“Sylvia Plath Stuck Her Head in an Oven…”: Disturbing Deaths in the Literary World

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“All interest in disease and death is only another expression of interest in life.” —Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain, 1924

“This morning for the first time in a long time the joy again of imagining a knife twisted in my heart.” —Franz Kafka, diary entry, 1911

“The poet makes himself a visionary through a long, a prodigious and rational disordering of all the senses. Every form of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself, he consumes all the poisons in him, keeping only their quintessences . . .” —Arthur Rimbaud

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Inspiration for the following list of dead literary figures came from Charles Bukowski’s poem, “Beasts bounding through time,” specifically the lines “sylvia [plath] with her head in the oven like a baked potato . . . Shakespeare a plagiarist . . . the impossibility of being human.” Some may call it morbid, some may call it truth – either way I don’t give a damn.

  • Euripides [480-406 B.C.] Greek Playwright – Mauled by a pack of wild dogs owned by Archelaus, the King of Macedonia.
  • Dante Alighieri [1256-1321] Italian Poet – Fell ill and died about an hour after completing The Divine Comedy.
  • Francis Villon [1431-1464?] French Poet – May have been attacked by a mob of bandits or hanged by authorities after a brief prison stay for murdering a priest. Take your pick. Left France at the age of 32 and was never heard from again. “Where are the snows of yesteryear?”
  • Christopher Marlowe [1564-1593] English Playwright – Stabbed with a dagger during a bar fight at the inn of the Widow Bull in Deptford. Was it an argument over the bill?
  • Richard Lovelace [1618-1658] English Poet – Believed to have died of consumption “in a very mean lodging” in Gunpowder Alley, Shoe Lane. “I could not love thee, dear, so much/Loved I not honour more.”
  • Thomas Chatterton [1752-1770] English Poet – Killed self by drinking arsenic at the age of 17. Apparently in despair over lack of recognition. Gained popularity after death. [Editor’s Note: Chatterton’s father was well known around town for a rather dubious talent – he could put his entire fist in his mouth.]
  • Lord Byron [1788-1824] English Poet – Killed by doctors during a “blood letting” attempt to cure malarial fever. Last words: “I must sleep now.”
  • Percy Bysshe Shelley [1792-1822] English Poet – Drowned while sailing near Spezia, Italy, and was cremated on the beach. [Editor’s Note: Shelley’s heart wouldn’t burn and was given to his wife, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley as a souvenir.]
  • Honore De Balzac [1799-1850] French Author – Believed to have choked on too much coffee.
  • Edgar Allan Poe [1809-1849] American Author – Died of “acute congestion of the brain” several days after he was discovered lying unconscious in a Baltimore street, wearing someone else’s tattered clothes.
  • Leo Tolstoy [1828-1910] Russian Author – Gave away entire fortune, froze to death in a railroad station on a cold winter night.
  • Ambrose Bierce [1842-1914?] American Author – Disappeared in Mexico while reporting on the Pancho Villa’s rebellion. May have been murdered by bandits.
  • Arthur Rimbaud [1854-1891] French Poet – A probable victim of syphilis, had right leg amputated, became paralyzed and gradually slipped into permanent coma.
  • Lionel Johnson [1867-1902] British Poet – Fell off a barstool during a bout of heavy drinking, according to legend.
  • Alfred Jarry [1873-1907] French Dramatist – Paralyzed in both legs at the age of 34. Last request was for a toothpick.
  • Sherwood Anderson [1876-1941] American Author – Complications of peritonitis in Colon, Panama, after ingesting a toothpick along with a hors d’oeuvre at a cocktail party.
  • Jack London [1876-1916] American Author – A “raging alcoholic,” died of uremia brought on by a morphine overdose at the age of 40.
  • Vachel Lindsay [1879-1931] American Poet – Killed self by drinking disinfectant.
  • Virginia Woolf [1882-1941] British Author & Critic – Filled pockets with stones and drowned self in the river Ouse.
  • Franz Kafka [1883-1924] – Died of tuberculosis and was buried in Prag-Straschintz. Had requested that all of his work be destroyed after his death.
  • Ezra Pound [1885-1972] – Arrested for treason after World War II for broadcasting Fascist propaganda, declared mentally ill and committed to St. Elizabeth Hospital in Washington D.C. Released in 1958 and died a semi-recluse in Italy. [Editor’s Note: Born in Hailey, Idaho, Pound’s middle name was Loomis.]
