STEADILY ACCUMULATING over the fifty-six years since Sylvia Plath’s death, the abundance of books, scholarship, reportage, gossip, and errata about the poet (not to mention material to do with her husband, Ted Hughes, or the adjacent subfield that has grown up around Assia Wevill, the woman for whom Hughes left Plath) can seem excessive. The uninitiated may be excused for not comprehending the reason for it all. Everyone else may be forgiven for their fatigue.
The diehards, of course, make no apology. The devotee, the obsessive, is perpetually and unapologetically hungry for anything that will provide a more complete understanding of the life as much as the art, a chance of more comprehensive identification. With Plath, the feeling is unaffected by the quantity of material, which, though vast, was for many years limited: The diaries were abridged, the letters selected. The poems are only so many poems. Hughes admitted in an early introduction to Plath’s journals to misplacing or destroying their final volumes (he was fuzzy on the details)—the pages, in other words, that Plath wrote during the last months of her life, and the account that promised, to the appetitive student of her biography, some answer for how and why we lost her. For all that has been written by and about Plath, the whole picture was not available, and you were forced to piece it together.
Or that was how it felt to read Plath in the late ’90s, when I first encountered her. Since then, most stuff that was withheld has been released. The unabridged diaries appeared in 2000. The first volume of the full correspondence, edited by Peter K. Steinberg, an archivist, and Karen V. Kukil, the curator of the Plath collection at Smith College, appeared two years ago. (If the acknowledgments are any evidence, a small army of Smith students worked on transcribing and annotating the documents.) The letters’ second volume, which just came out, begins in October 1956, eight months after Plath met Hughes and four months after she married him, and ends weeks before she killed herself, in 1963. Affectionate, detailed, chatty, braggy—verging on grandiloquent—about her gifts, the dispatches are overwhelmingly addressed to her mother, Aurelia Plath. Other recipients include friends, editors, in-laws.
Appropriately, given that they follow the arc of a marriage, the letters are filled with what Plath calls at one point “domesticalia.” The exhaustive reports on furniture, cooking, renovations, and real estate aren’t thrilling, but neither are they boring, being possessed of a kind of homely tactile truth that is revealing and hypnotic in its way. For a dinner party in December 1957, when Plath was teaching at Smith, she “tossed off a sponge cake” from a recipe her mother had sent her. “Made my little parfait with 6 egg yolks, maple syrup & 2 cups of heavy cream, frozen, mixed up a delicious spaghetti sauce, a French salad dressing, a salad of lettuce, romaine & chicory & scallions, garlic butter for French bread, and the clam-and-sour-cream dip I learned from Mrs. Graham. . . . We served sherry & hot potato chips & this dip for beginning & then you should see how nice our round table looked, if a bit crowded, with my lovely West German linen cloth (pale nubbly yellow). . . . I’ve never made a meal for 6 before, just 4.” On occasion, the mundane stories suggest a kind of unsettling foreknowledge. “We picked up a baby bird that looked in its last death throes,” she told her brother, Warren, later that summer. “We had it for a week, feeding it raw ground steak, worms, milk . . . and got enormously fond of the plucky little thing. . . . But when it ran, it fell, & looked to be badly injured. Its leg stiffened then . . . & it sickened, choking & pathetically chirping. . . . Finally, we figured it would be mercy to put it out of its misery, so we gassed it in a little box. It went to sleep very quietly.”
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