My review of Carl Rollyson’s American Isis

“Charged words were a tonic for Sylvia Plath-no matter whether they expressed her highs or her 15793110lows… Words were how she persuaded herself. Words-as her poems reiterate-were the very stuff of life to her; “[T]he blood jet is poetry.” Using words, she could create that blissful union with Ted, and with words she could demolish it. She could not, however, permanently secure herself with words, and her recognition that poetry was only a momentary stay against confusion undid her. She wanted more than words could give her.”

As an undergraduate English major I can recall reading some of Sylvia Plath’s work in my American literature survey classes. To be honest, it did not make an impression on me then as my mind and heart was drawn to the goings on of unforgettable fictional people in an unforgettable fictional Mississippi county named Yoknapatawpha. But Carl Rollyson’s new biography of Plath has clearly brought to my attention the heartbreaking and tragic story of an emotionally fraught and poetically gifted person who perhaps could have rivaled the creator of Yoknapatawpha had she lived and been able to overcome her emotional and mental demons.

American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath is more than a biography. It is an analysis of her mind, heart, soul, family, life and work. To read it as a straight forward biography is to misread it in my opinion and to be lost as one does so.

From the start this book requires of the reader some basic acquaintance of both Plath’s life and work as well as the scholarly discussion and debates that surround her life and work. I will confess that not recognizing this until I began to pen this review has given me fresh clarity about what I have read.

Having read Rollyson’s equally deep and strong biography of Hollywood legend Dana Andrews Hollywood Engima last year, I recognized his intertwining of Plath’s work with what was occurring her life just as he drew out the tensions of Andrews’ life and mind with key excerpts from the films that made Andrews famous in the mid to late 40’s. As he does in American Isis it offers the reader a glimpse into the emotionally taut and tortured life of a loved and admired emerging writer in both American and England in the mid to late 1950’s and early 60’s.

At times clear and at other times murky, this biography, this study, of a brilliant yet tortured writer offers serious readers of Plath as well as American literature a fresh, and probably, controversial perspective as Rollyson  when he says in his introduction:

“Plath is a genre breaker and a cross-cultural heroine. She bridges cultures like the Isis who eventually became a beloved object of worship throughout the Greco-Roman world…The Isis-like Plath encompasses characteristics that would seem to be at odds. Plath’s suicide-and her poems that flirt with death-have become part of the Eros and Thanatos of her biography. And it is precisely this sort of tension between conflicting elements that transforms Plath into a modern icon, one that will continue to enchant and bedevil biographers. “Another biography of Sylvia Plath?” a reader will ask. Yes, the time to define the Plath myth for a new cohort of readers and writers is now.”


I liked this book for a very in-depth presentation of a poet and writer truly unknown to me as well as some other poets and writers. But it was a difficult read at times. However I am glad that I read this work as it has provided me with a perspective on a poet who was part of modern American literature and whose work, I am sure, continues to influence  poets today.

Note: I rate this book a ‘good’ read. I was given a galley copy of this book from Net Galley via the publisher St. Martin’s press. I was not required to write a positive review.


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