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American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath Hardcover – January 29, 2013

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Editorial Reviews

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*Starred Review* In spite of all that has been written about Sylvia Plath’s incendiary poetry, her doomed marriage to poet Ted Hughes, her suicide, and the vicious struggle over her literary estate, accomplished biographer Rollyson presents a fresh, focused, and clarifying interpretation of her “protean personality” and radical work. He kicks things off with a jolt: “Sylvia Plath is the Marilyn Monroe of modern literature.” On his way to substantiating this bold assertion, Rollyson draws on newly available materials, retrieves overlooked aspects of Plath’s life, decodes her fascination with the great deity Isis, and recognizes her intense, ultimately unsustainable ambition to be a paramount force. We see Plath as a high-IQ girl shattered by her father’s death, preternaturally close to her mother, and precociously devoted to writing and winning prizes. Rollyson offers intriguing insights into Plath’s ardor for popular culture, including such melodramatic fiction as Stella Dallas, by Olive Higgins Prouty, who became a mentor as Plath struggled to write both poetry and potboilers. In his true-life page-turner, Rollyson astutely deciphers Plath’s complicated love life and attempt to retain emotional distance, ex-pat life in England, jump-starting of Hughes’ career while relentlessly pursuing her own, and catastrophic depression. Rollyson unveils brilliant, driven, spotlight-craving Plath as an exceptional, trailblazing artist who pushed herself to be a goddess until she could do no more. --Donna Seaman


"The figure that emerges from Rollyson's study is certainly compelling, and very much a woman of her moment and culture." ---Publishers Weekly --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press; 1st edition (January 29, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312640242
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312640248
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.2 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (59 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #602,850 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Carl Rollyson, Professor of Journalism at Baruch College, The City University of New York, has published more than forty books ranging in subject matter from biographies of Marilyn Monroe, Lillian Hellman, Martha Gellhorn, Norman Mailer, Rebecca West, Susan Sontag, and Jill Craigie to studies of American culture, genealogy, children's biography, film, and literary criticism. He has authored more than 500 articles on American and European literature and history. His work has been reviewed in newspapers such as The New York Times and the London Sunday Telegraph and in journals such as American Literature and the Dictionary of Literary Biography. For four years (2003-2007) he wrote a weekly column, "On Biography," for The New York Sun and was President of the Rebecca West Society (2003-2007). His play, THAT WOMAN: REBECCA WEST REMEMBERS, has been produced at Theatresource in New York City. Amy Lowell Anew: A Biography (awarded a "We the People" NEH grant) will be published in August 2013. . "Hollywood Enigma: Dana Andrews, a biography of Dana Andrews was published in September 2012 by University Press of Mississippi. His biography, "American Isis: The Life and Death of Sylvia Plath" was published in February 2013, the fiftieth anniversary of her death. In 2013, he also published Amy Lowell Anew: A Biography, and in 2014 Marilyn Monroe Day by Day. His biography/memoir A Private Life of Michael Foot will be published in August 2015. He is currently at work on two books, Memoirs of a Serial Biographer and a biography of William Faulkner. His reviews of biography appear regularly in The Wall Street Journal, The Minneapolis Star Tribune, The Raleigh News & Observer, The Kansas City Star, and The New Criterion. He is currently advisory editor for the Hollywood Legends series published by the University Press of Mississippi. He welcomes queries from those interested in contributing to the series. Read his column, "Biographology," and his blog on
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

22 of 24 people found the following review helpful By R. Murphy VINE VOICE on February 12, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I was really looking forward to this book. I've read a lot of Sylvia Plath biographies in the past and I was excited to learn what the information obtained from the Ted Hughes archive would add to the view of this very compelling woman.

Well, the information is very promising, but I think I'm going to have to wait for a writer other than Rollyson to write about Plath in order to get a thorough portrait. It's painfully clear from the opening chapter that Rollyson isn't interested in presenting a humanizing and accurate portrait of Sylvia Plath, but wants to simply add to the fetishization of Plath's legacy. His prose is overblown and breathy, and after a rather off-putting introduction where he declares his intentions to avoid the standard "boilerplate" of most Plath biographies (which, in all honesty, is only boilerplate if he decided not to do his own research and obtain fresh insights) and write a book for the "Plath experts" rather than novices, he mostly indulges in scattered anecdotes. Most obnoxiously, particularly when dealing with a subject who was famous for rewriting her own history, he will often present the anecdote as Plath often gave it, then after a completely straightforward retelling will then explain the truth behind it. This is extremely frustrating because I would then have to go back and reread the Plath version to compare the two, since Rollyson would then fail to give any analysis on the changes beyond another sycophantic murmuring of how those changes were simply another indicator of Plath's brilliance in crafting a public persona as a "Primordial Child of Time" (what was horrifying was Rollyson's utter lack of irony in terms like this and how steadily he beat to death his own introduction of the Isis terminology).
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36 of 42 people found the following review helpful By Reader from Washington, DC on February 6, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I award this book a "5" for research and a "2" for its tone and approach, which works out to a "3."

This biography of poet Sylvia Plath has some interesting pieces of new information, based on the author's research in archives and interviews with some of the people who knew her. The author clearly did a ton of work.

The author also takes clear and informative positions on the many unresolved questions about Plath's life and work and the way her husband handled her literary estate after her suicide. Since these questions have split scholars and fans of Plath and her estranged husband, poet Ted Hughes, into opposing sides for decades, the author's candor about certain disputes was refreshing and welcome.

However, the tone of the book is very cold. The author treats Plath, Hughes and many others connected with them in a manner that I perceived as condescending.

Newcomers to Plath biographies will be bewildered by the author's brief, cryptic references to incidents that are well-known to people who have read other Plath biographies and materials where these incidents are described in detail. This makes the biography more useful to scholarly insiders than the average reader.

The author did this deliberately, basically stating that he is not writing for the "Plath novice" but for "the knowledgeable Plath reader." This approach seems very patronizing to me. I am a "knowledgeable Plath reader" -- I've read a great deal about her -- but I am baffled as to why the author would ignore potential book purchasers who are new to Plath's work and life.
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39 of 50 people found the following review helpful By Nicole Del Sesto on January 27, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I don't read a lot of biographies. The reason is because of books like this. It's everything I'd feared biographies would be (even though I've read and loved a number of good ones.)

The author starts out by telling us that he's going to dispense with the formalities. He's not going to do the Sylvia (or Syl or Siv or Sivvy as he likes to call her. I just call her "SP" one syllable - sounds like "psst", but backwards) we know and love. He says "...I have dispensed with a good deal of the boilerplate most biographers feel compelled to supply." Because this is "distracting" and he doesn't want to "contextualize Plath ... as valuable as that can be for the Plath novice" He wants to show instead "the intensity of the person who was Sylvia Plath."

He starts by comparing her to Marilyn Monroe, interpreting a dream she had before most of us were born and illuminating us on her love for Superman. I guess when you dispense with the boilerplate, you scrape the bottom of the barrel?

The writing: Appalling alliteration ambush! "Her emollients eventually evaporated" (wait, there's more) "and he would erupt with thunderous exclamations." "Otto exhorted excellence, and he enjoyed endowing his daughter..." (spoiler alert: Otto Plath liked huge pork roast sandwiches.)

And that was all before page 12.

If all you are going to do is "use quotes" from "other people's work" then I'm not sure why you needed to "write the book." It's "not good." It's all Plath said "this and this" and so she is like this person (most likely Marilyn Monroe) for this reason. (Every time I read Marilyn's name in this book, I rolled my eyes and skipped to the next paragraph. Holy cow. We get it. You wrote a biography on Marilyn.
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