01 March 2014

Sylvia Plath and the SS United States

Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes sailed from New York City to Southampton, England on the SS United States, which called itself, rightly, the "world's fastest ship". They set sail on 9 December 1959 and arrived in Southampton, England, on 14 December after a brief stop in Le Harve, France. Plath booked their passage from the United States Lines offices then located in Copley Square at 563 Boylston Street, Boston. The location is now a beer and wine shop filled with Boston's finest drunks (pictured right).

Plath began working on arrangements before Yaddo as her 1959-issued passport (held by Emory University) is dated 8 September 1959; and by 28 October 1959 was writing to her mother to enquire about getting withdrawal slips and or checks for the remainder of their ship-fare payment settled. There is an entry for the United States Lines Boston office in her address book, which is held at Smith College, with a notation (an appointment, possibly) that suggests she went there at 12 noon on Monday 30 November 1959.

Here are a couple of advertisements for the ship that were published on 27 October 1959 (left) and 5 November 1959 (right); two very Plathian dates:

In addition to being photographed at least once while on board at a meal (below right, this image was published in Letters of Ted Hughes, 2008, as illustration 2b), Plath wrote two letters while on board. One, as you might imagine, to her mother and the other to her Aunt Dorothy Benotti's family. Both letters are dated 13 December and both held by the Lilly Library. In addition, Ted Hughes penned a letter that same day to Aurelia Plath, which is also held by the Lilly Library.

The letter to the Benotti's was a handwritten note in a Christmas card. Plath writes that they were doing much eating and sleeping and that while the seas look calm, the ship rocks and rolls all the same. They take some walks on the deck and experiences just one clear-skied night.

The letter to her mother is three pages, handwritten, and on SS United States stationery. They were at desks in alcoves set aside for writing and Plath mentioned she had just finished reading Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago, which disappointed her. Their luggage was just under the allowance for cubic feet. While she left Wellesley with a cold it had passed; as most of the decks were closed they walked around when and where they could. Plath comments on their cabin, mentions it is conveniently close to the dining room but that there are a bunch of girls who drink until very early in the morning and are loud, but that they sleep after meals to parcel it out. The letter asks questions about forwarding mail and other practical matters.

The letter from Ted Hughes is four, handwritten pages and also on SS United States stationery and begins with a description of the sea and says their cabin is on the water line, so they hear it constantly. Hughes is highly critical of the service and food, calling the process for afternoon Tea "military", saying that he and Plath preferred the Queen Elizabeth which they took in June 1957. However, he compliments the ship itself as "pleasant enough", saying that their deck walks are enjoyable. There is some overlap of content with Plath's letter. Hughes offers his own opinions about Aurelia Plath's work situation which are interesting to read and gives a decent insight into the nature of their relationship. Hughes asks to be updated on Sappho, their cat, requesting the occasional stamped paw-print on letters! In closing, Hughes mentions the Danish farmers and how he and SP had their photograph taken the night before (12 December) and that they were pleased that it came out "for once", and in wishing she take good care of herself, Hughes quotes from the last line of Robert Frost's poem "Good-by and Keep Cold": "Something has to be left for God".

The night before they left, on 8 December, Aurelia Plath sent a telegram to Ted Hughes regarding his poem "Dick Straightup", saying that the "arrangement" was "magnificent". The poem appeared in the December 1959 issue of The Atlantic. Thanks to this telegram, though, we know that Plath and Hughes were in Cabin A31 (which was in the Tourist Class deck) and that the ship left from Pier 86 (map). Below is a cropped image from a 1959 Deck Plan showing the location of Plath and Hughes' cabin.

The SS United States Now
Over Christmas, I happened to be driving through Philadelphia and noticed from the highway some distinguishable funnels on the Delaware River. Whilst traveling at an undisclosed speed, I recollected a television program I had seen earlier in the year about the SS United States. The wonderful CBS Sunday Morning profiled the ship on 17 February 2013. At the time I tweeted about it.

You can get wonderfully close-ish to the ship from the street. It being Christmas Day, traffic and activity on Pier 82 on South Christopher Columbus Boulevard (an excellent satellite image) was quite quiet and I snapped these pictures…

The Ship as Archive
Since October 2013, I have highlighted many archives that hold Sylvia Plath documents. In a grand sense, the SS United States is an archive, too. The SS United States, like 26 Elmwood Road, 23 Fitzroy Road, Haven House, and many other places in which Plath lived, stayed, or visited, plays host to a living archive -- an essence of herself that Plath left indelibly in places in which she ventured. This concept of a living archive is something Gail Crowther and I introduced and explored in "These Ghostly Archives 4: Looking for New England" and in "These Ghostly Archives 5: Reanimating the Past". While the notion of haunting Plath (and Plath haunting us) has been mentioned in our previous papers and initially in Gail's Ph.D thesis, having an awareness of and gaining access to these historical sites opens up the experience of reading Plath into new dimensions. The ship holds traces of her past occupants.

