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.
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.
- "Banking on his passion for Plath" by Melissa Davis Haller. UMW Today. Spring 2005.
- "Sylvia Plath's Three Women to be staged in London" by Alison Flood. The Guardian. 3 December 2008.
- "FBI files on Sylvia Plath's father shed new light on poet" by Dalya Alberge. The Guardian. 17 August 2012.
- "There Are Almost No Obituaries for Sylvia Plath" by Ashley Fetters. The Atlantic. 11 February 2013.