American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plathby Carl Rollyson
The life and work of Sylvia Plath has taken on the proportions of legend. Educated at Smith College, she had a conflicted relationship with her mother, Aurelia. She then married the poet Ted Hughes and plunged into the Sturm und Drang of literary celebrity. Her poems were fought over, rejected, acceptedand ultimately embraced by readers everywhere. At age
The life and work of Sylvia Plath has taken on the proportions of legend. Educated at Smith College, she had a conflicted relationship with her mother, Aurelia. She then married the poet Ted Hughes and plunged into the Sturm und Drang of literary celebrity. Her poems were fought over, rejected, acceptedand ultimately embraced by readers everywhere. At age thirty she committed suicide by putting her head in an oven while her children slept on the floor above in rooms she had sealed off from the poisonous gas. Ariel, a collection of poems she wrote at white-hot speed during her final months, became a modern classic. Her novel, The Bell Jar, has become a part of the literary canon, appearing on student reading lists worldwide. On the fiftieth anniversary of her death, Carl Rollyson gives us a new biography of Plath that shows her as a powerful figure who embraced both high and low culture to become the Marilyn Monroe of modern literature, a writer who wanted nothing less than to become central to the mythology of modern consciousness. American Isis is the first biography of Sylvia Plath to use materials newly deposited in the Ted Hughes archive at the British Libraryincluding forty-one letters between Plath and Hughesto create a fresh and startling look at this American icon.
Garbo, Garland, Monroe, Plath, thrilling divas one and all. Carl Rollyson's American Isis is a tour de force that reinvents Sylvia Plath for the 21st century. I was sorry to turn the final page.
Carl Rollyson's impeccably researched, compulsively readable life of Sylvia Plath is likely to remain for years to come the definitive biography of this complex, fascinating woman. I could not put the book down.
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PRIMORDIAL CHILD OF TIME
27 October 1932: Sylvia Plath born in Boston while her family lives in Winthrop, Massachusetts; 1934: Otto Plath publishes Bumblebees and Their Ways, a landmark study in entomology; 27 April 1935: Warren is born; 21 September 1938: The great New England hurricane; 5 November 1940: Otto Plath dies of an embolism after an amputation; 10 August 1941: Sylvia’s first poem is published in the Boston Herald; 7 December, The United States enters World War II; 1942: Aurelia Plath moves her family to Wellesley and begins teaching at Boston University; 1944: Sylvia begins keeping a journal and writes for her junior high school literary magazine, the Philippian; 20 January 1945: Sylvia and her mother attend a performance of The Tempest in Boston; 6, 9 August: Atomic bombs dropped on Japan; 1947: Sylvia coedits the school newspaper, the Bradford, during her last year of high school; 1950: Sylvia is accepted as a scholarship student at Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, and lives on campus in Haven House. She publishes a story in Seventeen and a poem in The Christian Science Monitor.
Some writers are born to be perpetual exiles and think of themselves as sea creatures. Sylvia Plath liked to tell the story of her mother setting her infant Sivvy on the beach to see what she would do. The baby scrabbled seaward like an old salt, saved from being submerged in an oncoming wave by a vigilant mother who held onto her daughter’s heels. Held on or held back? Sylvia was always of two minds about her mother. Aurelia would later write scholar Judith Kroll that in fact it was Warren who had crawled into the waves—but such facts did not matter to a poet creating her own mythology.
As the poet wrote in an essay broadcast on the BBC near the end of her life, she spent her childhood where the land ended. She described the swells of the Atlantic as “running hills.” Peering at the kaleidoscopic interior of a blue mussel shell, she imagined the intake of air the earth’s first creatures experienced. Living in a house by the sea, she was rocked by the sounds of the tides. Never again would life feel so buoyant.
Sylvia had eight years of this coastal cradlehood. Then her father died, and the family moved upcountry, sealing Sivvy off from the enchantments of childhood like—to use her expression—“a ship in a bottle.” That vision of a seaworld vanished as abruptly as her father, and both seemed to her a “white flying myth,” fleeting and pure and unreachable and moribund for a child growing up in a world elsewhere. As angry as Coriolanus, a bereft Sylvia Plath went into exile. She would accomplish many great things, but never with the assurance of someone who has arrived. She was always looking back, full of regret and uncertain of the future, even though she met so many moments of her life with high expectations. Her life—beginning with her adoration of Superman—became a crusade.
