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The Foiled Biography of a Fallen Poet : SYLVIA PLATH A Biography by Linda W. Wagner-Martin (Simon & Schuster: $18.95; 282 pp., illustrated)

January 31, 1988|Elaine Kendall

Although Linda Wagner-Martin was initially promised full cooperation from the executors of Sylvia Plath's estate, that approval was withdrawn midway through the project when Plath's husband, Ted Hughes, demanded the deletion of 15,000 words from the book. Eventually Wagner-Martin was not allowed to quote from Plath's work unless she agreed to drastic revisions. Undeterred, she soldiered on, publishing the biography without essential quotations that would have enlarged and expanded the text.

While Wagner-Martin states in her preface that the changes and cuts insisted upon by Ted Hughes and his sister Olwyn would have drastically altered her point of view, her approach to the material available to her is so flatly matter-of-fact that a point of view is barely discernible.

As a writer and editor responsible for two volumes of literary criticism on Plath, one would expect the author to have developed strong opinions about her subject's literary achievement, but there are no value judgments here, either personal or professional. Even with the disputed 15,000 words left in place, this biography seems so blandly unexceptionable that it's hard to imagine anyone taking issue with it. Intractable and unreasonable as they may have been, both Hugheses are treated with the same polite circumspection that characterizes the rest of the book.

The Sylvia Plath who emerges from Wagner-Martin's diligent interviews and conscientious perusal of letters and papers is a precociously talented young woman who considered herself a professional writer by the age of 17.

As an undergraduate at Smith College, she was published in Harper's and The Atlantic as well as in Mademoiselle and Seventeen, and by the time she was in her early 20s, the list included The New Yorker, The Nation and the prestigious literary reviews.

According to her biographer, Plath's childhood "if not idyllic, came close." The first child of highly educated and loving parents, Sylvia also had the attention of her grandparents and an affectionate aunt and uncle; the arrival of a younger brother Warren causing no more than the usual amount of perturbation.

The death of her father when Sylvia was only 8 sadly altered this stability, and despite the best efforts of her extended family, that early loss would remain the central trauma of an otherwise happy girlhood. Though Wagner-Martin emphasizes the perfectionism of Sylvia's mother Aurelia and reiterates Sylvia's own passion to succeed socially and academically, the immediate result was not despair but achievement. No adolescence is entirely tranquil, but there is little in Sylvia Plath's history to presage her mental breakdown and early suicide. As a scholarship student at a highly competitive college, she was often tired and harried, but her efforts were appreciated and rewarded. There were college romances and several satisfying friendships with classmates--every outward sign that Sylvia Plath would not only live up to the rigorous Smith ideal but exceed it.

With so few clues from the poetry and prose written during these years, Plath's first attempt at suicide seems all but inexplicable. Though we're told that Plath was deeply affected by the American political climate in the early '50s, there is little evidence of her anguish except passing references to her disappointment at Adlai Stevenson's defeat and her horror at the Rosenberg execution.

If Sylvia Plath truly believed that "whatever happened anywhere in the word was entirely her fault," demonstrations of her guilt are absent. Ed Cohen, a sensitive young man who had been corresponding with her, was apparently the only person to be fully aware of the depth of her misery. Advising her to seek immediate psychiatric help, he cited "the agitation, the dissatisfaction, the unrest, the annoyance, the lack of co-ordination, the nervous tensions that mark the time that a person approaches the ultimate breaking point," but these signs eluded those closer to her.

Honors and prizes continued to come her way, and her family and friends saw no reason for concern. In spring of 1953, Plath was named to the Mademoiselle College Board, a plummy summer job that not only offered her a month in New York but a chance to write for the magazine. Unfortunately, the senior editor to whom she was assigned proved so capricious and demanding that Plath's mental state worsened. Returning home exhausted and tense, she learned that she had not been accepted into the Harvard summer fiction program for which she'd applied. The triumphs paled, and convinced she was a fraud and a failure, Sylvia became so depressed that she was quite summarily subjected to electro-shock, then thought to be a quick cure for her condition. The therapy only exacerbated her illness, and in late August, she swallowed the contents of a bottle of sleeping pills and crawled under the family house to die, leaving a note saying she'd taken a long walk and would return the next day.

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