14 January 2016

The Mental Hospital Trilogy: Sylvia Plath, Jennifer Dawson, & Ken Kesey

On Saturday 13 June 1959, the same day she and Hughes attended the wedding of Margaret Cantor's oldest daughter, Sylvia Plath wrote in her journal,
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.

Published on 14 January 1963, Sylvia Plath's novel The Bell Jar was the third in an unrelated trilogy of novels set in mental hospitals to appear in print in three years. British author Jennifer Dawson's The Ha-Ha came first, published in early 1961. Then came the American writer Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, published in the United States in February 1962 (and in the United Kingdom in January or February 1963).

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).

When published in the United States in 1962, Kesey's novel was scarcely reviewed in some of the likely sources Plath would have had access to from England. The New York Times reviewed One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest on 4 February 1962. It was also reviewed in Time on 16 February 1962. Plath may have seen the "Briefly Noted: Fiction" mention in The New Yorker on 21 April 1962.

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.


BridgetAnna said...

Hmm makes me want to check out One Flew and read it against TBJ and Plath's own description of madness and ECT. I cannot even contemplate what it would have been like to undergo ECT before sedation and muscle relaxants were involved. It's hellish enough now as it is. -bal

Peter K Steinberg said...

Hi Bridget, If you read One Flew I hope that you like it. I had trouble with it. Difficult content.


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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.