23 June 2009

Sylvia Plath: Did you know...

In The Bell Jar, most of the Ladies' Day guest interns develop ptomaine poisoning after a luncheon - the culprit being the crabmeat. It is quite a memorable scene and so is the recovery. Whilst convalescing, the girls receive a copy of The Thirty Best Short Stories Stories of the Year to read and one story in particular holds Esther Greenwood's attention.

This scene is closely related to actual events that happened in June 1953 while Plath was at Mademoiselle. The guest editors - in real life - came down with ptomaine poisoning on Tuesday June 16, 1953. The story Plath read, contained in the The Best American Short Stories 1953: And the Yearbook of the American Short Story (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1953), was "The Fugue of the Fig Tree" by Stanley Sultan.

Did you know that Plath was later on faculty at Smith College with Stanley Sultan (academic year 1958-1959)? To my surprise (somewhat) and disappointment (somewhat), her journal entries about him neither mention the story nor her admiration of it. But, and not to open a can of worms (because those were picked off of Plath like sticky pearls), who knows what Plath may have written in her journal when she was writing The Bell Jar in the spring of 1961.

13 comments :

panther said...

I'm tantalized by the thought of those later diaries. Not the last one which Hughes said he burnt-I think it is possible to be TOO curious-but the ones written around Frieda's birth, living in Chalcot Square, writing the Bell Jar. I wonder if they will "turn up" after all ? A never-before-published poem by Ted Hughes did last year-it had been in the possession of his widow all the time.

Am I correct in believing that the Plath Estate is, among other things, highly astute ?

Caroline said...

Hi there. I'm curious about your reference to the Sultan story. Is that connection recorded in the biography that you wrote? Or does the reference come from another biography? I've always heard about this connection, but I've never been able to substantiate it with a citation. Thanks!

Peter K Steinberg said...

Hi Caroline,

I do not believe that I noticed this connection (that Plath was on faculty with Sultan at Smith) until quite recently when I re-read the Journals. It may be in another biography, but I cannot recall if it is.

The fact that Plath did read this story in 1953, though, is known. I'm pretty sure this was in some of the biographies.

Cheers
Peter

Peter K Steinberg said...

Panther,

One way to guess as to what Plath would have been writing in her journals would be to read the letters in Letters Home and interpret them in an opposite fashion!!

As for the Plath Estate's being highly astute, I'd like to "plead the fifth".

Yours
Peter

Jenny Lerew said...

Peter, would it be too presumptuous to ask if you personally believe the "lost" journals are in fact still extant somewhere in some form?

Personally I believe they likely are-unless they were destroyed very early on...and in that case, i'd guess it would be the very last journal that would be destroyed, not the earlier, "lost" one. Still, one wonders.

It's been written that Assia, supreme narcissist that she was, read through the "destroyed" journals in the hours she spent alone in Plath's Yeats flat immediately following the suicide-and that she was shocked by the hatred/anger Sylvia expressed for her in its pages(yet more evidence-if true-of a mind-blowing self-absorption on Assia's part!). If this was the case then it seems that the books may have in fact been put away rather than actually destroyed in the heat of discovery.

The great pity of the journals' loss isn't the gory details of recriminations toward a wayward spouse, but the other parts of her life-what must have been a fascinating self-analysis of her last poems and her reaction to them/plans for them/newfound sense of artistic direction. I'd be happy to read everything but the personal bits myself. If anything ever does appear, I imagine I'll be old(er) and grey by then.

Peter K Steinberg said...

Jenny,

I want to believe that the journals covering 1960 and 1961 still exist. If they were stolen, I'd certainly forgive whoever took them!

On the other hand I think Hughes did destroy the one. His revelation of his actions regarding the Journals' fate came around the same time he disclosed that Ariel was not published as Plath intended. (Granted he tucked the Ariel informatio in the way back of the Collected Poems...)

It is possible others read these journals, too. Though if they did they are certainly tight-lipped about having done so.

The extant bits of Plath's journals regarding her North Tawton neighbors give, I think, a hint at how her journalists' eyes developed after her return to England. I believe it shows she was working on, or towards, another novel. Which is another "lost" piece of writing...

Anonymous said...

Caroline--
There are a couple of references to Sylvia's socializing with Stanley Sultan at Smith in Plath's "Unabridged Journals" (check the index). I have a copy of the story, so if you can't find it in the library, I can scan it and send it to you. Peter was kind enough to send it to me a couple of years ago, when it was discussed on the Sylvia Plath Forum.
--Jim Long

Anonymous said...

Peter--
I don't recall ever seeing Stanley Sultan or his story mentioned in any of the biographies.
--Jim

Peter K Steinberg said...

Jim!

Thanks, after going through something like 2 dozen books yesterday I gave up!!!

Cheers
Peter

Caroline said...

Jim, thanks so much for responding here! I've been trying to track you down, actually, b/c I wanted to see if you were aware of a reference in one of the biographies. A reviewer of an article that I wrote encouraged me to reference Sultan's story, but I wasn't sure who to credit it, too. Looks like it will be the Plath Forum that gets cited!

So glad to have found this site! It's wonderful!

Anonymous said...

Caroline,
Well, I'm glad you tracked me this far. Can you email me with some details about how you're referencing the story in your article? I may be able to help you be a little more precise about what information is coming from where...citing the original source of the story, etc. My email is jhlong12648@yahoo.com.
--Jim

Anonymous said...

Peter,
I found it interesting (not to say odd) that, when Linda Wagner-Martin spends a long paragraph or two talking about the image of the fig tree in TBJ, and mentions that it was from a story in a book the young guest editors were given by the magazine, she never cites the original story anywhere as the source of the image! (in "The Bell Jar: a novel of the fifties", [pg. 37 and ff]. Part of the Twayne Masterworks Studies series).It seems to me that any scholar would be curious enough to follow up and see if there was an actual story that Plath was referencing. W-M is after all a biographer...but it seems like critics want to talk about the fiction as if it were not autobiographical...as if there weren't an actual counterpart for the story in reality.
--Jim

Peter K Steinberg said...

Jim,

Wonderful comment and observation. I am still surprised that it was never written about; and am surprised at the oversight by, seemingly, all of Plath's scholars and critics. Maybe this was mentioned or discussed in one of the thousands of articles about Plath and her writing; but I've found her fiction (and, to an extent, her prose) in general is ignored...

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