Siv was six years old when war came to Europe, old enough for a precocious child with a foreign father to realize the world was full of villains. “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men,” the insinuating radio voice of The Shadow asked every Sunday evening, answering, “The Shadow knows.” Siv heard Hitler’s speeches, which Americans tuned into with the same kind of hearty compulsion they displayed when listening to the harangues of their own homegrown fascist, Father Coughlin. Later, images of the Führer and the Holocaust haunted Plath’s poetry, amalgamated in her vision of a hellion husband.
Syl was not alone. She went to school with the children of immigrants who watched their parents—exhausted after a hard day’s work—subside beside the radio, awaiting word about the home country. At school, she stood pledging allegiance not with hyphenated Americans, but with kids still called Irish Catholics, German Jews, Swedes, Negroes, Italians, and what the writer later described as “that rare, pure Mayflower dropping, somebody English.” Hands over their hearts, these children faced an American flag draped like an “aerial altar cloth over teacher’s desk.” Not such a different article, really, from Superman’s cape, part of a sartorial ensemble that protected “truth, justice, and the American way.”
They sang “America the Beautiful,” and Syl was weeping by the time they arrived at “from sea to shining sea,” a line that made a lot more sense to an elementary school student than “above the fruited plain.” Moist sea winds permeated the playground with positive ions, the proverbial breath of fresh air that exuded hope and made them exult—when they were not shooting marbles, jumping rope, or playing dodgeball—“Up in the sky, look! It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s Superman!”
The comic book version of Superman had become a staple of Action Comics in the late 1930s, but Sylvia seems to have found the radio serial version especially entertaining. The program premiered on 12 February 1940, opening with an announcer addressing boys and girls, telling them about the Superman clubs being formed around the country. Superman was not only an action hero, he was also the newspaperman Clark Kent, who first got a job on the Daily Planet by promising to return to his editor with a good story. Kent got the stories, even as, in the guise of Superman, he rescued young women and others in distress, foiling crimes involving both corruption in American business and threats to national security. A strange dream during summer camp left Sylvia thinking it would not be surprising to hear Superman knocking at her door. By the time she was ten years old, the idea of a powerful man swooping in to save the day had become a constituent of Sylvia Plath’s imagination. But so had the idea of the independent woman, embodied by Lois Lane, who treated Clark Kent with considerable suspicion and contempt, even as she idolized Superman. Getting the story, getting the man, in a world in which both individual and country were on the verge of destruction would remain crucial to Sylvia’s idea of world order.
For a short while, Sylvia had her own Superman at home: her father Otto Plath. An erudite and imperious entomologist, Professor Plath was old school. He was German, and what he said was law. To his daughter, he was Prospero, a diviner of nature’s secrets. He showed her how to catch bumblebees—nobody else’s father could do that! But he was aloof and irascible. He did not know how to play with children. It was not easy to placate Otto the Choleric. His wife, Aurelia, Otto’s former student, tried soothing words, but her emollients eventually evaporated, and he would erupt with thunderous exclamations, waking Sylvia’s younger brother, Warren. The enraged sounds coming from another room in the Plath home would not have been so different from the sound of Hitler’s rants.
Otto exhorted excellence, and he enjoyed endowing his daughter with high standards. She loved to watch him correct student assignments; it was like putting the world right. But she had to be quiet if she was to have the privilege of witnessing his improvements. Red pencil marks slashed through papers with improper wording. Otto’s sadistic streak showed when he told his daughter that in class the next day there would be “a weeping and wailing and a gnashing of teeth.” To Sylvia, this assertion only proved the power of a father who lectured to hundreds about the way the world was put together. He seemed to the young girl a monarch, looking down from the lecture platform, calling his subjects to account. They approached to receive the awful judgment of his corrections. Quite aside from the image Sylvia constructed, one of Otto’s colleagues, George Fulton, recalled for biographer Edward Butscher that Professor Plath was friendly and talkative, with a lusty appetite for huge roast pork sandwiches. Elizabeth Hinchliffe, another biographer, spoke with Otto’s Harvard classmates, and they remembered his gift for languages and preference for literature over science. Aside from his interest in nature and his special subject, bees, he did not seem like a scientist at all. Indeed, Sylvia delighted her father with her early interest in poetry, and she quickly learned that she could earn his admiration by writing poems for him. Later, her most famous poem, “Daddy,” would be addressed to him.