  • Maxwell Bodenheim [1893-1954] American Author – Shot with a .22 rifle by an insane dishwasher.
  • Sergei Esenin [1895-1925] Russian Poet – Cut wrists, wrote a final poem in own blood (called “Do svidania drug moi” or “Goodbye my friend”) and hanged self in a hotel room in Leningrad.
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald [1896-1940] American Author – Legendary boozer suffered a heart attack while working as a screenwriter in Hollywood for a couple of hundred bucks a week. According to John O’Hara, Fitz died “a prematurely old little man haunting bookshops unrecognized.” [Editor’s Note: Zelda died in a fire at an Asheville, North Carolina, mental hospital in 1948.]
  • William Faulkner [1897-1962] American Author – Suffered a heart attack after falling off a horse.
  • Hart Crane [1899-1932] American Poet – While en route to New York aboard the S.S. Orizaba, leapt into the Caribbean Sea; reputedly said “Good-bye everybody.”
  • Ernest Hemingway [1899-1961] American Author – Blew brains out with a hunting rifle in Ketchum, Idaho.
  • Thomas Wolfe [1900-1938] American Author – Suffered a cerebral infection, leaving an eight-foot-high manuscript for his editors to sort through. Buried in Riverside Cemetery, Asheville, North Carolina. “. . . the last voyage, the longest, the best.”
  • Nathanael West [1903-1940] American Author – Car accident killed West and his wife after he ignored a stop sign. His buddy, F. Scott Fitzgerald, died the same weekend.
  • Robert E. Howard [1906-1936] Sword & Sorcery Writer – Spent all-night vigil at bedside of comatose mother and died of self-inflicted gunshot in the morning; mother died that same night.
  • Malcolm Lowry [1909-1957] British Author – A “sleeping-pill suicide,” fell dead with a plate in hand while starting in on a midnight snack, according to writer Donald Newlove. “. . . and how alike are the groans of love, to those of dying.”
  • Tennessee Williams [1911-1983] American Playwright – Choked on a bottle cap while trying to get hands on some barbiturates.
  • Albert Camus [1913-1960] French Author – Single-car automobile crash while returning to Paris from the South of France.
  • John Berryman [1914-1972] American Poet – Jumped from a bridge over the Mississippi River; reputedly waved at passersby on way down.
  • Dylan Thomas [1914-1953] Welsh Poet – Alcohol poisoning during a lecture tour of the United States. “I’ve had 18 straight whiskies . . . I think that’s the record.”
  • Roland Barthes [1915-1980] French Critic & Philosopher – Run over by laundry truck outside the College de France. “Literature is the question minus the answer.”
  • Jack Kerouac [1922-1969] American Author – Abdominal hemorrhage at mother’s home in St. Petersburg, Florida, while watching “The Galloping Gourmet.”
  • Flannery O’Connor [1924-1964] American Author – Became gradually immobilized by lupus and died at the age of 40.
  • Yukio Mishima [1925-1970] Japanese Author – Committed seppuku (hara-kiri) and was beheaded during failed attempt to overtake a Japanese garrison.
  • Anne Sexton [1928-1974] American Poet – Committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning in the garage of her home.
  • Sylvia Plath [1932-1963] American Poet – Stuck head in a kitchen oven.
  • Jerzy Kosinski [1933-1991] Polish-Born American Author – Think he committed suicide by placing a plastic bag over his head in the bathtub. Can anyone else confirm this?
  • Richard Brautigan [1935-1984] American Author – Self-inflicted gunshot wound; body wasn’t discovered for several weeks.
  • Seth Morgan [1949-1990] American Author – Rode motorcycle off the Golden Gate Bridge and into the San Francisco Bay.
  • John O’Brien [1960-1994] American Author – Committed suicide just two weeks after selling the movie rights to “autobiographical novel” Leaving Las Vegas. Book served as suicide note. [Editor’s Note: Couldn’t find the actual dates of his birth and death. Anyone out there know?]

“. . . [The poet] arrives at the unknown: and even if, half crazed, in the end, he loses the understanding of his visions, he has seen them! Let him be destroyed in his leap by those unnamable, unutterable and innumerable things: there will come other horrible workers: they will begin at the horizons where he has succumbed.” —Arthur Rimbaud

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Published in: on December 13, 2008 at 13:24  Leave a Comment  
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