biography

Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself | D. F. Wallace

6916961I read Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself  about three years ago for the first time, and it was my introduction to David Foster Wallace. Back then, I highlighted profusely in this book, and took many notes about what was said by both Lipsky and Wallace. Since then, I’ve watched numerous interviews with Wallace himself, read the majority of his novels, and essays, as well as D.T. Max’s biography of DFW. Re-reading this book now, there were many things that made me question its value while taking into consideration readers’ responses. I read every written review of this book on Goodreads, and they vary immensely. Some people met David Lipsky and got the book signed being really happy with it, whilst others are absolutely furious that this book exists asserting that Lipsky is an opportunist who cashed in right after a tragedy.

This book is an edited, reduced transcript of a conversation which in real time took about three days. David Lipsky arrived at David Foster Wallace’s house right near the end of the Infinite Jest book tour in 1996. Wallace was already somewhat famous at the time, and Lipsky was conducting an interview not expecting that Wallace would invite him to stay in his house. Lipsky followed Wallace around to fast food restaurants, the mall, a friend gathering, several readings, meetings with his agent, and even to his writing classes where he was teaching at the university. Sometimes he recorded on a tape recorder, other times he was required to write down as recording devices were not permitted. Throughout, Lipsky tries to capture the essence of Wallace at that time and in his own private spaces. I think he was trying to capture what on YouTube is now “a day in the life” kind of vlog, only for a very famous author, pre-YouTube. Lipsky asks Wallace about his feelings, aspirations, how he got here. I think in a way, Lipsky being such a fan-boy for Wallace led to some interesting minutiae-type questions that we all want to know of our favourite writers. How? Why? When? What poster is on their kitchen wall? How do they spend their days? What pets do they have? The problem most readers have with Lipsky is that he didn’t publish this book, nor transcribed the conversation for publication until 2010, two years after DFW killed himself, got slightly sanctified by the Howling Fantods, and remained famous. Was he afraid that Wallace himself wouldn’t like it? If Wallace wouldn’t have allowed it to be published in his lifetime then is it unethical to publish it?

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Newspaper Obituary

Here, is where most readers have found the publication somewhat problematic, in addition to the fact that Lipsky is himself a fiction writer, of works that have gotten little to no recognition. Fans accuse Lipsky of using Wallace to get some recognition, seizing the opportunity immediately after Wallace killed himself. When this ‘transcript’ book was turned into a movie (which I really liked) the Wallace estate (mainly his family members) did not want to have any affiliation with this film, because they felt it would be unfair to capture Wallace at 34, for three days, and miss out on who he really was or how he had changed and matured.

With all the above in mind, I can say that as a reader I appreciate this book. I needed it, and it’s something of interest to me. For a moment there it feels like you’re hanging out with David Foster Wallace too, and you get a glimpse into his private life, in a way that is presented by an outsider which is kind of ideal. That said, I also think readers should look at this book as: this was Wallace for three days of his life near the end of his successful book tour. Stop there. Don’t dissect further, or read any more into it. Don’t look for clues on whether or not he knew he would kill himself, or anything like beyond what is on the page. There were times I think Lipsky spends too much time on his feelings and opinions, which I frankly didn’t care much about. I also didn’t like that this work is presented as a Jack Kerouak-ish On the Road kind of book, which is really not the case mainly because the two of them were complete strangers. Lastly, while Lipsky is getting some negativity from readers for when he chose to publish this and how, I would say that it’s really quite sad for a fiction writer’s most famous and most reviewed book to be a transcript of what another more famous author said. It’s the book most people ask him to sign, with six times more the reviews than any other of his works, and there’s something heartbreaking in that. I don’t think he’s just rolling in cash right now happy he made a profit off of Wallace’s death. I think his love for Wallace and deep admiration comes through in his introduction, and in the way his conversations with Wallace were carried out (if these transcripts are true). So I look at this book as a three day conversation between a fan/journalist and a writer. If you would like to read this, it’s not time wasted, but for once I don’t recommend the audiobook, as the person cast as Wallace has the opposite of a Wallace voice. I had to return it because I could not stand it.

If you are interested in what a writer-friend of Wallace’s wrote after Wallace died, I strongly recommend this essay by Jonathan Franzen titled “Farther Away.” I think I read it over ten times and listened to it on Audible. It’s so beautiful. In fact, the audiobook for Franzen’s Farther Away is extraordinary and he reads it himself. He mixes literature, personal experience, and memories of Wallace and writes one of the most beautiful contemporary essays.

