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Peel's Writing Back

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Writing Back: Sylvia Plath and Cold War Politics.

Peel, Robin. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2002. 296p., $45.00, hardcover. ISBN: 0838638686.

Does it matter whether or not Sylvia Plath was interested in politics? For one of my former colleagues, who once said, "I know Miles Davis beat his wife, but he doesn't beat his wife on his records," the answer would be "no." For Robin Peel, author of Writing Back: Sylvia Plath and Cold War Politics, however, the answer is "yes." According to Peel, the "view of art as a detached aesthetic is attractive, but suspect"(16). Although Peel ends the sentence with the word "suspect," we could easily supply its implied subjects. The view of art as a detached aesthetic is attractive to traditional literary scholars (and Frank Lentricchia) but suspect to the cultural studies approach to literature which now has hegemony within the academy.

Still, the aesthetic approach to literary criticism (and its implicit fetishization of authorial genius) dies a hard death, and this is nowhere more apparent, ironically, than in Peel's recent book. Peel, I would argue, wants Plath to be interested in politics because he believes in her genius, and yet nowadays literary genius is almost exclusively defined in terms of an author's political caché. This issue is all the more urgent in Plath studies because Plath is simultaneously a heroine of feminism, a middle-class white woman with highbrow affiliations, and a writer whose use of Holocaust and Hiroshima imagery has proved troubling to admirers and detractors alike. Plath's allusions just won't go away, and the contemporary climate requires that one redefine them as a radical new form of textuality or ignore them, instead looking for evidence of a genuine political sensibility that resides, not in the poems themselves, but within Plath's own psyche.

Unfortunately, Peel relies primarily on the latter approach and thereby practices an older form of author-centered criticism while preaching the contemporary politics of the academy. The bulk of Peel's evidence for his determination of Plath's politics resides, as he himself admits, in the so-called "ephemeral" reading that Plath may have done. This approach is simultaneously the most promising and the most frustrating element of Peel's study. On the one hand, the reading of contemporary source material provides an interesting history of the general ideas about the cold war that were then circulating, entering every mind in one form or another. On the other hand, this comparison/contrast approach between contemporary headlines and Plath's imagery leads to the sort of limitations implied in the title of Peel's book, Writing Back. When literary politics is reduced to a mode of reaction to the contemporary situation, the issue of textuality is elided altogether. On some level, as writers such as Herbert Marcuse have taught us, "Literature can be called revolutionary in a meaningful sense only with reference to itself, as content having become form"(The Aesthetic Dimension xiii). The definition of political writing as a reaction to politics is a superficial one indeed, one that does not give writers like Plath due credit for the truly radical elements of their work.

Oftentimes, the limitations of a particular critical approach are most apparent when applied to an example that does not easily lend itself to the dogmas its practitioners espouse. Thus, Peel's work forces us to ask important questions about the politics of literary criticism. First, can a writer's politics be adequately defined by the content of her work? If not, what are the relationships between literary form and politics? Second, is the academy better served by ethical or epistemological approaches to literary critique? If the latter, what hermeneutic methods provide the most information about a writer's historical situation? I think these are questions that cultural studies needs to continually ask -- if it is to avoid being reduced to a form of directory assistance of present values and the writers who most obviously exhibit them.

Alan Clinton