Rough Magic is a gripping, exhaustively researched study of the ever-fascinating Sylvia Plath. Paul Alexander is the first biographer to write without the permission of the Hughes estate, and from this stem both the book's weakness and its strength. Had the book been dependent on the approval of the estate, Alexander would never have been able to make the convincing argument that Plath's stormy marriage had a direct, if not causal, relationship to her suicide. On the other hand, the Hughes estate would probably have excised many of Alexander's overly simplistic generalizations.
Admittedly, Plath's story lends itself to soap opera. In the first half of her short 30 years, Plath endured the rending death of her father; a trusting but also accusatory relationship with her mother; and numerous, and at times traumatic, experiences with love and sex. Her desire not just to write but also to publish, expressed at a young age, is startling in its intensity.
From the age of eight, when her first poem was printed in the Boston Herald, Plath began awaiting the mailman with baited breath, her talent perpetually on trial. Her persistence through 10 years of New Yorker rejection slips was finally rewarded. Soon after accepting two poems, the New Yorker offered her a first-reading contract.
Thereafter, the publishing world offered Plath both rejection slips and awards. Plath responded to these evaluations by alternating between bouts of depression and celebration.
Plath's experiences at Smith College prior to her breakdown are unnervingly familiar to any active undergraduate-the stress and tension of academics, time-consuming extracurriculars, trouble balancing social life, concerns over money and scholarships. Alexander's theory that stress brought on sinusitis which then-he quotes a letter by Plath-"plunges me in manic depression" is only believable as a partial explanation.
At the end of the biography, Alexander does quote Gloria Steinem's suggestion that "Plath was an early prophet who described a societal problem by describing her own suffering." What has made The Bell Jar so significant is conceivably that the constriction of freedom inherent in a woman's life was brought home to Plath during her Smith years and intensified by her infamous month at Mademoiselle.
Alexander unflinchingly targets Plath's husband, Ted Hughes, as a major factor in her suicide. From his first mention of Hughes, his violence, power and promiscuity are emphasized. What finally persuades the reader are Alexander's use of statements made by Plath: "Sylvia also said Hughes made an admission: he and Assia [his mistress] had speculated that, in light of her past emotional problems, Sylvia might already have killed herself. If she were dead, Hughes told Plath, he could sell Court Green and take Frieda [their daughter]."
When Alexander presents personal statements like this one or anecdotes of the people who knew Plath best, the reader receives moments of illumination, and a better understanding of the circumstances in which she lived. Too often, however, Alexander draws glib conclusions that are plainly intrusive: "She realized just how disappointing the Mademoiselle experience had been. And, in an act of transference, she came to see herself as having disappointed others."
Alexander's unsubstantiated psychoanalyzing is unproductive. His constant attention to "novelistic" narrative frustrates any attempt to engage directly in Plath's experiences, which are powerful enough to speak to the reader without Alexander's amplification.
Whereas many biographers use the poet's life as background for their work, Alexander chooses to present Plath's whole existence and her body of work merely as a prelude to her death. In doing so the author seems to be responding to the cult-like obsession which has surrounded Plath's premature and tragic suicide. By contrast, when Alexander quotes a critic who maintains that The Ariel Poems are ultimately "works of great artistic purity," the reader realizes that Plath's texts need not be considered solely as an explanation of her demise.
Alexander could not quote extensively from Plath's work, as that would require cooperation of the estate. When the reader does, however, run across the poet's own words, they are always memorable. She speaks of America as the "land of milk & honey & spindryers." And when asked to comment on vital issues of the day, Plath describes herself as preoccupied with "the incalculable genetic effects of fallout...and the terrifying, mad, omnipotent marriage of big business and the military in America." The quotes effectively lure the reader back to the power of Plath's words, reminding that she was first and foremost a poet.
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