One Who Got Away

More so for Sylvia Plath than many other writers, readers develop protective feelings for her. Many openly express the idea that “only they” get her or are her best reader. Reading biographies of the dead poet, one encounters language akin to a lover describing the one who got away. Plath, a suicide, is a love who got away, for reader after reader.

The other Plath scholars or even her casual readers (if such readers exist) are viewed as rival suitors, as dead wrong for her, as individuals mishandling her bones. Some biographers refer to her by her given name, “Sylvia,” rather by than her personal and professional name, Plath, thus treating her as a familiar. Others are deeply offended by this practice, which does indeed appear to be something reserved for this poet alone. It has the effect of making her the star of a soap opera that she never cast herself in.

(Until her death in July 1995, I was friends with and a student of a Sylvia Plath scholar at SUNY New Paltz, Dr. Carley Bogarad. If ghosts existed, I wish hers was looking over my shoulder today.)

In a letter that she never sent to one of her lovers, Richard Sassoon, Plath wrote, “Perhaps when we find ourselves wanting everything, it is because we are dangerously close to wanting nothing.” This sentence was unseen by anyone, including Sassoon, until it was published in 2000, when her unabridged journals were finally published. (Thus Kris Kristofferson did not know he was echoing Sylvia Plath in his song, “Me and Bobby McGee.”) Since its publication, it has become a ubiquitous Tumblr meme, always attributed to Plath but rarely given in context. Did a character in her one novel, “The Bell Jar,” enunciate this emotional equation? Or did she, herself?

In the photo at top, Sassoon is seen as Plath would have known him, in the mid-1950s; next to him is a famous photo of Plath, also from that era.

Richard Sassoon was one of Plath’s lovers before her marriage to Ted Hughes. They met in 1954 and broke up a few years later. A literature student at Yale and a British citizen, Sassoon was different from the American boyfriends she had spent time with so far: He could keep up with her, intellectually and in other ways. In the official Plath list of lovers, he is “the one who got away,” as it was his absence that “catapulted” Plath onto the path that led her to Ted Hughes. (In Plath’s own vivid words, Hughes “blasted” Sassoon from her.)

At the beginning of 2013, two biographies were published on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of her death. In both, Sassoon plays a spectral role in Plath’s story, but one of the biographers managed to contact him. Andrew Wilson wrote “Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted,” in which he argues that, had Sassoon not left Paris when Plath hunted him down to confront him over his feelings for her, she would not have returned to Hughes. Wilson at least made contact with Sassoon, who made it clear that he has not yet and will never speak of his long-dead lover. According to Wilson, Sassoon found Plath “as various as the sea.”

A professional biographer named Carl Rollyson published “American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath” at the same time. (The first part is an unfortunate title in today’s international climate.)

Wilson’s book is about Plath’s life before Hughes and Rollyson’s book is about her last days and the long fight over her works, legacy, and image fought between Hughes, Plath scholars (my former teacher among them), and Hughes and Plath’s children. Rollyson has written many many biographies, mostly about movie stars (Marilyn Monroe) and literary figures (Plath, Susan Sontag); his own website makes it sound like he is interested in making the lives of literary figures seem more like those of movie stars and the movie stars appear more like literary figures. Since sex is a universal experience, period, it is certainly pervasive in his biographies.

But it is in Rollyson’s book that one finds something that almost could be a reply from Sassoon to Plath’s unsent letter and her unspoken thought about the closeness between wanting everything and wanting nothing. On page 79, he writes, “The arch and elusive Sassoon could be quite a trial at times.” Here is trying to placate Plath:

‘Please do not say you do not know me. That has depressed me a little. … And do you think I know myself well enough to tell you? … I have said much about the world—surely not without some self-revelation. And I have made you smile, I have made you laugh—perhaps I have even made you cry—was this not me! and me alone?’

Anyway, she never sent the letter, and Sassoon’s plea (which does not strike my ears as making him difficult, much less a “trial”) reveals a man who could live in the gray shades of life, embrace and be frustrated by the small smiles and cries, to a lover who lived with an all-or-nothing perspective. Her tempestuous life continued with another lover, Hughes.

In “The Bell Jar,” Plath’s heroine Esther Greenwood—who is often described by critics as Plath’s “alter ego”; the authorial fallacy seems to me to be excused too frequently when discussing Plath’s works, but sometimes a writer’s creations are just that—Greenwood closes her narrative with another famous Plath quote: “I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.”

Plath’s writing remains vibrant and scary and vital. Its heart does indeed continue on.

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This first appeared in December.

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for July 26 asks us to reflect on the word, “Elusive.”

The WordPress Daily Prompt for September 24 asks, “Write about the one X that got away — a person, an experience, a place you wanted to visit. How much would you change about your life to have it within reach again?”

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