Having dipped my toe into exploring the gendered nature of book reviews, it seems to me to be a topic worthy of a book in its own right. One comparison that stood out in particular while I was writing Three-Martini Afternoons at The Ritz was the different ways in which Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton were reviewed.
When Lowell published Life Studies in 1959, critics hailed it a brave book full of personal, serious experiences such as the suffering of mental illness and the frailty of recovery. John Thompson in the Kenyon Review wrote, “For these poems, the question of propriety no longer exists. They have made a conquest. What they have won is a major expansion of the territory of poetry.”[i] In contrast, with the publication of her first book To Bedlam and Part Way Back in 1960, Sexton already began to get the type of reception that would dog her career. James Dickey opened his review with the words “Anne Sexton’s poems so obviously come out of deep, painful sections of the author’s life that one’s literary opinions scarcely seem to matter; one feels tempted to drop them furtively into the nearest ashcan, rather than be caught with them in the presence of so much naked suffering.”[ii] The rest of the piece dismisses Sexton’s work as that of a superficial A-student writing contrived and artificial poetry. Sexton was stunned by this review and she carried a copy of it around with her for the rest of her life.
Lowell got praise pretty much across the board, to the extent that twenty-six years after the publication of Life Studies, Stanley Kunitz described the collection as “the most influential book of modern verse since T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland.” Sexton’s reviewers were so very obviously gendered. May Swenson regarded To Bedlam and Part Way Back as containing poetic mastery, a “courageous” book which was followed by the “remarkable” All My Pretty Ones containing solidity of form and expertness. Swenson also is one of the first reviewers to identify and point out Sexton’s humour. Yet in reviewing the same book, Thom Gunn claims Sexton’s poems contain “facile” symbols and rely too heavily on the influence of Lowell. Furthermore, he’s sniffy about Sexton’s first volume claiming, “What is most encouraging about this collection is that she is getting rid of the faults of rhetoric and self-dramatization of her first book, in spite of all her admirers.”[iii] Louise Bogan regards All My Pretty Ones as a courageous, highly controlled volume telling women’s secrets in a way that do not normally get told. Sexton, she claims, “writes from the center of feminine experience, with the direct and open feeling that women, always vulnerable, have been shy of expressing in recent years.”[iv] Ian Hamilton appeared to share Thom Gunn’s concern about the number of people reading Sexton claiming the real danger is she will be “translated into yet another cult-figure of neurotic breakdown, valued not for what she has written but for what her suffering seems to symptomize.” Apparently according to Hamilton this sort of reading doesn’t matter if the poet is dead, but since “Mrs Sexton” was still alive, “it is likely to encourage exactly the kind of facile exhibitionism which is even now a constant worry in her work.”[v]
So, for Lowell, the question of propriety when it came to the subject matter of his poetry no longer existed. Sexton was not afforded this honor. When Lowell wrote about mental breakdown and suffering, he was serious and brave. When Sexton wrote about it, she was self-dramatizing and inappropriate. While female reviewers seemed to appreciate what Sexton was trying to do, many male critics simply could not cope.
All of this played out years before Plath’s Ariel was published posthumously. Then, on its release, as my book explores, her male reviewers starting throwing words around like “shrill” and “hysterical”…
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[i] Thompson, ‘Two Poets’ in Kenyon Review 21, 1959, pp. 482-290.
[ii] Dickey, Anne Sexton The Artists and Her Critics, p. 117
[iii] Gunn, Anne Sexton The Artist and Her Critics, p.125.
[iv] Bogan, Anne Sexton The Artist and Her Critics, p.126-7.
[v] Hamilton, Anne Sexton The Artist and Her Critics, p.127.