There are several moments in this second volume of Plath’s letters when you feel you are watching a Greek tragedy ... Yet to regard the letters merely as raw material for poems undervalues them. They are astonishing in themselves, terrible in their intensity and as raw as freshly sliced meat. As a real-life depiction of a mind in agony they are, so far as I know, unmatched in literature.
And what a tour de force [The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Vol. 2] is... Her energy even when she is doing or observing the most ordinary things vaults off the page ... But Plath’s panic is, at bottom, existential. There is a terror in her of being alive at all, which gives her poetry its hellish edge but which the letters keep valiantly at bay. It’s through the material world, and her own body in particular, that she makes herself feel real: through food and the touch of the sun on her skin; sex and childbirth.
In this new book of letters, written between 1956 and 1963, ending a week before Plath’s death, at 30, we see the [project's] goals triumphantly and tragically fulfilled ... In her final letters there was a note of wild, almost unbearable optimism... It’s a genuine shock to see her strength flare ('my life, my sense of identity, seemed to be flying back to me from all quarters, buried hidden places') just as the pages begin to dwindle. No one can seem quite so alive on the page as Plath...
... 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 ... 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 ... These desperate letters [to Dr. Ruth Beuscher], which until recently were privately held, provide astonishing insight into Plath’s inner state in the troubled months when she wrote her strongest poems.
But the Beuscher letters, included in the new volume, are different; they are among the most revealing pieces of prose that Plath ever wrote, in any genre ... [Plath's] letters re-situate these poems, and others, within the stream of lived passions, banalities, and interruptions that surrounded and fed them. We already know what Plath sounds like when she’s alone with the page, but here we find the reservoirs of composure that she tapped when she faced the world, and we see how abruptly they went dry ... The experience of reading these letters, even at their most joyous, cannot be separated from what we know is coming.
The letters in this new volume—particularly the full texts of Plath’s correspondence with her mother and the fourteen newly discovered letters to Dr. Beuscher—not only document what she experienced during her last months, but also resonate verbally and thematically with the poems ... Whether documenting the years that led up to this formative crisis or exposing the anguish Plath suffered in the midst of it, this new volume of letters throws familiar elements of the story—and of Plath’s poems—into a stark new perspective. The book abounds in dramatic irony ... although the letters from July 1962 onward are harrowing, the previous 790 pages, despite the banality of the domestic details that snowball as Plath devotes herself to homemaking and motherhood, also exact a toll, for, like the audience of a Greek tragedy, readers know what lies ahead. More than the suicide, Hughes’s eventual betrayal retrospectively colors the first three quarters of the book, especially Plath’s glowing descriptions of their productive literary relationship and the praise she lavishes on him ... the dramatic ironies that punctuate Plath’s letters also resonate so sharply because of the intensity with which she records her experiences. Readers may therefore have the uncanny sense of viewing Plath’s letters in stereoscope: of witnessing a life lived, in real time, through the vividness of her recounting, but also reading retrospectively, so that foreknowledge of what lies ahead hones her words to a double edge ... the book’s real distinction lies in the clarity of her writing. As in the Ariel poems, she writes from the depths of crisis with precision, emotional acuteness, and dashes of black humor ... The Letters of Sylvia Plath: Volume 2 should renew readers’ appreciation of her achievement—and mend some of the damage done by her twentieth-century editors.
Many readers will be tempted to skip over the first 700 pages of this volume, to go straight for the final months. But that would be a big mistake ... Surprisingly, some of this domestic detail is new. Rather than editing out the 'not nice' Sylvia for Letters Home, Aurelia seems more often to have objected to the 'nice' one, as if she too were a little unconvinced by her existence ... The most illuminating part of the second volume may, in fact, be the story it tells about England versus America and, especially, about the two-and-a-half years that the Hugheses spent on the east coast ... Footnotes of the form 'See Ruth Beuscher to SP, 17 September 1962' are frustrating, given the immense difficulty of 'seeing' these letters in the Smith College special collections. Could they not have been summarized or even published here?
These [letters] are unusually frank by Plath’s standards, and they cover the brief period of greatest interest (both prurient and literary), during which she wrote her best and best-known poems ... The book provides, in the end, an account of an ordinary anguish out of which Plath produced something extraordinary.
