Letters Home: Correspondence, 1950-1963

Overview

Sylvia Plath's correspondence, addressed chiefly to her mother, from her time at Smith College in the early 1950s up to her suicide in London in February 1963. In addition to her capacity for domestic and writerly happiness, these letters also hint at her potential for deep despair.

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Overview

Sylvia Plath's correspondence, addressed chiefly to her mother, from her time at Smith College in the early 1950s up to her suicide in London in February 1963. In addition to her capacity for domestic and writerly happiness, these letters also hint at her potential for deep despair.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060974916
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 4/28/1992
  • Pages: 516
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 1.28 (d)

Meet the Author

Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath (1932-63) was born in Boston, Massachusetts, and studied at Smith College. In 1955 she went to Cambridge University on a Fulbright fellowship, where she met and later married Ted Hughes. She published one collection of poems in her lifetime, The Colossus (1960), and a novel, The Bell Jar (1963). Her Collected Poems, which contains her poetry written from 1956 until her death, was published in 1981 and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Other posthumous publications include Ariel, her landmark publication, Crossing the Water, Winter Trees, Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams and The Journals of Sylvia Plath 1950-1962.

Biography

"I was supposed to be having the time of my life," Sylvia Plath writes as her alter ego Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar. Like Esther, Plath was a bright young woman who had earned scholarships and awards, and had all the talent to back them up, and saw this—but could never enjoy it. Her struggles with depression were in fact what often motivated her to write, until she committed suicide at age 30 in 1963.

Plath is among the best-known confessional poets, coming from a school (at its peak in the ‘50s and ‘60s) that left few stones unturned when it came to self-examination and revelation. Though not always bald or literal in her expression, Plath chronicled her flirtation with death—and with life—in her poems. She writes in "Lady Lazarus," a verse about a woman rising from the dead yet again, "Dying/Is an art, like everything else./I do it exceptionally well./I do it so it feels like hell./I do it so it feels real./I guess you could say I've a call." She has an ability to convey deep, almost frightening emotion, but do it in a deceptively lilting, almost-but-not-quite humorous language.

"Lady Lazarus" was published in Ariel (1965), a collection that appeared posthumously, as did other well-known collections such as Crossing the Water (1971), Winter Trees (1972) and Collected Poems (1981), for which Plath was awarded the Pulitzer. Though not all death and despair, Ariel stands out among Plath's works because it represented a departure from the first collection that was published while she was still alive, The Colossus and Other Poems, but primarily because it was such an intimate record of the end of her life. As poet Bob Hass remarked in a PBS interview, "Readers in general discovered this book [Ariel] of a young woman with two babies, whose husband had left her, living in a cold house, trying to be a mom, trying to be a writer, trying to put her life together, who didn't make it—who killed herself—and wrote poems full of rage, bravery, and it electrified people."

Plath's father died when she was eight years old, an event from which the poet never quite seemed to recover. She writes in Ariel's "Daddy": "At twenty I tried to die/And get back, back, back to you./I thought even the bones would do." Oddly (or perhaps appropriately) for a woman so devastatingly able to feel and react to people, Plath often writes about humans as objects, things that make noise, can be broken or repaired, marked in a continuum from birth to expiration. A child on the floor is like "an unstrung puppet"; cats howl "like women, or damaged instruments"; people are compared to statues. The technique provides a twisted understatement to the emotional effects Plath writes about, in a world where even the states of love and motherhood are accompanied by darkness.

Whereas Plath's poems often seem strange and dreamlike, The Bell Jar is direct and accessible. It ranks with Catcher in the Rye in both literary achievement and status. Plath gets across not only what it feels like to struggle with the most deadly and devastating emotions, but also how hapless and impotent the people around her are in coping with her. She portrays a woman at odds with the world, but does so without affect or pretension. It's no wonder the book has become a classic, particularly among young female readers. At times of despair, readers find comfort and empathy in Plath's words. All of her painfully wrought "confessions" are of us, for us.

Good To Know

Plath married fellow poet Ted Hughes, whom she met while studying in Cambridge. At the time Plath killed herself, Hughes had left her for another woman (who also eventually killed herself). He wrote about his relationship with Sylvia in Birthday Letters, an autobiographical collection of poems published just before he died in 1998.

Plath was portrayed by Gwyneth Paltrow in Sylvia (2003), a film produced by the BBC and Focus Features. The Bell Jar was adapted to the screen by director Larry Peerce in 1979.

The Colossus was Plath's literary debut in 1960, but she also published A Winter Ship that same year, anonymously. The Bell Jar was initially published under a pseudonym, Victoria Lucas.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Victoria Lucas (pseudonym)
    1. Date of Birth:
      October 27, 1932
    2. Place of Birth:
      Boston, Massachusetts
    1. Date of Death:
      February 11, 1963
    2. Place of Death:
      London, England

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

September 27, 1950--June 1953

Sylvia's letters from Smith show the effort of a conscientious student striving for high grades, partly to satisfy herself and build up her own image and partly to prove herself worthy o f the generous financial aid she was receiving from various sources: the Olive Higgins Prouty Fund, the Nielson scholarship, and the Smith Club in Wellesley. Added to this effort was her need to project the image o f the "all-around" person; i.e., the student who not only did well scholastically but was socially acceptable by both sexes, and the service-oriented person who made a contribution to her peer group and the community. To all this, Sylvia added her own burning desire: to develop creatively in her chosen field--writing--and to win recognition there. The pressure that developed from her involvement in all these areas was periodically overwhelming, both physically and psychically.

