Article

Sylvia Plath

Linda Wagner-Martin

in American Literature

ISBN: 9780199827251
Published online August 2012 | | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0016
Sylvia Plath

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Sylvia Plath (b. 1932–d. 1963) was born to well-educated parents, Otto and Aurelia Schober Plath. Otto, who had immigrated from Germany, taught German and zoology at Boston University; he died when Sylvia was eight of complications from undiagnosed diabetes mellitus. Money was tight, so Aurelia returned to teaching, leaving Sylvia and her younger brother to the care of her parents, who moved into their Wellesley home with them. Plath’s childhood and adolescence were a series of academic achievements. She published poetry, fiction, and journalism in several places even before she went to Smith College on a partial scholarship. As an English major there, she was also interested in art; but she was also a less than confident woman of the 1950s, who thought her real role in life was to marry and have children. While she was serving as a Mademoiselle College Board editor in New York the summer following her junior year at Smith, she had a breakdown and was put through a series of electroconvulsive shock treatments; later, she tried to commit suicide. As a result, she was hospitalized for six months (and given more shock treatments), but in January 1954 she returned to Smith and graduated the following year summa cum laude. Winning a Fulbright to Cambridge, she studied for an MA and met—and married (on 16 June 1956)—British writer Ted Hughes. For the next several years, they lived in the United States, both trying to live by the money they earned writing. In December 1959, they sailed back to England and made that their home—first London and then their manor house in North Tawton—while Plath bore and cared for two children, Frieda and Nicholas, and published The Colossus and Other Poems, Three Women, and The Bell Jar. It was during the year following Nicholas’s birth, when Plath experienced mood swings and serious depression, that she wrote the poems that comprised Ariel, some of them the so-called “October poems” like “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus,” written after her husband had moved out of their house and was living in London. She killed herself by gas the night of 11 February 1963, just two weeks after her novel was published to good reviews. The story of her wide acceptance as a poet, and the celebrity that ensued, is largely posthumous. In 1981 when Ted Hughes published The Collected Poems, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry the following year, her great skill as a poet was finally acknowledged. When Ted Hughes, Plath’s executor, published his 1998 collection Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters just months before his death, another round of critical controversy erupted.

Article.  9249 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (American)

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