New Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath biographies -- The new tomes about the literary stars raise ethical questions

Whatever happened to literary celebrity in America? Our continuing fascination with Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, poets who died young by their own hands (Plath at 30 in 1963, Sexton at 45 in 1974), is a poignant reminder of a time when the combustible mix of creativity and despair could make a writer into a star — a reminder that is now being thrown into relief by some sensational biographical revelations.

The two women are linked by more than their youthful suicides; their beauty, their sexual voracity, and the personal nature of their verse have also given them an immense and somewhat prurient appeal. Where the two poets differ is in their treatment at the hands of biographers. Sexton, the subject of a brilliant new book by Diane Wood Middlebrook, is now the posthumous object of full disclosure, while Plath’s secrets remain fiercely guarded. The fates of their two life stories raise the question of what we need to know about a writer’s life, and why.

Middlebrook’s biography, Anne Sexton, which will appear next month, has already raised cyclones of controversy for its use of 300 tapes of the poet’s therapy sessions, which were released by Sexton’s first psychiatrist, Dr. Martin T. Orne. While virtually none of the taped material is actually quoted in the book, its disclosures that Sexton may have been sexually abused as a child and had an incestuous experience with her older daughter, Linda Gray Sexton, have given literature tabloid value and called into question the ethics of Orne’s act.

Plath continues to generate interest for different reasons. While her poetic achievement is surely equal to Sexton’s, her life is as closed as Sexton’s is open, and this intrigues us. ”Plath was not a confessional poet,” says Peter Davison, a poet who knew the two women well, and who edited both Middlebrook’s book and Anne Stevenson’s Bitter Fame, an authorized 1989 biography of Plath. ”Writing about her was very painful. You couldn’t get at the life — only the wall of poetry. It’s like the wall of thorns around Sleeping Beauty.”

Yet there have been other walls around Plath as well. Biographies of her have been killed aborning by the potent combination of her ex-husband, poet Ted Hughes, and her literary executor, Hughes’ sister, Olwyn. Not only have the Hugheses declined to release crucial information about Plath; Ted Hughes also destroyed journals of hers that dealt with the end of her life, to protect their children, he maintains. Others see the destruction differently. Erica Jong, whose poetry was influenced by Plath and Sexton, asserts that ”Hughes destroyed (the journals) to conceal his involvement with another woman.” Hughes has always denied this.

Middlebrook, who speaks of the ”extraordinarily good cooperation” she enjoyed from the Plath estate in the release of materials for her Sexton biography (Plath and Sexton knew each other when they studied poetry with Robert Lowell at Boston University in the late ’50s), nevertheless admits others have had difficulties. She points to a book called The Haunting of Sylvia Plath, by Jacqueline Rose, which details ”why the Plath estate has been so fraught and vexed.” And Janet Malcolm — herself the author of The Journalist and the Murderer, a controversial investigation of Joe McGinniss’ treatment of Jeffrey MacDonald in Fatal Vision — is preparing a study of Plath’s estate and her chroniclers.

The vexations freighting Anne Sexton raise opposite ethical questions. Sexton’s work spilled over the bounds of decorum, telling far more about herself than most reasonable people would want to reveal. She once said, ”I began to think that if one life, somehow made into art, were recorded — not all of it, but like the testimony on an old tombstone — wouldn’t that be worth something?…It’s the thing I have to do, the thing I want to do — I’m not sure why.”

”Not all of it,” the woman said. Would she, for all her exhibitionism, have ) wanted her secrets spilled in this new biography? Or does it matter what she would have wanted?

”She’s dead, for gosh sakes,” says Sexton’s closest friend, the poet Maxine Kumin. ”In my heart of hearts I know Annie would’ve welcomed the release of the tapes.”

Poet and Yale Review editor J.D. McClatchy, who knew Sexton toward the end of her life, agrees. ”I think the biographer would’ve been irresponsible not to have used all the materials she was allowed to use,” he says.

But what about Dr. Orne? Should he have released the Sexton tapes to Middlebrook after getting permission from her literary executor (Linda Gray Sexton)? And should he then have inserted a flat, clinical foreword to the book that calls as much attention to himself as to his patient?

”I think Dr. Orne has a proprietary interest in Anne Sexton,” Davison allows, and with that phrase, ”proprietary interest,” we may have the key to the entire question of biographical ethics. The most awful thing in this world, says Jean Renoir’s character in the film The Rules of the Game, is that everyone has his reasons. The psychiatric community, Kumin thinks, has its motives for censuring Orne. ”I have read that in a family where there has been an incestuous relationship, they all focus on something else — Aunt Tillie’s sleepwalking, or Uncle Ralph’s drinking,” says Kumin. ”That’s what this reminds me of. In this case, what the psychiatric establishment wants to hide is its own misconduct.” She is referring to the sexual relationship Sexton allegedly had with her second psychiatrist, and the fact that, according to Kumin, one therapist allowed her to stop taking the tranquilizer Thorazine, which her friend feels ”began the long slide” toward suicide.

The mind reels. Are Orne’s detractors themselves corrupt? Is Orne simply promoting himself? Is Linda Gray Sexton — a writer herself — doing the same, or, perhaps, settling a score with her mother? Are Ted Hughes and his sister protecting two reputations — their own — rather than two children? Everyone has their reasons. Everyone, that is, except the dead, who have only their uses.