08 August 2011

Plath's Bell Jar at 40 in the US

Emily Gould over at the Poetry Foundation has recently published "The Bell Jar at 40." Of course this being 2011, it is the 40th anniversary of The Bell Jar's publication in America, an anniversary which previously escaped my cognizance.

Although you didn't ask, I do not care much for the article's subtitle: "Plath's YA novel reaches middle age." Perhaps for obvious reasons? YA (Young Adult) has a different meaning to me than perhaps Gould intended? Novel about a young adult, yes, but I feel the content and themes of The Bell Jar are adult. Maybe I don't give enough credit to its youngest readers...who I do recognize can be quite young. The article itself is good; though be wary of the handful, or more, of instances of careless biographic and/or bibliographic reporting. A couple of points below should maybe clarify some of these, just in case her readers want the truth or a fuller version/a different perspective represented by some of her reporting- and some of this as you might expect will be particular as assumes you've read the whole article...

The Bell Jar was published in the United States largely to avoid the novel's being pirated due to its copyright in England expiring. The novel was copyrighted to Plath (well, Victoria Lucas) & after Plath's death, to her estate, for eight years and the decision to publish was largely to ensure that her Estate (i.e. her children) should not lose any money. There is ample correspondence at Smith College to corroborate this. The purchasing a house aspect Gould relates is only part of the story and serves I think to chastise Hughes' behavior or intentions when in fact his motivations may have actually been concerned with his family. So, it isn't simply a case of Hughes "ignoring" Aurelia Plath's wishes that the novel not be published in America; rather its publication appears to me to actually be the lesser of all the evils. From all accounts, it appears that Plathian publication decisions by Hughes generally were made to favor their children.

Plath, in 1953, spent most of the month of June in NYC, not three months.

Part of Plath's disappointment with her guest editorship was because she was given or assigned the position of Guest Managing editor, rather than say the Fiction Editor. This is a high honor, I suspect, but Plath more likely wanted to be with the literary types, rather than "management." A comment to this respect by Esther Greenwood in the nove reflect this: "Fashion blurbs, silver and full of nothing, sent up their fishy bubbles in my brain. They surfaced with a hollow pop" (110).

It's McLean, not Maclean.

The entire novel has "fictional frills and timeline-rearrangements," not just the chapters dealing with "her breakdown, suicide attempt, and hospitalization and recovery." Coming from me this may be surprising but one must be careful when writing about Sylvia Plath and Esther Greenwood; one must be careful not to overly relate the writer and her creation. There are many instances where similar, real-life experiences took place but it is not one-to-one. For example, by all reports Plath could cook quite well, whereas Esther Greenwood lists the ability to cook as something she could not do...

Esther loses her virginity not to a "Harvard professor" but to a professor of mathematics from an unnamed educational institution using Harvard’s library.

Gould has a good discussion of "Tulips" and "In Plaster," both of which were written at approximately the same time that Plath started writing The Bell Jar. And I like especially the comparisons between the novel and "In Plaster" at the end of the essay very much. But suggesting that Plath's poetic development took it's dramatic leap in 1961 shortens the achievements and improvements she began seeing poetically beginning in 1959, particularly with the poems composed at Yaddo, as arguably those poems (individually and as a whole) had a greater effect on Plath's development and confidence than just the two poems. And I think that even though I agree with Gould for pointing out Hughes' comment on the creation of "Tulips" and "In Plaster," I believe he would have agreed with me on this. In his "The Chronological Order Sylvia Plath's Poems," Hughes writes,

"The weeks spent at Yaddo – with only three or four other residents – completed the poems in The Colossus. It was, in several ways, the culmination of the first part of her life. For three months, while seeing the States, she had not touched verse. Her first child would be born six months later ... In those weeks, she changed at great speed and with steady effort" (Newman 191)

My somewhat belabored point being that without Yaddo and the experience of the creative breakthrough of poems such as "Mushrooms," "The Colossus," "Poem for a Birthday," etc. we should feel comfortable suggesting Plath's potential as a poet grew by leaps and bounds (like the comet of "The Night Dances" she had "such space to cross" - and crossed it) and set her on the trajectory towards "the red / Eye, the cauldron of morning" (Ariel 27, 37) Perhaps in reducing the length of time in which Plath's genius took shape, Gould seeks to make the achievement that is Ariel seem much more remarkable? That of course is her prerogative but I do feel that the poems written from late 1959 to early 1961 exhibit sparks of Ariel.

One thing I find frustrating about articles such as this are the lack of references and citations. This isn't a criticism of Gould, just a general observation.

The trip to Ireland indeed didn't heal the couple, but they did not return together as Gould suggests. Anyone really familiar with Plath's story would know that Hughes left Plath in Ireland and traveled to Spain with Assia Wevill. Please see Koren and Negev estimable biography of Wevill, Lover of Unreason, for coverage on this.

Of course there is more but I don't want to seem petty. I apologize to you, Emily Gould. It was a very good article and so the apology comes from the fact that due to my level of involvement with things Plathian and my absolute love of The Bell Jar, I was unable to read the piece with anything less than an obnoxiously focused, yet distractible, sensitive and critical eye.

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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." Plath Profiles 2. Summer 2009: 183-208.
  • 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 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: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath. Oxford: Fonthill, 2017. Forthcoming.
  • 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.
  • Gill, Jo. "Sylvia Plath in the South West." University of Exeter Centre for South West Writing, 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Elements of Literature, Third Course. Austin, Tex. : Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2009. (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. 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. Sylvia Plath (Great Writers). Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004.
  • 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. "Sylvia Plath." The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath. London: British Library, 2010.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'They Had to Call and Call': The Search for Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 106-132.
  • 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. "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. "Textual Variations in The Bell Jar Publications." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Writing Life" [Introduction]. Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning. Stroud, Eng.: Fonthill Media, 2014.