27 July 2014

Sylvia Plath, 60 Years Ago Today

[This post has been modified due to unreasonable pressure from certain parties. The point of the original post was to vilify Jeffrey Meyers' baseless claims and correct his horrendous research. If you are interested in reading the original post, please email me. Contact information available via the "About Sylvia Plath Info Blog & Contact Info" tab. --pks]

60 years ago today, on 27 July 1954, Sylvia Plath was featured in a photograph in the Boston Globe pointing at … wait for it … a globe! In the brief article "More Girls Than Ever at Harvard Summer School", Plath was photographed in the Widener Library with Everetta Rutherford of Columbia, South Carolina. It is difficult to determine at which country or continent Plath is pointing, but it might be India? That is neither here nor there... Also neither here nor there, it was just 11 months after the news broke that she had been found hiding in her family's basement in Boston and other U.S. newspapers after and all-out regional woman-hunt.

Sylvia Plath pointing at a globe in The Boston Globe, 27 July 1954.

According to Plath's calendar, held at Indiana University's Lilly Library, she was photographed for the Globe on 26 July 1954. This was a fairly innocuous event on what turned out to be a major day. She had German at 8 am and also at 11, and then English at 12 noon. From 1-2 she had lunch with someone called Lissy Snyder and at 3 pm she met with her psychiatrist, Dr. Ruth Beuscher. Another note in the corner for that day in the calendar has that she was going to the Library at 8:15. Plath also wrote "[Irwin's]". Plath has drawn an arrow pointing from "[Irwin's]" name on the 26th into the next day --the 27th-- that was directed toward another name: Dr. Heels at Mt Auburn [Hospital].

117 Lakeview Avenue,
Cambridge, Mass.
A relatively obscure figure until recently, "[Irwin]" now is the subject of a recent article by Jeffrey Meyers in the London Magazine entitled "Plath's Rapist" (June-July 2014, pp. 127-144). This is not Meyers' first foray into exploring the disappeared men in Plath's life; he published "Sylvia Plath's Mysterious Lover" in the Yale Review in October 2010 (pp. 88-102) on Richard Sassoon. According to Plath's address list in her 1954-1955 pocket calendar, "[Irwin]" lived at the time at 117 Lakeview Avenue, Cambridge (map). The driving distance between "[Irwin's]" residence and Mount Auburn Hospital is .6 miles; from the hospital it is .9 miles driving distance to Plath's summer rented apartment at 1572 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge (map; image); and to round things out, from Plath's apartment to "[Irwin's]" house it is 1.3 miles.

Reading Meyers' article got under my skin somewhat as this blog post shows. The premise of the article stems from a comment Plath is reported to have said to her then roommate Nancy Hunter: "He raped me" and quoted in Hunter-Steiner's memoir, A Closer Look at Ariel (64). Meyers seems to accept this as gospel but does not seem to take into account that if Plath actually said these words, that she might have been "saving face", as it were, given that Nancy Hunter had previously rejected "[Irwin's]" advances and appeared somewhat of an innocent. While Plath may have seemed outwardly fine around this time, roughly a year after her after her first suicide attempt and subsequent recovery, it is possible that after her encounter with "[Irwin]" that she was confused, frightened, and in something like shock at the result of this intimacy. Meyers does not consider that Plath's hemorrhage might equally have happened during the normal course of things, as it were, as in consensual relations and not necessarily as a result of rape.

Plath's words might have been expressed as she did not want to be judged or to get any kind of reputation. The truth is we do not know and we will never know. Meyers unfairly accuses, or rather convicts, "[Irwin]"of being a rapist when "[Irwin]" cannot defend himself. As well, this is unjust for the presumed victim, Plath, as she cannot either explain herself or the words she apparently uttered in a moment of frightening distress. Furthermore, if "[Irwin]" is innocent of rape this claim devalues genuine rape victims. It is a very dangerous article, a disappointing one for sure for other reasons, and feels like couch-research: done using the internet and books-at-hand with very little effort otherwise. As well, it is fairly cowardly to write that someone is a "rapist" and a "sexual predator" who had a "violent and sadistic brand of sex" when the defendant is no longer alive (139, 143). Had Meyers traveled to Indiana University he might have seen Plath's calendars which record numerous "dates" with "[Irwin's]" preceding the incident. As a result, Meyers account fails to give any understanding or context on the nature of the relationship between Plath and "[Irwin]". Some perspective would have been relevant.

The true nature of their acquaintance and the substance of their meetings is unknowable. As such, we rely on Plath's calendars, what she wrote down, and what she did not cross out. These calendars capture both intended activities as well as serves in some cases as a record of actual lived experiences. Sometimes, it must be stated, it is difficult to interpret between the two.

Cover of Plath's
1954-1955 Calendar
Plath arrived in Cambridge for summer school on Monday 5 July. Among other things on the 6th, she explored Cambridge, shopped, registered for classes, and saw the film Counselor at Law (imdb) at the Brattle Theatre. Classes commenced on the Wednesday the 7th, and later on that day she spent time at the Oxford Grille (then located at 32 Church Street (map) now the Border CafĂ©) drinking beer with Nancy Hunter and "[Irwin]". So, she met "[Irwin]" on 7 July or just before.