Sylvia loved to watch her father propel himself through the waves like a seagod. He would carry her on his back with apparently no strain, leaving a wake behind him. Her fear of the murky depths vanished in the rocking motion of his body. While asthmatic Warren remained at home, father and daughter romped on the beach. The fair Sylvia never burned, instead turning a beautiful brown. This was all a fairy tale, and Sylvia knew it. Otto, suffering the effects of diabetes, could not have performed the physical feats ascribed to him. As Letters Home reveals, the seagod father was actually “Grampy,” Aurelia’s vigorous middle-aged father. But Sylvia was concerned with re-creating the power of her father’s presence, and the prowess she accords him is her way of dramatizing the hold he had on her imagination. As Richard Larschan explains in his myth-busting article, Plath also mythologized some of her early schooling, exaggerating the multicultural aspects of her upbringing to suit the temper of the times.
There was a war on, and Otto the German was under suspicion. Such mistrust was not fair, since he had nothing to do with Hitler or Nazism. But on radio, in comic books, and in movies, the voice of villainy was, in effect, Otto’s voice. He was part of a mythology that his daughter could not quite separate from her own experience of the man. For a child, Otto’s cruel rule could not be easily severed from a world of concentration camps, of newsreels that depicted the horror of Japanese prisoner of war camps. Like Susan Sontag, another child of the war, Sylvia Plath saw evil documented in graphic images that became embedded in her preteen psyche.
The searing nature of evil, and the way her own family could be contaminated with it, struck hard at a suburban girl living in Winthrop, Massachusetts, six miles from Boston. Disaster could strike at any moment—as it did with the great hurricane of 21 September 1938, when land and sea converged in a toss-up that pitched a shark into grandmother’s garden. Sylvia saw the sea rear up with “evil violets in its eyes.” All day she heard her mother make frantic phone calls, anticipating the worst from an all-devouring storm that could annihilate the only existence Sylvia knew. It seemed like Armageddon, a toppled world with upended telephone poles and ruined cottages bobbing in roiling waters.
Sylvia felt the elation of terror, the next day finding the wreckage satisfying and somehow commensurate with her imagination of disaster. She was born to a biblical life, calling the torrential rain a “Noah douche.” She began writing poetry and stories almost as soon as she learned her letters, and the perfect storm that remade her universe became associated with her own creative cosmos, which could similarly reshape reality into her own realm. That tautological process of inventive perception, in which the world was bent back into the word wrap of phrase making, was the very stuff of life for her. When she succumbed to her first creative dry spell in the summer of 1953, she saw it as a living death and attempted to end her existence. A second, famously successful suicide would come later when she was an exhausted, worded-out poet who could no longer generate the energy that had peaked in her thirtieth year.
Sylvia Plath, however, was no solipsist. More than most children her age, she was a world citizen, enthusiastically learning geography in elementary school lessons and reports that she put together with A+ accuracy. She could not have had a more encouraging mother, one who wrote her daughter notes full of praise and pride. Aurelia Plath, herself a top student, well-read and self-sacrificing, seemed the perfect parent, and Sylvia would often tell her so in notes written during summers spent away from home at camp. Unlike Otto, who made demands on his children, Aurelia offered suggestions, alternatives, and an array of esteem-building exercises—which her daughter would come to loathe. What was wrong with mother? In one sense, nothing. In another, what was wrong with mother was that she was not Otto Plath. He had the mystique and the majesty of higher learning his daughter revered. Aurelia did not expect any less from Sylvia than Otto did, but Aurelia had also been her husband’s servant. How could she function as her daughter’s master?
