The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume I: 1940–1956, edited by Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil; Harper, 1,388 pp., $45
An intellectually ambitious Barbie doll? A “Marilyn Monroe of the literati”? A vengeful protofeminist demon? Sylvia Plath seems to have been a kind of fierce oxymoron: an untranquil incarnation of what Robert Lowell called “the tranquillized fifties.”
Her multiple ghosts have haunted us for more than half a century. So irresistible are their force fields that critics have taken to writing about her spiritual and material manifestations. From Jacqueline Rose’s The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (1991) to Gail Crowther and Peter Steinberg’s These Ghostly Archives and Crowther’s The Haunted Reader and Sylvia Plath (both 2017), students of 20th-century culture meditate on her loves and leavings, brooding not just on her words but her paper doll collection and a braid of her hair (in Indiana University’s Lilly Library), the bizarre 1987 lawsuit over the film version of The Bell Jar, the endless fussings and failings of her estate, the obsessions of her fans, the desecrations of her gravesite, her widower’s numerous affairs, and on and on.
Arguably, Plath haunts so many of us, chiefly women, because in one way or another we believe that we are her, at least the person she was before she put her head in the oven. We too were brought up to be “good,” bring home excellent report cards, become sexually alluring, and maybe, maybe, aspire to more–like, for instance, Hillary Clinton, who wanted to become the first female president, or Plath herself, who once confided to her journal that she was “the girl who wanted to be God.”
For years, the author of Ariel has been an inhabitant of a mystical “archive” controlled by a sinister “estate”–terms that become almost Kafkaesque when wielded by such scholars as Rose, Steinberg, and Crowther, who spend at least as much time discussing the doings and undoings of the archive and the estate as they do on such still-ferocious Plath texts as “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus.” Now, though, that glamorous ghost of the ’50s and early ’60s is back almost in person, with 1,300 new pages of prose—uncensored letters written between 1940 (when she was eight) and 1956 (when she was 24 and at Cambridge). Another massive set of pages is promised for next year, said to offer more scandalous revelations about her marriage to Ted Hughes.
What do we learn from these almost overwhelmingly energetic texts, produced by someone who had been trained by her equally ambitious “mummy” to be one of the world’s fastest typists? They are Proustian in detail—a recherche du temps perdu recorded in real time—giving us an incomparable portrait of American girlhood in the mid-20th century that may make sociologists salivate. This is the era of Ferdinand Lundberg and Marynia Farnham’s Modern Woman: The Lost Sex (1947) and of David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd (1950), though it was to culminate (for the so-called “literati”) in Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (1955) and Robert Lowell’s Life Studies (1959) and be scathingly critiqued by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique (1963).
But for a middle-class girl from an upwardly mobile immigrant family—and a vexingly German-American one at that, during the Second World War—the cultural pressures were intense. Otto Plath, Sylvia’s depressive father, was a not-very-successful professor of entymology and German. Before dying of diabetes-induced gangrene, he had authored Bumblebees and Their Ways, a book crucially important in his daughter’s later beekeeping life. Sylvia’s widowed mother, Aurelia Plath, kept the threadbare household going by teaching shorthand and typing at Boston University, where she had been Otto’s student. The two Plath children, Sylvia and younger brother Warren, were brought up to be high-powered performers, scholarship students, gregarious, and charismatic. Warren went to Exeter and Harvard (on scholarship), Sylvia to Smith, McLean Hospital, and Cambridge (on scholarship, funding from Olive Higgins Prouty, and a Fulbright fellowship).
Even as a little kid, “Sivvy” (who at one point spiritedly dubbed herself “Sherry”) was dutifully All American–and a striver. In daily letters from camp, she regaled her mother with details of her diet—a habit that continued on into her Cambridge years—and boasted of her good times. “Today in my opinion is the most beautiful day I spent at camp!” she declares in 1945. “For lunch I had a bird’s feed of 6 [sic] plates of casserole & sauce containing potatos [sic], peas, onions, carrots, chicken (yum, yum); five cups of punch and a scoop of vanilla, coffee, and orange ice cream. If you’re hard up on ration points when I come home you can have Joe slaughter me and you can eat me for pork.” Sometimes, though, the nascent ambition leaks through. “Did anyone get honorable mention on the good sport page?” she wondered, musing on the children’s section of the Sunday Boston Herald in which some of her earliest poems had been published.
