American Women Fiction Writers, 1900-1960 - Vol. 3

By Harold Bloom | Go to book overview

SYLVIA PLATH

1932-1963

SYLVIA PLATH was born on October 27, 1932, in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts.She was the eldest child of Otto and Aurelia Plath. Her father was a professor of German and entomology who specialized in bees, and her mother, who had been Otto's student, was a high school teacher. When Plath was eight her father died of complications following an operation; he would become the mythic and powerful presence of her poem " Daddy."

Plath was a talented student who won many honors and awards in high school, including a scholarship to attend Smith College.On the strength of her writing skills, she won a position on the College Board of Mademoiselle magazine in 1953. The experience of living and working in New York City provided the background of her autobiographical novel The Bell Jar (published in England under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas in 1965, but not released in the United States until after her death). The Bell Jar chronicles the adventures of Esther Greenwood from her arrival in New York to her subsequent breakdown, attempted suicide, and hospitalization. To some degree the popularity of The Bell Jar has overshadowed Plath's strong poetic gifts. She has become one of those literary figures whose life has achieved a legendary status (similar in this regard, perhaps, to Ernest Hemingway). The novel details the difficulties facing a talented and ambitious young woman whose desire to succeed is at odds with the social expectation that she marry, have children, and devote herself to her husband's career.

In her junior year at Smith, Plath suffered an emotional breakdown. In keeping with the conventional wisdom of the mid-1950s, Plath received electroshock therapy. This, in turn, probably led to her suicide attempt, in August 1953. After several months of intensive (non-electric) therapy, Plath recovered enough to finish her degree at Smith; she graduated summa cum laude and won a Fulbright to study at England's Cambridge University.In England she met and married the poet Ted Hughes.On the surface, their relationship seemed almost picture-perfect: two handsome young poets embarking on promising artistic careers. Four years after their marriage, Plath published her first volume of poetry, The Colossus ( 1960), and although it did not win the accolades that Hughes's first book, The Hawk in the Rain, did, the reviews were generally good.

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