Otto’s death on 5 November 1940 remained a suppurating wound in Sylvia Plath’s life. How could such a powerful man die, especially before his time? He was only fifty-five. But he had refused to see doctors until it was too late. Even after his diabetes was diagnosed, he continued to consume a diet heavy in fats and sugars that hastened his demise. Aurelia nursed him through his dying days, restricting contact with the children to spare them the sight of their father’s agony. She also decided not to have Sylvia and Warren attend the funeral. But to her daughter, Aurelia’s actions meant that Sylvia was deprived of her father’s affection and approval. This reaction made his death seem even more mysterious and arbitrary, a tyrannical disruption of her childhood that made him blameworthy, too. How could a father so dominate her world and then just disappear? It was monstrous. A child who, after her father dies, says she will stop speaking to God (speaking to, mind you—not praying to) is one who brooks no equals, let alone superiors, in her cosmos. She may for a moment—even a year—feel overpowered by another, but all of her writing speaks to a need to dominate the world’s attention.
It was Aurelia who introduced Sylvia Plath to poetry, reading poems that she thought suited her child’s love of rhythm and cadence. Matthew Arnold’s “The Forsaken Merman” struck Sylvia as being addressed to her—or at least to children like her:
Come, dear children, let us away:
Down and away below!
Now my brothers call from the bay,
Now the great winds shoreward blow,
Now the salt tides seaward flow …
For a child who often visited her grandparents on a strip of Winthrop land called Point Shirley that had views of both ocean and bay, the merman’s call to watery depths would echo in the image of riding on Otto Plath’s back, gradually losing her fear of the dark and deep sea beneath their bodies as he swam his rhythmical strokes.
Arnold’s poetry was her world “through the surf and the swell … where the sea-beasts ranged all round.” Poetry proved to be a median point between her and the world, a conjoining like that of land and sea. The merman, forsaken by his beloved Margaret, yearns for her return. But she remains on land in church, “her eyes … sealed to the holy book!” The merman’s voice is the poet’s and expresses the enchantment of words that Margaret has also forsaken, but that Sylvia, a “sea-girl” like her mother, swooned over, saying they made her want to cry but also made her very happy. Poetry had that power over her. She would live and die by it.
Plath published her first verse, simply titled “Poem,” in the Boston Herald on 10 August 1941. This brief nature poem featuring the sounds of crickets and the sights of fireflies appeared in the children’s section, “The Good Sport Page.” Paul Alexander calls this first publication the most important day of that summer. But the occasion was more than that: Sylvia became aware that the world was watching. Publication is a form of judgment that another kind of sensibility—say, Emily Dickinson’s—shrinks from, but Sylvia already had a habit of putting herself forward. She measured herself by having others take the measure of her.
Aurelia understood this aspect of her daughter. When in the fall of 1942 Aurelia sold the family house in Winthrop and moved her family to Wellesley, she was thinking of more than situating Sylvia in a college town. Sylvia Plath needed a bigger canvas on which to practice her art. She was already drawing quite well, one year after publishing “Poem” winning a prize for a picture of a woman wearing a hat. Like some other extraordinary writers—Rebecca West, Norman Mailer, and Susan Sontag, for example—Sylvia from an early age regarded writing as a form of serious play.
Jane Eyre and Gone with the Wind were favorite novels, but Syl also liked to listen to The Lone Ranger and The Jack Benny Show. If Aurelia fussed over her child’s devotion to radio the way parents today worry over how much television their children watch, such concern left no traces. Sylvia loved paper dolls and was overjoyed to get Rita Hayworth and Hedy Lamarr paper doll books. She also treasured her Bette Davis autograph. Syl may have seemed “brainy” to other kids, but her outgoing nature and wide-ranging interests and activities—swimming, sunbathing, and playing with boys—reveal nothing like the nerdy, introverted behavior often attributed to exceptionally brilliant students. Helen Lawson, Sylvia’s ninth grade English teacher, told Edward Butscher that Sylvia, a perfectionist, “seemed to have the complete respect of her fellow pupils—not that of the ‘grind.’”
By the age of twelve, Sylvia had scored in the 160 range on an IQ test, well into genius territory, according to Dorothy L. Humphrey, who reported the results to Edward Butscher. Humphrey notes that Sylvia was not only unusually knowledgeable for her age, she took a remarkable interest in the test itself, seeming to enjoy the “whole lengthy procedure,” which she prolonged because she kept providing correct answers.