Trailer for The End of the Tour feturing Jesse Eisenberg (as Lipsky) and Jason Segal as David Foster Wallace.

June Wrap-Up

june wrapup

In June I haven’t read as MANY books as before mainly because I am participating in a read-along of Infinite Jest with Ennet House (a reading group from Vancouver). More details can be found HERE. I did get a chance to read some other things too as the month progressed.

Books I Read For Early Review

Attributed the the Harrow Painter — Poetry collection. This book is scheduled for publication in November from University of Iowa Press.

Gork, the Teenage Dragon — children’s fantasy book. This book is scheduled for publication on July 11, from Knopf Publishing Group.

Plank’s Law – young adult book. The book will be published in September by Orca Book Publishers.

Pillow Thoughts & The Road Between – two poetry collections by Australian Poetess Courtney Peppernell. Both works will be released on August 29 by Andrew McMeel.

Glances of Life by J.B. Anderson – poetry collection by Detroit poet. Collection was already published on May 30 by Dog Ear Publishing.

Books I Read for Myself 

Short Stories

“When She is Old and I am Famous” by Julie Orringer from her larger collection of short stories How to Breathe Underwater. I will be finishing this collection in July, but I read this particular short story in June and it’s wonderful. It’s about a young woman name Mira who is not very good looking or in shape and lives in the shadow of her Model-like, gorgeous cousin Aida.

26 monkeys, also the abyss” by Kij Johnson from her larger Sci-fi/Fantasy short story collection At the Mouth of the River of Bees.

I will be working my way through the two collections above for the summer.

The Other Einstein by Marie Benedict

28389305A few weeks ago I started watching National Geographic’s biopic of Einstein which is one season long called “Genius.” The show is based on the biography written by Walter Isaacson Einstein: His Life and Universe. For the first time I was introduced to Mileva Maric who was Einstein’s first wife and quite possibly one of my favourite historical women. She was brilliant, one of the first women at the physics academy in Zurich, and just an overall fierce feminist symbol. I fell in love with Mileva and I wanted to know more. I then discovered Marie Benedict’s book The Other Einstein. Because I have seen the show first, this book read like the first five episodes only from Mileva’s perspective. I went on Goodreads to see what other people thought of this book that came out in October of 2016. Every low rating seemed to be regarding Mileva’s preoccupation with her leg deformity and limp, with the fact that Einstein called her “dollie,” and that it was somehow women’s attempt to shame a brilliant man by making this unknown woman play a larger role than she did. Having been introduced to National Geographic and Walter Isaacson’s biography first, all these things were not shocking, nor a surprise, and certainly not Benedict’s invention with a feminist brush. All those things seem to have been true and Benedict did her research. I loved Mileva, and I love this book because it’s really good, and well-researched. It’s also heavily based on a true story, and it has pulled from the margins a woman that wasn’t that well known. So if you read this, keep in mind that the things that irk you, frustrate you, and annoy you about society in that time, about the academy, the gossip, or Einstein himself, was actually very close to reality and the “novelization” part comes simply from the invention and addition of dialogue.

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair by Nina Sankovich

9476292Nina Sankovich’s sister Anne-Marie dies at the age of 45. The author deals with her sister’s death by throwing herself into a reading project: read one book per day for a year. I found that the author focused more on her life, her struggle, her personal biography and the relationships in her life more than on the books. I think some of the books she read deserved a little more reflection and thought than she accorded. It felt like she was sprinting through this reading list and didn’t even discuss or acknowledge half the books she read. After the conclusion we finally get a full list of all the books (and short stories) she read that year. I wanted to hear more about the books. I appreciated her personal heartfelt attachment and the way she tied in the novels to her life, but I think it would have worked better if that was an “introduction” or “chapter one” and then the rest of the book focused on her reading process, the thoughts she had on each book objectively and subjectively, a little context for the books, quotations she enjoyed. I wanted it to be more about the books is what I’m trying to say. Some reviewers on Goodreads called this “the memoir no one asked for” and while that is a bit harsh—as a reader I’m open to hearing everyone’s story—I think this promised to be a reading journal/experience rather than a ‘coping with grief’ kind of book and so it did become in the end the memoir no one asked for. I encountered a similar problem earlier in the year reading Spinster which instead of talking about spinsterhood ended up as a personal life story/memoir. Maybe we’re more interested in the memoirs and biographies of people we consider “important.” I did appreciate that she read diversely.