First letter written from Smith
SMITH COLLEGE
NORTHAMPTON, MASS.
SEPTEMBER 27, 1950

Dearest Mummy,
Well, only five minutes till midnight, so I thought I'd spend them writing my first letter to my favorite person. If my printing's crooked, it's only because I drank too much apple cider tonight.
Even though I don't have much finery adorning my room yet, it seems that it's pretty much home. Tangible things can be awfullyfriendly at times. Even though I've only been here since three, an awful lot seems to have happened. I kind of like getting a quiet first acquaintance with my room and the girls.
I feel that I've wandered into a New York apartment by mistake. . . the maple on my desk feels like velvet. I love my room and am going to have a terrific time decorating it.
I lay down for half an hour and listened to the clock. I think I'mgoing to like it--the ticking is so rhythmic and self-assured that it's y like the beat of someone's heart--so-o-o it stays on the bureau.
. . . After our little get-together, at which a delightful extrovert freshman from Kansas kept us in hysterics, we three freshmen sat and talked. After which I left them in their room on the first floor, drifted into conversation with Ann [Davidow] on the second, and finally arrived here at 11:30. Girls are a new world for me. I should have some fascinating times learning about the creatures. Gosh, to live in a house with 48 kids my own age-what a life! There are (don't faint) 600 in my class. Mrs. Shakespeare [the house mother] is very sweet. In fact, I like everything . . . .

Love, Sivvy



SEPTEMBER 28, 1950

Dear Mummy,
. . . so far, I've gotten along with everyone in the house. It's good to see more faces familiar to me. I love my room, my location, and am firmly convinced that the whole episode here is up to me. I have no excuse for not getting along in all respects. Just to find a balance is the first problem.
We had our college assembly this morning. I never came so close to crying since I've been here when I saw the professors, resplendent with colors, medals, and emblems, march across the stage and heard adorable Mr. Wright's stimulating address. I still can't believe I'm a SMITH GIRL! . . .
The whole house is just the friendliest conglomeration of people imaginable. Gerry--one gorgeous creature--just got a picture and writeup in Flair as representative of Eastern Women's Colleges. People are always talking about Europe and New York. Lisa told me about how good it is not to work too hard, but to allot time for "playing with the kids in the house." Seems she's done a neat job of adjusting. I hope I can really get to know her sometime. She has quite a friendly attitude, and I could talk to her about almost anything.

Love, ME



SEPTEMBER 29, 1950

Dear Mummy,
The most utterly divine thing has happened to me. I was standing innocently in the parlor, having coffee after supper, when a senior said, sotto voce, in my ear, "I have a man all picked out for you." I just stood there with that "Who, me?" expression, and she proceeded to explain. Seems she met this young guy who lives in Mass. but went to Culver Military Academy. He is a freshman at Amherst this year, tall, cute and--get this--HE WRITES POETRY. I just sat there burbling inarticulately into my coffee. She said he should be around in a few weeks. God, am I thrilled. The hope, even, of getting to know a sensitive guy who isn't a roughneck makes the whole world swim in pink mist.
The food here is fabulous. I've had two helpings of everything since I got here and should gain a lot. I love everybody. If only I can unobtrusively do well in all my courses and get enough sleep, I should be tops. I'm so happy. And this anticipation makes everything super. I keep muttering, "I'M A SMITH GIRL NOW."

ME



SEPTEMBER 30, 1950
(MIDNIGHT)

Dear Mummy,
. . . my physical exam . . . consisted in getting swathed in a sheet and passing from one room to another in nudity. I'm so used to hearing, "Drop your sheet," that I have to watch myself now lest I forget to dress! My height is an even 5'9"; my weight 137; my posture, good; although when my posture picture was taken, I took such pains to get my ears and heels in a straight line that I forgot to tilt up straight. The result was the comment, "You have good alignment, but you are in constant danger of falling on your face."
. . . Then quickly back to the house to pick up the much-awaited mail. There was that lovely letter from you and two from Eddie [Cohen]! . . . I'm so pleased with your news; it's all so happy--especially about Exeter. [Grammy and 1 had visited her brother, Warren, there.]
. . . After supper, we gathered around the piano and sang for a good hour. Never have I felt so happy, standing with a group of girls--with piano, Lisa's accordion, and two ukuleles--singing my favorite popular songs. It was such a wonderful feeling. No home life could make up for the camaraderie of living with a group of girls. I like them all.
After singing, two girls from our Annex house came up to my room for the purpose of studying. However we got in the process of learn ing the Charleston . . . Ann Davidow stayed to do her Religion homework. We drifted into discussion, and she is the closest girl yet that I've wanted for a friend. She is a free thinker. We discussed God and religion and men. Her parents are Jewish. I find her very attractive--almost as tall as I, freckle-faced, short brown hair and twinkling blue eyes .
. . . The sensitive guy I told you about in the card has not yet materialized. I'll give him a month. I've fallen for him already merely because of the poetry angle.

Love, Sivvy



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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 14, 2002

    Letters Home reveals little

    As Sylvia Plath's writing has inspired my life, I thought I'd delve into her emotions more by reading, 'Letters Home.' As the book reveals Plaths intense ups and down and intricate writing style, you still get a feeling that many of the letters are designed to cloak. They are all written to her mother, who seems to have published the book only to divert attention that she was an uncaring mother as percieved in 'The Bell Jar.' Many letters are written with such optimism, while the next are only unending perils. You are given no details what those trials consisted of in her life, and I found myself with more questions about Sylvia than when I picked it up. Nevertheless, it is a window (even if a small one) to Sylvia's soul and that much is appreciated.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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