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I Didn't Know Sylvia Plath
... because to be Jewish-or Irish or Italian or African-American or, for that matter, a woman of the fifties caught up in the first faint stirrings of feminism-was to be compelled to fake it in a thousand small ways, to pass as one thing when, deep inside, you were something else. -Malcolm Gladwell, "True Colors"
The note in my Cambridge Pocket Diary for Saturday, May 7, 1960, reads "Ted & Sylvia dinner," but doesn't give an hour or an address. The diary otherwise contains a wonder of information. Two and a half inches by four, its tissue-thin pages massed to a mere quarter-inch, it nevertheless records the hour of every sunrise and -set, dates of eclipses and bank holidays, the schedules of trains, coaches, libraries, botanical gardens, and the closing of the Back Gates. It lists academic society meetings for Lent, Michaelmas, and Easter terms; the rugby, hockey, and cricket meets; the Moveable Feasts; the university officers; and the phone numbers of the colleges-though in my experience no student had a phone. It gives the Order of the Boats. It dates the dread Exams.
My own penciled entries are more tantalizing. Paging backward from the Ted and Sylvia dinner, I easily recall (David) "Daiches" and "Maggie" (Drabble) and "Eleanor" (Bron), but not "Fenner's" or "Braithewaite" or "Jack." There was a "Commemoration Dinner" on Saturday April 23, but what it commemorated I no longer memorate. I remember the meeting with "Dadie" (Rylands), and-here it is: Thursday, April 21, "Faber-6: 00."
That was the publisher's reception at Russell Square where we'd run into each other, and about which Sylvia wrote to her mother and brother on April 26, excited to be back among the literati, preening at others' amazement that she had given birth only three weeks before. The tone of her letter is postpartum-manic, the description of the party sandwiched between plans for dinner with the Spenders and the Eliots and news of her success with poems at the Atlantic Monthly. She describes me as a "lively American girl" whose novel Faber is publishing and "whose path crossed mine often in America," and mentions that she has invited me and my Indian poet friend to spaghetti dinner. Then she goes on to boast of her husband's arty friends, and of drinking champagne while feeling "very grand and proud of Ted."
The Faber reception took place in the heady spring of the Hugheses' burgeoning: their daughter's birth, a book apiece, projects for the BBC, even the flow of a little money. It would be nearly three years before the marriage blew apart, before Sylvia wrote her great poems and committed suicide, and so set in motion a hagiographic industry. At the time it must have seemed that fame could be grasped as an act of will, with no more sturm than ambition had already stirred in them.
But I don't know that. I didn't know Sylvia Plath, and this piece is not about her but about me-or about a particular kind of lit-and-print-mad girl of the fifties, whose thwarted hunger augured a shift in what we mean by marriage.
The paths Sylvia mentions had crossed more often than we ourselves had met. I had followed her at Seventeen, Mademoiselle, Mount Holyoke's Glascock Poetry Contest, and Cambridge University. As winners in that prize round, precursors partly of liberation but also of the brat pack of the eighties, we had lived in separate years at the Barbizon Hotel in Manhattan and at Whitstead House in Cambridge; had at separate times worked under Cyrilly Abels and Polly Weaver at Mademoiselle; studied Tragedy with Kathleen Burton at Cambridge and gone to David Daiches's lectures on the Modern Novel; published in the university magazine Granta; suffered through Miss Abbott's stilted teas and Mrs. Milne's Sunday morning kippers at Whitstead House; and been the token leggy American at the Amateur Dramatic Club. Now I had like Ted landed in the Faber stable, to be curried by the portly editor Charles Monteith, who was both kind and shrewd.
