27 November 2014

Jeffrey Meyers on Sylvia Plath's Heritage

Jeffrey Meyers' "The German Plath" published in the November 2014 issue (volume 33, number 3, pages 77-80) of the New Criterion is his second publication on Sylvia Plath this year. The first "Plath's Rapist" was published by London Magazine in their June-July number. It was discussed at length on this blog here. It is clear that Meyers has a high regard and interest in Sylvia Plath, he is exploring topics that in some cases are under emphasized (some of his articles are listed in this 2010 blog post), but as with "Plath's Rapist", in "The German Plath" Meyers tips the scales, or, falls overboard, and has written largely a piece of drivel. The premise of the article is: "Sylvia Plath was born into German culture … Plath had all the quintessential German qualities: she was clean, orderly, punctual, meticulous, disciplined, industrious, conformist, and obedient ... Her father’s virtual suicide, which she referred to obsessively throughout her life and art, profoundly influenced her own suicide." Meyers contends that Plath's Germanic background informs why "[i]n Cambridge, England, she obsessively cut her breakfast eggs into neat squares and triangles."

Off the bat, Meyers gets Otto Plath's year of emigration wrong. Otto Plath came to America in 1900, not 1901. He claims that Otto Plath "refused to recognize his own diabetes" but I think this is a bit of an oversimplification of the circumstances. Otto Plath believe he had lung cancer, and after seeing this in a friend, refused to seek medical advice and treatment. So it was not so much a refusal to "recognize" to much as stubbornness to get help. If these are one in the same thing do let me know. It highlights the dangers of self-diagnosis; not to mention also the crassness of claiming Otto Plath committed "virtual suicide". And, how many f's are in daffodils? I get this is a typographical error by an editor, but FYI, New Criterion, there aren't three.

After the egg-cutting revelation, Meyers writes "(By contrast, when the critic Al Alvarez visited Plath at the very end of her life, her unwashed hair, an unmistakable sign of her depression, 'gave off a strong smell, sharp as an animal's.')" Now this is something remarkable! Unwashed hair is "an unmistakable sign of her depression". Really. Good thing I'm balding as I should be now exempt from that disease. Meyers show no familiarity with Plath's hygiene. Unwashed hair might be a sign of depression but it is far from 'unmistakable'. Especially considering that Plath washed her hair infrequently. Even from her college days, Plath washed her hair once a week, maybe twice. This is a practice she followed through 1962, as can be seen in her calendars held by the Lilly Library for college and graduate school years, as well as in her 1962 Letts Diary Tablet held by Smith College. In 1962, Plath's Letts has 33 instances of the chore to "wash hair". In December, in particular, there are four instances: the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 24th. Alvarez visited Plath on Christmas Eve 1962 (aka the 24th); but we obviously do not know if Plath washed her hair before or after the visit. Maybe the shampoo scent was "Tigress"? Anyway, at this time, Plath was heavily involved with making 23 Fitzroy Road livable. Painting, purchasing things, preparing a script for the BBC, arranging for day care for Frieda Hughes, minding two small dependent children on her own, writing some letters, baking, cooking, taking the children out, setting up services like nappies, subscribing to the Radio Times and The Observer, making professional plans, seeing friends, hosting guests, trying to get a phone installed, seeing Ted Hughes, etc. Pardon the language and the tone: but when the [expletive] was she supposed to have time to wash her hair?

Let's see, what else. Meyers seems comfortable making blanket stereotype judgments "Plath’s orderly and repressive German traits, which helped control her mania...". It is this kind of insensitivity that calls into question his motivation in writing on Plath. How did Plath employ her Germanic background to control her mania (if she was even manic at all… Meyers gives no support to this assertion).

This is a gem: "She became a Unitarian and not, like Otto, a Lutheran; she learned French, not German, in high school and college (though she took German courses in England)." Ok, the decision to be Unitarian was not Plath's decision. It was her mother's (when the Plath's moved to Wellesley in 1942, Sylvia Plath was all of about 10 years old: hardly old enough to be making decisions of this kind). During Otto Plath's lifetime, also, the Plath's were Methodist. Remember, Meyers, Otto Plath turned his back on the family and the Lutheran ministry and was struck from the family bible. And Plath ultimately rejected formal, organized religion when she developed a mind of her own. And (I'm getting out of breath), lastly, Plath did take German courses in college, both at Smith College and in Harvard Summer School.