... let’s salute the muscular act of scholarship, the marathon of archivism, that has produced this book... the editors, Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil, have collected it all: 575 letters, to 108 recipients. Nearly 1,000 pages... This will not have to be done again ... As a reading experience, Volume 2 provides, in the way of these things, an overload of material and a lack of transmutation. It’s not art, in other words, and why would it be? These are first takes, recorded at different pressures; some of them are more worked-upon than others. Plath is of course the structural center, but as she spins through her voices—gushing, intimate, secretarial-professional, rapturous, vicious, recriminatory, coldly lyrical—the text decenters and decenters again. What carries us through, inevitably, is the narrative pull, the death-drag, of the end point.
The exhaustive reports on furniture, cooking, renovations, and real estate aren’t thrilling, but neither are they boring, being possessed of a kind of homely tactile truth that is revealing and hypnotic in its way ... On occasion, the mundane stories suggest a kind of unsettling foreknowledge ... Most notable among the many hundreds of pages of this volume, however, are fourteen previously unpublished letters addressed to Plath’s analyst, Dr. Ruth Beuscher ... There is a kind of gusto to unhappiness of a high order, a sublimity to the utter depths. In many places, these late letters share the imperious frankness and throaty rage of the poems that made Plath’s name[.]
The Sivvy voice of the letters has often been compared with the voice in her journals to make an argument about Plath’s unstable personality, but she often sounds like her journal self in her letters to her boyfriends, and the playful way she writes...is a relief after pages of carefully turned advertisement prose to her mother ... There is a moment in Tess of the D’Urbervilles when Hardy has Tess notice that among all the days of the year that mean something to her, there is one ‘which lay sly and unseen’, the one on which she’ll die: ‘Why did she not feel the chill of each yearly encounter with such a cold relation?’ Reading Plath’s letters, you feel the chill ... The Plath-Hughes marriage doesn’t at first seem damned ... Another Sylvia emerges in late 1962, one that would no longer paint hearts and flowers on furniture: a badass nearly divorced Sylvia ... At the end of [one] letter I was in tears, and had to stop reading.
The Letters of Sylvia Plath Volume 2, deftly edited by Plath authorities Karen V. Kukil and Peter K. Steinberg, serves as a chronicle of the Plath-Hughes marriage ... Because Plath was an ardent letter writer, Volume 2, coming in at more than 1,000 pages, assiduously documents the joy and success of the marriage’s first six years and the anguish and drama of its final six months that resulted in Plath’s suicide one frigid morning in February 1963 ... In often haunting detail, The Letters of Sylvia Plath Volume 2 documents the rise and fall of a literary marriage whose dissolution ended up destroying a genius.
[The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Vol. 2] is a shattering chronicle of a woman’s struggle to be both a pathbreaking artist and a domestic paragon ... Together, these two volumes accentuate the wonder of all that Plath accomplished by age 30, and her poetry, fiction, journals, and letters will remain forever alive, daring, urgent, and electrifying.
[Plath's lettters to her psychiatrist] don’t make volume two, which covers the period from Plath’s marriage until her death, worth your time in its entirety. Running to more than 1,000 pages, it comes with all the same problems as its predecessor ... But Frieda [Hughes] was right: the letters to [Plath's psychiatrist] are extraordinary, throwing vital light on Plath’s mental state in the period after she discovered Hughes’s affair with Assia Wevill ... [Plath] is needy and demanding, suggestible and narcissistic. I should say that none of this remotely bothers me... But it will trouble some, and over the course of so long a book, Plath’s voice, hectoring and frequently manipulative, is undoubtedly wearying.
[Letters to Plath's psychiatrist] are naked as only letters between patient and psychiatrist can be, describing in graphic detail Ted Hughes’s aggression, deceit and violence ... It is a sensation that the reader of this volume – which runs to more than a thousand pages – will share ... [Plath] vents her fury to her other correspondents, too, and much of the force of this volume comes from repetition, letter after letter building into a fugue of sorrow and anger.
Journals, soul-baring poems, autobiographical fiction, and several biographies and critical studies have made the trajectory and struggles of Sylvia Plath’s (1932-1963) life familiar. Nevertheless, the second volume of her correspondence, edited, annotated, and introduced by Plath scholars Steinberg and Kukil, offers new revelations ... An exemplary edition offering a textured portrait of an iconic poet.
The collection is mordantly fascinating ... Unobtrusively edited and scrupulously footnoted, this set of letters is a dazzling literary achievement, capturing the tender beauty of Plath’s richly lived, too short life.