Our Numbered Days by Neil Hilborn

24471629This collection plays with the idea of “numbered days” in more ways than one. It explores the theme of death in the form of thinking about death, considering suicide, and manic-depressive illness episodes where this can happen. It also looks at relationships in one’s life whether in love, parents, or friends and how those days are in a way limited or numbered. From time to time Minnesota and snow will make an appearance. The content of this collection is very well put together. There are various kinds of relationships, followed by kinds of mental illnesses, and concluding with a literal death of a grandmother. Every few poems one will begin with several quotations from other poets and well-known figures on each respective topic (time, death, heaven, hope). The poetry is very accessible and it tells things rather than alluding to them through clever use of language. In that respect I wanted more from this collection. However, the things it does tell are pretty memorable and some sentences strike deep. Also, I read this out loud and I found that in the way things were written (sentence-structure-wise) I was almost shouting. It comes across as a forceful rant or complaint bulldozing and demanding to be heard.

Hilborn explores the ways OCD affects romantic relationships, how depression ruins your days, how suicidal thoughts can be preventable by people in a position of privilege. In his poem “Joey” the poet compares himself to a friends who was going through something similar but who could not afford therapy:

“I can pinpoint the session / that brought me back to the world. That session cost seventy-five dollars. / Seventy-five dollars is two weeks of groceries…I wonder how many kids / like Joey wanted to die and were unlucky enough to actually pull it off.”

Here are some lines I enjoyed:

“Depression wasn’t an endless grey sky. It was no sky at all.”

“To Break Something but Being Too Weak; /The Sadness that Comes from Always knowing / exactly where you are.”

“I will lie here forever and sing to you all the things / I stopped myself from saying when we were alive.”

“Though he couldn’t name it, her favorite / color is Bakelite seafoam green”

Walden by Henry David Thoreau

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Walden is one of my favourite classics and it’s one I return to often. I re-read it this month as my monthly classic mostly because it’s summer and nice out, but also because I haven’t been reading as much this month as the one before and with full enjoyment so I picked it up to get me out of the little slump. I also wanted to brush up on it so I could write an entry on why Walden is my “comfort classic.” Click HERE to read it.

 

 

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides 

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This book came up in conversation when I was discussing my read-along project of Infinite Jest. My friend said that one of the characters in the Marriage Plot was based on David Foster Wallace and it’s a “campus book,” so I had to read it. I love campus books as much as island books. The story follows a female protagonist who is an English major and has just graduated from University. I have only read about 50 pages of this book and all I’ve read about was graduation day, parents coming to visit, and some boy dilemmas. I am intrigued by this book and it’s reading quite smoothly but I will do a proper wrap-up at the end of July after I finish all of it.

Book I hated and could not finish

9086994I have never been this frustrated with an author as I am with Paulo Coelho. This is the most selfish book I’ve ever read in my life. It’s selfish in so many ways. First the plot: Coelho, bored with his life, is taking on an adventure with his publicist and decides to go on a train trip across Russia and be all mystical and spiritual. That’s it. Why is it selfish? First he is preying on his readers and taking advantage of them. He knows he did well with The Alchemist, he knows people look to him for advice the way they do to a life coach so he uses this “oriental mysticism” to absorb the reader and try to convince us that he is in fact enlightened. The first 10 pages were actually kind of amazing. It was like candy.

“I began my apprenticeship in magic…grownups have no time to dream…what am I doing here…there exists a parallel universe that impinges on the world in which we live”

and in conversation with his guru or spiritual guide who tells him

“you feel that nothing you have learned has put down roots, that while you’re capable of entering the magical universe, you cannot remain submerged in it”

