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Review of Diane Wood Middlebrook’s Anne Sexton: A Biography

November 2002

Some critics have claimed that Anne Sexton’s American fame rests more on the details of her flamboyant, passionate, and disturbing personal life and its conclusion in suicide in 1974 than on her poetry itself. However, Sexton the personality would not be well known without Sexton the poet, and her two figures are equally important in understanding her place in American literature and culture.

Within her marvelous and extensive biography on Sexton, Anne Sexton: A Biography, Diane Wood Middlebrook delineates both sides of the woman, emphasizing how one informed and shaped the other and created the whole that lived life with pain but also with great intensity and frequent successes. While writing Sexton’s biography, Middlebrook had access to many of Sexton’s papers, poetry drafts, the transcripts of many of her psychiatric sessions, and interviews with many who were intimate with Sexton. Because of this unprecedented access and her writing skill, she is able to paint a portrait of a woman as gifted as she was tormented, and as beautifully intense as she was insecure. In creating such a biography of Sexton, Middlebrook provides a strong and detailed context for Sexton’s poetry.

Middlebrook illustrates some of the ways in which Sexton worked creatively, showing her writing processes of self-doubt, frequent revision, and occasional self-assurance. She also illustrates the connections between Sexton’s mental illnesses and her writing. These connections also work to illustrate and place Sexton within her generation of younger American poets, including Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, and Theodore Roethke, all of whom invented and perfected the “confessional poetry” style, all of whom suffered, in some way, from mental illness, and many of whom ended their lives with suicide.

The book is divided into four primary sections entitled “Becoming Anne Sexton,” “Housewife into Poet,” “The Prizewinner,” and “The Performer,” and each is full of biographical details, notes from Sexton’s own journals and writings, parts of transcripts from psychiatric sessions, reminisces from friends and colleagues, and carefully-selected pictures to aid in the details being presented. This progression from section to section also subtly shows the growth Sexton made as a poet and her continual state of emotional agony. Her career success and growth is contrasted with her personal life and her lack of self-esteem. Progressing through the book, the reader grows, matures, suffers, and revels with Sexton herself, following her life’s path as she went from girl to housewife and mother to lauded talented poet to teacher and accomplished writer.

Middlebrook makes the distinction between the Sexton “Personality” and the “Poet” but also shows how they intersected and worked to form the art she made and the life she led. She explicates poems in each chapter to create a link between Sexton’s two worlds. In referring to the poem “Her Kind,” for example, Middlebrook makes clear that this is the place, both poetic and personal, at which Sexton made the “separation between a kind of woman (mad) and a kind of poet (a woman with a magic craft): a doubleness that expressed the paradox of Sexton’s creativity” (115).

This is the seminal book about Sexton’s life and the only one that was not complied from Sexton’s own letters or journals. Because she wrote the first biography of Sexton, and because of the cooperation of the Sexton family and the resources available to her, Middlebrook was able to successfully use the idea of a life as a text and incorporate the text, subtext and context of Sexton’s life in an effort to both explain her behavior and give humanity to her works and her often one-dimensional public image. Appendices include a transcription of one of the therapy tapes and extensive sources and notes. This book is for both the serious scholar of Sexton, the casual admirer of her work, and the Sexton novice merely curious and looking for an interesting and compelling life study.

It provides context to an amazingly beautiful body of work, and shows how it is that Sexton has rightfully come to be a feminist poetic icon. Erica Jong is quoted as saying in the book that, “If Anne had stuck around another ten years, the world might have caught up with her” (365); Anne Sexton: A Biography shows this innovation and beauty from many perspectives, and provides its readers with more context than they most likely ever thought possible.

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