11 February 2019

"I am I": Sylvia Plath and E. M. Forster

Sylvia Plath's copy of Howards End by E. M. Forster is held by the Lilly Library. It is the Vintage 1954 edition printed with green wrappers as is seen here and "borrowed" from a random online source. On the cover are two white trees and a black tree which form a single, combined canopy of leaves. It was labeled V-7 and the price was $1.45. When not reading or proofing The Letters of Sylvia Plath last year, I have been making my way through a list of older books that for one reason or another I was always too afraid to read; or simply never thought of reading. I read Forster's A Room With a View and liked it well enough to continue on to Howards End.

Plath mentioned Howards End in a letter to her mother written from Cape Cod in August 1957. Plath's copy of the book is annotated with her usual bold, black ink pen. But also in the copy are markings in red pen, which is typical of Aurelia Schober Plath's annotation tendencies.

In Chapter 27 of the novel I was struck-dumb but a particular paragraph, and so I wrote to the Lilly Library to see if by chance Plath had made any annotations to it because, I think you will agree, it screams of Plath.

The paragraph reads,
If we lived for ever, what you say would be true. But we have to die, we have to leave life presently. Injustice and greed would be the real thing if we lived for ever. As it is, we must hold to other things, because Death is coming. I love Death—not morbidly, but because He explains. He shows me the emptiness of Money. Death and Money are the eternal foes. Not Death and Life. Never mind what lies behind Death, Mr. Bast, but be sure that the poet and the musician and the tramp will be happier in it than the man who has never learnt to say, 'I am I.'
It was, in particular, the "I am I" that got me unreasonably excited. The very excellent Sarah Mitchell of the Lilly wrote back confirming that Plath did mark up the passage. Likely one needs the context of the entire novel to this point to fully get the significance of the passage, but generally the "I am I" that caught my eye clearly caught Plath's, too. Years before she read the novel she famously wrote in her 13 November 1949 diary entry:
I think I would like to call myself "the girl that wanted to be God." Yet it I were not in this body, where would I be – perhaps I am destined to be classified and qualified. But oh! I cry out against it … I am I …I am powerful – but to what extent? I am I.

She later returned to the phrase "I am" in her poetry, "Suicide Off Egg Rock" (19 February 1959), and in her novel The Bell Jar (1961). And Plath considers the concept of "I am I" several times in her published journals (entries 31, 38, 49, 78, and 188).

I think Plath was channelling Forster and Howards End, too, in a short story she endeavored to write and which was mentioned in a 24 December 1960 letter to her mother and brother. She wrote that she was "beginning a longer more ambitious one today about a girl who falls in love with a beautiful old house & manages finally to possess it: a kind of parable for my loving this house with a bay tree in Chalcot Crescent" (The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 2: 555). The story, if it was ever drafted or even completed, does not appear to have survived.

2 comments :

Annika J Lindskog said...

This will make an EXCELLENT paper for this: https://victorianpersistence.wordpress.com/2019/02/08/cfp-e-m-forster-cambridge-avril-2020/ And I would LOVE to hear it in Cambridge. Please do this.
And another of two Plath coincidences in my life since yesterday. I'm teaching A Streetcar Named Desire this week, and yesterday when I was reading a couple of Plath letters in the first letter volume (a habit I have developed over the past year), there it was in a letter to Aurelia from Plath's freshman year at Smith.
And Forster has been on my mind this past weekend as a possible research interest this spring. Then this morning, I was assigned to supervise a Forster essay and now this. Hm.

Peter K Steinberg said...

Annika! Thank you for your comment but I'll let someone else far better than me write the paper and present it at the conference! I do love Forster, though. Was glad I found that book at that particular time. And these coincidences are wonderful: so Plathian, it seems. Reading the Letters daily, treating them as vitamins!, is the way to go. A healthy choice. ~pks

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

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.
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil (eds.). The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 2, 1956-1963. London: Faber, 2018.
  • 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.

Interviews