On this week’s episode of Working, Rumaan Alam spoke with writer and poetry professor Heather Clark about her new Sylvia Plath biography, Red Comet. They discussed Clark’s extensive archival research for the book using never-before-accessed documents, the importance of correcting common misconceptions about Plath, and how Clark relates to Plath as a writer and a woman. This partial transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Rumaan Alam: This is a biography with an agenda, and that agenda is to dispel a popular image of Sylvia Plath. As you point out in the biography itself, there is a contradictory popular image of Plath. One, that she was a delicate flower who was a victim of a deeply sexist society. Then the inverse is that she was this kind of death-obsessed, half-crazy, madwoman.
My question is, does biography always begin with an agenda? You already had a previous understanding of this woman’s work as a scholar, but did you begin with that thesis or did the research show you what that thesis was?
Heather Clark: I guess I did begin with that thesis, probably because of my academic training. It’s been drilled into my head that you need a thesis. But I don’t necessarily believe that’s the case. I had this sense of injustice, or frankly anger, about the ways in which she had become a writer whose name was often synonymous with madness and tragedy.
I felt like she’s so brilliant and witty and cerebral and ironic, and a lot of that was getting lost in the popular imagination. So I started with that sense of mission, but I certainly don’t think it’s something that everyone starts with. Actually, through the course of the research, I became a more firm believer in my own thesis, because even I would have these moments, and my editor would write in the margin, “Don’t fall into the Plath trap.”
I really tried not to use words like obsessive that pathologized her. I really tried to watch my language to the level of individual words. But every once in a while, something would slip through, and my editor would catch it. I guess I had even started thinking maybe she was more fragile than I came to discover she was. By the end of the book, she seemed so strong—strong in the sense that she had such a clear vision of her vocation, and she had such a strong will, and she wanted to fulfill her calling. Nothing could deviate her from fulfilling that literary calling.
I was so impressed by that. Of course, when severe depression struck, it was a different story. When she became ill. But in her day-to-day life this amazing sense of fortitude and strength really came across to me as I researched her.
You also have spoken about this book being a work of critical biography. That was one of the things that I found most surprising—that it’s looking at the circumstances and the stuff of Plath’s life, but it’s using a penetrating critical eye. For example, one of the things that it does—that I think is very unusual in the context of all of this writing about Plath—is engage very seriously with her juvenilia. I’m really curious about why you chose to take her youthful short stories and poetry this seriously. You mentioned in the book that other biographers have neglected to do that. What do you think the previous scholarship on Plath missed by discounting that early work?
I was writing a biography of a great American writer. The question that I always had in the back of my mind, which was my North Star, was: How did Sylvia Plath become the writer that she became? When I started to get overwhelmed by all the archival documents, that is the question that I would come back to. Looking at her juvenilia was, to me, a kind of archeology, because that helped me answer the question how did she get to where she got to? What was she reading as a child? What kind of poems was she writing? She had an almost perfect ear as a child. I wanted people to understand that she could write in perfect iambic tetrameter.
She had such a strong sense of meter from a very, very young age. She was even revising her work by age 8 or 9. She had a real lyrical gift. This calling that she had, I think she discovered it at a very young age, and she never looked back. I wanted readers to understand just how strong that calling was and how early it was that it grabbed her.
There’s this sense in other biographies that she was only writing to please other people—to get love from her mother, her professors, her teachers—and I thought that short-changed her own sense of ambition and determination and the pleasure that she got out of writing.