AMERICAN ISIS: A Q&A WITH CARL ROLLYSON
AMERICAN ISIS: THE LIFE AND ART OF SYLVIA PLATH
By Carl Rollyson
St. Martin’s. 336pp. $29.99
Carl Rollyson has written biographies of several iconic women, including Susan Sontag, Rebecca West, Martha Gellhorn, and Marilyn Monroe. His latest book is “American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath,” a biography of Sylvia Plath, published on the fiftieth anniversary of the poet’s tragically early death. In part one of this two-part interview, Biographile spoke with Rollyson about who the renowned poet really was throughout her life, leading up to her tragic end.
You begin your book by calling Sylvia Plath “the Marilyn Monroe of modern literature.” Can you say more about that comparison, and how it shaped your writing?
It’s always struck me that Sylvia Plath was unusual for a woman of her generation in the range of her interests. She had such an interest in poetry, in prose, and in wanting to be a greater poet, but at the same time she saw no problem with also being a popular writer, for Ladies’ Home Journal, The Saturday Evening Post, and other kinds of magazines. When you look at her journals, she really wanted to have a wide range of appeal. That made me think of Marilyn Monroe, in part because Sylvia Plath dreamed about Marilyn Monroe, and I thought that for a writer of Plath’s age and seriousness, to dream about Monroe was really quite striking – and not only to dream about her, but to take Monroe seriously as someone who would give her advice, comfort her, appear as a kind of fairy godmother. When I read biographies of Plath, biographers would say that this was odd or strange, but because of my own work on Monroe I thought no, that’s exactly what Sylvia Plath is. This is a woman firing on all cylinders, who wants to be that kind of cynosure or center of attention, that marks her as a figure in the culture.
It’s a fascinating connection that you develop as the biography moves forward: Marilyn Monroe’s relationship with Arthur Miller, for instance, has several parallels to Plath’s with Ted Hughes.
Marilyn Monroe was always looking for, in some sense, a father figure, and Arthur Miller served that function, as well as being her lover and a man she respected for his writing. Well, look at Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes – in her poetry, and Hughes’s own poetry, in “Birthday Letters,” he emerges as a kind of replacement for Plath’s father, and also of course as a respected writer, someone with whom Plath could identify in that way.
You have a line I loved about the relationship between individuals and culture. You write that culture is “fixed in the human psyche like the grooves of a long-playing record.” It seems that much of Plath’s experience as a young, ambitious woman in the 1950s, so many of the tensions within her which were pathologized and treated as her own illness, were also pathologies in the culture of the time. She was torn between the intellectual ambitions nurtured at Smith, and the conflicting pull toward domesticity, that was just unavoidable.
Yes, she was very much picking up those cues from the culture. Again like Marilyn Monroe, she’s one of these great transitional figures in the culture. Monroe wanted to have a family, to have the life that her culture was teaching her would make her a full woman, a complete woman – and I think Plath was susceptible to all those feelings as well. And yet at the same time, here’s this powerful intellect, this independent woman – you can see the seventies and eighties and beyond also emerging in Sylvia Plath. I think that’s what’s going to make her last. When people say, “Oh, it’s because she died young, and she was beautiful” – that’s true, but it’s just not enough. It doesn’t explain enough.
The picture that emerges so strongly from your book is of Plath as a relentlessly professional writer: constantly entering contests, and competing for writing prizes.
It’s absolutely true – there was a relentless ambition in her, and an interest to learn not only her craft, but to learn what worked, what sold, what would catch people’s attention. She wrote forty stories for Seventeen before a story was published. You have to work very hard to become Sylvia Plath.
Yet we tend to think that if someone is published or is on their way to fame very young, that it somehow landed in their lap, that it happened by some miracle.
When I talked to Plath’s classmates at Smith, they told me that they’d say to her, “Oh, fantastic, you got a story published in Mademoiselle!” and Sylvia would say, “Let me show you the forty rejection slips I have.”
And her professionalism and hard work also guided Ted Hughes – she understands where Ted is likely to be published, what his strengths are, what publishers are going to respond to his work.
Absolutely. She brought him up to speed. He was a poet already; I’m not suggesting she should take credit for that at all, but in terms of professionalism, I think it would have taken him several more years to develop and to reach an audience. That’s what Plath helped him do: cultivate an audience. She was a master at that.
Was this a daunting project to take on, given the weight of biographical legend around Plath?
