It is a struggle sometimes in biography to find new ways to write about subjects about whom many biographies have been written. This is...

It is a struggle sometimes in biography to find new ways to write about subjects about whom many biographies have been written. This is particularly pronounced in the case of iconic figures of the 20th century (think: Marilyn Monroe, Jacqueline Onassis, Elvis Presley, F. Scott Fitzgerald), and an area in which the partial life biography can play an interesting role. Whereas biographers have more traditionally opted for what we call “cradle-to-grave” narratives, the partial life biography instead offers a slice of a life- a particular period that is explored in-depth. Such is the case with Elizabeth Winder‘s Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953(Harper, 2013).

Plath’s is a story most everyone knows, and yet her time working in New York as an intern in Mademoiselle has not previously been studied outside of the context of all that came after, which is surprising because it’s an interesting period but also because her experiences then formed the basis for what she would later write in The Bell Jar. The summer is of not just biographical interest, but literary significance as well.

There is about Pain, Parties, Work an inevitable sense of clouds brewing- the summer will end, Plath will return home, and she will attempt suicide by taking pills and crawling under her mother’s house- but there’s also a sensation of joy: the joy of young women alone in a big city, experimenting with boys and clothes and make-up and work. Pain, Parties, Work is bolstered by the fact that Winder was able to secure interviews with many of Plath’s fellow interns, voices that have been notably absent in many of the earlier accounts and which lend an immediacy to a well-known story. The interviews with these women do much to flesh out the concrete details of the experience as well as Plath’s unique struggles within it.

The Plath we have here is young and eager, fond of make-up and boys, and already displaying a rare gift for words. The clouds are on the horizon, yes- we all know that- but, in the meantime, the city and the thrill of discovery provide an intoxicating distraction. Summer is a time in which anything can happen. Reading Winder’s narrative and meeting Plath in this context, one feels that keenly: the excitement of a girl in the city, the hope and heat of New York, an electricity in the air.

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