morgan implies, the public nature of their work means that writers have given up their right to privacy. They have not. And they certainly have not given up the right to reject those unhinged individuals who attempt to weave writers' lives into their own pathetic fantasies.

Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

Just want to give my digital applause for Joseph's comment above.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your interesting comments. Just to make clear:

1. The description of readers as voyeurs was Hadley Freeman's not mine. I don't think it is an appropriate term in this context really. However, because that is what she holds readers to be, I interrogated it in the context of my point regarding reading about individual's lives. I would hope that I am a reasonable Plath reader, I certainly don't think I understand her better than anyone or have a privileged reading of her work or that she is living in my garage or reincarnated in my cat or anything else that might constitute a Plath fantasia.
2. Consequently, I don't endorse all Plath or Hughes biographies. There are some shockingly bad examples. However, there are some good ones that tell us about Plath and her times (as per my first two points.) Perhaps I should have made this clear rather than suggesting there are unproblematic choices to made as Plath is a public figure. Apologies.
3. I didn't comment on the value of Frieda Hughes's poetry because that wasn't my point. I wanted to show that biography isn't the only way that highly personal information comes into the public domain. You are absolutely right, though, it is FH's right to tell her own story in her own way and I thank you for bringing that to my attention.
4. The Guardian article seemed to be suggesting that the same old Team Plath/Team Hughes divides continue much as they have done across x years and in fact I observe in much Plath scholarship and dialogue nothing of the sort. Indeed, the only recent presentation of divergent views was published by the Guardian itself in the form of interviews with Olwyn Hughes and Elizabeth Sigmund. So the Guardian seemed to be manufacturing the conditions for HF to make her point.
5. Ultimately anyone who draws on their personal experience or makes writing of any kind available to the public is gambling with the liminality of public/private realms - as I am finding out!

Yours sincerely
Cath Morgan

Anonymous said...

I have to admit, I'm a little uncomfortable with some of the terminology being used in this thread. Actually, I felt Cath Morgan had some really valid points to make here and the idea of having some elitist type of hierarchy for readers assumes there is some sort of 'superior' way of approaching a text. The idea that a text is pretty unstable once it is out there is not new - Foucault and Barthes discussed this back in the 1970s (the death of the author etc). I'm not sure anyone has the right to categorise someone into a 'worthy reader' or someone into a 'celebrity obsessive'. That's just textual snobbery. What a reader may take from a text is their business.

I thought Cath Morgan had a very valid point to make about the blurry line between personal/private. There is an inherent contradiction between certain family members criticising readers for wanting to know about the suicide while at the same time on numerous occasions writing about it themselves, and thus drawing even more attention to it. I'm not saying they don't have the right to do this - of course they do. But then they have to take responsibility for putting personal stuff out there too.

I think it's a really fascinating debate. Biography by it's very nature invites all sorts of boundary crossing.

Just one final point - I really really don't agree with the voyeuristic reader/rape analogy.

Elly

Jess said...

I have been reading literature by and about Sylvia for 16 years, have read almost every biography on her and I want to thank you for this article. I have found myself slipping over onto the side where "peanut-crunchers" is thrown around and am glad to have both feet placed firmly back where I belong: enjoying everything written by and about her, including the innumerable biographies in circulation, if only for a small bit of new information I had not known. Great post!

suki said...

Isn't it interesting about poetry versus biography. It's fascinating: is it the person or is the poetry? Particularly when reminded of Ester writing in The Bell Jar, "I decided I would spend the summer writing a novel.
That would fix a lot of people."
It seems with the current articles on The Bell Jar and the upcoming anniversary of Plath's death that there must always, for the papers be that division. I would have thought with Hughes's publication of Birthday Letters might have ended. that too was very biographical. How do people come to Sylvia Plath these days - via the poetry or the biographies?
Would it not be better to call the readers ,Dame kindness or sheep(expensive ones)?

Anonymous said...

Have to agree with Ms Morgan's initial posting, her comment, as well as the comments by Elly & Jess. Mr Hutchinson's comments are borderline offensive, specifically regarding the extreme example he gives with the voyeuristic reader/rape analogy.

I think Ms Morgan focussed in on the "confessional" aspect of Frieda Hughes' poetry because as poetry it is really rather awful.

What's funny is that Mr Hutchinson is fairly critical of those who feel they may know a writer. But the point of biography is to tell the life story and to humanise the subject in such a way that the read will get a feel for that person. In Plath's case, reading the biography - no matter which one and no matter how badly written they have been and no matter to what lengths the estate has gone to prevent information from being available - is a good complement to her writing, which is largely based on her self. Plath is certainly not 'confessional' per se. And certainly not in the same way that Lowell and Sexton wrote.

That people feel they know Plath is a strong part of why we (or, at least I am) are so connected to and committed to her writing.

