An interview with Carl Rollyson.

book cover imageThe University Bookman recently sat down with Carl Rollyson, past contributor to our special issue on biography and author of a new biography on the poet Sylvia Plath and of Amy Lowell: A New Biography, forthcoming in September 2013. Rollyson, a professor of journalism at Baruch College, The City University of New York, has also published biographies of Marilyn Monroe, Lillian Hellman, Martha Gellhorn, Norman Mailer, Rebecca West, Susan Sontag, Jill Craigie, and Dana Andrews.

There have been several biographies of Plath already. Why select her for a new one?

One reason for a new biography is that there has not been a biography of Plath in twenty years. Since then a number of new materials have become available, and mine is the first to make use of the new material.

For example, I had access to her husband Ted and his sister Olwyn Hughes’s papers in the British Library, which others did not. Ted kept diary notes of the last week of Sylvia’s life, which enabled me to document the days before her suicide. I could get into some of his own feelings, because after the fact he made allsorts of statements about their getting together again had she not killed herself. But Sylvia herself had written that off as a possibility, which I learned in the papers of Al Alvarez, a close friend of hers.

Olwyn had tried to establish Sylvia’s romantic interest in Alvarez, which was not something he had ever acknowledged quite so explicitly in his own writings or to other biographers. But what I concluded from my long interview with him was that in a sense he was continuing to protect her, even after her death. He finally said “she was in love with me.” It occurred to me that was an awkward position for him to be in, and he acted very chivalrously. Not only that, but here was someone who saw her brilliance but was being very careful.

Another new source was the research I was able to do into Sylvia’s time at Smith College. Aurelia Plath, her mother, donated a lot of material to Smith, including letters between her and Sylvia, and my book has a much bigger picture of her mother than earlier studies because of this material. Sylvia portrayed her mother as possessive or difficult, but when I read Aurelia’s letters at Smith and talked to her close friend, Richard Larschen, Aurelia became much more of a person to me. These materials reveal that she was happy that Sylvia went to Smith and got a Fulbright. Aurelia also wrote letters to Ted (they are in his papers at Emory University) saying that many times she wanted to join in their conversations, but felt they had this special bond and she did not want to be the intrusive mother. That was a perspective that had not been expressed before.

In working at Smith and with the alumnae association I was able to talk and correspond with a dozen of her classmates and her students who had never been interviewed. People think of Plath as incredibly self-absorbed, but what struck me in these interviews was that none of these women had any such memory. Plath liked to play cards, socialize, and talk about things happening on campus. One student even wrote a poem, which Sylvia accepted quite graciously.

How do you treat her final days?

In the last days of her life, she was exhilarated by writing the best poetry she had ever written but she was also exhausted. I don’t psychoanalyze her condition; instead, I tell the story in narrative. Her husband had left her and she was essentially alone during the coldest winter on record in England, which depleted her even further, because she was a person who thrived much better in the sunlight and during the summers. Further, the prescription drugs she was taking to help her depression were not working.

In your opening pages, you refer to her as the “Marilyn Monroe of modern literature” and her ambition to mix “highbrow” and popular writing. Can you explain that?

In the late 1950s and 60s the line between the two was pretty rigid. Having done the Sontag bio, I realized how much hostility there was to Sontag when she started writing about popular events and literature at the same time she had interests in high art. Sontag and Norman Mailer had some of those interests in high and low art as essayists, but Plath had those interests as an artist. That was interesting because the Partisan Review critics made these sharp distinctions between high and low culture that Plath wished to transcend.

Plath, even though she gets the Fulbright and wants to be a great poet, also wants to be popular, in every sense. She wanted that attention, at the same time that she wanted to go to England and meet T. S. Eliot and other poets. In her own mind all that meant to her was that was the kind of writer she wanted to be. Ted Hughes wouldwonder why she spent time on her short stories because he did not really get that; he thought she should spend her time being a serious poet.

She wanted for someone to go into some place like the Harvard Bookstore and pick up her Ariel poems, and then go to the magazine rack and find a short story of hers in a glossy magazine. Sylvia is almost like a reverse image of Marilyn Monroe, who appears to be just a “dumb blonde” popular icon, but that is not correct at all. At the same time, Monroe wrote poetry and she could recite Rilke. If you look at the photographs of Monroe that have appeared in the last ten to fifteen years, there are many with her with a book in her hand, including Joyce’s Ulysses. That isn’t for show: there is too much evidence that she was a reader interested in books. Monroe was not an intellectual but she had a genuine interest in literature. Arthur Miller was not just a token interest.

The more I thought about it I came to believe that Monroe and Plath might be two transitional figures. Something was happening to the culture at that time in which these two sides, Hollywood and the fine arts, started to penetrate each other in interesting ways. Then I pick up Plath’s journal—as I describe in the book—and in it she describes a dream about Monroe as a fairy godmother! The boundaries are becoming more permeable, and though some readers still can’t see it, I really see a kind of cultural parallel between them.

In a piece you wrote for us on the state of biography, you write that novelists could dissect their personal acquaintances in their fiction and receive praise, but woe to the biographers who tried to do the same for their subjects. Has that changed at all?

I think it is pretty much the same. It varies from country to country, with more of a willingness to do that in the United States than in other places. With the research for my Sontag book we got a lot of gossip—a number of reviewers talked about the gossip, but there was very little of it in the book itself. To some, any talk of the life is seen as gossip. I think that very slowly there may be undercurrents in the culture that are changing this. But I was shocked that Macmillan would publish my book in the UK. Because of their laws of libel, which put the burden on the defendant, publishers worry that Olwyn Hughes could sue them.

What can we tell from her life about her work?

I think someone reading my book is not going to look for specific interpretations of poems, although I analyze her poem “Daddy” and other key works.

One of the things Plath was attacked for by Irving Howe was that she supposedly was too glib about confessional poetry, and you couldn’t line up your own angst with something as vast as the Holocaust. What I tried to show in the book is that Sylvia grew up in World War II, she heard Hitler on the radio, and her father had a strong German accent. Women like Sontag and Plath grew up with these images. This was not an affectation on Plath’s part.

When Plath was a child she listened to “The Shadow,” Superman, and Jack Benny. They are part of her cultural inheritance. I think it tells you something about the poetry in the same way that Lawrence Thompson’s biography of Robert Frost told you something about his poetry. The book was attacked for presenting a very negative view of Frost, but then Richard Poirier came out with a book on Frost’s poems, which presented complex readings of poems that I don’t believe he could have done without Thompson. It’s that kind of interaction, or cultural climate I am getting at in this book, that I hope will have an impact on how people read the poetry.

Is there a relationship between contemporary feminism andher work?

Plath herself died before the 1970s and feminism’s second wave. I’m not sure what these generations will think of her in terms of feminism. I was struck once during a reading where there were many young women in the audience. One of them came up to me after I discussed Plath and Monroe, and agreed with me that they are strong women—I don’t think women would have said that twenty years ago. This was not the reception I got when I did the Monroe biography years ago.  

The Bookman interviews Carl Rollyson, author of a new biography of the poet Sylvia Plath, who finds significant parallels between Plath and Marilyn Monroe, subject of one of his earlier biographies.