By the time she was in high school, she had entered into a correspondence with a German pen pal, a young man to whom she ponderously explained Americana (“The Christmas tree has been in American homes for over a century, now, and is a beloved custom at Christmas time”), recommended books, sent her own poems, and propounded world peace. At the same time, she was beginning to publish poems and stories in Seventeen and elsewhere. Soon enough, her correspondence is supplemented by an engaging series of letters with her first literary fan, one Eddie Cohen, to whom she discloses a great deal more about herself.
I’m tall … slender … tan enough so that women tap my shoulder on the beach: ‘Podden me, miss, but what sun tan oil do you use?’. … My biggest trouble is that fellows look at me and think that no serious thought has ever troubled my little head. They seldom realize the chaos that seethes behind my exterior. As for the who am I? what am I? angle … that will preoccupy me till the day I die.
At Smith, she was still torn between her longing for glamour and the “chaos” within. In an avalanche of letters to her mother, a series of boyfriends, a few girlfriends, and her patroness Olive Higgins Prouty, she described her major, her menus, her clothing purchases, her dates and dreams, aspirations, rejection slips, and self-definitions. “I am a bibliomaniac (with a slight touch of nympho thrown in!),” she confided to one man. Around this time, she had excitedly written in her journal that “Miraculous [sic], and quite unbelievably I have in my head now the certitude of a reality that will come to pass in a month and a half. … I am going to that magnificent event, the Yale Junior Prom with … the one boy in the whole college I give a damn about.”
But in the “letters home” that Aurelia Plath was going to make so crucial to the poet’s image after her suicide, Sylvia regaled her mother, in particular, with news of her conquests—academic, literary, and social—along with tellingly phrased flattery: “You are the most wonderful mummy that a girl ever had, and I only hope I can continue to lay more laurels at your feet.” [emphasis added] Yet more seriously, she battled her mother’s politics, flinging off Aurelia’s Eisenhower Republicanism as she almost never did fling off her mother’s propensity for Ladies Home Journal. “Well, I only hope you’re happy with McCarthy and appropriations, Jenner and Rules and Civil Rights, Taft and Foreign Policy,” she wrote bitterly. “Me, I felt that it was the funeral day of all my hopes and ideals when I got up the morning after elections. Stevenson was the Abe Lincoln of our age. I don’t know how we could have gone better.”
Falling like an axe “after whose stroke the wood rings” through all this often luminous prose is the infamous Mademoiselle/Bell Jar summer, with its poisoned promises, sinister men, seductive suicide attempt, and ghastly shock treatments. There are silences here, in the letters, but some disclosures, too. Read for yourself and judge. Because after her sojourn at McLean, ”Sivvy” rises again, like her own Lady Lazarus, to become the all-conquering Smith Phi Bete and Cambridge fashion queen.
Strikingly, however, though her letters home from England and other European destinations continue to provide her mother with lively accounts of her jam-packed daily doings, she changes tone and rises to wonderfully passionate heights in the love letters to Ted Hughes with which this first installment of her correspondence concludes. A secret marriage (in London, on Bloomsday 1956) has begun to transform the date-hungry Smithie into the person she most wanted to be. Liberated from sexual and social anxieties, she definitively sees herself as a working writer paired with another working writer, in a partnership that would become famous. (“Darling, be scrupulous and date your letters,” she warns her “dearest Teddy.” “When we are old and spent, they will come asking for our letters; and we will have them dovetail-able.”) And, too, she is freed to be the fiercely desirous lover she had yearned to be.
I am living until Friday in a kind of chill controlled hysteria; when I wash my hair now, it will be for you; when I drink water, it is for you; when I get dressed it is for you. I can’t believe any body ever loved like this; nobody will again. We will burn love to death all our long lives; I shall never let you have a day-long job, for I couldn’t live that long without kissing and kissing your dear special particular mouth.
Of course, the historical irony implicit in these sentences is painful. Especially poignant, in the context of what was to come, are the couple’s little private words for each other. Ted Hughes, as those who have read his letters will know, often addressed Sylvia as his “kish and puss and ponk.” She for her part, sent adoring love to her “own husband & Teddy-ponk.”
“Ponk”: according to one dictionary definition, “an evil or mischievous spirit.” A kind of Ariel? A restless ghost?
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