10 September 2012

Sylvia Plath's The Shadow

Sylvia Plath's story "The Shadow," written in 1959, recounts Sadie Shafer's leg biting incident from "the winter the war began" (Johnny Panic, Harper & Row, 1979: 143). Plath's Unabridged Journals record that on 7 January 1959 she was "finished, almost" with the story (457). On 31 May she considered it - of the six most recent stories she had written - one of the top three (486). However, by 15 June 1959, Plath thought that "The Shadow" "reads might thin, mighty pale" (496). She failed to publish the story, sending it in on 1 September 1959, along with "The Wishing Box" and "The Daughters of Blossom Street" to London Magazine (which accepted only "The Daughters of Blossom Street" on 13 November 1959 and printed it in their May 1960 issue).

There is little chance London Magazine was the only periodical to which Plath submitted this story. The Submissions List Plath maintained is now held by Smith College and begins with September 1959 (coinciding with her stint at Yaddo) and continues through early 1963. The earlier submissions list - if it exists at all - is possibly in her papers held at the Lilly (I know of one such list in her papers at Lilly but dates to earlier submissions).

Familiar with Plath's submissions process, we can be certain she sent the story as well at a minimum to The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly, and quite possibly also New World Writing. In reviewing The New Yorker records held at the New York Public Library, there is correspondence confirming that Plath submitted the story to The New Yorker. In a letter to William Maxwell dated 22 May 1959, Plath submitted both "Sweetie Pie and the Gutter Men" and "The Shadow." Ultimately, The New Yorker passed on both stories, in a letter to her from Maxwell dated 17 June. It makes her rejection of the story in her journal entry on 15 June eerily omniscient. In the rejection letter, Maxwell invites Plath to meet in person to discuss stories with him, and praises her as clearly being able to write...

Anyway, stepping back... on 12 December 1958, Plath began both seeing Dr. Ruth Beuscher and keeping very detailed notes on the topics they discussed. These journals were originally sealed until 11 February 2013 when Plath's papers were sold to Smith College, but were unsealed by Ted Hughes in 1998 shortly before his death. (You can read a little bit about the unsealing process and see images of the envelopes that contained the journals by reading my essay "This is a Celebration: A Festschrift for The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath" which was published in Plath Profiles 3 Supplement).

In brief, "The Shadow" can be summed up as: Sadie Shafer was over at her Maureen Kelly's house and ended up biting Maureen's brother Leroy in the leg because she didn't like to be tickled (he was sitting on her stomach and Maureen thus has easy access to tickle her). The neighborhood then rallies against the Shafer's, deciding that her behavior can be linked to the fact that Sadie's father is German and he does not attend church. The Shafer's in general are shunned in a classically intolerant style such as not being asked to coffee and not being sent the traditional, annual fruit cake (given the lore on fruitcake this is likely a blessing in disguise: Oh, SP, you missed a good chance for humor there!)... Though the adult's behaved rather immaturely, the children - Sadie, Maureen, and Leroy - made up in a short amount of time and continued on in the blissful way that only children can. The story ends with Sadie's father being sent to a German detention camp and Sadie declaring that she does not believe in God.

Plath's journals from this period (December 1958 and 1959) are jam-packed with psychological pressings and and probings. They represent a different kind of journalistic writing than previously captured and if they indicate anything about which we might have expected to read in her later journals, we are certainly left wanting and are devoid of a valuable literature and resource.

On 16 December 1958, Plath comments that she is "happier" than she had been "for six months" (441). This comes directly, it seems, from Beuscher's giving Plath two things: "permission to hate" her mother and "permission to be happy" (441). I have in the past sounded off a bit about Plath's therapy with Beuscher and I basically stand by the opinions presented then. In light of this, and in light of the time of its creation, what is going on in "The Shadow"? It is a largely ignored story - as is much of Plath's fiction/prose - but it is, if you read it, a rather whacked out (official, technico-clinical term) transference and revisioning of her father's death. What happens to her Sadie's father in the story is based partially on Gordon Lameyer's father's experiences. Paul Lameyer was displaced during the war. Plath wrote to Gordon Lameyer in 1959 in a letter that has not survived asking for information on his father's displacement "for an article" she was writing. Lameyer wrote back on May 21, 1959 and details his father's encampment, his professed "pro-German leanings" which lead to his removal from Wellesley. In 1943, his case came up but the F.B.I. had no case against him.

Otto Plath, himself, was investigated by the F.B.I. in October 1918 and was deemed ultimately not to be a threat. The investigating person concluded: "I could not find any further evidence against this man, and as he seems to be a man who makes no friends, and with whom no one is really well acquainted, was not able to locate anyone knowing him intimately." Whether or not Sylvia Plath had knowledge of this investigation is not known, though some of her journal entries indicate that she just might have - see the "heiled Hitler" comment on page: 430. Those interested in Otto Plath, his ancestry, and his FBI files are encouraged to attend Heather Clark's talk at the Sylvia Plath 2012 Symposium.) In Gordon Lameyer's comments regarding Plath and his own father's experiences during World War II, there is nothing to indicate that Plath knew of her other father's dealings with the F.B.I.

Plath's own authorial commentary on "The Shadow" are captured in her Journals. On 31 December 1958, Plath writes, "Have been working on the Leroy-biting story" (453). Plath laments that the story must have just one theme, which she states is "the awareness of a complicated guilt system" in which Germans in a Catholic/Jewish community are scapegoats for the pain that German Jews are made to feel by god-less Germans (453). The child Sadie struggles to comprehend the "larger framework" at play and how her actions might have led to her father's deportation.

Very long story short...Part of Sadie's routine with her friends was to listen to the radio show "The Shadow" which began with a series of ominous laughs "Heh-heh-heh-heh-heh"'s and the words, "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!" and ended with "The weed of crime bears bitter fruit. Crime does not pay. The Shadow knows!" Plath recalls this in the story (pages 147-148). Thanks to the wonders of the internet, and to Plath's 1959 story, we can listen to the intro and the farewell message of "The Shadow" as Plath herself did. The following clips are from circa 1937-1938, when Plath was living in Winthrop, when the seeds of this story were planted...

4 comments :

Kristina Zimbakova said...

Peter,the audio is a gem. Apart from Plath's story,The Shadow is also referred to in Anne Sexton's poem 'Flee on Your Donkey'. In translating Sexton, it was in fact Plath's story that helped me realise that the Shadow (along with The Green Hornet) is actually a radio show and not a tune, as I was led to believe. Sexton changes the intro a bit:

'Who remembers what lurks in the heart of man?
What did The Green Hornet mean, he knows?
Or have I got it wrong?
Is it The Shadow who had seen
me from my bedside radio?'' (99) From The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton.

Peter K Steinberg said...

Kristina! Thank you for your comment. Hearing the audio is revealing, I think. Certainly contextualizes aspects of the story. And what a coincidence of timing given your two recent marvelous art works!

pks

Anonymous said...

The Lilly has a couple of Plath's publication submission lists for ca 1948-53.

Peter K Steinberg said...

Thank you anonymous. Can you please email me which boxes/folders in which I might find them? Thank you!

pks

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Publications & Acknowledgements

Interviews