But there were oddities in that crossing of roads-less-traveled. The annual Mademoiselle Guest Editor Contest brought twenty young women to New York for the month of June to work on the College Issue of the magazine. I had won this jaunt from the University of Arizona in 1955, two years after Sylvia, and my first assignment was to write a news item on her Glascock Prize. I had never heard of Sylvia Plath. I struggled in a sort of remote-controlled envy to arrange the boring facts. I wrote home, "I'm so sick of writing little news stories and having them edited from bad to worse." I was taken off that job and set to writing the College Issue's editorial, the required perky tone of which set my teeth on edge. I complained to my parents, "Couldn't they just call us something else? So far we haven't been treated like guests and we certainly haven't edited." The interns that year included Joan Didion and Jane Truslow (who became my one confidante among the group, and would later marry Sylvia's former boyfriend Peter Davison), writer Gael Greene and designer Adrienne Steckling, and fifteen others in various stages of anxiety, ambition, and self-doubt. I was sometimes dismissive of my fellow GEs, sometimes grateful; sometimes "everyone else seemed to know what they were doing and seemed to be getting it done fast and well." My desert background was a dubious badge; I flaunted it, but deep inside I knew I was a yokel. I recoiled from Betsy Talbot Blackwell, who sailed between the mirrors of the editorial room waving her cigarette holder, adjuring us to "Believe in Pink." But I admitted in my letters that, "Personally, I think parts of it have been pretty glamorous." Sylvia's fictional evocation of the Mademoiselle month in The Bell Jar was eight years away. We were made gifts of, stuffed into, or ushered along to ogle the fashions that were armored even to their names-stiletto, sheath, cinch. Underneath each of us wore the bra that conjured Amazons and was later resurrected by Madonna as outerwear, stitched in stiff concentric circles to a point. Alternately bored and dazzled at photos ops and Trigère showings, depressed and anxious to impress, I faked it in Milliken plaids and an energy that verged on shrill; and it did not then occur to me that any of the others could be scared and judgmental in equal parts. Nor, certainly, did it ever cross my mind that Sylvia Plath might have written at length to her brother about the elation, depression, shock, revelations, exhaustion, apathy of that month of "living very hard and newly."
Sylvia's letters do not describe the pivotal perk of the Mademoiselle month, the ball on the roof of the St. Regis, but The Bell Jar neatly dismisses its starlit glamour, satirizes the Ivy Leaguers in their "All-American bone structures" on loan to squire the novice editors, and mocks her own fake lamé top above its "big, fat cloud of tulle."
But I was eighteen, a virginal Methodist Phoenix freshman who had never had a cigarette or a drink, not yet blasé about bone structure, and the occasion hornswoggled me entirely. My bodice was flame-colored nylon shirred onto a big, fat cloud of the same stuff. My letter home, written in the middle of the night after the ball, details my earrings, the chandeliers, hors d'oeuvres ("the cheapest thing on the menu is $5.25 and the steaks are $12.50"), dessert and demitasse, "with a waiter pouring fresh gravy on the meat or filling the water glass every time I took a bite," and especially the "unpretty intellectual boy who talked fascinating serious politics and Europe and literature all the way through dinner," a poet on his way to Oxford on a Fulbright Scholarship, who escorted me back to the Barbizon by way of "a ride through Cent. Park in a Hansom Cab. This is the New York I had in mind!"
I am grubbing in the attic now, surprised that my hazy memory of these old letters takes such solid form: the accordion file, the shoebox, the folders; some crumbling, some crisp, all trailing cockroach shit. My father bundled this trove, after my mother died in 1973, into a shiny fifty-gallon garbage can and shipped it by Greyhound bus to me in Tallahassee. The letters from the Mademoiselle month are filed in order, and oddly retrieved and interleaved are the letters I sent from there to my high school friend Marilyn. I have a thick chronological stack of the missives I sent from Phoenix and later from New York to the "unpretty intellectual" poet-these because the eventual engagement was of so formal a fifties kind that we returned our letters to each other when it was terminated, a bow to privacy that I now betray. My letters from Cambridge are missing, though I oddly have the postcards and the fistful of envelopes from which those letters disappeared. The later notes from Yale are also gone. The married letters from Binghamton, Belgium, and Sussex, the traumatized outcries of imminent divorce from Champaign, Illinois-those are disarranged, a hodgepodge, evidence of the chaos in both my life and my mother's health.
From Phoenix that summer of 1955, when the Mademoiselle College Issue came out, I wrote to the poet who was now my boyfriend, deprecating the awful photos of myself in dacron shirtwaist and pillbox hat, adding:
Another thing in Mlle you forgot to mention and which I'm sure you must have seen is an absolutely fantastically deep good poem by a beautiful Mt. Holyoke [sic] graduate named Sylvia Plath who goes to Cambridge on a Fulbright this year. The whole idea just grits my teeth in horror. Please inform by return mail that you are so blinded by my lovliness [sic] that you don't even want to look at another woman or I may be forced to accept a ring this summer. Honestly, when I saw it I just got scared to death. Do you suppose after all these years of not resenting anything ever except other peoples' talent I might turn out to be a jealous wife? Oh, I do hate Sylvia Plath.
It will hardly be necessary to point out which parts of this make me cringe. But I know, too, that nothing is easier than superiority to the callow fool you used to be, and I am less interested in the cloying tone than in clues to the paradox that ripped my generation from cervix to esophagus. I had never so far been jealous of anything except talent. The prospect of a new sexual or romantic jealousy made me-what?-threaten to accept the engagement I had been staving off. I was both afraid to lose him to the competition and afraid to commit. I said as much, admitting to "a reaction that I'm at a loss to interpret-a sort of perpetual excited fear; an intense desire to be with you, and a genuine alarm whenever I think of your proposal or the ring."
