In the Plath Archives

Janet Malcolm is fun to read because generally everything she writes is a critique of something culturally accepted AND a critique of her own practices as a journalist. Janet “meta” Malcolm. I’m reading the new Plath bio Red Comet by Heather Clark (it’s VERY long – 941pp – ironically for one of the longest bios I’ve seen, the subtitle begins “the short life…”) and, for fun, rereading Malcolm’s investigation into biography The Silent Woman (1992), which, per her usual practice, appeared in The New Yorker prior to the book publication. Her book uses a previous biography, Bitter Fame, by Anne Stevenson, as her text.

Serendipitously, as I was listening to Red Comet on Audible and ending chapter 20 – page 527 – I had also just read p155 of Malcolm’s book (near the beginning of section 3) – and these deal with with the same Plath journal entry from June 11, 1958

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. It’s a recounting of a fight that Plath and Ted Hughes had after Plath sees Hughes walking with a young woman and assuming that he’s probably having an affair with her and confronting him about it. Here’s part of the journal entry as published in the Hughes edited version:

<<June 11 Wednesday. A green cool rainy night: peace and concord, almost a month behind in this book, but much to tell— I have avoided writing here because of the rough and nightmarish entry I must take up from—but I take up and knit up the raveled ends. I had a sprained thumb, Ted bloody claw marks for a week, and I remember hurling a glass with all my force across a dark room; instead of shattering, the glass rebounded and remained intact: I got hit and saw stars—for the first time—blinding red and white stars exploding in the black void of snarls and bitings. Air cleared. We are intact. And nothing—no wishes for money, children, security, even total possession—nothing is worth jeopardizing what I have, which is so much the angels might well envy it.>>

Red Comet author Clark notes that some assume that Hughes hit Plath (all admit to some measure of violence in the relationship from both parties, and Plath makes clear how vigorous their sex is) from this entry but she notes that the syntax calls this into question – specifically the colon – that the glass Plath threw rebounded and hit her (I can attest to the veracity of this possibility!).

NOW, Malcolm, who calls into question the veracity of any non-fiction – of what we can trust/believe – remarks that she’s surprised at what Ted actually leaves in more than what he edits out of these journals and this entry is a case in point for her. She writes, “Why has Hughes chosen to feed the public imagination so many tasty scraps of his life with Plath? His sanctioning of the entries of May 19 and June 11 (in the latter, Plath writes ‘I had a sprained thumb, Ted bloody claw marks for a week’ and ‘I got hit and saw stars–for the first time–blinding red and white stars exploding in the black void of snarls and bitings’) would seem to contradict all his anguished protests against the violation of his privacy.”

So here, Malcolm, makes her point by being untrustworthy herself and by selectively quoting the journal entry, promotes the reading that Hughes hit Plath and NOT the ambiguity that Clark points to, and that seems to me no actual ambiguity – it was the glass that was guilty here.

Score one for Clark. Score one for Malcolm being the untrustworthy journalist she claims is commonplace in her profession (and that of the biographer).

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