16 April 2013

Review of Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953

In Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953 (HarperCollins, 16 April 2013), Elizabeth Winder has approached a pivotal period of Sylvia Plath's life in a novel way. Similar to the ingenuity in scope of Andrew Wilson's recent biography Mad Girl's Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted, Winder writes primarily on a snapshot period of Plath's life and weaves together a short, quirky narrative based on archival research, information obtained from books, and new interviews with Plath's fellow guest editors.

I was curious how one would write a 265-page biography based on one month/one summer of Plath's life. October 1962, I could see: there is a fair amount of information about this period and certainly enough creative work to really bring that aspect in as well. But, June 1953 there is less material available: very few letters, sparse journal-writing, no creative writing (other than possibly copy Plath wrote for the Mademoiselle issue). The bulk of the book is structured week-by-week (First Week, Second Week, etc.), which is a brilliant way to approach the events; and within each chapter there are sections which break down quite nicely into manageable, readable bits of writing.

There are additional chapters too, that widen the context from just Sylvia Plath in June 1953 such as "Sylvia Before," "The Issue," and "Aftermath" to name a few. "Sylvia Before" is one of the more successful chapters of the book: in particular the sub-content in this chapter such as "Field Trip" (and the sub-sub content "Vitals") and - the best of them all - "A Dictionary of Adolescence." This is Pain, Parties, Work is at its best. The chapter "The Issue" is a short, intense look at the the August 1953 Mademoiselle: and bravo to Winder for such an examination. Salient details were also to be found in "Aftermath." Scattered throughout each chapters are boxes of quotes, memories, and other information. These sidebars contain contextual, supporting information, quotes and other information, but occasionally disrupt the flow of the text. As such, I was never quite sure whether to read the boxed off material in the flow of the narrative or as separate side-bars. There are many reasons to buy this book, not the least of them being for the perspectives of, Sylvia Plath, Mademoiselle, and 1950s style, fashion, and culture that her survivors give, as well as the snippets of new information.

A natural way to approach this book is from the lens of Plath's portrayal of these events in her novel The Bell Jar. Reading Pain, Parties, Work will require a significant wiping clean of preconceived ideas about what you think you know about some of the people and events from those 26 days in June that Plath manipulated for her book. Certainly some of what Pain, Parties, Work reveals about Sylvia Plath's "queer, sultry" month is mind-blowing. The most important scene to me was the event at the Forest Hills Tennis Club (now the West Side Tennis Club) in Queens. An absolute revelation. Like Plath's novel, Winder freely intertwines significant experiences from other years of Plath's life into the text. In The Bell Jar, we are drawn to Esther Greenwood's story of isolation and disappointment and depression and the inequality and double standards of 1950s America. Likewise and more importantly, we are also drawn to Sylvia Plath's experiences and emotions from the time. Esther Greenwood tells us in the opening chapter of The Bell Jar that she was "supposed to be having the time of her life" (The Bell Jar, 1963, 2).

What Winder has done in Pain, Parties, Work is to show that as Plath's fellow guest editors "shared their memories of June 1953, I realized that the difficulties Sylvia endured were not unique, but part of a larger crisis--being an ambitious, curious girl in the 1950s" (Author's Note xi). It goes to show that living the dream has consequences and that feeling of emptiness and of "moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo" was not restricted to just Sylvia Plath (The Bell Jar, 3). About the end of the internships, Guest Editor Laurie Glazer says it best: "We dispersed in different directions to have our letdown alone" (Winder 221). And this is part of the power of both Plath's story and of The Bell Jar: that there is a universality to it to which people connect with on what seems to be a molecular level.

Winder did her research, particularly with the fashions that were out that June, as well as things lost to me such as lipstick color, bra-designs (mind you, I do have an interest in this but possibly for different reasons), perfumes and other - dare I say - feminine things that had a profound meaning and influence on the 1953 version Sylvia Plath. I appreciate having the information now. The images in the book, though grainy, are relevant, but based on some of the memories recalled, the opportunity to present fetish items like the bathrobe Plath traded to Janet Wagner (aka Betsy/Pollyanna Cowgirl) was passed up. And, do any of the Guest Editors that year still have either the plastic starfish sunglasses case or the book of Ernest Hemingway short stories given to those who suffered from ptomaine poisoning?

To sum: Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953 is an easily digested book with fascinating new facts and memories of Sylvia Plath.

There is no excuse not to read Elizabeth's Winder's Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953. In addition to being available in print (which is the best medium) Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953 is also available on Kindle.


IngridLola said...

Ah, you liked it! I thought this book had a lot of great ephemera that I had never heard about before, like the descriptions of the paper dolls Sylvia made as a young girl, descriptions of things she pasted in her journals etc. What bothered me was that there were so many facts, but not enough interpretation. It felt to me like Winder would start in on something that I thought might go somewhere interesting, then not follow through with it. The magazine layout was also too gimmicky for me.

I'm glad you enjoyed it, though! Thank goodness for differing opinions, otherwise the world would be boring!

Peter K Steinberg said...


Yes, I liked it. It is not a perfect book but such a thing is not practical to believe will ever or should ever exist.

There are faults/problems, but I could not figure out a way to work them into the review without it carrying on longer than it already was. I agree that in some places Winder could have gone deeper, but I think she's paved the way possibly for others to do just that.

Carl Rollyson told me something I think is apt here: One biography leads to another. Overall, I am very thankful for all the new information in the book.


Anonymous said...

I am so glad that you enjoyed my book, Peter! It's such an honor to make a contribution to the Plath dialogue.

Eliza Winder

Peter K Steinberg said...

Eliza, It is always flattering and wonderful to see an author of a Plath book check in on this blog. Thank you. I hope my blogs readers will buy Pain, Parties, Work. A lot of the work you have done to my mind has completely altered that month/summer of Plath's life. I can only express my deepest gratitude.


Anonymous said...

Hi Peter. Now I just can't wait to get my pre-ordered copy. It's on the way! Thank you for all your insights. I love you blog. It's such a mine of information and inspiration. Just thought you might be interested in my recent post about Sylvia: http://poemsandstones.wordpress.com/2013/04/18/on-the-beach-with-sylvia-plath/

P.H.Davies said...

Excellent review Peter - I just received my rather handsome hardback copy and can't wait to devour it.

Carl Rollyson said...

Such a well considered review, Peter. Thank you.

BridgetAnna said...

Ok, so I've read enough reviews of this book, in addition to yours, Peter, to know it's excellent and well-regarded. It looks really fascinating! I guess I'll put back on my Plath hat for a short bit and get a copy of the book.

Thanks for the review!

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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.