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American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath

American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath - Carl Rollyson Let me get my quibbles out of the way first, because I want to focus on the strengths of this biography.

I disagree strongly with Rollyson's decision to refer to Plath by what were apparently childhood nicknames early on in this biography. Throughout the book, he quietly switches between "Sylvia," "Sylvia Plath," and "Plath," which is fine. And in the first paragraph of the first chapter, there's nothing wrong with his saying that "Sylvia Plath liked to tell the story of her mother setting her infant Sivvy on the beach to see what she would do." But it's unnerving to read the end of a paragraph that compares the young Sylvia Plath to Coriolanus, and then have the next paragraph open, "Siv was six years old when war came to Europe." And the very *next* paragraph begins, "Syl was not alone." At this point, I honestly couldn't tell if we were being told that Plath had a lot of childhood nicknames, or if Rollyson was amusing himself by coming up with every possible nickname for "Sylvia."

Which leads me to a larger weakness of this work. For whatever reason, Rollyson often adopts a tone that is conversational to the point of being slangy. The problem with using current phraseology in a work like this is that it makes your book sound out of date about twenty minutes after it's published.

Rollyson wisely chose to work independently rather than writing an "authorized" biography. Anyone familiar with the thorny history of Plath biographies will understand and sympathize with this decision. It does mean that Rollyson needs to paraphrase a great deal rather than quote directly from letters, diary entries, and poems, which is a lot of work. But that makes it all the more important not to seem to be trying to compete with Plath's own writing and tone, and to aim instead for a certain invisibility as a biographer. I'm not sure that Plath would agree that "A day off from babysitting felt like the lid on her life was blown off."

I'm also old-school enough to believe that italics and exclamation points should be kept to a bare minimum in any book, and in a biography they should be limited to direct quotes. But here is Rollyson, describing the summer Plath lightly fictionalized in "The Bell Jar":

"She would sit, book in hand, but could not read. *Sylvia Plath could not read!*"

Rollyson also insists that the reason Plath wasn't accepted into Frank O'Connor's Harvard writing course was that O'Connor "thought Sylvia too advanced for his class. Given that this rejection was a trigger for her suicide attempt, any information concerning how and why it happened is of vital interest. But Rollyson doesn't give a source for this idea. He also refers to Frank O'Connor as O'Connor, O'Conner, and O'Hara, and mentions Plath "pouring over" an experience. This was all in the first fifty pages. I almost closed the book.

But I'm glad I kept going. Rollyson's writing smooths out after this, and his biography is sympathetic, thoughtful, and fresh.

Rollyson is aware that many (if not most) of his readers will be very familiar with Plath's life already. So, as he puts it:

"I have dispensed with a good deal of the boilerplate most biographers feel compelled to supply. I say little, for example, about the backgrounds of Plath's parents. I don't describe much of Smith College or its history. I do very little scene setting."

If you're not already familiar with Plath's story and work, this is not the biography to start with. If you're a longtime admirer, this is a fast, absorbing read.