How lovely right? The first ten pages made me want to highlight and take notes. But nothing he says is original, or interesting. It’s basic self-help book rewording. He uses this as an excuse to go “conquer his kingdom” because he’s special and needs travelling and experience. He then spews lines like “travel is never a matter of money but of courage.” Come on! Then he waves good bye to his wife in Brazil who is understanding about this whole thing for some reason, and lo’ and behold on his train trip he meets a 21 year old (did I mention he is 59) and he basically sleeps with her….but it’s okay apparently because he met her in a previous life. One reviewer on Goodreads wrote: “I don’t know how Coelho’s wife in Brazil can accept her womanizing husband and letting the whole world know about it.”  I found this book to be selfish in that it’s a personal journal and he does things that are not so admirable but he paints them in a light of him being so enlightened for doing these things….and he keeps dropping every five lines how well his books are doing. It’s selfish to his readers because they buy his books and admire “his” ideas. It’s selfish to his wife. I would say it’s even selfish to the people he dragged along on this trip, and to that poor 21 year old. I also found that it painted people who are genuinely spiritual in a bad light. I pictured monks face-palming. It’s very self-absorbed… I wish he titled it “a journal entry from my trip and midlife crisis.” This is hardly a novel. I don’t generally review negatively because I research my books before reading them but this book really upset me because I expected something better.

 

Infinite Jest | David Foster Wallace | Announcement | Resources

“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow. of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy

IMG_20170515_111929_651announcement-clipart-cliparti1_announcement-clipart_09This post is part announcement, part resource. Earlier today I came across a tweet from Ennet House announcing that they will begin reading Infinite Jest as a group this summer starting with June 1 and ending with September 18. That is a total of 15 Weeks and 4 days, or 109 Days. I figured I might read this work properly and take better notes. The first and only time I read this work was by using Audible as a crutch and without too much highlighting/note-taking. This shouldn’t come as a surprise but this reading journal blog’s name is heavily inspired by Infinite Jest, so I figured why not provide a reading schedule and various resources, as well as opportunities to join read-along groups on this very same forum. The Ennet House Reading group will be meeting in Vancouver, but they allowed an open window for those of us willing to join in online. Ennet House has a Tumblr as well as a Reddit Page where there will be discussion. Main discussion HERE <–

I created a downloadable and printable form of the reading schedule with space for noteworthy quotations and notes. Click here for the Infinite Jest Reading Schedule. If you can’t join in now for this summer and you want to appropriate it to a different 15 week chunk it is up to you. The resources will still be here for you to use. The breakdown was created by Ennet House but I added the spaces for notes and created the PDF for convenience.

You can find copies of Infinite Jest on Amazon, your local bookstore, several used bookstores, and it doesn’t matter if you use the 20 Year Anniversary edition or the earlier ones. Ideally, you should use the softcover edition like the one in the image above because I can say for sure that the pages correspond to the reading schedule.

Public Library Dewey Decimal Number 813/.54 20
Academic Library, Library of Congress Call Number: PS 3573.A425635

RESOURCES:

David Foster Wallace Bibliography

By David Foster Wallace

Novels:

  1. The Boom of the System (1987) Written as Masters Thesis
  2. Infinite Jest (1996) Excerpts from Infinite Jest first appeared in Grand Street, 1992.
  3. The Pale King (2011) Published posthumously—his unfinished novel.

Short Story Collections:

  1. Girl With Curious Hair (1989) published in Europe as: Westward the Course of Empire Tales Its Way
  2. Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (19(99)
  3. Oblivion: Stories (2004)

Non-Fiction / Essays

  1. Signifying Rappers: Rap and Race in the Urban Present (1990), coauthored with Mark Costello
  2. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (1997)
  3. Up, Simba (2000)
  4. Everything and More (2003)
  5. Consider the Lobster (2005)
  6. McCain’s Promise (2008 paperback reprint of Up, Simba)
  7. This is Water (2009) Transcript of Convocation Speech
  8. Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will (2011)
  9. Both Flesh and Not (2012)
  10. String Theory: David Foster Wallace Essays on Tennis (2016) published posthumously

About David Foster Wallace—Biography/ Interviews

  1. Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself by David Lipsky (2010) Mostly a transcript of an interview between David Lispky and David Foster Wallace back in 1996 near the end of the tour for Infinite Jest. Recent film The End of the Tour featuring Jason Segal as DFW is based on this transcript.
  2. Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace by D.T. Max – Biography of DFW
  3. Conversations with David Foster Wallace edited by Stephen J. Burn (2012) A compilation of several interviews with David Foster Wallace/ The transcripts
  4. The Last Interview Series: David Foster Wallace (2012)
  5. Farther Away” Essay by Jonathan Franzen

Academic Works about Wallace’s Work

  1. Elegant Complexity: A Study of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (2007) Greg Carlisle
  2. David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest: A Reader’s Guide by Stephen J. Burn (2012)
  3. The David Foster Wallace Reader (2014) This 976 page book contains almost every other aspect of David Foster Wallace’s work, for instance it has the syllabus he designed as a professor for writing/reading courses at Pomona College, and additional excerpts not present in the texts above.

