For many, the name Sylvia Plath immediately brings to mind images of suicide. While Plath’s untimely death may have contributed to her achieving a sort of cult status, much of her writing is only recently being discovered and appreciated.
Plath was born October 27, 1932 in Boston, Massachusetts to Otto (a professor of biology and German) and Aurelia Plath. After Plath’s father died in 1940, the family moved to Wellesley where Plath’s mother took a teaching position at Boston University. The death of her father, who doted on Sylvia, became a source of morbid curiosity combined with insecurity that would affect Sylvia throughout her life. Many of Sylvia’s later poems would focus on death: relating to the loss of her father or focusing on her own suicidal thoughts.
Growing up in an education-focused environment, Sylvia became interested in art and writing at an early age. She was a precocious child who enjoyed academic success throughout every stage of her school career. At 8 1/2 Sylvia Plath had her first poem published in the Boston Sunday Herald. Over the next few years she won various contests and awards for her writing. Her poems were also published in several magazines and school journals. Aided by her mother, Plath devoted a considerable amount of time in her youth meticulously editing her early poems and submitting them for publication.
Just before entering Smith College, Plath’s first story “And Summer Will Not Come Again” was published in Seventeen magazine in August 1950. Sylvia enjoyed success at Smith and continued writing short stories and poems with great intensity. She took several rigorous writing courses and her work was published again in Seventeen and other national magazines such as Mademoiselle and The Christian Science Monitor.
In 1952, Plath was chosen to be a guest editor in Mademoiselle’s College Board Contest. This was a great honor for Sylvia who had also won the magazine’s national poetry contest.
The anxiety and stress of trying to achieve perfection caught up with Plath in her Junior year. On August 24, 1953, after receiving disappointing news that she hadn’t been accepted to a prestigious Harvard summer course, she attempted suicide by swallowing a large number of sleeping pills and crawling into a hole in the family’s cellar. The disappearance was well publicized in local papers. She was found two days later by her family, and entered into a long series of treatments for her depression and suicidal thoughts, including psychotherapy, medication and electroshock.
During her senior year at Smith, Plath wrote many excellent prose pieces and short stories. She also won several prizes for her writing and completed a collection of fifty-five poems titled “Circus in Three Rings” for an independent study course in poetry. Plath also continued to be published in places such as The Nation and The Atlantic Monthly. In June 1995, she graduated summa cum laude and was awarded a Fulbright fellowship to Newnham College at Cambridge University.
In February 1956, Plath met fellow poet Ted Hughes and married him 4 months later. Their relationship was intense from the beginning and based on her journal entries, Sylvia seemed to have an almost obsessive preoccupation with Hughes and his motives. While Hughes and Plath supported each other creatively, they often had a hard time making ends meet while waiting for their literary careers to pay off. Sylvia was most devoted to the task of getting Hughes recognized and published and spent a great deal of time working toward this goal by preparing and submitting his pieces for review and publication.
In April 1960, Plath and Hughes had their first child, Frieda, followed by a son, Nicholas, less than two years later. Even with the added stress of caring for two small children in sometimes less than ideal conditions, Sylvia still managed to find time to work on her poetry and short stories and begun work on a novel.
Sylvia’s only completed novel, The Bell Jar, was published in January 1963 under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. While Plath was extremely anxious about its debut, it received mixed reviews. However, most recognized the author’s raw talent and the ability to tell a chilling account of a young woman on the brink of self-destruction. One reviewer noted, “[The Bell Jar] is the first feminine novel in a Salinger mood.” The Bell Jar is a haunting autobiographical tale of Sylvia’s experiences as a young college student, and includes details of events surrounding her experience in New York as the Mademoiselle Managing Guest Editor and her subsequent breakdown and suicide attempt.
At age 30 Plath succeeded in committing the suicide she had thought about for most of her life. With her two small children upstairs, Plath killed herself in the early morning of Feb. 11, 1963. The details of her last few days are sketchy at best, but this act seemed to be the fulfillment of years of pain.
While Plath was recognized in some circles as a gifted writer, it is not until after her death that she became widely known. Many took notice immediately after her death as a result of A. Alvarez’s tribute to Sylvia in the Observer on February 17, 1963. The obituary praised Sylvia as a writer and included four of Sylvias last poems, including “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus”. Alvarez is also credited for leaking the secret of Plath’s pseudonym.
Ted Hughes held full copyright control of Plath’s work and most of her collections and poems were published well after her death. In 1965, Hughes published Plath’s collection of poems, Ariel, which he edited and arranged much differently than Plath had reportedly intended. In 1975, Plath’s mother, Aurelia, published a large collection of Sylvia’s letters, Letters Home by Sylvia Plath, Correspondence 1950-1963. Hughes published two more widely received volumes: 1977’s Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams and Other Prose Writings and in 1981, Sylvia Plath, The Collected Poems which won the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.