Ambivalence about marriage, ambivalence about ambition, an unambiguous sense that these are in opposition to each other-these make up the leitmotif, not perhaps of my whole generation but of the most audible segment of it. My boyfriend joked gallantly, however, that the young poet was actually named Plass but had a lisp; and apparently assigned her other defects, to which I coyly responded, "I just concur all over the place about Sylvia. She probably has dirty fingernails."
By August I was back in New York on a Barnard scholarship, chattering home about engagement rings and the social scene. "Went to Fulbright reception at the English Embassy & of all things, met Sylvia Plath! (tell Mare this) who is just as nice as possible but doesn't worry me." My boyfriend and Sylvia being members of the same Fulbright group, they sailed together, and I flung into the Atlantic void, "I hope you are completely avoiding Sylvia (after all, Who Is Sylvia?)." But I also recorded with some exhilaration, in a letter to my mother two days before my nineteenth birthday, "one of my fantastic dreams last night in which I was armed with a Fulbright scholarship myself, and a ticket on the Elizabeth, and was to meet [him] on board and simply couldn't get my suitcase closed. The thing was positively alive, and finally I just told you to send it on and jumped on a raft in my levis and paddled out to catch the departing boat, only to find that [he] was sitting with Sylvia Plath, but had a friend picked out for me. Lovely dream."
For the next year and a half I was about-to-be-engaged, engaged, dis-engaged, re-engaged, finally a disgraced breacher of promise. The journey is marked by petulant half-steps and turnings back. "I will take the ring at Christmas," I wrote from New York, "But every time you mention it I cry." "The truth is, tho, Momma, that I just don't want to marry him this summer. I haven't got any logical reason ... as my brother says, 'You don't have to do anything just because it says so in the paper.'" "I'm not ready to get married, I'm not ready, I'm not ready."
My vacillation and velleity I must now see as bad faith. In these letters to Oxford I am an advanced tease. I accept and gush over the ring, put off the wedding, declare my devotion, moil through my doubts, then apologize groveling, heavy on the adverbs. I had an ongoing crush on George Plimpton, who was my composition teacher, and whose every clever saying, word of praise, is recorded home, so that my mother pointed out that he occupied more space in my letters than my fiancé. She urged me to "be sure" before I married-but what was that? I had met a poet on a starlight roof, we wandered in the woods together talking poetry, he was going to England, he wanted to marry me. Not only Hollywood but also the lessons of home-which had been so confusing because my mother presented her own marriage as a film romance whereas I could see that it was not-led me to expect the feelings that did not emerge. There was something wrong with me if I did not love; I must do so, I would do so if only I could adjust. So I waited, argued, twisted in my little-ease, and ultimately drew down an awful, earned anger from his family.
The taste of freedom that Rosie the Riveter felt may ultimately have led her daughters to the barricades. But our mothers were too old to have worked in war factories. Aurelia Plath had been a teacher before her marriage, but, she confesses in the introduction to Letters Home, she submitted to her husband's wishes and became a full-time housewife. My mother had wanted to be an actress but had been prevented by parents who used her ill health as an excuse (the operative reason was that actresses were wicked), and she settled for teaching "elocution" lessons at two dollars an hour out of our living room. My fiancé's mother had been a nurse and shocked me by stating flatly that she had never wanted children. These women very naturally perpetuated their enforced priorities. Nor did our professional models differ. I wrote home cheerily that Barnard's President "Millicent McIntosh (who owns the titles Dean, Dr., President, & Professor) says 'Please call me Mrs.'-very sweet, I think; she says it's the title she's proudest of."
So my incapacity to read my own messages was partly the muddle of the time. In a letter I wrote to my boyfriend as early as December 1955, I find the blatant expression of what became a touchstone, and later a cliché, of the women's movement: "I'm surprised that my ultimatum about 'obey' in the marriage ceremony effected [sic] you the way it did. I meant my tone to be very light, though I really do want it left out. My case, as you call it, is not very well thought out or convincing at all. I just don't think any marriage should be a matter of the man's word over the woman's." However, in January I capitulated (to what eloquence I no longer know): "you win ... your paragraph and ideas about it are almost lovely, where mine were flip and only half sincere."
As a teenager I had two visions of myself: one stout, tweed-wearing, striding along in the woods alone, writing great verse; the other sloppily pillowed in voluminous skirts in an overstuffed chair, a semicircle of children at my feet eating cookies I had baked while I read to them. I knew these two images were in conflict. What I didn't understand was that the choice might never be made, that my life could unroll, or lurch, or cascade, with the tension between them constant.
Excerpted from Embalming Mom by Janet Burroway Copyright © 2002 by Janet Burroway. Excerpted by permission.
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