Online Resources/Forums/Archives

  • Audible has a 56 Hour-long Audiobook for Infinite Jest, and all his other works are there as well. I found that the audiobook really kept me going the first time.
  • Most of David Foster Wallace’s Archives are at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin Texas
  • The Howling Fantods – largest DFW fan group promoting News, Resources, and updates about DFW since 1997.
  • Several Facebook Groups: The Broom of the System being a dominant one
  • Goodreads Groups
  • Several interviews with DFW have been placed on YouTube
  • Two Films have come out based on 1. His life: The End of the Tour (based on Lipsky’s perspective of Wallace in 1996) and 2. His Work: Brief Interviews with Hideous Men
  • Don’t forget your public library! Both academic libraries in universities and public libraries will have most of Wallace’s works. If you prefer the online forum, OverDrive is connected through your library card and you can access most of the works mentioned.
  • In 2015 another group kept detailed records of their reading in a blog called Infinite Summer
  • A great Video Book Review of Infinite Jest by “FortheloveofRyan

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Hunger by Roxane Gay | Book Review

22813605“This is a memoir of my body”

Hunger is my first Roxane Gay book and my introduction to the author. She emphasises in the first chapters that this book is not a diet book, or a self-help book.  This book does not justify morbid obesity as healthy, nor does it provide excuses as to why the author is not thin. Gay definitely emphasises the great shame that comes with being overweight from the pressures of society and beauty standards, to the health distresses, and the many side-effects of being obese. The author specifies that this book is a memoir or a history of her body. Alongside, she writes reflections and thoughts she has had about weight in general. As I was taking notes for this review, I kept wondering: how could I possibly criticise a book that is the history of a person’s body? It feels awfully personal,  especially when the author is so pleasant and such great company. The best I can do is tell you what it’s about.

Roxane Gay discusses in the early portions of the book the most traumatic event of her life (and body) where she was physically violated by a group of young boys at the tender age of twelve. The humiliation and trauma alone resulted in her silence for years to follow. The shattering experience and undoing of her world would have been subject to discussion. It would be her word against theirs—she would have to experience the judgement passed on women who come forward as rape victims as they are immediately questioned, doubted, and accused of lying. Women who step forward to report a crime, and instead of being aided, supported, and promised justice, they are discussed as if their testimony is debatable. Gay writes that even “the medical community is not particularly interested in taking the pain of women seriously.”

What follows is a series of chapters focusing on the struggles Gay had with weight as she used her body as its own fortress. She writes:

 “I could become more solid, stronger, safer…if I was undesirable, I could keep more hurt away.”

She describes the experience akin to being trapped in a cage where you are safe, but cannot move freely.

“The frustrating thing about cages is that you’re trapped but you can see exactly what you want”

For years the author struggled with trying to become conventionally attractive, and simultaneously trying to protect herself. What I found particularly uplifting was her description of the refuge she found in books. Certain books she said “offered a vocabulary” for her to understand what happened to her and gave her the knowledge/relief that being raped was not her fault.

She also focuses several chapters critiquing television shows like The Biggest Loser, and Revenge Bodies, the conversations in the medical community, and the way society as a whole perceives overweight bodies in discussion, books, and mainstream media.

Most importantly, she writes about her family and the people around her who claimed that they only bring the topic of weight up on a constant basis because they ‘care about her.’ No one focused on her Ph.D., on her books, or on her successes.

“I became resentful that the only thing anyone ever wanted to focus on was my body…People project assumed narratives onto your body and are not at all interested in the truth of your body…your body is the subject of public discourse.”

What I find particularly interesting is that Roxane Gay took the history of her body and critiqued the people who put her body in public discourse, under observation and discussion, as if it was a text, and in the process, she wrote this book which is in itself a text.

