Plath, living in England with only one volume of poetry andna pseudonymous novel published during her life, had barelynbegun to reach her public when she killed herself at 30,nwhereas Sexton, with major prizes, honorary degrees, andnseven volumes of verse published by the time of her death,ntasted about as much celebrity as America is likely to lavishnon a poet. Plath’s suicide was long premeditated — she hadnfailed in one attempt, treated as fiction in The Bell jar,nduring the summer after her junior year in college — andnwas probably spurred by the stresses wrought by a maritalnseparation, the demands of two small children, and a host ofnphysical and psychological ills. Sexton, her children grownnand her long marriage ended at her own instigation, wasnaddicted to alcohol and pills and seemed a burnt-out casenmany years before her actual death. The likelihood wasnsmall, given the negative critical response to her volumesnafter Live or Die, that she would ever again write at her best.nThe first biographical study of Plath was A. Alvarez’snmemoir in his best-selling 1971 study of writers and suicide,nThe Savage God, published the same year as the firstnAmerican edition of The Bell Jar. Five years later appearednEdward Butscher’s full-length biography, Sylvia Plath:nMethod and Madness, the first of five books on Plath thatnwere to meet with varying degrees of resi,stance from hernestate, which was controlled by her husband and his sister,nOlwyn Hughes. Because of opposition from the estate,nLinda Wagner-Martin’s Sylvia Plath: A Biography of 1987nis almost devoid of quotations from Plath’s publishednwriting, as are two further studies published in 1991, RonaldnHayman’s The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath and PaulnAlexander’s Rough Magic: A Biography of Sylvia Plath.nTo this date, the only biography to have the full cooperationnof the Hughes family is Anne Stevenson’s Bitter Fame:nA Life of Sylvia Plath, which credits Olwyn Hughes to thendegree that Stevenson calls it “almost a work of dualnauthorship.” Because Stevenson had permission to quote atnwill. Bitter Fame is the only one of these books to integratenfully Plath’s poetry with the parallel events she notes in hernjournal and in her letters to her mother, both of which havenappeared in selected editions. Depending on the reader’snpredisposition to view Plath as either a hapless victim of anruthlessly dominating husband or as an incarnation of anfirst-class bitch-goddess, one can find a Sylvia for almost anynoccasion in these books. Butscher’s book focuses on Plath’snchildhood and on the trauma of her father’s death when shenwas eight, an event that Butscher regards as the key tonunderstanding both her life and her poetry. “Daddy,” ofncourse, is her best-known poem, and even though little in itncan be taken as fact it provides us with insight into the way innwhich Plath equated her husband’s abandonment of hernwith the crushing loss she experienced in her childhood.nWagner-Martin, on the other hand, gives us a protofeministnSylvia, one who might have survived if only she had beennable to find a nurturing sisterhood to give her aid andncomfort during her year of the pig. In Wagner-Martin’snview, the tone of Plath’s poetry is not so much irrationalnwrath as righteous indignation. Anne Stevenson’s Sylvia, bynseveral lengths the juiciest portrait of the five, is an obsessiventermagant, constantiy demanding the full attention andnardor of her exasperated, compliant husband and throwingnembarrassing little suits when she does not get her way.nStevenson appends three short memoirs by acquaintances ofnPlath — Lucas Meyers, Dido Merwin, and RichardnMurphy — and they go a long way toward displacing whatnStevenson labels as two misconceived views of her life andncharacter: one that sees her, in W.S. Merwin’s words, asn”the pathetic victim of [Ted Hughes’] heartless mistreatment”nand another, which wishes to “assess her contributionnto the feminist movement as being politically of the samenorder as that, say, of Adrienne Rich.” Depending on whichnversion one reads, either St. Sylvia or St. Ted emerges as thenprotagonist of the mystery play.nThe two studies of Plath that appeared in 1991 do notnadd much in the way of substance to this twisted hagiography.nHayman’s book, in its very tide, tells us where his truenfascination with the subject rests, and the result reads likenone of those Jim Bishop The Day . . . Died books. Haymannrefers to a mysterious man in a dark suit who appears at theninquest following Plath’s suicide and even assigns sinisternmotives to such trivial matters as Ted- Hughes’ errors inndating poems by Plath that have appeared in her posthumousncollections. Alexander’s Rough Magic is the New Agenversion, replete with portentous tarot readings, creepy Ouijansessions at home with Sylvia and Ted, and the implicationnthat the abusive (in this version) Hughes’ penchant fornposthypnotic suggestion might have led to Plath’s suicide.nAll these books lack is a bloody finger pointing to possiblenCIA involvement in Plath’s death; I would not be terriblynsurprised to hear that Hayman’s and Alexander’s books havenbeen optioned by Oliver Stone for Sylvia, a bio-pic starringnMeryl Streep and Mel Gibson; or that yet one moren”definitive” biography is in the works, this one by KittynKelley.nN eithernAnne Sexton’s poetry nor her life is likely tondraw this level of attention. Her poetry, which isngenerally more accessible than Plath’s dense texture of sonicnrichness, mythical allusions, and autobiographical subtext,ndoes not demand a great deal of exegesis and often borrowsnshamelessly from other poets, including Plath. Comparen”My cheeks blossomed with maggots. / I picked at them likenpearls” from Live or Die with Plath’s “They had to call andncall / And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls” from theneariier Ariel. Because Sexton is so relentlessly autobiographical—n”confessional,” in the most plebeian sense of thenterm — there is not a great deal of mystery about the sourcesnof her poems, even though a biography may salve thenreader’s curiosity by filling in names and dates. DianenMiddlebrook’s Anne Sexton does a great deal of that butnotherwise can never quite transcend the fundamentallyndreary suburban routine of cocktails at five and fisticuffs byneight — no matter how often punctuated by hectic andnboozy reading tours, numerous short-term affairs and subsequentnnervous collapses, and fleeting moments of acclaimn— that emerges as the dominant chord in Sexton’s maritalnlife.nThe controversy surrounding the book’s two most startlingnrevelations, that Sexton’s psychiatrist allowed tapenrecordings of her therapy sessions to be used by thenbiographer and that Sexton was both victim and instigator ofnepisodes of incest, seems mostly a publisher’s ploy to buildnsales on Geraldo-style sensationalism. To my knowledge, nonnnMARCH 1992/23n