The next year Sylvia attended a performance in Boston of The Tempest. Aurelia dated the program 21 January 1945 and preserved it in the Smith archive, noting that her daughter had been “completely transported to the magic island of Prospero,” talking about the play on the train home. It was a brilliantly sunny day. To Aurelia, the play’s “stuff that dreams are made on” seemed reflected in the shining piles of snow. Sylvia was reading Shakespeare, entranced by a poet who once again brought the sea of her experience home to her.
Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Hark! now I hear them—ding-dong, bell.
The sounds of this poem and the effect of the bell sounding a death knell create a magical resonance that could well captivate a child entranced not merely by poetry, but by all the wonderful sound effects on the radio—portentous music like the “William Tell Overture,” heralding the Lone Ranger’s appearance. Sylvia loved to create radio melodramas in the schoolyard, and she was already writing short stories and plotting novels, even as she tried to get the fingering right during her piano lessons at camp.
And yet she still had time for fellow campers, taking on a new name, “Sherry,” and comforting a homesick girl. She assured Aurelia that her wonderful letters helped her daughter adjust to being away from home. Sylvia was “overwhelmingly happy” and eating well. If her accounts were accurate, she was stuffing herself. Why eat one bowl of tomato soup if she could down three? The same went for coffee cake and watermelon: She ate four slices of each. She reported her achievements, such as swimming sidestroke for a hundred yards and bravely diving into the cold water when everyone else malingered. Making new friends was a competitive activity. Joan Beales, for example, could play piano and violin and tap dance—and, most impressively, she sang on the radio. Ah, but she could not draw, Sylvia told Aurelia.
One feature of camp life that separates Sylvia’s world from ours was the minstrel show. She dressed as a “pickaninny” and deemed her performance a “great success.” Sylvia had no Negro friends, to use the argot of those times. She would not have seen many African Americans in her neighborhood. As human beings, they were virtually invisible—not just to her, but to millions of Americans, as Ralph Ellison eloquently explained in Invisible Man. The most familiar Negro figure in Sylvia’s life would have been Rochester, Jack Benny’s sly factotum, who was always scheming to get a day off from serving his parsimonious employer. Benny’s half-hour Sunday night comedy program delighted millions, who took in stride an anodyne version of house slave humor. Audiences laughed at jokes about Rochester’s skin color—for example, his plea that Benny stop scraping the blackened toast in his servant’s hands because “Boss, you’re getting down to me.” The only other Negro role model was Mammy, Scarlett O’Hara’s house slave, who insists that her rebellious teenage charge behave with a propriety befitting a woman of her class and race.
Caught up in what the movies purveyed as desirable daughterly behavior, Sylvia sought to please Aurelia and play the dutiful daughter to a mother as saintly as Scarlett O’Hara’s mother, Ellen, who was always a lady. Aurelia resembled the kind parent who enforced a strict moral regime not through punishment, but through martyrdom to principles. Sylvia’s postcards and letters from camp sound the continual theme of mother love. It was what saved her, Sylvia said, from her own “petty jealousies.” Sylvia ran to Aurelia for comfort just as Scarlett sought out Ellen’s embraces. But Scarlett O’Hara could never be as nice as her mother, and Sylvia realized early on the same would be true of her.
Sometimes Sylvia relegated Aurelia to the role of an offstage mother like Stella Dallas. Aurelia would eventually watch her beloved daughter depart for England and a life just as separate and unreachable to her as Stella Dallas’s daughter’s life is to the protagonist of Olive Higgins Prouty’s novel. Stella can only stand in the street and gaze yearningly up at the window into her wealthy daughter’s grand new world. And yet, as Sylvia’s letters show, Aurelia—again like Stella Dallas—had a certain power. On the radio, Stella, like Superman, often got people out of jams. She was a tower of strength for her daughter. It is telling that when Sylvia married Ted Hughes, she wanted only her mother by her side.