And, again, let me be clear: the direction which Mr Hutchinson's post went towards the end completely oversteps what I think Ms Morgan was attempting to say vis-a-vis the voyeurism. I believe she meant in that 'Lady Lazarus' sense where we are interested onlookers.

Whether one wants to read the poetry and poetry, or to read them as 'chapters in a mythology', or in some other fashion is completely up to the reader. To shame someone for taking whatever approach they choose when reading Plath's poetry (or any other writer) is uncalled for. We each have the right to read something how we choose.

The Guardian's positing Elizabeth Sigmund and Olwyn Hughes against each other was a dirty thing to do, needlessly stirring the ashes of an old fire. Especially at this time when we should be celebrating Sylvia Plath's life and her lone novel. Especially considering the last few years which has seen less and less of these old wars.

-Lenny

Marion McCready said...

Really enjoyed this post, thought Cath Morgan made some excellent points.

Peter K Steinberg said...

Marion & Lenny & Elly, etc: And Cath, too: agree with you all. Cath made excellent points both in her original post and her comment; and I do feel Mr. Hutchinson's comments are quite over the top. The analogy offends me as I take it it did some of the women who comments. To each there own I suppose.

~pks

Rehan said...

'She had the urge to kill herself using a knife at the age of 8 and had more suicidal ideation connected to razor blades at the age of 16.

She developed an eating disorder, lost lots of weight and three teeth which were damaged by vomiting. Also, she had dyslexia, hypoglycaemic blackouts, M.E., grade 2 cervical intraepithelial neoplasia, a uterine cyst, endometriosis and Crohn's Disease. She had a tonsillectomy, hysterectomy and an operation on a twisted colon.

She severely injured her legs in a serious car-crash, cut her foot open in Angola and tore a shoulder muscle in Australia.'

It makes me sick how people think they own the private lives of famous people.

suki said...

Rehan, I think you are complaining about people thinking they own the private lives of people?

Ms Morgan was only documenting the information about Frieda Hughes, that Frieda Hughes writes about in her poems. This is not information gleaned from Who or Women's Day, it's in Hughes poems. This includes 'Food Fight' and ' Endometriosis'. Also her notes make explicit a couple of conditions which include M.E.
Morgan's point is fascinating:Frieda Hughes wants her mother's life off limits but her own...

Anonymous said...

Thanks again to everyone who took time to read and leave comments in the wake of my short piece about Plath biography.

It is interesting (and perhaps predictable?) that the points which have engendered most discussion are those addressing privacy and the release of personal information to the public. I agree that just because someone publishes something which includes very personal details does not mean they abrogate all rights to privacy. But there is clearly a problem that comes down to one of control over such information once it enters the public domain.

As Suki pointed out, the biographical material about Frieda Hughes that is contained in my short piece was solely from her poetry and no other source. In this case, all the information was culled from 45. I deliberately removed all context and tried to make it as unpoetic as possible (arguably akin to what Ronald Hayman did to Plath’s poetry in his pretty execrable biography of her). I used 45 because it is presented as a set of autobiographical poems.

The issue that this discussion has raised for me, is that if someone wants to write something that includes personal information about themselves (and is presented as such, as Birthday Letters and 45 are), then obviously that is their right. But they cannot control how people will respond to it or interpret it. The only way to retain complete control is to not distribute it. Because once it is in the public domain, an author relinquishes some degree of control over how and where it is disseminated and how it is interpreted and how it might be used. As Elly and Lenny argue, how people read something is up to them. By releasing it into the public domain, they potentially render it open to use (and abuse) and therefore, the question is, can a writer unintendedly invade their own privacy? I agree with Elly, this is about taking responsibility for ‘putting personal stuff out there’.*

That some people have reacted so strongly to the points I make which draw on 45, and which I and others think have been misinterpreted merely reinforces the difficulty for authors to specify what they meant, profess their intention or otherwise control how something is read. Words, in effect, become ‘riderless’ (as someone once said!).

In the end though, this all detracts from the main thing I was trying to say, which was meant to be positive and encapsulated in Lenny’s point: that biography complements Plath’s writings and helps us get a feel for the person she was. The reason I included my comments about Birthday Letters and 45 was to refute what I saw as The Guardian author’s sanctimonious attempt to appropriate Plath’s family members in order to support her rather pious sermon, and her final comment which inferred that all criticism and biography of Plath was sordid and worthless.

Cath

*That putting stuff ‘out there’ in the realm of publishing also means the stuff acquires exchange value as a commodity which further complicates matters. Kate Moses discusses this here: http://www.salon.com/2003/10/17/plath_4/. N.B. I am not endorsing the views expressed in this article!

Anonymous said...

I think it is possible that Frieda Hughes' catalog of ailments and injuries, etc. in FORTY-FIVE is an attempt to win sympathy from her mother's readers. But, then again, I am a woman-hater...

Marco

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