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

3.4 out of 5 stars 59 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*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.

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
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (59 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #452,671 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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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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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
This is a hugely pretentious piece of work, with so many typos that I have to wonder if it went through a copy-editing process at all. As well, there are errors that leave me scratching my head in disbelief. The biggest gaffe is a reference to Daphne DuMaurier's Rebecca and its famous first line: "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley ... " Yeah, well not according to Mr. Rollyson who has written: "Last night I dreamed I went to Mandalay again." Okay, so he dreamed he went to Burma, which kind of illustrates his rather scattershot biographical effort here. This book is achingly tedious with an insistently ongoing----horribly failing----pretentious attempt to link Sylvia Plath to Marilyn Monroe. Huh? Uhm no. It doesn't work and it's just embarrassing. None of the people in American Isis comes to life ... until the last little bit when the loathsome (mentally ill?) Olwyn Hughes takes center stage. The descriptions of her ongoing efforts to distort and discredit Plath's legacy, particularly her marriage to Olwyn's brother, the thuggish Ted Hughes, are remarkable. This little clutch of pages demonstrates that author Rollyson actually has writing ability. It's just a pity that Olwyn Hughes wasn't the subject of this biography. Then we'd have had an intriguingly meaty book to read. As it stands, we got stuck with the gristle.
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Format: Hardcover
The book had a lot of promise. 1) It is one of the first (the first?) to benefit from the files of Ted Hughes. 2) The author had an intriguing thesis. He proposed to show Sylvia Plath's suicide as a premeditated step to establish her place in literature. 3) The title implies that Plath is the ideal wife and mother receiver of the hope and prayers of all. Unfortunately none of this is realized. The benefit of the Hughes papers does not show. The material on Plath is so gossipy and disjointed that no conclusions on much can be drawn and while author Carl Rollyson shows how Plath brings an American perspective to her British husband, there is little to show she is an Isis.

Rollyson says this is not a conventional biography, and it is not. For a serious literary figure it is much too chatty. Squibs of information are tossed about. There are bits of dialog. The most orderly thing about it is that it is chronologically presented.

Like other parts of the book, the beginning on Plath's youth was sketchy with hints of meaning that could (or could not) be derived. For instance, Rollyson makes a lot of Plath's relationship with Eddie Cohen, but it's unclear how many times she actually saw him. Quotes from Plath as a teenager and twenty-something are taken very seriously when at this age many (if not most) are fickle and dream big. The three pages on the Guest Editorship at Mademoiselle do not show what was so stressful about it or why it triggered (or did it?) Plath's first suicide attempt.

While Rollyson is knowledgeable about the 1950's he says little about how gender roles confined Plath.
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