27 October 2017

Guest Blog Post: Sheila Hamilton on The Letters of Sylvia Plath

The following is a guest blog post by Sheila Hamilton on the recent publication of The Letters of Sylvia Plath. In the spirit of full disclosure, I supplied to Sheila the parenthetical count of letters addressed to Aurelia Schober Plath. ~pks

Like many people, I was very pleased (understatement) when I heard on this very blog that Peter K.Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil were busy at work on a book of Sylvia Plath's letters. The book was going to be in two volumes, it was going to encompass letters from her early childhood to her tragic death at the age of 30, and it was going to contain her letters to many different people: mother, husband, other relatives, girlfriends, boyfriends, colleagues, editors. It was clear from that first announcement that the publication of these letters was going to be a major event. Vol. 2 is, I understand, currently in the pipeline but as of October 2017, and on both sides of the Atlantic, we have Vol 1, brought out by Faber in the United Kingdom and by HarperCollins in the United States.

I have the British version in front of me as I write this: excluding the extensive Index, this hardback runs to 1,330 pages and can safely be described as "monumental." The first letter in it is dated February 19th 1940 and was written when Plath was seven, to her father; the last one was written on October 23rd 1956 to Peter Davison, an editor and former boyfriend, four months after Plath's marriage to Ted Hughes. Between these two points exist 836 more letters. No project of this kind could possibly be expected to contain every single letter Plath wrote during these 16 years and, sure enough, there are absences. There are very few letters here to her penfriend from college years, Eddie Cohen: (an ex-wife destroyed most of them.) There are very few to Richard Sassoon, and those that are presented here are self-consciously "literary in tone" ("Words revolve in flame and keep the coliseum heart afire, reflecting orange sunken suns in the secret petals of ruined arches" begins one letter from November 1955.) Such gaps in the record are inevitable. But what we are given here is magnificent, a treasure-trove for anyone interested in Plath, and twentieth-century poetry, and academic and literary life in America and England in the 1950s. Because many of the letters are long and very detailed, you can read them as a kind of Bildungsroman, chapters in the life of an interesting and gifted young woman.

When I first suggested to Peter that I would like to write a guest blog in response to the letters, the Letters had not yet arrived. I thought I might like to focus on some of Plath's many friendships, or on the letters written leading up to (and possibly even during) her serious breakdown in 1953: the possibilities are almost endless. But fascinating though those letters are, I have been left feeling that I don't want to create an Elephant in the Room. The Elephant being, put bluntly, Sylvia Plath's relationship with her mother, Aurelia Schober Plath. If Letters Home, edited by Aurelia Plath herself in the mid-1970s, hinted (unconsciously, for the most part) at a troubled mother-daughter relationship, these "new" letters more than confirm our misgivings. That Plath wrote letters to her mother is not in itself remarkable. But the sheer number of them is. (There are 550 total letters to ASP in V1. 549 to ASP as a sole recipient and 1 to ASP and Warren Plath, jointly.) And what's most troubling, to this reader at least, is the tone in which these particular letters are written. A breathless, anxious tone which strongly suggests a terrible and terrifying need to please. There is little that Plath does not share with her mother, even details about dates, physical descriptions of the various boys she meets. We get the entire curriculum of Smith College in minute detail: lots of essay titles, lots of detail about the essays themselves and then, most importantly, the grades. We hear, too often for it to be healthy, all about finances, down to piddling details about the cost of a pair of shoes or a cup of coffee. All this is, as they say, telling. And we hear about achievement or rather, Achievement. It will not be news to Plath enthusiasts that Plath was an overachiever but what comes through here, very loud and clear, is that she overachieved vicariously, too! Though Plath does describe various boyfriends physically, what she homes in on even more is the academic prowess of these young men. One is aiming for Harvard, another is bound for Yale, still others are on Fulbright programmes or in receipt of Guggenheim grants. Somehow the daughter has to tell all this because, somehow, the mother needs to know it all, needs to know that her daughter is top of the class, summa cum laude and, what's more, associating with a whole array of people who are also top of the class and summa cum laude. Ultimately, the message that such a child gets is: I will only love you because of your achievements. Do what you choose but make sure it's what I want.

There is so much to enjoy in this volume: Plath's holiday jobs, her first term in Cambridge, her travels to Paris and the South of France, the interesting and interested letters to a German penfriend Hans-Joachim Neupert which reveal how Plath's political and historical awareness was in place as early as her teens ("We saw some colored slides of the ruins in large German towns last Sunday, and they were a sad contrast to the jolly story in your letters."). But the heart breaks, too, as we see more clearly than previously some of the stresses that Plath was up against all her life.

All links accessed 26 October 2017.

1 comment :

Rehan Qayoom said...

Hughes addresses Plath's overachievement obsession in his poem 'Telos' in Birthday Letters by exploring alpha as a metaphor for Plath‘s poetic endeavours. I have discussed how this contrasts with the many os that occur in several of the late poems in my essay 'Beautiful, beautiful America!‘: On Ted Hughes‘ Birthday Letters'.

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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.