Volume 2: 1956-1963
Edited by Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil
Illustrated. 1,025 pp. HarperCollins Publishers. $45.

One could certainly be forgiven for thinking that no remaining bit of Sylvia Plath scholarship could change one’s view of the much analyzed poet. However, the adroitly edited new collection of her letters, “The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 2: 1956-1963,” which spans her entire marriage to the English poet Ted Hughes and its aftermath, and includes many letters that had not previously been published, provides one of the most vivid and intimate accounts of her life to date.

In particular, these letters vastly enrich our understanding of Plath’s state of mind leading up to her suicide, which has been patchy and sparse, in part because of Hughes’s decision to destroy her final journal. “The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath” ends in early July 1962, right before the ultimate crisis in their marriage, so the new collection of letters offers a fresh look at her struggle with Hughes and the last wild months of her life.

One striking aspect of these letters is how prominently and enthusiastically the domestic details of Plath’s life in England, like stew recipes or flaky crusts or home-sewn baby clothes, are discussed, even as she remains intensely dedicated to her work. She is invested in a vision of a domestic bohemian idyll with more than the usual amount of urgency. She seems to feel that this fantasy household is almost within her reach if only she could have Toll House chocolate morsels, or paint the floors, or get a sewing machine, or learn how to make her own mayonnaise. There is something feverish in this pursuit of perfection; Plath is obsessive, driven — ambitious, almost — toward domestic happiness. For nearly 800 pages, she is basically silent on any conflict with Hughes, but after hundreds of letters delineating domestic improvements and yearnings, one begins to suspect that there is a bigger problem in her house that she is trying to fix, a more profound anxiety she is trying to quiet.

Plath with her mother and two children in Devon, England, 1962.CreditCSU Archive/Everett, via Alamy

The most substantive revelations here, however, are the letters she wrote in the last eight months of her life to an American psychiatrist, Dr. Ruth Beuscher. She began her treatment with Beuscher in 1953, after the early suicide attempt chronicled in her novel “The Bell Jar,” and saw her again five years later, when Plath and Hughes had temporarily decamped to America. The poet remained close to Beuscher until the end of her life. These desperate letters, which until recently were privately held, provide astonishing insight into Plath’s inner state in the troubled months when she wrote her strongest poems.

These letters are more intimate, more raw, than the rest of her correspondence. To other people, even her mother, with whom she had an extremely close if tortured relationship, she carefully curates herself. In her letters to Beuscher, there is a kind of frantic rush of honesty, a thought process laid bare, a concerted effort to sort through and analyze her feelings. While she is writing to other people about doll prams or pork sandwiches, she is confiding in Beuscher about Hughes disappearing after a romantic night at an expensive hotel, or frankly describing the precise tenor of their sexual relations.

Without much comment, she briefly mentions a disturbing incident in which Hughes “beat me up physically” in the days before a miscarriage. She says that at the time she felt this was an “aberration” that she had provoked by deliberately ripping a manuscript of his.

Plath apparently wanted to view these letters as therapeutic “sessions” and offered to pay Beuscher to read and respond to them, but the psychiatrist refused payment and wrote back to her anyway. In confiding in Beuscher, after discovering her husband’s affair with Assia Wevill, Plath seems to be trying to solve the problem of herself. How can she change to make the marriage work? She writes: “How can I make these women unnecessary to him? And keep up my own sense of seductiveness and womanly power? I don’t want to be sorrowful or bitter, men hate that, but what can I do in the face of these prospects?” She also writes: “Can you suggest a gracious procedure when you see some little (whoops, not little, big!) tart is after your husband at a party, or dinner or something? Do you leave them to it? Engage a hotel room? Smile & vanish? Smile & stand by? What I don’t want to be is stern & disapproving or teary. But I am only human. I have to feel I have some ground-rights.”

This is very far from the familiar cold rage of the late poems: “Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air.” The Plath of these letters is engaged in a painful struggle to make her marriage work, and, later, to finding her way to managing on her own. She reveals herself as hurt and humiliated and devastated in characteristically electric prose: “He told me the truth about the femme fatale, which freed my knowledge to sit about in the light of day, like an object, to be coped with, not hid like some hair monster. And I didn’t die.”

The letters to Beuscher are moving and revelatory because they add a dimension to the hard, brilliant, glittering fury of the late poems. We are familiar with Plath’s fierceness, the power of her imagination to exact revenge, to correct humiliations, to create dark drama out of despair. But we are notably less familiar with the Plath of these letters, trying so hard to steady herself, to gain perspective, to find her way toward the independence and health she could so clearly make out, just in the distance.

The decline of her marriage and her subsequent breakdown have been subject to so much projection and politicizing that it is an enormous contribution to see the poet tackle these events in her own words. These letters take the grand archetype of suicidal Plath, the elaborate, brittle mythologies that have sprung up around her, and give them an unforgettable human specificity. What has been missing from the biographical record of the final months is Plath’s own voice.

The saddest thing to watch is how hard she was working to get better. Beuscher advised her not to imagine that she couldn’t exist without Hughes: “First, middle and last, do not give up your personal one-ness.” She warns her not to imagine that her entire life hinges on one particular man. Plath was trying to make her way to the doctor’s words. “The part about keeping my personal one-ness is a real help. I must. But my god I can’t see to thinking straight.”

What comes across so clearly and heartbreakingly in these letters is how hard she is trying. She is actively engaged in the intellectual work of getting better. Beuscher recommends Erich Fromm to her, and she reads and stars a passage: “I have finally read the Fromm & think that I have been guilty of what he calls ‘Idolatrous love,’ that I lost myself in Ted instead of finding myself.”

She wanted so badly to be able to see a life without Hughes, to be able to inhabit it. She could almost see it. She writes to Beuscher, “If I could study, read, enjoy people on my own, Ted’s leaving would be hard, but manageable.” Seven days later, she was dead.