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.