I like to say that I write in a state of self-delusion. I write in the morning; if I were to write later in the day, or really thought about it when I’m out of the writing trance, I think it might be daunting. Already in 1986, when I was writing my Marilyn Monroe biography, publishers were telling me that there were too many biographies of her; what else could there possibly be to say? And people say the same thing about Plath, but we’re learning much, much more about these figures, as one biography responds to or answers the others.
Did you have difficulties in the process of writing the book, as Plath’s other biographers have had, with her estate, or with access to materials?
I realized right at the beginning that there was no way that the Plath estate – especially given my point of view – would cooperate with me. Anyone who knows anything about Plath and the previous biographies knows that biographers had a very hard time with her estate. So I made that decision early on that there was no way I could submit the manuscript or even ask for permission to quote from Plath’s work, that I would have to do this under fair-use standards. That also determined another aspect of the book: Although I do deal, at crucial points, with Plath’s work, it’s not a literary biography in the sense of dealing extensively with her poetry and her stories. I certainly mention a good deal of them and describe them, and try to point out to the reader the importance of this work in her life, but in most pages of the book you’re not reading a work of literary criticism. I’m quite conscious of that – I’m really treating Plath as a kind of cultural symbol. I think people reading my biography will find new ways to read her work, but since I couldn’t quote in any significant way from her poetry, it simply would not be possible to do that other kind of literary biography.
So the limitations actually end up producing a different kind of book.
I would certainly call it making a virtue of necessity. Every biography has its own challenges, and all that interests me as a biographer is, do I have enough to tell a story? If there have been other biographies of this subject, are there ways in which I’m telling this story that differ from them? If I convince myself of that, any other obstacles I have – like worrying that the estate is going to sue me – I really don’t worry too much about that. I have to tell you, though: I have a secret weapon. My wife is a lawyer, and for over twenty years now she’s been my constant companion, my in-house counsel. And in the end, the Plath book was vetted by attorneys hired by the publisher, because they want to be absolutely sure they’re not going to run into any trouble.
It does seem, from your chapter on the other biographies, that a lot more threatening goes on than actual legal action.
That’s right. In England, the laws of libel are very different: The burden of proof is on the person who’s accused – that is, on the author – and in this country it’s just the opposite, the burden of proof is on the plaintiff. As a result, many biographies that are published in this country do not get published in England. My Plath is not going to be published in England, because the law is against the publishers, and they’re not going to take that risk.
You made an interesting structural decision in the biography to sideline major events by listing them in the headnotes of each chapter, so readers run through them first. Why was that?
I’ve never written a book quite that way before. In terms of method, not just subject matter, I thought of this Plath book very much like my Monroe biography: There have been so many biographies of my subject, so if there’s going to be another one, I want the freedom to interpret my subject. But some readers have fixed expectations of what a biography is, and if they get into a chapter and they’re not exactly sure when something is happening, they might find it confusing, so I put the chronology for each chapter up front, to let the reader see where we’re headed, what follows what. I have a thesis, an argument in this biography. Some people like that and some don’t – some people want the biography just to tell the story. And although I do believe I tell the story, it certainly is a biography shaped by a vision, a point of view.
So by separating out the fixed events from the emotional flow behind them, what emerges is how difficult it is to track human emotions and motives. Plath comes across as someone with extreme moods, who is unpredictable emotionally, but she’s not really alone in that – other people are also unpredictable and do strange things that are hard to figure out. What do you hope this book will do for readers’ image of Plath, at this remove? What new picture of Plath do you think you’ve created?
Good question. I think it starts with the cover of my book, with that photograph, which was taken by one of her classmates in April 1954 – so that’s Sylvia Plath coming back to Smith after her first suicide attempt. But if you look at that picture, you don’t think it’s the picture of someone who’s going to commit suicide. We have a tendency to read back into Plath’s life, starting with her suicide, that her life was one long trajectory toward killing herself. I don’t think that’s true. I remember coming across a letter from her high school teacher, Wilbury Crockett, which I quote in the book, in which he says, “These biographers come and interview me and they want to know about Sylvia Plath’s sad life – and she was one of the most buoyant, exciting students I’ve ever had.” I hope the way I write the ending of the book shows that there was a whole complex of factors that led to her suicide, and it’s not so simple as saying that she had a certain “suicidal” sensibility. For Sylvia there was a brilliance and a joy to life. I hope readers understand that toward the end, for very complicated reasons, she came to feel that she couldn’t go on – but that she found tremendous value in life.