Picks and Pans Review: The Silent Woman

UPDATED 04/25/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 04/25/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT

by Janet Malcolm

The freedom to be cruel is one of journalism's uncontested privileges," says Janet Malcolm in this thoughtful, biting study of the problem of biography. The silent woman at the center of Malcolm's latest meditation is Sylvia Plath, the poet who, at 30, committed suicide in 1963.

As Malcolm sees it, one of biography's obstacles is that "memory is notoriously unreliable; when it is intertwined with ill will, it may become monstrously unreliable." Who is the Sylvia Plath that emerges from the voluminous biographies, essays and articles written about her? Saint or sinner, angel or madwoman? A housewife who wrote poetry on the side, or a poet miserably shackled by family life? Malcolm implies that no one has got it right. And what's worse, the means by which Plath clearly wished to be remembered—her poetry—has been obscured by the publication of her letters and journals and the musings of those who knew her.

You wouldn't want to be on Malcolm's bad side. The controversial journalist (In the Freud Archives, The Journalist and Murderer) performs character assassination with surgical precision, and often her victims seem to get exactly what they deserve. Only poet Ted Hughes, Plath's husband, escapes. Hughes undoubtedly could have written more intimately about his late wife than any of her biographers; instead, he has chosen to remain silent. In Malcolm's view, Hughes is the only member of a rarefied, intellectual cast of characters who did not sell Plath down the river. This is a brilliant exploration of talent, early death and the carnivorous world of journalism. (Knopf, $23)

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