Throughout her secondary school years, Sylvia won awards for her writing and her art. Other than her mentor, high school teacher Wilbury Crockett, who ran his literature classes like college seminars, her teachers by and large did not see her as a genius, although Anna C. Craig, a guidance counselor at Wellesley High School, recalled for Edward Butscher that Sylvia “devoured” Shakespeare and was an avid reader and creative writer, a standout who was also a “loner.” One of Plath’s classmates, Louise Lind, told Butscher that she and Sylvia “laughed and giggled together over school projects.” Many years later, when Aurelia was still pondering the reasons for her daughter’s suicide, Wilbury Crockett told her:
As I have said to you several times, those who had asked me about Sylvia seem to disbelieve my recollections. But she was in my presence always affirmative, filled with exuberance, in love with life—with an unquenchable relish for the human adventure. Amusingly she seemed quite out of breath with it all. I loved having her come to the house … much hilarity—and, of course, much serious conversation. As you must realize, I came to know her well after three years of having her in class. And I do look back upon our relationship with great fondness.
If I were to single out a word to describe her, it would be radiant.
Sylvia was perhaps too dutiful, too eager to please, to stand out in stereotypical fashion as an aloof, mercurial intellectual destined for greatness. She looked wholesome and, as she frequently said, tanned well. She liked to bike and play tennis, a game a neighbor boy, Phil McCurdy, taught her. Unlike other males, he did not seem especially daunted by a girl who scored 160 on an IQ test and could be formidable in conversation. By her junior year of high school, Sylvia was going out on dates and would not, for very long, be without the attentions of a boy like Perry Norton, who lived close by. There were many others throughout her years in school.
Looks mattered to Sylvia. So did what she wore. So did matters like good manners and diction. She complained that a couple of girls at camp used words like “ain’t” and “youse” that hurt her ears. They were “not well brought up.” A middle-class sense of propriety remained a very strong feature of this poet even when she lived among the loucher types of the literary world. Her acerbic comments about people were a form of scrubbing away the squalor that surrounded some writers and other denizens of arty conclaves. Her favorite radio heroes—the Lone Ranger, The Shadow, and Superman—were part of a sort of cleanup detail, making the world morally immaculate. Sylvia had a visceral dislike of messes—moral and otherwise—that accounts for her extreme reactions later in life to her husband’s appalling physical and moral hygiene.
Aurelia, and later Ted Hughes, never felt comfortable with Sylvia’s astringent observations about themselves and others. They never seemed to realize that what seemed hurtful to others entertained Sylvia, who was by nature a satirist, as Diane Middlebrook clearly shows. This satirical bent explains why Jack Benny was so appealing to Sylvia during her teenage years. Benny’s radio program relentlessly mocked his shortcomings, making fun of his violin playing, his toupee, his stinginess, and even his effeminate way of walking. The program ran a nationwide contest with $10,000 in prizes, asking listeners to complete the phrase, “Why I hate Jack Benny.” Sad to say, there is no way of knowing if Sylvia submitted an entry. A running gag in the show featured movie star Ronald Colman and his wife, forever trying to avoid meetings with Benny, their bumptious neighbor. And Jack gave as good as he got, making fun of his obese announcer, Don Wilson (who was so fat he got stuck in armchairs), mocking the shiftless Rochester, and ridiculing Phil Harris, the program’s band leader, who could not read music—or anything else, for that matter. Sylvia had a habit of mind that naturally reveled in this kind of put down, which audiences encouraged by laughing uproariously at Jack, whether he was the butt of a joke or its author. Benny’s kind of joking—the puncturing of pretentions, including his own—had an aggressive edge. His program regulars tried to outdo one another with comic insults, which built to a crescendo of audience laughter in the best shows. The high energy of these Sunday night programs had obvious appeal for Sylvia and millions of others readying themselves for another workweek. Indeed, anything that could make the competitive nature of society a pleasing diversion had enormous appeal for a young mind as serious as Sylvia’s.
Wilbury Crockett’s classes brought out Sylvia’s competitive nature. After Crockett described a lengthy reading list and extensive writing assignments, one third of the first day’s class did not return for another lesson, instead transferring to a less demanding section. He developed a cadre of twenty superior students called “Crocketeers.” Otto Plath would have approved of Crockett’s intellectual esprit de corps. This notion of an elect—an elite literary strike force that was also political in nature, keeping abreast of the latest developments in Europe and elsewhere—spurred Sylvia to write about subjects such as the Korean War and the atomic bomb, faithfully following her father’s pacifist politics.