I have made two attempts to get a tour of the ship, however, in both instances they were unfortunately cancelled. If you Google Image the ship's name you can see old and current photos of her, which is now gutted on the inside as the building materials included asbestos. Are you interested in the SS United States? Here is more information.

The SS United States Conservancy
The SS United States Conservancy has a website, and they are on Facebook and Twitter, too. Please spend some time on all three mediums. While I would welcome donations for my work in Plath(!), if you have any money to spare and have ever benefited from something I have posted on this blog or on my website for Sylvia Plath, please, please, please consider donating to this very worthy initiative. In addition to all this, from 7 March to 14 September, at the Independence Seaport Museum in Philadelphia, a special exhibit "SS United States: Charting a Course for America's Flagship" will be on display.

In researching more and more about the ship, I found it has a rather large, interesting, and significant internet presence. Recently in November 2013, it was the feature of a Daily Mail article, "Don't let her rust in peace: SS United States undergoing massive renovation to save the world's fastest ocean liner from being sold for scrap". And early this year, David Gambacorta asks "Will the SS United States find new life in 2014?" on philly.com.

And, here are more links to pictures and text about the SS United States (it seems that people feel about the SS United States the way we do about Sylvia Plath):
The SS United States has also been the subject of some books. These include:
  • The Superliner United States: World's Fastest Liner (New York: Rand McNally, 1953) (WorldCat)
  • Picture History of the SS United States by William H. Miller Jr. (Mineola, N.Y.: Dover, 2003) (WorldCat)
  • A Man and His Ship: America's Greatest Naval Architect and His Quest to Build the SS United States by Steven Ujifiusa (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012) (WorldCat).
  • SS United States: Speed Queen of the Seas by William Miller (Stroud: Amberley, 2012) (WorldCat)
  • SS United States by Andrew Britton (Stroud, The History Press, 2012) (WorldCat)
Plath wrote the poem "On Deck" -- published in The New Yorker on 22 July 1961 -- in the year after her passage on the SS United States. In a draft of "On Deck" held by the Lilly Library, Plath first wrote about the shuffleboard players before changing the the image to "bingo" players. This was done at the New Yorker's suggestion, reasoning that shuffleboard connotes a daytime activity, and that while the poem is set at night, would not people be more apt to congregate at a bingo table… An image of the shuffleboard area on the first class open promenade can be seen in this article.

All links access 2, 8, and 14 January, and 23 February 2014.


Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

I too happened upon that CBS Sunday Morning show on the SS United States and got quite excited about it. One point the show made that you didn't mention here is that it was open to traveling African-Americans and other people of color at a time when most things weren't. It was a wonderful ship in many ways.

Anonymous said...

I come here as a SS UNITED STATES enthusiast and former passenger. It is really fascinating to know that Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath were passengers. But I am confused by your comment that the blog author should have mentioned that blacks were allowed to travel on the ship? What does that have to do with Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath and the post at hand? Yes, it was nice, but mentioning that would have been too tangential.

One point of clarification based on the first comment: it was not the ships decision to allow blacks to travel, which Julia Gordon-Bramer seems to suggest. Anyway, I do not mean to ruffle feathers and hope this comment gets posted anyway.

R. Brown

The Plath Diaries said...

An absolutely fascinating post Peter and I love that photograph of Plath and Hughes on board. Makes me feel a little sad, reading this, knowing it was Plath's last trip across the ocean and she would never return to the US.

Hughes and Aurelia's correspondence is very interesting I think. There's a marked change in the years after Plath's death when Hughes realised he had all the power and Aurelia had to acquiesce to him as not to ruffle feathers. But his letters to her while Plath was alive were friendly, intelligent and respectful. It seems like he got on with her as a person rather than just the mother-in-law figure.

Great to see the image of the ticket office on Boylston Street too. I must make a real effort to see Plath's haunts next time I'm in Boston!

Peter K Steinberg said...

Thanks Maeve! I'd love to show you the sites in and around Boston when you come back. Note: when, not if!

I liked your perspective on the person/mother-in-law aspect of TH's correspondence with AP. I imagine it might have been the same too between SP & AP had such a distinction been at all possible. I think there are flashes of this, but the mother-daughter paradigm had a firm grip on that relationship.

Thanks JGB and R. Brown for your comments too. So glad to know of another Sunday Morning viewer!


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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.