Plath's calendar records that she spent time with "[Irwin]" on the evening 13 July; the evening of 14 July; the evening of 19 July; and the afternoon of 22 July before the "events" of 26 and 27 July. Plath's documented activities were largely centered on studying at "[Irwin's]", as well as their having long talks, and taking meals together. None of this is to suggest that rape did not or could not have happened; but rather that the nature of the relationship was deeper than Meyers is capable of concluding based off of his research and as is present in his article, which again, appears to have been done at home and using online and biographical resources such as Carl Rollyson's American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath and Andrew Wilson's Mad Girl's Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted. Fine sources in and of themselves, but far too secondhand in nature for what Meyers is attempting to do.

Back to the calendar… On Tuesday, 27 July, Plath's calendar shows that she again had German and English at 8, 11 and 12 noon; in the afternoon she was to study German from 2-5 and 7-11. But we cannot be sure if she did all these things given what appears to have happened between the night before. These plans were not crossed out which is often how cancelled plans often appear.

On Wednesday, 28 July, Plath's calendar again indicates she had classes at 8, 11, and 12 noon; also she had a big midterm exam that afternoon, and planned to be in Lamont Library at 3 pm. Plath also noted that she recuperated and cleaned the apartment. In the next couple of days, Plath spoke on the phone with Dr. Beuscher once and had two meetings with her at 3 pm both on Thursday 29 July and on Friday 30 July. On Friday 6 August Plath had a checkup with Dr. Heels and slept for 15 hours that night back home in Wellesley!

On Wednesday 11 August, just over two weeks later, Plath notes that "[Irwin]" called and he fails to make another appearance in the calendar until Sunday 31 October, when he visited Smith College. On that occasion, he and Plath spent the afternoon talking and drinking beer at Rahar's. Plath mentioned "[Irwin's]" Northampton visit in a letter to her mother dated 2 November. Plath was very much over him by this point and was quite dismissive of him in this letter. There are likely many things to conclude from the long duration between "[Irwin's]" appearances in her calendar in addition to the possibility that something untoward might have taken place in addition to the fact that not every activity was captured by Plath. For example, "[Irwin]" might have been out of town during some of that time or deeply involved with his research and/or teaching. Judging from Plath's schedule, she was inundated with studies and other boys: from Gordon Lameyer to Ira Scott Jr.; and spent a lot of time away from Cambridge herself in the duration of the summer. Other "[Irwinian]" occurrences are the 11 February 1955 letter mentioned in Meyers article; a note that he called on 6 April 1955 and they spent time together the evening of 9 April 1955; "[Irwin]"visited Plath again at Smith on 17 April 1955 and they went to Look Park, Rahar's and Wiggin's for dinner; and lastly Plath visited "[Irwin]" in Cambridge on 11 June 1955 for supper just after she graduated from Smith College.

An accusation of rape notwithstanding, there is much that is wrong with Meyers' London Magazine piece and contributes to my assessment that his research was somewhat lazy. There are a number of inaccuracies which deserve correction and clarification.

For starters, there the vaguest of interest shown in what "[Irwin]"was doing at the time in terms of his profession. Meyers writes, "In the late forties or early fifties he taught math at the prestigious MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts." This nonchalance is embarrassing. I contacted the archives at M.I.T. to inquire about when he was there, and was informed that he was listed in staff directors published between October 1951 and December 1958. In October 1951, January 1952, and December, 1952, he is listed as working in the Division of Industrial Cooperation. From December 1953 to December 1955, he was in the Division of Defense Laboratories, with an office at Lincoln Laboratories (located in Lexington, Massachusetts) starting in fall 1954. From December 1956 to December 1958, he is listed as a staff member of the Lincoln Laboratories. December 1958 appears to be the last time he appeared in the directory (the one for Spring 1959 is absent).

Meyers claims that the day after the incident with "[Irwin]", they went to Crane Beach in Ipswich, Massachusetts. One thing that is frustrating about this essay is there is very little citing of references and sources. There is no evidence for this in Plath's calendar (which I realize is not the end-all-be-all of accurate resources); the first mention of a visit to Crane Beach that summer is with Dr. Ira O. Scott, who first appears in SP's calendar on Wednesday 18 August. It is suggestive that Plath met him around this time as his appearance in the calendar is formal: "Dr. Ira Scott". Her first visit to Crane Beach with Scott appears to have been the following week on 25 August.

