Reclaiming the Legacy of Sylvia Plath with “The Red Comet”

Heather Clark takes on a great challenge in her highly anticipated biography of Sylvia Plath. The Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath seeks to take back the myth of Plath’s tragic life by celebrating, rather than mourning, her work.

Having penned classics such as The Bell Jar and Ariel, Sylvia Plath has made her mark on literary history. But at times, Plath’s own biography has overshadowed her literary work. Plath had prestigious schooling in attending Smith College and had an incredibly promising career as a writer. She married fellow poet, Ted Hughes, and had two children before she committed suicide in 1963, only a month after The Bell Jar was published in the UK. Her work was not originally published in her own name, in an attempt to keep her story a secret. In her lifetime, Plath suffered from depression and received electroconvulsive therapy as part of her treatment. Because of the heartbreaking nature of her life and the confessional nature of her work, Plath’s literary legacy has revolved around tragedy.

 

 

In her new biography, Clark seeks to reclaim Plath’s story by focusing on the wonders of her life rather than the disaster of her death. Clark claims in the prologue that Plath’s “life has been subsumed by her afterlife” as the public fails in knowing anything but the myth of Sylvia Plath. This new biography analyzes previously unpublished materials such as personal diaries, police records, letters, and calendars to paint a fuller and more compassionate portrait of Plath. Clark continues to set her mission by stating: “I hope to free Plath from the cultural baggage of the past fifty years and reposition her as one of the most important American writers of the 20th century.”

Although this may be a lofty goal, this biography seeks less to pathologize Plath and more to contextualize her life and work. Clark recasts many of the characters in Plath’s life in a new light, bringing a greater understanding of her rocky relationship with her father and Ted Hughes. Rather than digging into the right and wrong of their actions and pointing fingers, Clark aptly describes society’s best knowledge of what happened in these relationships and how it affected Plath.

 

 

Clocking in at over 1,100 pages, this new biography is incredibly extensive with tons of new information, even for Plath’s biggest fans. The comprehensive nature of this work makes it a must-read for aspiring writers, literary scholars, and interested readers alike.

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