I hope that people who read this book don’t go in with a closed mind, and prepared to judge. I hope readers come to this text willing to understand the story of one person’s body.

I would also recommend two non-fiction companion books to this:

9780195049961The first is a philosophy-heavy text by Elaine Scarry called The Body in Pain – in this book Scarry writes an analysis of physical suffering and its relation to the numerous vocabularies and cultural forces that confront it: literary, political, medical, religious. It particularly focuses on how physical pain destroys language, and how every individual experiences pain differently on a personal level, where pain can never be shared, described, or conveyed in its entirety.

InTheRealmOfHungryGhosts_cover

The second is Dr. Gabor Mate’s book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. He is the first doctor who worked with heroin addicts, alcoholics, and overweight people and asked the question: why don’t doctors take a moment to understand WHY some people are more susceptible to addiction than others.

I found that Roxane Gay’s personal narrative in Hunger provided the most perfect story to support the philosophy-heavy Scarry book, and the medical book by Gabor Mate.

Many thanks to Harper for sending an ARC for early review. Hunger will be published on June 13, and is available for pre-order on Amazon.

Roxane Gay’s other Works:

Links to Some of Roxane Gay’s Lectures:

Plath and Hughes | Opinion

“The scholars want the anatomy of the birth of the poetry; and the vast potential audience want her blood, hair, touch, smell, and a front seat in the kitchen where she died…neither audience makes me feel she owes them anything.”

–Ted Hughes, The Observer, November 21, 1971

“It’s hard to read the original manuscript without trying to understand what Hughes was thinking when he left out certain poems and included others. She loved him. He hurt her. All of us who love her work are caught like children in that crossfire forever.” 

-Los Angeles Times

Last Tuesday, April 11 The Guardian posted one article around 4:00 p.m. written from an objective standpoint by Danuta Kean titled “Unseen Sylvia Plath letters claim domestic abuse by Ted Huges” showing how some letters to Plath’s therapist (Barnhouse) from Plath herself suggest that Hughes was physically abusive just before her miscarriage. Shortly after, The Guardian followed up with an opinion piece, only four hours later, by Sarah Churchwell titled: “Sylvia Plath, a voice that can’t be silenced” where Churchwell dives a little deeper in the dynamics of the marriage and draws on her own research. On Wednesday, The Guardian published a third paper that was more from a gender studies point of view by Rafia Zakaria titled: “Sylvia Plath’s letters probably won’t harm Ted Hughes’s reputation” where the article criticizes some of Plath’s biographers for placing much blame on Plath in the deteriorating of the marriage, and society in general. All three articles are linked if you are interested in following.

I read all the comments under the three articles with a lot of interest. I wanted to know what do readers who are part of the ‘Hughes’ or ‘Plath’ fandoms think about the three articles, and the dynamics of this relationship as it fits with the poets’ artwork. I extracted from it three dominant comments which I find crucial to discuss. To sum up, these were the dominant three reactions:

  1. Seriously, who cares?
  2. Plath killed herself because of Hughes, as did his mistress, and son.
  3. Hughes is a monster, not even surprised.

Before I try to address the three questions I would fist like to tell you where I stand. First, I love the poetry of Plath. You may have noticed in my “favourites” list that she is the first person that came to my mind. Of Hughes’s work I have read Crow, The Birthday Letters, and The Iron Man, whereas I have read Plath’s entire corpus (including letters/diary entries) so I cannot pretend to be an expert on Hughes. I have glanced at some of his other works but did not finish them. Her use of language stuck with me since six years ago when I discovered her and through most of my undergrad and grad school I have written most of my essays on her poetry, her print culture (comparing various editions of her work), and even on her tombstone which is often chipped away at by fans. Hughes to me, doesn’t quite cut it. I tried reading his works and they did not have an impact. I found that fans are often divided in the two teams, whether it’s Plath vs. Hughes, British vs. American, Women vs. Men, with the occasional: I like neither, or I like both but don’t care about their life.

Secondly I would like to present the disclaimer that I cannot discuss mental illness or pretend that I’m an expert on it, or apply what happened to Plath to all depressed/suicide cases. I do not romanticize suicide. I will only discuss the relationship and biography of the two poets AS POETS and why it matters (or doesn’t) when discussing their poetry as literature, in an academic setting.

