14 February 2009

Hypocritic Oaf - A Book Review

Bloom's Guide to Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar was recently published by Chelsea House. There is a special place in my heart for Chelsea House as they are the publisher of my biography on Plath. Any Plath title under one of the many Bloom series published by Chelsea House must be approached carefully - and even then, possibly not at all. (Unless it's my biography!)

Bloom really does not care much for Plath. In the four or five publications which he has edited and/or written an introduction, I am left each time thinking the following: 1) Why did I buy this book? and 2) Why does Bloom even bother to include Plath in any series he edits? Fortunately this title was sent to me buy the publisher to review. Unfortunately I cannot recommend it.

Bloom's introduction is barely longer than one page. Here are some representative samples:
  • "Though I recall being unable to get very far with it [in 1971], one learns to be more dispassionate as old age augments..."

  • "It seems to me not possible to discover any aesthetic merit in The Bell Jar."

  • "It is always a little painful, for me, to place a worthy but inadequate book in an authentically critical perspective."

  • "Admirers of The Bell Jar have compared it to Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, a juxtaposition that obliterates Plath's book."

If one had not read The Bell Jar, why would they now? And what sort of introduction is this? It should at least resemble or hint upon the later content, no? Most of the book is heinously written - and aside from the introduction - cannot have been touched by Bloom. I have little respect for him, but I gather from what I do know that he is likely a better writer than this.

There are dozens of mistakes throughout the first 58 pages of the book, which appears to be the only original writing. I don't normally write in books, but I had to write "No" many times when the writer simply got things wrong. The biographical sketch is atrocious. One of my favorites is, "She and Hughes moved to the United States, where Plath taught at Smith College for a while..." For a while! How nonchalant. And the anonymous writer also claims that Plath ingested sleeping pills before committing suicide on February 11, 1963. This was news to me. The biographical sketch may have been written in 1989 as it concludes, "Sylvia Plath's gravestone is in Yorkshire, England, with Ted Hughes's name chipped off, the vandalism most likely carried out by one or several of her enduring fans."

I feel like I can be critical of "short" biographies such as this. At two and a half pages I ask, "Why bother?" Following this is a section called "The Story Behind the Story", a "List of Characters", and "Summary and Analysis." "The Story Behind the Story" is expanded and redundant in "Summary and Analysis".

Throughout the "Story" and "Summary", the writer states that Buddy Willard attended Yale Medical School. Buddy Willard did not attend medical school at Yale. Esther Greenwood says, "Buddy kissed me again in front of the house steps, and the next fall, when his scholarship to medical school came through, I went there to see him instead of to Yale" (Chapter 5). "Instead of to Yale" implies not at Yale.

The essays that follow page 58 are all complete or nearly complete reprints from other sources. It would be worth the effort to track these down as they originally appeared as in this book they are tainted. Each essay is headlined not by the title of the piece, but by a subjective summary or theme. This I found to be quite confusing and distracting. The book closes with a poorly edited and annotated bibliography, a list of works by Plath (hardly complete), and finally the sources for the essays.

I really wish I had something nice to say, but I just don't. Like Bloom's first attempt to read The Bell Jar in 1971, I didn't finish this book. It's Valentine's Day, but I'm just not feeling the love. The book will sit on my bookshelf and collect the stuff of Buddy's cadaver's and Esther's poems: dust.


Anonymous said...

"It's Valentine's Day, but I'm just not feeling the love" - that's a great line, Peter! Made me laugh out loud :-)

Maison De Sante said...

Bloom's Guides to Collecting Dust.

panther said...

I had heard about the sleeping pills-can't remember where. I suspect it's only too likely she would have done that, to make it easier to gas herself. Poor soul. And what a great loss.

panther said...

I agree with you wholeheartedly : how odd for them to select someone who clearly despises THE BELL JAR to write the introduction. What were they thinking of ?

"I always find it a little painful. . ." How precious is that ! Did they hold a gun to his head and insist he introduce THE BELL JAR ??!!!!

He might not think the novel has any merits, though he didn't really try hard to find any, did he ? And I can't help feeling some of his remarks are fed by misogyny : not only does he dislike the book (his prerogative) he talks about it patronizingly.

Peter K Steinberg said...

I remember reading in Negev and Koren's biography of Assia Wevill that Assia took sleeping pills (or at least gave them to her child) prior to the suicide, but for Plath I didn't know this. I'm still skeptical until otherwise confirmed.

Bloom just needs to stop with Plath. His argument that her popularity warrants inclusion in his "Guides" is even more hypocritical than anything else. His Guides are terrible (at least where Plath is concerned) and I shutter to think what teenagers are taking away from them!

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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." 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.
  • 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.
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil (eds.). The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 2, 1956-1963. London: Faber, 2018.
  • 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.