10 September 2007

Sylvia Plath's summer jobs

Sylvia Plath had a number of summer jobs throughout college, the most notable being her Mademoiselle internship in the summer of 1953. Since the summer is now over, and many students are back in school, the topic seems appropriate. Plath wrote at length about her experiences during the summer; these details appear mostly in the Unabrdiged Journals of Sylvia Plath (edited by Karen V. Kukil, Anchor Books, 2000).

Plath's earlier journals, from 1944 to 1949, are held at the Lilly Library at Indiana University. These journals should be published to give a fuller view of what Plath's life was life in her early to mid teens. Plath spent her summers from around 1943 until 1949 at summer camps in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and on Martha's Vineyard.

In 1950, the summer prior to her freshman year at Smith College, Plath worked on Lookout Farm in Dover, Mass. Plath wrote about this in "Memoirs of a Spinach-Picker", a poem written in 1958. This poem appears in the Christian Science Monitor, Dec. 29, 1959. The farm has changed hands several times over the years, but they are in the modern era, as evident by their web site. There are some memorable stories captured in the first pages of Plath's journals, most notably "the kiss" that took place in the barn. Plath's ninth entry retells the story of "the kiss". She admits to her journal,

Some things are hard to write about. After something happens to you, you go to write it down, and either you over dramatize it or underplay it, exaggerate the wrong parts or ignore the important ones. At any rate, you never write it quite the way you want to. I've got to put down what happened to me this afternoon…no mattter how it comes out, I have to write it. (Unabridged Journals, 10)

She looked at these summer jobs as income, but also experience. She dedicated herself to this. So her journals offer information that, on the one hand captures true events, but on the other hand, often over dramatizes, underplays, exaggerates, or ignores these events.

In 1951, Plath and her friend Marcia Brown were live-in nannies in Swampscott, Massachusetts. Plath worked for the Mayo family at 141 Beach Bluff Avenue, and also detailed this experience in her journals. Plath's poem "The Babysitters" recalls that summer, and in particular a day trip by row boat to Children's Island, off Marblehead. The year that passed from "the kiss" led Plath to seek more life experiences, and to capture more. Her 102nd entry is a very good one and further explains her goals in keeping a journal. She writes,

I wonder why I don't go to bed and go to sleep. But then it would be tomorrow, so I decide that no matter how tired, no matter how incoherent I am, I can skip one hour more of sleep and live. If I did not have this time to be myself, to write here, to be alone, I would somehow, inexplicably, lose a part of my integrity. As it is, what I have written here so far is rather poor, rather unsatisfactory. It is the product of an unimaginative girl, preoccupied with herself, and continually splashing about in the shallow waters of her own narrow psyche. As an excuse, she claims thses are writing exercises, a means of practice at expressing herself, of note taking for future stories…In fact, if one has not the imagination to create characters, to knit plots, it does no good to jot down fragments of life and conversations, for alone they are disjointed and meaningless. It is only when these bits are woven into an artistic whole, with a frame of reference, that they become meaning-ful and worthy of more than a cursory glance. Therefore, think and work, think and work. (Unabridged Journals, p. 83)

Plath's summer of 1952 was more turbulent. She began working as a waitress at The Belmont hotel in West Harwich, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. Inexperienced, she was put on the side employees dining room and therefore, was not earning much in the way of income from tips. She did lead a very active social life and came down with a bad sinus infection. By 11 July, she convalesced at home in Wellesley. Around this time, she also received word that her story, "Sunday at the Mintons" won the 1952 Mademoiselle College fiction contest, netting her $500. She received a letter from the editor-in-chief at Knopf, who had seen a proof of her story, telling her they they'd like to publish a novel by her one day. (In 1962, Plath sent them The Bell Jar, which they rejected.) She decided not to return to the Belmont.

