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Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath Paperback – September 15, 1998


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 413 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books; 1st Mariner books ed edition (September 15, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0395937604
  • ISBN-13: 978-0395937600
  • Product Dimensions: 8.2 x 5.6 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,525,766 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The best critical biography of Plath yet, poet Stevenson's ( The Fiction Makers ) volume offers a convincing reinterpretation of a complex and controversial life. The author's objectivity and her success in assembling new sources pay off richly: bombarded by a superbly orchestrated array of opinions, quotations, details and anecdotes from Plath and those who knew her (Ted Hughes, Plath's husband, provided background information and reviewed the manuscript for factual accuracy), we are enabled, with Stevenson's guidance, to draw fresh conclusions about the late poet's conflicts between her fierce drive to succeed and keen appetite for self-destruction. Of particular significance is Stevenson's effort to present needed balance in portraying the marriage of Hughes and Plath; no longer cast as a victim of her husband's alleged infidelities (largely imagined, the book asserts), Plath emerges as the forger of her own fate leading to her 1963 suicide. Essays written in remembrance of Plath by Lucas Myers, Dido Merwin and Richard Murphy provide striking, invaluable firsthand views. Photos not seen by PW.
Copyright 1989 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

In her preface to this new biography of Sylvia Plath, Stevenson states that she intends to create "an objective account of how this exceptionally gifted girl was hurled into poetry by a combination of biographical accident and inflexible ideals and ambitions." Yet how can one be objective when one's aim is to explain "inflexible ideals and ambitions"? It is the very subjectivity that ultimately informs this book that is its weakest aspect. However, several previously unpublished memoirs by people who knew Plath are included as appendixes, and while they are not sufficient to make this a definitive biography (for which we will likely have to wait a number of years), they are interesting and make for a lively, if not altogether trustworthy, account of her life.
- Jessica Grim, NYPL
Copyright 1989 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

3.5 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

22 of 25 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on February 12, 1999
Format: Paperback
I wish I could give this book two reviews--four stars for the author's perceptive criticism of Plath's poetry, and one star for her depiction of the poet's life. I was stung by her condecending portrayal of Americans in general--one would never guess that the author was an American herself! I was infuriated by the weasel-like way that Ms. Stevenson portrayed Ted Hughes's affair--that he "made contact" with the woman who became his mistress, and that Plath's jealousy essentially "forced" him to be unfaithful. I had always heard that Ted Hughes's sister had a great deal to do with the final book, and I feel that her spectre shadows almost every word. Never have someone who dislikes you write your biography--particularly if she is hiding behind another person! More fuel for the Plath-Hughes controversy, which will rage on into the next century, even though both protagonists are now dead.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful By adead_poet@hotmail.com on March 27, 2004
Format: Paperback
This is one of the better biographies of Sylvia Plath (as is the Wagner-Martin biography, though Stevenson is much more thorough). Supposedly Stevenson comes down on the side of Ted Hughes, but to me the biography seems objective and fair. Even in those biographies written to make Plath look like a victim, she still comes across as tempermental and difficult to live around. I think Stevenson's biography is fair, if at times a bit ponderous to read. I'd suggest Silent Woman as a companion piece (it's a biography of Stevenson's biography). Bitter Fame has three appendices--memoirs of Sylvia written by others--Lucas Myers, Dido Merwin, and Richard Murphy. You get a sense of dread as you approach Dido's little memoir. I'm sure Plath was difficult and I'm sure Dido has her reasons, but you get the impression that she wrote her memoir just to 'get back at' Plath. To show her up so to speak, even though its tone isn't much different then what else you'll find in the book. Anyway, regardless of what type of person Sylvia Plath was, difficult or not, you cannot deny her genius, which is far greater than those who she came in contact with or have written about her.
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20 of 25 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on May 10, 2000
Format: Paperback
Why would Stevenson, with her apparent lack of knowledge and compassion regarding mental illness, choose Plath as her subject? Stevenson provides great details of Plath's life and adequate criticism of Plath's work, but loses credibility when she begins to blame Plath for behaviors clearly attributable to Plath's mental illness. Many of these behaviors are certainly offensive (i.e. irrational jealousy and rage). But I find Stevenson's attitude much more offensive, when she chastises Plath for her "sardonic refusal to accept limitation." In her final struggle with mental illness, Plath reached out desperately to all who could have helped: family, friends, physician. To compare her to the "Edge" heroine who "has freely chosen the perfection of death" is irresponsible. No one chooses mental illness, or its often dire consequences.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Pamela Blevins on October 31, 2011
Format: Paperback
Anne Stevenson has written a masterful biography of the very difficult and complex Sylvia Plat, but it is more than a biography of Plath, it is a biography of bipolar illness in all its manifestations. As the author myself of a biography of another literary victim of this terrible illness, I credit Ms. Stevenson with her willingness to set before the reader the harsh realities of bipolar illness by letting Plath's own words tell part of the story while allowing others their say. What they say is not necessary what admirers of Plath want to hear but their words describe accurately their reactions to Plath's behaviour and their bewilderment when her actions seemed to have no explanation. Plath's treatment of Hughes -- destroying his manuscripts -- and others was appalling but it was also characteristic of the extremes of an illness that she could not control but that controlled her. Stevenson IS sympathetic to Plath and clearly cares about her as a person and respects her as a poet. This is a compelling biography that will, if read with an open mind, provide newcomers to Plath's world with insights and understanding that make the iconic Plath thoroughly human and tragically damaged. Ivor Gurney and Marion Scott: Song of Pain and Beauty
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful By "me-jane" on March 20, 2003
Format: Paperback
The amount of secondary material on Sylvia Plath is enough to make anyone feel a bit queasy about her myth, and makes you question the motives of anyone who's adding to this morbid little industry. What is their agenda?
Undeniably, Plath fascinates, and not only because of the glassy, chill violence of her last poems. Ann Stevenson's biography does justice to both Plath as poet and as myth, though she tries to avoid salaciousness and does not ask questions that perhaps need answering. The thing is, Plath just becomes more and more mysterious the more you learn about her, and her death more bewildering and shocking. Does Stevenson subscribe to the chemically unstable theory? Or was Plath just an unstable personality? Stevenson never really delves into this murky but crucial territory.
The most interesting and poignant part of this biography is actually about Sylvia's early womanhood, in which Stevenson seems to have a particular feeling for her subject (perhaps because Sylvia's journals are available to her through these years). Stevenson seems to become more hesitant, more uncertain as she approaches adult Sylvia and her fabled Ariel poems, the Hughes marriage and suicide, preferring not to speculate too much on Plath's psychology and focus instead on Plath's poems, which is theoretically fine, but makes for less interesting biography because Stevenson does not write about the Ariel poems with particular insight. (She's competent enough and suitably admiring, but does not probe as deeply as is perhaps necessary.)
Still, this is a readable, if finally dissatisfying, biography. That said, it would be hard to write an entirely dull biography of Plath. I haven't read any of the other biographies available, but I can vouch that at least this one is balanced and scrupulous, if a bit over-cautious. My only other gripe would be
pictures, which are very shadowy and rarely show Sylvia herself.
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