Author Connie Ann Kirk’s latest biography, Sylvia Plath, A Biography [Prometheus Books], begins with a Preface full of spirit and excitement to suck the reader right in. Kirk speaks with heart and good sense as she separates the legendary poet from her infamous suicide, saying, "If Artist X dies from cancer, which she fought for many years, that fact contributes to, but does not define, her life. Mental illness should be treated no differently." Also in this book’s Preface, Kirk muses of the day she signed her contract for the book, and its wonderful synchronization with the release of Gwnyeth Paltrow’s movie Sylvia and a lunar eclipse. She writes personally of hers and others’ “Plath Periods” in college; a time when young, sensitive women over-dramatize and obsess. She mentions combing the Plath libraries, interviewing contemporaries, and well, doing what any Plath aficionado would (pardon the pun) simply die to do. And with this kind of beginning, this kind of bonding between author and subject, the book seems to be a sure thing. It’s really too bad that the Preface is less than four pages.
Kirk, no doubt, had her battles with the tightly locked (and expensive) copyrights to Sylvia Plath’s work, which obviously prevent her from using any poetic quotes. She sometimes (but not frequently enough) quotes from her journals, but even then, she chooses some of the driest, dullest moments. Fact is, Sylvia Plath reads like a straight, dull chronology of facts—just a little bit more than a timeline. If Kirk’s intent was to present an unbiased, completely objective and factual account of Sylvia Plath’s life, reporting on events that she could only be one-hundred percent sure of and proven, and leaving out much of the most interesting moments, such as Plath and Hughes’ journey into the occult, then Kirk has mostly succeeded (although we do question a couple of dates, such as when Ted Hughes and Assia Wevill’s baby Shura was born). Accurate or not, there is no life or energy in this book. We have no sense of characters, of appearances, no conversations to eavesdrop upon. Sylvia Plath is nothing but the facts, written in a flat third-person, and giving the reader little reason to care.
Kirk does write an interesting close about the “Blame Game”—who’s ultimately at fault for Sylvia Plath’s death. She builds a case against the uninvolved father Otto, who died when Plath was eight; the smothering, overambitious, mother Aurelia; the womanizing husband Ted; the sexist, repressive, and conflicting American and British societies of the 1950s and 60s; or the egotistical Plath herself who equated her own work among the greatest poets of modern times. All of it, of course, is true. And Plath did the best job of saying it and summing up all of these scenarios, sharing the blame equally, through her poetry.
Sylvia Plath, A Biography’s “Appendix A, Family Tree”, and especially, “Appendix B, Sylvia Plath’s Library”, might be the most valuable parts of the book for Plath fans and scholars. Until this time, one has had to painstakingly weed through her journals to find references to the books that most inspired her. The problem is, it does not include many books by her friends (whom we know she read and admired), or even Catcher in the Rye, which was kind of a template for her feminine version of Holden Caulfield in the novel, The Bell Jar.
With an opening and a close this decent, it’s impossible not to think that the author’s hands were tied, either by what her publisher wanted or, more likely, what the Plath Estate has forbidden. And that’s a real shame. There is nothing new about Sylvia Plath to learn in this latest biography, but it’s a quick, simple overview with a couple good moments of thought, and a great, if incomplete, book list.