While discussing events of the summer of 1954, Meyers states that Plath "lost her virginity the previous year during her unhappy affair with Richard Sassoon..." (138). However, "the previous year" is incorrect as Plath met Sassoon on 18 April 1954 (as in the same year she met "[Irwin]"; Sassoon is first mentioned in a letter to her mother the following day, 19 April 1954). Biographically these are incidents that might have relevance but it feels awfully awkward to discuss Plath's private life. There seems to be no consideration or sympathy for how the relatives and descendants of both Plath's and "[Irwin's]" families might feel. And it is not lost on me that this blog post might not be helping! However, there are private experiences and there are private experiences…

Sadly Meyers writes that "The entries for the summer of 1954 are missing from Plath's Letters Home (1975) and Unabridged Journals (2000)" (138). Meyers should know that Plath did not keep a journal at this time. So, if something never existed can it be considered "missing"? Also, there would be no letters home this summer as Plath was within phone distance of communicating with her mother (where the phone rates were more reasonable and therefore cheaper than from Northampton).

In The Bell Jar it was not Esther's "roommate" (138) who drove her to the hospital, but Joan Gilling, her schoolmate from college and fellow asylum-resident who had been released and was living with a hospital nurse. Meyers should know better.

Meyers describes a photograph of "[Irwin]" from Ivy, the yearbook of Trinity College in Hartford. He writes of his "thick peasant features and a low Slavic forehead, with no glasses and a full head of dark hair". He really has it out for him! In the space of eight short pages, Meyers describes "[Irwin]" as being "physically unattractive"; having "peasant features"; of being a "rapist" and a "sexual predator"; and being a practitioner of a "violent and sadistic brand of sex". It is possible he aged a bit in the decade that passed between this 1944 photograph (you should know it is the same photograph that appears in the 1943 yearbook, too) and when Plath met him; but it is possible that Plath invented some unflattering characteristics to juxtapose Irwin in the novel against the all-American features of Buddy Willard and the Yalies that the magazine rounded up for some of the events during her guest editorship. Any corroboration with descriptions by Hunter in her memoir A Closer Look at Ariel might be coincidental or unconsciously done based on what Plath wrote in The Bell Jar.

Regarding Meyers' analysis of the poems that Plath sent to "[Irwin]": The poem titles in Meyers' essay appear out of the blue! There is no mention that the poems were listed in a letter from Donald Hall to Fran McCullough dated 11 January 1975, in which Hall quotes a letter that he had received from "[Irwin]". Probably because it was confusing to do so! According to Hall, who was quoting "[Irwin]", the poems Plath sent to "[Irwin]" in her letter dated 11 February 1955 were: "Temper of Time", "Dirge", "Dance [sic] Macabre", "Winter Words", and "Prologue to Spring". Meyers assumes, wrongly, that "Dirge" is Plath's sonnet "Dirge for a Joker" and therefore over-reads and over reacts to the poem to make it fit his theory. A common thing for "academics" to do. However, Plath's calendar informs that it is just "Dirge", a poem she wrote on 5 February 1955 with a parenthetical reference to the poems first line: "The sting of bees took away my father". This poem, later renamed to "Lament", was a villanelle. It also fits in, time wise, to the other poems Plath sent to "[Irwin]" as "Danse macabre" was written on 30 January 1955 (though listed in her calendar under as "down among strict roots & rocks" which is the first line of the poem); "Temper of Time" and "Winter Words" were written on 1 February 1955; again "Dirge" on 5 February 1955; and "Prologue to Spring" on 9 February 1955. We do not necessarily know when Plath's "Dirge for a Joker" was written, and in reviewing the calendars I could not find it listed.

Meyers writes: "Plath's reckless accidents in skiing, diving and horseback riding on 'Ariel' proved that she 'enjoyed' … dangerous situations…" (143). Diving? Plath's "reckless" experience "horseback riding" was with "Sam" in December 1955, not "Ariel" in 1962 who was considered, lore has it, to be a docile, older horse. And it was not necessarily that case that Plath was the instigator of these "reckless accidents"; in the situation with the horse "Sam" it was the horse that got spooked and unexpectedly took off into a gallop. Likewise with the skiing accident in December 1952: Plath was inexperienced, received poor instruction, and fell. Word choice, man! Reckless? Maybe it is a question of semantics. Please explain the claim of a "reckless" diving accident. Declaring that Plath's behavior was "reckless" is, I feel, discourteous and too judgmental.

Lastly, Meyers missed a golden opportunity to draw a unique coincidence between Plath and "[Irwin]". He is careful to note the date of the one letter we know Plath sent: 11 February 1955. However, even more coincidental (for lack of a better word), both Plath and "[Irwin]" passed away on 11 February. She obviously in 1963; he in 2007. If Meyers is writing now an article on Dr. Richard Norton, please do not fail to remark that Norton got married exactly one week before Plath did in June 1956. Jeffrey Meyers "Plath's Rapist" from the London Magazine is very disappointing and on the whole represents sloppy research.

All links accessed 15 June and 27 July 2014. Minor revisions to the text, 4 August 2014. Significant revisions 21 December 2014.

[The comments have been suppressed and disabled for this post due to borderline harassment I have received from an heir of the subject of Meyers' article. Should anyone want to see them, please email me via the contact information available on the "About Sylvia Plath Info Blog & Contact Info" page. It is a terribly sad day for scholarship when research pertaining to a deceased person is subject to censorship. --pks]
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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.