Meyers claims "In 'Little Fugue,' an allusion to a composition by J. S. Bach". Try again, it is a reference to Beethoven's Große Fugue (the title of Beethoven's composition is even in the poem). Plath was familiar with Bach, but preferred Beethoven.

This one is good, too, "'Electra on Azalea Path' suggests Electra on Aurelia Plath…" Well, kind of. The closeness of Azalea Path to Aurelia Plath is not arguable, but Otto Plath is buried on Azalea Path in Winthrop's town cemetery. Also, the myth of Electra doesn't really work if you connect Electra to the mother figure, so pun notwithstanding, Meyers' attempt at cleverness is abjectly a failure.

Then, Meyers writes, "In August 1962, when she wrote 'Lady Lazarus,' Plath had just survived a near-fatal car crash in England." -- nope. October 1962 is when "Lady Lazarus" was written and "near-fatal car crash" is hyperbolic. There is some doubt about the veracity of Plath's claims of this car incident, but if the story is true, Plath veered off the road in her Morris Traveller at a flat part of Winkleigh in Devon at the site of a on old airfield (map) where there was very little risk of severe injury.

Overall, like with "Plath's Rapist", I am unimpressed with Meyers' recent forays in Plath "scholarship". Hire a research assistant; or, I'm happy to send him a bill for the work I've done correcting his publications. He freely conflates and confuses Plath with her creative constructions: Plath is Esther Greenwood; Plath is "Lady Lazarus", etc. It is a tightrope, a tricky tightrope. It is safe to say and believe that Plath uses her experiences in her writing. Her life sometimes forms the origination of her creative writing but it was a launching off point. Plath's transformation of her experiences into art and into a universality of theme is far more complicated than Meyers gives Plath credit for. There is enough blatantly and factually wrong to question both his knowledge of Plath and his motivations. It is simply careless writing. And it is a little disturbing that venerable publications like London Magazine and New Criterion are publishing this stuff.

All links accessed 7 November 2014.


suki said...

How do people with such factually wrong stuff get things published?
And the trouble is people read the wrong I formation and absorb it...

Anonymous said...

Speechless..im total speechless. No comment. I mean,come on,how can be people writing these mistakes,nonsenses,like it was real/correct without even doing some good research and putting more attention to what they say/write. Speechless. It's the only stupid one word Im able to say.

xx Alessandra

Anonymous said...

Since I have my afternoon finally free and time to rest,Im still here on your blog..and felt i wanted to say more than "im speechless" as above, i was a bit too brief and easy with my previous comment,i didnt want to give u the impression not to have had interest and time/dedication to your post by leaving just a quick comment-note..it' s not like that..on the contrary i spent more than an hour on this post to read it carefully and to think about it and to get more angry about this Meyers and earlier i was so upset i couldnt just add more. Now i came here again and im reading and reading the post again also because not being english native it takes a little bit longer to me than to what it takes to others..and also because i want to be sure im reading everything well and with attention armed of dictionary but im just doing myself harm reading and reading it again because it just upsets me more and more reading what this Meyers wrote. Upsetting is the word. And also how ridiculous to underline the fact about her hair..come on,how childish!really how ridiculous to put attention also to something so "superficial" and not important as hair can be..come on we're talking about a poet! (well,poetESS,Alessandra) and her work,and about her importance as a writer and about the WORK she left to us..it's NOT about hair and how often frequent she used to washed it or if she was depressed BECAUSE she didnt wash it frequently! Come on,this is just shameful and ridiculous (i dont count anymore how many times i've said "ridiculous"..but it seems to be the only word coming to me) Not washing ones hair is not a sign of being depressed,but,as u yourself earlier have stated,is more because she was SO much busy those days to have time to think about washing hair.So simply because she had other most important priorities than to wash her hair..or simply because she didnt feel like washing it? Really stupid to talk about hair topic,so low topic,when it's about a poet we're talking about and not about her personal life and habits, putting attention to these superficial matters than to put attention to what really counts. Im full of rage, i feel upset when i read nonsenses about someone and mostly someone i like and i respect with all my being. And really cant understand how can exist people able and so without care to write those nonsenses and be able to create/invent things like about his father and/or the rape and so on..without even know what the real events were. come on, i just think these people shouldnt really have the freedom and the faculty to write ..without then knowing how and what to write. 
Apologize the rant, the long rant, i hate my long comments but im really angry and had to say best/more what i think of it than a quick "speechless"

Wish u a nice day,Peter. Thank u for having shared another interesting(but upsetting)post. Thank u for your work again and again.
Going to make some tea..maybe my anger melts into it ;-)   xx Alessandra 

Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

Your treatment of this lazy journalism made me chuckle. As I read what you said about the hair, I remembered my mother (of Plath's generation) telling me that when she was young, no one washed their hair much more than once a week. Soaps were harsh, conditioners were not the norm, and there were no hair dryers until the 1960s (and those were the kind you sat under for ages, not our hand-held blow-dryers). Anyone with any hair length risked catching a cold from damp hair three seasons out of four.

