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Rough Magic: A Biography of Sylvia Plath Paperback – September 18, 2003

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Nearly 30 years after Plath's (1932-1963) suicide, her troubled life proves to be fertile ground for biographers, as witness this work by Alexander (editor of Ariel Ascending ), which may be the most objective portrayal yet of the controversial American poet. Choosing to write Plath's life without the consent and probable constraints of the estate, Alexander eschews quoting from Plath's work; his is not a literary study. Yet the results are impressive: a thorough, beautifully fashioned chronicle rich in new materials and significant minutiae, beginning with the convergence of her parents' lives, continuing with Plath's precocious childhood and tumultuous adulthood, and concluding with her posthumous literary career. The book's achievement is to record Plath's notable vicissitudes with respect and sensitivity, implying but not imposing an interpretation on complex, often ambiguous evidence. Though at times we may desire more direct analysis, Alexander's understated approach has the considerable virtue of allowing readers to determine for themselves--insofar as such questions can ever be answered--what forces nurtured Plath's extraordinary lyrical gifts and what finally ended them. Photos.
Copyright 1991 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

It seems no longer possible to read Plath's poems and fictions without her life and suicide as guide. Ignore her death, and the fiction and most of the poems increasingly seem self-indulgent and less than first-rate, unable to support a major reputation half as well as her self-destructive behavior does. Because her estate--which is ruled over by Ted Hughes and his sister Olwyn, the villains in these biographies--denies authors permission to quote from Plath's work unless manuscripts are submitted for approval and changes, if requested, are made, readers are left with inadequate paraphrase, innuendo, gossip, and speculation, which then lead to controversy and mystery--which in their turn lead to sales and literary immortality. Alexander, editor of Ariel Ascending: Writings About Sylvia Plath, deserves some attention. Still, each biography finally fails, either because of padding with irrrelevant minutiae (Alexander's); or a melodramatic and Kitty Kelleyish tone (Hayman's); or the substitution of simplistic paraphrase for analyses, sensationalism for objectivity, mystery for understanding (both). The Plath Industry thrives, though the quality of its products decreases. Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/1/91 and LJ 3/15/91.
- Vincent D. Balitas, Allentown Coll. , Center Valley, Pa.
Copyright 1991 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 440 pages
  • Publisher: Da Capo Press; 2 edition (September 18, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0306812991
  • ISBN-13: 978-0306812996
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 1 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (34 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #541,534 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Paul Alexander is the author of Salinger: A Biography, the basis of Shane Salerno's much anticipated feature documentary Salinger to be released in theatres by the Weinstein Company in September before appearing on American Masters on PBS in the spring.

Alexander is the editor of the essay collection Ariel Ascending: Writings About Sylvia Plath and the author of Rough Magic, a biography of Plath; Boulevard of Broken Dreams: The Life, Times, and Legend of James Dean, a bestseller that has been published in ten countries; Death and Disaster: The Rise of the Warhol Empire and the Race For Andy's Millions; Man of the People: The Life of John McCain; The Candidate, a chronicle of John Kerry's presidential campaign; and Machiavelli's Shadow: The Rise and Fall of Karl Rove. He is the author of the bestselling Kindle Singles Murdered, Accused, and Homicidal. His latest e-book, Mistried, was published by Rosetta Books.

A former reporter for Time, Alexander has published nonfiction in The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, The Boston Globe, New York, The Nation, The Village Voice, Salon, Worth, The New York Observer, George, Cosmopolitan, More, Interview, ARTnews, Mirabella, Premiere, Out, The Advocate, Travel & Leisure, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, Biography, Men's Journal, Best Life, The New York Review of Books, The Huffington Post, and Rolling Stone. In Europe, his journalism has appeared in Paris Match, Gente, and The Guardian. He contributes to The Daily Beast.

Alexander wrote Good Night, Dorothy Kilgallen, an original screenplay about Kilgallen's investigation of the Kennedy assassination, for Twentieth Century Fox. He is the author of the plays Strangers in the Land of Canaan and Edge, which he directed. Developed at The Actors Studio, Edge, the one-woman play about Sylvia Plath, ran in New York, where Angelica Page received an Outer Critics Circle Award nomination; London; and venues in other cities, among them Miami, where New Times named Page Best Actress. Edge toured Australia and New Zealand and enjoyed a second run in New York. In all, Page performed Edge 400 times. Alexander is the director of a British revival of Ariel Dorfman's play Death and the Maiden; New York Stories, an evening of one-act plays by Paul Manuel Kane that ran in New York; and Brothers in Arms, a documentary feature film about John Kerry and Vietnam (First Run Features).

