In defence of (Plath) biography
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 cliché 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 – a bunch of prurient c***s?