Read COSMOPOLITAN from cover to cover. Two mental health articles. I must write one about a college girl suicide. THE DAY I DIED. And a story, a novel even. Must get out SNAKE PIT. There is an increasing market for mental-hospital stuff. I am a fool if I don't relive it, recreate it" (495).Well, Plath was no fool.
The connections between these authors and their books is most interesting. Three writers separated by continents and countries and experiences all exploring quite similar material though in very different ways. As stated above, Plath's journal entry comes on the heels of her reading articles in a contemporary issue of Cosmopolitan. The two "mental health articles" were: "Psychiatry and beauty" by Eugene D. Fleming (June 1959: 31-36) and "'I Was Afraid to Be a Woman'" by Patricia Blake (June 1959: 56-61). These articles were mentioned and discussed previously in works by Luke Ferretter and Brittney Moraski.
In November 1961, Plath received a Eugene F Saxton grant for her novel which by that point was largely done. An article appeared in The New York Times about this ("Fellowship for Poet" on 21 November 1961: 36). Nearly two years before, on 22 January 1960, an announcement was made that Ken Kesey was also the recipient of the Eugene F Saxton grant (24). The articles revealed no details of the subject of the novels.
Plath's novel was written in the spring of 1961 -- after Dawson's novel was out but before Kesey's was published. It is unknown if Plath knew much about either novelist. There might be some mention of this in her journals for this period (which are missing). But no known reference otherwise exists that mentions these authors. In Giving Up (2002), Jillian Becker reports that Dawson's novel was one of the items she was to fetch for Plath when she was staying with them from 7-10 February 1963.
The timing of Plath reading The Ha-Ha might be as a result of Dawson's second novel Fowler's Snare being reviewed by Francis Hope in The Observer on 6 January 1963. The Ha-Ha is not mentioned in the review, so it is speculative to suggest that Plath read this review and was inspired to seek out Dawson's previous novel. However, the subject of Fowler's Snare may have caught Plath's eye. Hope writes in his review:
Miss Dawson's new novel...revolves around that familiar character, an intelligent but disorganised girl who does not know what to do with her life, and eventually succumbs to the man with the most dogged ability to stay near her through thick and thin, or rather through thick and very thick. Joanna tried David, her flat and priggish college suitor; Bric, a scruffily selfish American post-graduate; a period of teaching at a Catholic school for infants; and finally, broken down by her father's death, rebounds messily towards the Fowler's snare of David's reliability...The result is sometimes rather mechanical, as if one were crossing off unacceptable life-styles like items on a shopping-list...There are no nice people in Miss Dawson's world; no moral purpose; few things to enjoy and none at all to trust. It is, in fact, very real. (18)This same issue of The Observer printed three poems by Ted Hughes: "Water", "New Moon in January", and "Dark Women" (later titled "The Green Wolf"). Going back a few months, The Ha-Ha was mentioned in the "Paperbacks in Brief" section of the 24 June 1962 issue of The Observer: "Jennifer Dawson's highly original novel of life in a mental hospital" (25).
In England, the TLS mentioned the forthcoming novel in England in their 10 August 1962 issue. A notice also appeared in the 1962 Cheltenham Festival of Literature program which published Plath's prize winning poem "Insomniac". The notice reads; "Ken Kesey has written an exciting and very human first novel set in a mental home". However, the majority of reviews or mentions of the novel appeared in the days and weeks after Plath's death (reviews in The Times on 21 February 1963 by Anthony Burgess in The Guardian and Julian Jebb in The Times on 24 February 1963). Burgess, you may recall, reviewed The Bell Jar in The Observer on 27 January 1963. The most interesting review, perhaps, appeared on pages 116-120 of the Spring 1963 issue of Northwest Review: "Review of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" by R.L. Sassoon (that's right, Richard Sassoon).
The three novels have an interesting and connected history, no?, Read together, they tell of a frightening reality in mental health care during the 1950s and early 1960s. Kesey's treatment of ECT is horrifying and I felt I learned some insight into the treatment Plath received during her Bell Jar summer of 1953.