That said, I would like to address the three points above:

  1. Who cares?

At first it seems like we all just thrive on drama and that’s what’s interesting. I certainly thought so for a while, until I realized that the ‘who cares’ question is part of the division I mentioned earlier. The truth is, Plath and Hughes were working on different kinds of poetry. Hughes was working on classical/mythological re-workings like those of Ovid; he was writing rhythmically, and building on a larger British Tradition of what was expected of a poet laureate. So if you like Hughes and his work then frankly, you shouldn’t care because Tales from Ovid, The Iron Man, Lupercal, Cave Birds…among others, exist within a contained context of what is on the page and in response to a larger Western Tradition—he was highly influenced by the Romans and his poetry resembles that of Keats, Shelley, or the more recent Seamus Heaney (to me). Unless you’re reading The Birthday Letters, it really doesn’t matter—as our teachers/professors tell us time and time again: biography of the author/poet shouldn’t affect our reading of their art. True. Yes. EXCEPT in one case. This case includes poets: Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell (Plath’s prof), Allen Ginsberg, John Berryman, W.D. Snodgrass, and Sylvia Plath. They were working on a different kind of poetry known as “Confessional Poetry.” This movement was mostly composed of American Poets in the 1950s and ‘60s who wrote ‘poetry of the personal.’ This personal poetry often didn’t rhyme and dealt with topics like: depression, sexuality, abuse, suicide attempts/thoughts, trauma, and things that were highly private and linked uniquely to one’s biography. Unlike poets like Hughes, these poets were drawing solely from personal experience without necessarily responding to a larger tradition. Confessional Poetry is the only time where the poet invites you to learn about their life and invites you to tie it into their artwork. So to answer the question ‘who cares?’ the answer is: people studying confessional poetry. They care about biography, because it’s important, because it’s connected, and because it sheds light and meaning on the artwork. I need to know that Plath was hospitalized in a white room where someone brought her these red tulips that stuck out like an eyesore, for me to understand “the tulips are excitable” in her poem “The Tulips” or that her father was German and a beekeeper which fuels her Holocaust references in “Daddy,” or the ways he was referenced in The Bee Poems. And perhaps understanding that the two poets (Plath and Hughes) were working on something different makes sense of why Plath fans are very interested in biography, while Hughes fans might not be.

  1. She killed herself because (or for) Hughes.

Plath at Smith

Claims like these, though kind of directed at ‘shaming’ Hughes, to me come across as demeaning to Plath. First of all, she wasn’t a love-struck Juliet figure who killed herself because a man left her. She was a very intelligent woman, and had a history of mental illness and suicide attempts. Claiming she ‘killed herself for Hughes’ or to prove a point comes from a reductive understanding of Plath, and a reductive understanding of mental illness.

Plath went to Smith College on scholarship for academic excellence (she wrote her paper on Ulysses). She got electric shock therapy (without anesthesia) which right now is illegal. She attempted suicide once when she was much younger. Her second suicide attempt was by overdosing on pills and she hid beneath the house porch. She was gone for three days, and was in the newspapers as ‘missing.’ They gave her electrical shock therapy again. She then went to Cambridge in England on a Fulbright Scholarship (very prestigious) where she met Hughes. Her thesis was on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s figure of The Double demonstrated through Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin’s character in The Double and Ivan Fyodorovitch Karamazov in The Brothers Karamazov.  This is an excerpt from her Introduction in her thesis “The Magic Mirror:”

“It is this dangerous embodiment of the Double in two of Dostoyevsky’s novels which is the subject of our paper. The device of the Double, although an omen of doom, is instructive since it often reveals hitherto concealed character traits in a radical manner and thus frequently throws unreconciled inner conflicts into sharper relief. However, the recurrence of the double personality in Dostoevsky’s novels is more than a mere technique for clarifying the psychic oppositions; it is the core of Dostoyevsky’s own polemical philosophy.”

I think sometimes Plath is reduced to this ‘revenge-kick’ stereotype of a dismissed woman looking for attention. Just look at how Norton’s character talks to Darla in Fight Club like yeah, yeah, we’re all dying, Sylvia Plath. As if she was just looking for attention. She’s just as often stereotyped as “teen” literature because of The Bell Jar (which is a memoir reflecting on her teen years). This is a horrible reduction. That’s like judging Jean-Paul Sartre on Le Mots (The Words) only and clumping all of his later work and philosophy in that category.  It’s just not fair. Plath was an adult, Smith/Cambridge-educated woman with a career, she wrote a thesis on Dostoevsky, and was extremely well-versed in American, British, and Russian Literature. To look at her like she’s the teenage girl from Thirteen Reasons Why (which got criticism on its own as well), is just not comparable.