Alexander holds a BA in English and Creative Writing from The University of Alabama and an MFA from The Iowa Writers' Workshop. He has taught at the University of Houston, Long Island University, The City University of New York, and Hofstra University. Memberships include PEN American Center, the Authors Guild, and the Playwrights and Directors Unit of The Actors Studio. In the fall of 2002, he was a Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. In January 2013, he appeared at the Key West Literary Seminar as part of the Writers on Writers series.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

31 of 31 people found the following review helpful By P. B. Branscombe on September 1, 2005
Format: Paperback
Paul Alexander's "Rough Magic"is an outstandingly sensitive account of Sylvia Plath's life. The enormous amount of research by Alexander is highly impressive and clearly comes through in his amazing book. Since the author spent over five years interviewing over two hundred people who knew Plath and or Hughes as well as reading most if not all of the available archival documents concrned with his subject, it's small wonder that "Rough Magic" is such a great biography.

The description of her horrible ordeal in the chapter "Edge" should evoke sympathy and admiration for this highly talented woman who tried to cope against overwhelming odds of personal mental and physical sickness, harsh environment and separation from the man she loved.

The strength of this is the great number of personal stories from Aurelia's numerous talks with Alexander, and so many other close friends of the author which range over much of Syliva's lifetime.

I would strongly urge anyone who has even a modicum of interest in Sylvia Plath to beg, borrow, steal or even buy this book. It is one of the best biographies I have had the enormous pleasure and at times sadness in reading.

Paul Branscombe
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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Leigh on March 7, 2004
Format: Paperback
Paul Alexander's Rough Magic allows the reader to fully understand and enter the psyche of Sylvia Plath from her blissful childhood to her more tumultuous adult years. What I found was very nice about this biography was that it included Sylvia's poetry in a chronological order. It was so helpful to have her poetry included after just reading what her life was like at the immediate time that she wrote that certain piece. Also, by having her writing placed in a chronological order, I found that I could really pick up on how she developed her writing and honed her skills over time.
It is very apparent that the work gone into the making of this book was so thorough and in depth. Mr. Alexander did a fabulous job piecing Sylvia's life together in one book. It seems like every relationship Sylvia ever had has been accounted for and analyzied in this book.
I recommend this book to anyone who would like a deeper understanding of Sylvia Plath's life and her continuous descent into depression.
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Jennifer M. on February 20, 2003
Format: Paperback
At long last, a biography of Sylvia Plath written by someone who refused to bow to the editorial demands of Ted & Olwyn Hughes, who unfortunately controlled the late poet's estate at the time. Choosing freedom of speech over permission to quote Plath's work, Paul Alexander has produced an extraordinary biography that reveals the true Sylvia Plath as a girl, woman, wife, mother, and most important, author. With interviews from friends and family who had never before spoken about Plath for publication, this is a book that any scholar of Plath's life and work should not miss.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By C. Doyle on March 7, 2007
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
"Rough Magic" by Paul Alexander is a pure and objective account of the life of Sylvia Plath. It begins with her family history; a brief overview of her grandparents and parents, and follows with her childhood, including the tragic, influential death of her father when she was a young girl. Her years as a growing adolescent and emerging writer are retold with clarity and insight into the events which went on. Topics of focus include her intense, dramatic need for academic success and her longing to always remain a socially accepted person, two things which were embedded into Sylvia as a young child. The biography goes into great detail about the romantic relationships she experienced, with everything from a stolen kiss from a not-so-secret admirer during her teen-years, to the sad and turbulent end to her marriage to Ted Hughes.

In the end, you'll put this book down with a greater sense of compassion for Sylvia and a better understanding of who she really was: a loving mother and writer who tried, through her precious poetry and prose and the safety and security of a loving family, to shake the demons that followed her throughout her life, a life she considered "blessed." And you'll probably laugh a little and cry a little, and you'll miss her, because she was the type of person that you miss. And hopefully, you'll take a step back and realize that we ourselves are blessed, in just "knowing" her; that, in the story of her life and in her work, there are whispers-- graciously spoken and lovingly heard, left for us to understand and to keep.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on January 10, 2004
Format: Paperback
Thank you, Paul Alexander, for a complete and compassionate view of the life of the poet, artist, mother, wife--and sunbather!--Sylvia Plath. You put her heart, mind, and poetry (and how she arrived at that poetry) first, chapter after chapter, so that the reader could feel so very close to Sylvia. I read this book with a collection of Sylvia's poetry at hand, which made the read feel especially all-inclusive, and thorough. You did such a wonderful job of pinpointing the days on which Sylvia wrote certain poems, so that it was a pleasure to follow along and read those particular poems at the 'right time'. Sylvia grew up in print--having published her first poem at eight then continuing to publish poems year by year, until (well, and after) her death.
I found so many of the details revealed in this biography fascinating (for instance, Ted's interest in the occult and hypnosis) and Sylvia's desires for "signs" when she was lost in her life. I appreciated that she felt she had received a sign from William Butler Yeats, given his own meanderings into the supernatural.
If not for this book, I would not have been touched by her life. Many thanks for the years you must have put into bringing the book--and Sylvia--into existence. I am thankful that she gave so much of herself to the world, and that you've shown us a great deal of that Self, that heady poet and that very brave woman Sylvia Plath.
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