I am so happy with your closing here, talking of the "tightrope," and that her experiences were a complicated "launching off point" but not straight autobiography. I agree completely.

Jessica McCort said...

Great post, Peter. Even today, actually, the washing of a woman's hair is somehow cause for debate. Some women these days only wash their hair once a week. Anyhow, I'm also surprised that these articles managed to be published with all of the errors you pointed out.

Anonymous said...

Excellent analysis/evisceration, PKS. Regarding Plath's hygiene/hair-washing and Alvarez's comment about her animal scent --- didn't the incident take place during one of the worst English winters on record? Plath records her struggles with the water/piping in her flat in "Snow Blitz," so I've always assumed that her unwashed hair might be connected to how freaking cold it was --- how complicated having a good bath might be (even though we know that Plath loved a good bath).

Peter K Steinberg said...

Thanks Suki, Alessandra, Julia, Jessica & Anonymous for your thoughts and commentary on Meyers' recent article and my post about it. You have each raised very provocative issues that further illustrates faults in Meyers' piece. I am thankful for your personal perspective, Julia, and to you Jess for mentioning contemporary practices.

Anonymous: Very good point; however the 'snow blitz' started on Boxing Day, the 26th of December, and continued into January and maybe February. (I remember, with sadness, reading in microfilm editions of The Guardian and online editions of The Times that the weather pattern of cold and snow broke in the week after Plath's death.) "Snow Blitz" is undated but probably from the middle of January, so any issues Plath may have had with baths and plumbing would have been well after Alvarez's visit. But your point is still quite valid and important.

Alessandra! I hope that your tea and time now have helped to melt the anger and frustration away.


Anonymous said...

Yes, they have. Teas & hot baths always cure ;-)

xx Alessandra

Anonymous said...

Middle of january yes .. Well,the plathologist here is you,Peter,so I really wouldnt have to get my word in.. Ive gone and checked several times myself as well these years on internet and all the books I own (and they're many) but none of them mention the date Snow Blitz was written on..the only one to mention it, I just went and checked again and found out 5mins ago,is Anne Stevenson in "Bitter Fame", she says,page 280, line 16th, "In late January she wrote "Snow Blitz". I dont know how much she's trustworthy (you know her better than me, you only are the trustworthy for me so only you can judge&correct) Im just copying down what she wrote. By the way I wished to know how much Stevenson is reliable because Im reading her Bitter Fame again after many years but jf u tell me she's not Im gonna stop the reading cause I dont want to waste my time on false/not reliable biographer. Sorry if I commented again..Im becoming quite a haunting presence, I know,(u know very well how strong I despise stalkers myself so Im gving u the permission to block me. No joke) but bear with me,I know u hate me ;-) but u know how much I love to talk/deal with Sylvia Plath and I would like to talk about her&her work with someone all the time,every day,all my life, and not only reading her alone on my own in my house and mostly in these difficult weeks of mine (you know what am referring to) which is helping me to kill this awful time and help me spend the days better and distract myself. So im deeply apologizing if Im becoming a little bit too present and bothering.
But it's hard for me to resist from posting and talking and asking when my biggest passion is Sylvia Plath. And my thirst of knowledge and curiosity about her are strong. So please bear with me...but u're "lucky" this maybe will be one of my last bothering post of the year then I won't be missed ;-)
xx Alessandra


suki said...

Hi Julia you're right about shampoos . My mother was born around the same time as Plath, and the idea of washing your hair more than once a week, when she was young was laughable.
The soaps were atrocious. Pears soap was special because it wasn't black ( made of lead ).
We had a hair dryer for years where you had to sit on the bed - it was as large as a dinner plate and the drying hose was like a vacuum cleaner. It was the height of modernity in 1960 and with 2 kids running around, or needing to be cared for , totally useless!

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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.