01 January 2015

Praising Sylvia Plath

Praising Sylvia Plath As a student in Smith College, Sylvia Plath published a number of poems and short stories in Seventeen magazine. Slow to start, receiving scores of rejection letters, Plath's words finally landed her in print as a high schooler with an anonymous appearance in November 1949. Then, a story ("And Summer Will Not Come Again") and a poem ("Ode to a Bitten Plum") August and November 1950, and a story ("Den of Lions") in May 1951.

Plath then saw much success between October 1952 and April 1953, practically owning page-space whilst appearing five times in those seven months (Plath did not appear in either November 1952 or February 1953). In that run of months and appearances, Plath's three poems and two stories were "The Perfect Setup (story, October 1952); "Twelfth Night" (poem, December 1952); "Initiation" (story, January 1953); "The Suitcases are Packed Again" (poem, March 1953); and "Carnival Nocturne" (poem, April 1953). Plath's poem "Sonnet to a Dissembling Spring" was accepted but never printed.

Plath's short story "Initiation" won second prize in the annual short-story contest held by Seventeen. The idea for the story, which was originally titled "Heather-Birds' Eyebrows", came out of Plath's own experiences in high school and was a long time in coming. Andrew Wilson relates a memory of Aurelia Plath's in his excellent 2013 biography Mad Girl's Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted: "The [original] title [of "Heather-Birds' Eyebrows"] came from a conversation that occurred while Sylvia, 'carrying out orders during high school sorority hazing, asked people on the bus what they ate for breakfast,' recalled Aurelia. 'When she told me of the delightfully imaginative reply given by an elderly gentleman, I exclaimed, ‘There! You have a story!’'" (81-82)

Another possible inspiration for the story is Seventeen magazine itself. In November 1950, Plath's poem "Ode to a Bitten Plum" appeared; but also in this issue, a story called "Initiation Fee" by Rebecca Shallit (later, Rebecca Turtletaub). The tagline for the story reads, "Nothing in all the world seemed as important to Dodie as pledging the right sorority" (77).

First page of "Initiation Fee" by Rebecca Shallit,
from Seventeen, November 1950.
Even the illustration above is fairly reminiscent of Sylvia Plath, wouldn't you say? I see in particular resemblances to (at least) two photographs of Plath. The first being Plath circa 1950 and the second, as a bridesmaid in June 1955.


Shallit's story received many letters of praise to the editor in the months following its appearance. As a reader, as a contributor, and as a studier of the magazine, Plath had the perfect setup herself for being able to write on a similar theme but in her own voice and based on her own experiences.

Plath's 1950 appearances warranted some attention from Stookie Allen in January 1951. In the summer of 1951, Seventeen sent Plath "sent two brief mimeographed copies of eulogistic letters" for her story "Den of Lions" (Letters Home, page 72; please note the letter was written on 6 July 1951 and not 7 July 1951, as the book states). In looking through all the Seventeen magazines for the summer and fall of 1951, I could not find that these letters were ever printed; and the kind people at the Lilly Library were not able to find anything in the massive Plath archive there when asked. However, praise for Sylvia Plath did appear in print in the January, March, and April 1953 issues of Seventeen:

Plath received some praise in the magazine for "The Perfect Setup" and "Initiation". Below are some images of letters to the editor from appreciative early readers and followers of Plath.

On "The Perfect Setup", January 1953, page 4

On "Initiation", March 1953, page 4

On "Initiation", April 1953, page 4

You can see all the covers of Seventeen magazine where Plath's works appeared on the periodicals thumbnail page over at A celebration, this is.

All links accessed 15 November 2015. Post modified 1 March 2015.


Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

Happy New Year to you, and to all the Sylvia Plath Info Blog readers, too!

I love how you found that "Initiation Fee" story, and you could not be more right about the picture and that one line. And the name "Dodie"!

You raise a very important point about the date of that letter being wrong. I have found many, many inaccuracies in my archival work with published dates, most particularly in the dates of poems given in The Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath. The correct dates matter very much to read the letters or poems in context with journal entries, world events, etc.

Anonymous said...

Such a gem of new post,Peter,thank u!You make us start the new year plathianly very well ;-) Feeling spoilt as usual by your informative and curious post full of curiosities unveiled for us,thank u. Reminiscent very much i would say that drawing on the magazine! I would say the copy of Sylvia in long dress below. Amazing coincidence or well..dresses were all a bit similar that time but...omg so so too much similar..funny..even the hair..the face..the slim figure..seemed Sylvia herself self drawed.(my imagination/fancy had even started for one second to push itself to dare to rhink that that Shallit was Sylvia's candid name(pseudonim)with which she wrote that story and did the drawing..ok too much champagne drank on these festive days i guess :-P Jokes apart, really an exquisite and very interesting post with which to start the new year,Peter thank u.
Please have my best wishes for an amazing 2015, hope u're well and spent these xmas holiday well and happy.

Kisses&hugs from the cold but sunny Florence.
xxx Alina

Peter K Steinberg said...

Happy New Year Ladies! Julia, I know the pain you speak of about the dating of letters, poems, and, well, just about everything else. The record certainly needs updating. In time, I suppose.

Thank you both for the first comments of the young year.


A Piece of Plathery said...

Happy New Year!
Currently devouring Plath in Devon.

Rehan Qayoom said...

Happy New year Peter! There seem to be a large number of inconsistencies with the dates in Collected Poems and the actual dates. Enough to merit a table of both.

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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.
  • 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.
  • Elements of Literature, Third Course. Austin, Tex. : Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2009. (Photograph used)
  • Gill, Jo. "Sylvia Plath in the South West." University of Exeter Centre for South West Writing, 2008. (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, Volume 1, 1940-1956. 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. "'A Fetish: Somehow': A Sylvia Plath Bookmark." Court Green 13. 2017.
  • 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. "'They Had to Call and Call': The Search for Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 106-132.
  • 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. "Sylvia Plath." The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath. London: British Library, 2010.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Textual Variations in The Bell Jar Publications." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "The Persistence of Plath." Fine Books & Collections. Autumn 2017: 24-29
  • 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. "Writing Life" [Introduction]. Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning. Stroud, Eng.: Fonthill Media, 2014.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. Sylvia Plath (Great Writers). Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004.