To return to my original point, while Hughes was an important part of her life, he cannot be blamed for her death because she had a history of attempting it, a history of depression, and they had already been separated for five full months.

“I have done it again.

One year in every ten

I manage it—

…I am only thirty.

And like the cat I have nine times to die.

This is Number Three.” – Lady Lazarus

Secondly, to say that she killed herself for a man is something that demeans a woman of Plath’s stature (or any woman) immensely. She was so intelligent and capable, and was part of an emerging new group of poets—which she pretty much dominates now—that to say ‘she killed herself for Hughes/because of Hughes’ would be offensive to Plath herself and her ambitions for herself (based on the biographies I’ve read of her). Suicide is a result of mental illness and Plath wanted us to pay attention to that. Her poetry calls for mental health awareness, and paying attention to one’s life..

Point #3: Ted Hughes is a monster.

Zakaria’s article suggests that his reputation doesn’t get affected by the appearance of the new letters, while some in the comment sections painted Hughes as ‘monster.’ Maybe he was driven to do things like the biographers say, maybe his reputation is ruined or not like Zakaria says. I don’t know so I am not going to pretend I do. I wasn’t there. He gets blamed for burning Plath’s diaries from her last two years, and for many other things including the death of Plath, his mistress Assia Wevill (and her child), and subsequently Nick Hughes (son with Plath).

I myself am thankful for Ted Hughes for one reason and one only: he published Sylvia Plath’s Ariel and Collected Poems, and that is enough for me. He could have easily kept the manuscript to himself, burnt it, or never have worked on it. However, he did no such thing. He decided to publish them and in the end those last two published works made Plath the iconic figure she is today. The Collected Poems got her the Pulitzer Prize (which she got posthumously in 1982). The publication or Ariel coincided with the rise of second wave feminism and that is how the two stories clashed and combined. Fans of Plath rarely let Hughes forget, and if The Birthday Letters isn’t enough proof that he didn’t exactly have a fun time after 1963 then let’s just be thankful that he published Ariel which made Plath an icon and famous, as well as The Collected Poems. In discussing this with a friend I received the retort “so a bad person did a good thing, does that make his behaviour excusable?” Obviously not, if he was abusive then I would not (and currently do not) celebrate him. I don’t hail him as a ‘great man’  and like I mentioned, his poetry isn’t one that sticks with me anyway—but if it’s his poetry you like then his biography shouldn’t affect the Hughes side because his poetry doesn’t demand it like Plath’s does.  This excerpt from Churchwell’s article highlights an important aspect of this dilemma for us readers:

“the facts may alter with new evidence, but mostly it’s our interpretations that have altered. Our ideas — about feminism, marriage, mental illness, suicide and domestic violence — change and with them or attitudes towards Plath and Hughes.”

To remember that this was the ’60s when women weren’t even allowed to run marathons, have a bank account, or attend universities without signatures from spouses, perhaps Hughes can be seen as progressive by supporting his wife’s literary career. I hope I explained in this post the ways in which I think it’s important to examine this relationship, biography in confessional poetry, and for what purpose.

I would love to know what other people think about this. And if you see another comment in those articles that irked you, why did it? Or in this one. Perhaps I have said things that you found to be untrue in your experience of reading the two poets. If yes, how so? These were the three comments that got to me, but I would love to know what you think.

Other Resources on Plath and Hughes:

Interview with Plath and Hughes

Lecture given at the University of Toronto by Professor Nick Mount.

Sylvia Plath Archives

John Green’s analysis of Plath’s poetry

Discussion of Jonathan Bate’s recent (2015) biography of Hughes: Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life

Plath reading my favourite four: “Lady Lazarus,” “The Applicant,” “Daddy” and “A Birthday Present

Audible: Ted Hughes reading his own Crow, Plath’s Biography pre-Hughes Mad Girl’s Love Song, The Bell Jar (read by Maggie Gyllenhaal), Her Husband, Hughes and Plath, A Marriage