In the spring of 1947, Sylvia began writing to a pen pal, a German teenager named Hans-Joachim Neupert. They would exchange letters over the next five years, revealing, on Sylvia’s side, a keen desire to discover what the war had been like for a young boy living in a devastatingly bombed landscape. She was acutely aware of her own safe suburban upbringing, mentioning that the life of an American teenager must seem frivolous to Hans. Didn’t he think that, in the end, war was futile? She told him she was considering careers as a foreign correspondent, a newspaper reporter, an author, or an artist. In later letters, she spoke of her writing and the rejections she had received from various publications. These last never seemed to discourage her. She already had the attitude of a professional who realizes that for every acceptance there are scores of dismissals.
In subsequent letters she drew a map of Massachusetts, stretching from Salem to Winthrop to Boston, Cambridge, Wellesley, and Boston Bay, where a sea serpent is shown popping out of the water with a balloon message: “Hello Hans!” The serpent’s tongue and perky back flipper are visible above the calm water. But below the water line lurks a dragon-like figure with a long serpentine tongue.
Hans was evidently a good correspondent (his letters have not survived). Sylvia complimented him on his writing, revealing a good deal about her own temperament, which was so much like the sea, changing from “one mood to another—from high waves on dark, stormy days, to tranquil ripples on sunny days.” She found it disturbing that so much history was happening while her own surroundings were complacent and placid compared to the horrors Hans had witnessed.
These letters explain a good deal about the poet who wrote “Daddy” and her desire to integrate her own family story with the Holocaust. Even at this young age, she felt touched by history that had not yet touched her. Here was a sensibility that felt implicated in what had been done to Hans and his people. She wanted to “plunge into the vital world,” acknowledging ruefully that war could not be as real to her as it had been to Hans. It bothered her that this should be so. Expressions of yearning to go abroad to remedy the insufficiency of her own comfortable upbringing are startling to read in the prose of a tenth grader. Only two years later she would confide to her journal that she felt the “weight of centuries” suffocating her.
Sylvia spoke of her connection to Europe through her Austrian grandparents. Indeed, Aurelia had spoken German growing up in her family, the Schobers, and Sylvia heard stories about the anti-German sentiment abroad in America during World War I, when Aurelia was growing up in a primarily Irish neighborhood. Rather than rejecting her ethnic background, Sylvia said she took “patriotic pride” in it. She made a point of giving an oral report about Thomas Mann, a world famous author and anti-Fascist who had become a celebrated figure in America. She told Hans that in class she had read aloud part of his letter describing Mann’s recent visit to Germany.
Sylvia sometimes stayed with her grandparents when her mother was working full time in order to afford extras like camp for both her children. In Sylvia’s journal, she mentions Grampy’s admiration for everything she does and Grammy’s rich recipes, which appealed to a child with an enormous appetite. Sylvia was also fond of her Uncle Frank, who came to her in dreams dressed as Superman. This extended family, with ties to the “old country,” made Sylvia acutely conscious of what it meant to be an American, while also giving her, at a very young age, a remarkably cosmopolitan perspective that helped her shy away from any form of jingoism.
In her letter of 30 May 1950, Sylvia announced that she had been accepted to Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, about ninety miles from Wellesley. With her high scholastic average and extracurricular record (working on the school newspaper, playing basketball, participating in student government), she could have been admitted to Wellesley on a town scholarship and saved money by living at home. But like many ambitious students, she wanted to test herself by going away to college and, of course, away from her mother. But not too far away. Aurelia was Sylvia’s lifeline no matter how much she resented her mother—or at least her overwhelming need to confide in Aurelia. Aurelia bore the weight of what Sylvia expected of herself and seems not to have objected to her daughter’s desire to attend Smith. Indeed, Aurelia later told scholar Judith Kroll that she welcomed all signs of her daughter’s growing independence.