Not wanting to spend her time at home, she did actively look for a job. On 10 July, she read the following adverstisement (pictured at top) in the Christian Science Monitor. "COLLEGE-AGE GIRL for Mother's helper for balance of summer. Neat, intelligent, and of pleasant disposition. Refs. exch. Salary arr. Box 546. Chatham, Mass. Tel. Chatham 493-J." She spent the rest of the summer in Chatham working for the Cantor family, taking care of their children. The Cantor's challenged Plath with their religion and they had "deep" conversations about this and philosophy.

In 1954, Plath attended Harvard Summer School in Cambridge, Mass. She lived in apartment 4 of the Bay State apartment complex at 1572 Massachusetts Avenue. Nancy Hunter-Steiner recounts that summer, and other memories, in her 1973 book A Closer Look at Ariel: A Memory of Sylvia Plath. It was this summer when Plath was "injured" having sex, though she changed the timing and season, even, when she fictionalized the account it in The Bell Jar. There are no known journal entries from this summer.

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Publications & Acknowledgements

  • BBC Four.A Poet's Guide to Britain: Sylvia Plath. London: BBC Four, 2009. (Acknowledged in)
  • Biography: Sylvia Plath. New York: A & E Television Networks, 2005. (Photographs used)
  • Connell, Elaine. Sylvia Plath: Killing the angel in the house. 2d ed. Hebden Bridge: Pennine Pens, 1998. (Acknowledged in)
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 3." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 119-138.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 4: Looking for New England." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012: 11-56.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 5: Reanimating the Past." Plath Profiles 6. Summer 2013: 27-62.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives, Redux." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 232-246.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives." Plath Profiles 2. Summer 2009: 183-208.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath. Oxford: Fonthill, 2017.
  • Death Be Not Proud: The Graves of Poets. New York: Poets.org. (Photographs used)
  • Doel, Irralie, Lena Friesen and Peter K. Steinberg. "An Unacknowledged Publication by Sylvia Plath." Notes & Queries 56:3. September 2009: 428-430.
  • Elements of Literature, Third Course. Austin, Tex. : Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2009. (Photograph used)
  • Gill, Jo. "Sylvia Plath in the South West." University of Exeter Centre for South West Writing, 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Helle, Anita Plath. The Unraveling Archive: Essays on Sylvia Plath. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007. (Photographs used, acknowledged in)
  • Helle, Anita. "Lessons from the Archive: Sylvia Plath and the Politics of Memory". Feminist Studies 31:3. Fall 2005: 631-652.. (Acknowledged in)
  • Holden, Constance. "Sad Poets' Society." Science Magazine. 27 July 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Making Trouble: Three Generations of Funny Jewish Women, Motion Picture. Directed by Rachel Talbot. Brookline (Mass.): Jewish Women's Archive, 2007. (Photograph used)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Karen V. Kukil. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. New York: Anchor Books, 2000. (Acknowledged in)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil (eds.). The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 1, 1940-1956. London: Faber, 2017. Forthcoming.
  • Plath, Sylvia. Glassklokken. Oslo: De norske Bokklubbene, 2004. (Photograph used on cover)
  • Reiff, Raychel Haugrud. Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar and Poems (Writers and Their Works). Marshall Cavendish Children's Books, 2008.. (Images provided)
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'A Fetish: Somehow': A Sylvia Plath Bookmark." Court Green 13. 2017.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'I Should Be Loving This': Sylvia Plath's 'The Perfect Place' and The Bell Jar." Plath Profiles 1. Summer 2008: 253-262.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'They Had to Call and Call': The Search for Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 106-132.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "A Perfectly Beautiful Time: Sylvia Plath at Camp Helen Storrow." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 149-166.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Proof of Plath." Fine Books & Collections 9:2. Spring 2011: 11-12.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Sylvia Plath." The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath. London: British Library, 2010.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Textual Variations in The Bell Jar Publications." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "The Persistence of Plath." Fine Books & Collections. Autumn 2017: 24-29
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "This is a Celebration: A Festschrift for The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3 Supplement. Fall 2010: 3-14.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Writing Life" [Introduction]. Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning. Stroud, Eng.: Fonthill Media, 2014.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. Sylvia Plath (Great Writers). Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004.