The Life and Afterlife of Sylvia Plath

Even before her suicide became cultural legend, Sylvia Plath created her life’s narrative through the lens of myth. Plath saw herself in Shakespeare’s Ariel and Robert Grave’s white goddess, the doomed German lorelei and the resurrected Lazarus—figures liberated by their fantastic generative powers yet bound, too, to tragedy and death. “I think I would like to call myself ‘the girl who wanted to be god,’” the teenage Plath wrote in one letter, only to doubt her own capacity to play that part lines later: “I am I—I am powerful—but to what extent?” It’s these paradoxes that Plath sought to master through her writing, and that have kept her biographers busy in her wake, most recently Adam Wilson in Mad Girl’s Love Song. Here are six books to begin any investigation into the many lives of Sylvia Plath, both superhuman and deeply mortal.

The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, edited by Karen V. Kukil

If you read only one account of Plath’s life, read the one she wrote herself. While the stuff of Plath’s biography is remade in so much of her prose and poetry, her diaries reveal that material at its rawest. Earlier abridged editions of the journals expunged some of Plath’s harshest castigations; this volume shows the full heat of the fire Plath directed not only at others, but at herself.

Her Husband: Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, A Marriage by Diane Middlebrook

At this year’s Sylvia Plath Symposium, a special memorial was given in honor of Diane Middlebrook, a testament to the high regard with which Middlebrook’s writing and insights are held by Plath scholars. Her Husband dives straight at what in other hands might seem the soapy dramas of Hughes and Plath’s relationship; here, both parties and their dramas emerge as painfully real. (One also has to love the graphic Middlebrook includes from Plath’s copy of The Joy of Cooking illustrating how to dress a rabbit.)

The Haunting of Sylvia Plath by Jacqueline Rose

Rose’s scholarly account of the strange afterlife Plath has found in the American cultural landscape is the definitive work on the subject. It also offers some of the most compelling reads on the her poems, like Rose’s stellar unpacking of “The Rabbit Catcher,” one of the poems Ted Hughes withheld from the original publication of Plath’s Ariel.

Rough Magic: A Biography of Sylvia Plath by Paul Alexander

Alexander’s biography follows Plath’s life in nearly impossible detail, down to the colors of her valises and the hand-painted decorations on her furniture. While dense—as most Plath biographies tend to be—Alexander’s shaping gives the narrative of Plath’s life more forward impetus than some drier tellings. His account of the trip Plath took as a child to see The Tempest, her first experience both with theatre and with the play whose ideas of creative power and subservience would resonate throughout her life, is especially moving.

The Plath Cabinet by Catherine Bowman

Bowman’s poetry collection collages her own words with snippets from Plath’s writings and findings from the peculiar store of artifacts (appointment books, dolls, a lock of hair) she left behind. If this kind of appropriation seems at first sacrilegious, the results are divine and wholly Bowman’s own, and inflect Plath’s writings with new significance as they resurface.

The Bed Book by Sylvia Plath

A kids’ picture book from Sylvia Plath might sound at first like the punch line to a joke. In fact, she wrote several, all suitable for broader audiences than Wednesday Addams. The Bed Book showcases Plath’s lyric sensibility and her resourcefulness in hunting out the diversity of paid gigs that let her live as a working writer.