It obviously pleased Sylvia, as well, that even though she received some scholarship aid, she was going to have to work in order to afford her first year at Smith. As she wrote Hans, she would be laboring on a farm that summer, biking back and forth to work in fields and in a greenhouse, “rain or shine.” Her only previous experience of this kind had been a day at camp picking blueberries for ten cents a quart. She anticipated sore muscles but also seemed to enjoy the prospect of breaking herself in—and yes, getting a tan. Sylvia would stick it out through a long, tiring summer, making friends with farmworkers and experiencing for a brief period the hard manual labor of working-class life.
Sylvia told Hans about the Estonian and the Pole who picked fruits and vegetables beside her. She enjoyed their funny stories—about the only entertainment she had, since by the time she got home she was exhausted and was in bed by nine. It felt good to be working the earth. But it was more than that. The daily rhythms of hard labor soothed her. Lying in her bed at night thinking of the strawberry runners she would set the next day, she suddenly understood how for some people this kind of life was enough. Why demand more? she asked in her journal.
Sylvia did not tell Hans that Ilo, the Estonian boy, had lured her to his room—ostensibly to see his artwork—and had bestowed on her a passionate French kiss, her first. She left abruptly, realizing she would be teased about falling for Ilo. But she did not really shrink from the experience. She welcomed the idea of a fulfilling sex life, but she feared the consequences and wished to put off that kind of intense physical involvement until she found a mate she was surer of. In her journal, she called herself “the American virgin, dressed to seduce.” With Emile, another boyfriend from that summer, she necked and petted, feeling his erection as she pressed her breasts closer to his body. In 1950, casual sexual intercourse for a girl of her age and background was just too risky.
Talk of the Korean War made her angry. She saw no purpose to the fighting, except as a manifestation of rabid anticommunism. You can’t kill an idea, she argued. Even if Hans told her she was simply a “silly girl” who did not understand how boys felt about fighting, she would say war was absurd. She had been reading Thomas Hardy’s sad, wistful war poems, such as “The Man He Killed,” which she quoted to Hans. Hardy’s lines dramatized not only the humanity of the men firing at one another, but also the oddity and irony of their behavior:
Yes; quaint and curious war is!
You shoot a fellow down
You’d treat, if met where any bar is,
Or help to half a crown.
What hurt Sylvia was the way war destroyed simple acts of kindness and generosity and the desire to exchange confidences, as she did with Hans. She called the dropping of the atomic bomb “a sin.”
She used her summer farm experience to compose a fine poem, “Bitter Strawberries,” published on 11 August 1950 in The Christian Science Monitor. The work reads a little like Thomas Hardy’s war poems, or Siegfried Sassoon’s, while also sounding a little like William Carlos Williams’s vignettes of American scenes using direct speech. In the fields the talk is about the Russians, culminating in the “head woman” saying, “Bomb them off the map.” This was often said in the early 1950s, when certain Americans echoed what General Patton had declared immediately after World War II: Annihilate the Russians before they have the power to retaliate. The call for another atomic bomb drop took on urgency because of the new draft law alluded to in Sylvia’s poem. A blue-eyed girl reacts in terror at the harsh words, and she is told sharply not to worry. This little drama ends with everyone returning to their picking, kneeling over the rows and cupping the berries protectively before their stems are snapped off “between thumb and forefinger.” The ironic poem’s description of a crew organized by a leader dealing in delicate lethality is both a contrast to and evocation of the nuclear age Plath detested—an era of mutually assured destruction that would, she wrote in her journal, deprive her brother Warren of the opportunity to lead a full, productive life.
Sylvia would never forsake her early pacifism, perhaps also influenced by the devastating scenes of destruction depicted in Gone with the Wind. For her, pacifism meant not only rejection of war, but also a sense of solidarity with other places, other people. Writing to Hans helped wrest her from Wellesley, as did farm work, so that she could show up at Smith, as she did every summer at camp, with another shot at making something new of herself.
Copyright © 2013 by Carl Rollyson
Meet the Author
Carl Rollyson is professor of journalism at Baruch College, The City University of New York and the author of twelve biographies including Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress and, with his wife, Lisa Paddock, Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon. He reviews biographies regularly for The Wall Street Journal, The Minneapolis Star Tribune, The Washington Post, The New Criterion, and other papers. He writes a column every two weeks for bibliobuffet.com. He lives in Cape May Court House, New Jersey.
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