BITTER FAME: A Life of Sylvia Plath by Anne Stevenson
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BITTER FAME: A Life of Sylvia Plath

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Compelling, death-scented biography that tries hard to unveil the enigmatic inner-workings of one of American literature's great, distraught minds. Poet and critic Stevenson (Minute by Glass Minute, 1982; The Fiction Makers, 1985) brings a discriminating poetic sense and sympathetic urgency to her account of Plath, from 1932 birth to 1963 suicide. The daughter of a German pacifist father and a sacrificial mother, Plath emerges here as a precocious fatalist, the ""Horatio Alger ethic"" of her youth slowly unraveling as she entered adulthood. Cited for her poetic talent as a child, Plath's life, as told by Stevenson, was a failed juggling act. Literary drive and success were ominpresent, but so were trepidations about self, deep bitterness towards the early death of her father (a key figure in Plath's poems), political hostility to a stifling age of conformity, and--finally and centrally--a death wish directed against her mother but constantly turned, according to Stevenson, against herself. For Stevenson, Plath lived trapped between mother and Medea. A key moment in this life story is Plath's therapist's pronouncement, ""I give you permission to hate your mother""--a notion temporarily liberating but one that never relieved the abiding self-preoccupation, self-hatred, and perverse imagination of the ""mythic Sylvia"" who was doomed to suicide. Yet Stevenson never lets ""pathography"" guide her account of Plath's demise; if anything, she doesn't go far enough--especially toward clinical analysis--to illuminate Plath's dark psychic condition. (The book closes with extensive recollections--categorized as appendices--of Plath by Lucas Myers, Dido Merwin, and Richard Murphy.) An only partially successful, but nonetheless moving, balanced, and scrupulous biography that, like its subject, commands great literary respect.

Pub Date: Aug. 23rd, 1989
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin