07 October 2015

Linda Freedman on Sylvia Plath and The New Yorker

The essay on Sylvia Plath by Linda Freedman that appears in Fiona Green’s edited collection Writing for The New Yorker: Critical Essays on an American Periodical (Edinburgh University Press, 2015), is entitled: "Sylvia Plath and 'The Blessed Glossy New Yorker'". On the surface, this is a brilliant title for an essay that considers a subject that should prove fascinating. Plath coveted just about everything about The New Yorker: the typeface, the cartoons, the quality of the writers it published,the content; even the sheen of the paper. However, Freedman's treatment of Plath and The New Yorker is wanting; the essay suffers from distinctive gaps and oversights which suggest a lack of familiarity with the subject.

The initial disillusionment comes in Freedman’s second paragraph when she states: "even though her [Plath's] work appears more frequently in other periodicals such as the Ladies' Home Journal, Mademoiselle, and Seventeen" (118). In fact, Plath published only once in Ladies' Home Journal when she placed an old sonnet "Second Winter" written on 8 March 1955 in Ladies' Home Journal's December 1958 issue. Freedman cites Jacqueline Rose, but one expects some fact checking to take place, and thus she could offer a correction to Rose's false statement and not a continuation of misreporting in this innovative volume of new essays. For the record, by December 1958, which saw Plath's second published piece in The New Yorker, Plath appeared nine times in Seventeen; three times in Mademoiselle, and once in Ladies' Home Journal. Inexplicably, Freedman goes on to spend a chunk of time on poems by Plath that were never included in The New Yorker such as "The Munich Mannequins", "Edge", and "Mary's Song". Here, again, Freedman perpetuates misinformation about Plath’s work, falling into the usual trap of stating as fact that Plath's last poem was "Edge". For the love of Plath, people, you cannot say that! The truth is two poems were written that day: "Balloons" and "Edge". Alphabetically, yes, "Edge" was the last poem Plath wrote on 5 February 1963.

Freedman goes on to discuss a dream that Plath that involved the editing of her New Yorker poems, and makes a very uninformed claim: that "she always agreed to suggested changes" (127). Nothing could be farther from the truth. One look at the correspondence between Plath and New Yorker poetry editor Howard Moss held by the New York Public Library shows that, even while discussing her first acceptance of "Mussel Hunter at Rock Harbor", Plath held her ground about suggested edits by Moss. This was a pretty assertive thing to do, given Moss’s status at the time, but it clearly shows that, in fact, Plath was not always in agreement with her editors. Yes, there were a number of times, when Plath did agree with changes suggested by editors, but there were also other occasions when her intentions for her poetry would have been lost by the edits suggested which led her to refuse to implement them.

In the last section of her essay, "Taking Up Space", Freedman also makes some poor judgments. On the big, double-page spread of Plath's leftover New Yorker poems published on 3 August 1963, Freedman writes disparagingly of the inclusion of Plath's life-span dates underneath her name, "Readers had no choice but to construe the poems within the narrative of Sylvia Plath's life and premature death" (131).She then states, "The bracketed dates of Plath's birth and death did not give any sense of when the individual poems were written" (132). In principle, I agree with this, as some poems were written was much as five years previously. But Freedman continues, "Readers would not have known that 'Mystic' was written in 1963, close to the time of Plath's suicide" (132). That's right: because the majority of the readers of the 3 August 1963 issue of The New Yorker would not have known of the manner in which Plath died. This makes absurd Freedman's next claim that "even a comparatively early poems such as 'The Elm Speaks' (April 1962) might be taken as a suicide note" (132). Most readers might have read 'Elm' (as it was originally and later titled when it was published in Ariel -- the fascinating backstory about this poem held in The New Yorker records is lamentably not a part of Freedman's essay and, in light of how short-sighted it is, perhaps this is a good thing) as a brilliant soliloquy on nervous agitation. Freedman seems intent on stating that the readers of that issue of The New Yorker knew that Plath's death by suicide was common knowledge: "The transition in this poem ["Elm"] from movement to stillness is particularly affecting, given the context of recent suicide that would govern a reading of the poem in the 1963 magazine" (132).

Page 132 is just a bad page. The last paragraph on this page is no better than those that precede it. Freedman writes, "On 11 December 1969 Olwyn sent Moss six newly discovered Plath poems". The idea that these poems were "newly discovered" was a marketing ploy on behalf of the estate. However, Freedman naively accepts this for fact, dragging Moss along for the ride: "Moss had never accepted an entire batch of poems while Plath was alive. His immediate acceptance of these six must have been at least partly because their discovery was newsworthy"(133). The six poems all appeared in the 6 March 1971 issue of The New Yorker: "The Babysitters", "Pheasant", "The Courage of Shutting Up", "Apprehensions", "For a Fatherless Son", and "By Candlelight". How newsworthy could these poems be if they were submitted in December 1969 and then held on to for 15 months? Freeman fails to mention that all six poems had been previously read and rejected outright by Moss. The record of this is clear in both the correspondence in The New Yorker records and via Plath's submissions lists held by Smith College. Plath wrote each of these poems after had signed her first-reading contract with the magazine so she was obligated to send them to Moss for consideration. Inexplicably, and contradicting herself, in writing about Olwyn Hughes's subsequent submission of "Last Words", "Lyonnesse", and "Gigolo" in April 1970, Freedman does acknowledge that Moss had previously seen "Gigolo", which was accepted by Moss and published in November of that year.

In all, this was a promising essay topic that failed to convince because of a lack of familiarity with, or knowledge of, the subject of Plath's business relationship with The New Yorker which could have been remedied by consulting the well-catalogued correspondence, manuscripts and typescripts that are now available in archives. Both Freedman and the book's editor Fiona Green might have provided a more carefully researched essay following careful and thorough examination of archival documents. Distance from archives (Freedman and Green are located in the UK, the archive is in the US) and issues of copyright and photocopying is not an excuse for the perpetuation of misconceptions or misinformation in lieu of consulting archival material. Fly or sail over. Hire a proxy researcher. Ultimately, ask a Plath scholar to write on Plath. Freedman is undoubtedly gifted and bright, but have you looked at her c.v.? Freedman outlines her thesis as "concerned with the making of Sylvia Plath in the context of The New Yorker, and with her sense of her own materiality, or immateriality, as a writer in that context" (118). But, heck, even her thesis statement leaves me scratching my head.

My thanks to Gail Crowther and Gillian Groszewski for reading and commenting on a draft of this blog post.

All links accessed 28 June 2015.

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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.