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Sylvia Plath's son Nicholas Hughes commits suicide

March 22, 2009 | 10:35 pm

Sylvia Plath's son Nicholas Hughes committed suicide March 16, his sister Frieda announced in a statement Sunday. Nicholas had been a professor of fisheries and ocean sciences at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, but had left to pursue pottery at home. His mother killed herself on Feb, 11, 1963, when Nicholas was just past his first birthday; he was 47 at his death. He had long suffered from depression.

Plath's husband, the poet Ted Hughes, was often the center of controversy over Plath's literary legacy. After her death he made sure "Ariel," containing some of her greatest poems, was published; but he also destroyed her last journal, frustrating both fans and scholars. "I destroyed it because I did not want her children to have to read it," he wrote in 1982, adding, "(in those days I regarded forgetfulness as an essential part of survival)."

The effort to nurture forgetfulness would be incomplete. In a 1998 Salon piece, author Kate Moses -- who imagined Sylvia Plath in her novel "Wintering" -- wrote:

Plath's suicide note was found pinned to their perambulator. In addition to the sickening ricochet of emotions anyone in his position would have felt, Hughes was left in a seemingly untenable predicament: He would have to serve masters with dramatically opposing needs -- Plath's literary estate, his vulnerable children and, as he put it years later in a letter to Plath biographer Anne Stevenson, "my simple wish to recapture for myself, if I can, the privacy of my own feelings and conclusions about Sylvia, and to remove them from contamination by anybody else's."

In a letter quoted in that Salon article, Hughes wrote to A. Alvarez of his frustration of the outlining the details of Plath's death, which he didn't want their children to know: "now you have defined the whole thing, and handed it to the public. In a real way, you have robbed them of her death, of any natural way of dealing with her death. This will add up through every year they live."

Did it? Some would say not. A family friend told the Times of London, "Nick wasn’t just the baby son of Plath and Hughes and it would be wrong to think of him as some kind of inevitably tragic figure. He was a man who reached his mid-forties, an adventurous marine biologist with a distinguished academic career behind him and a host of friends and achievements in his own right. That is the man who is mourned by those who knew him."

-- Carolyn Kellogg

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