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Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness

Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness

by Edward Butscher

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This is the first full-length biography of Sylvia Plath, whose suicide in made her a misinterpreted cause celebre and catapulted her into the ranks of the major confessional voices of her generation.


This is the first full-length biography of Sylvia Plath, whose suicide in made her a misinterpreted cause celebre and catapulted her into the ranks of the major confessional voices of her generation.

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From the Publisher

"Butscher explodes, once and for all the romantic myth of Sylvia Plath as extremist poet who died for the sake of art . . . the very opposite seems to be true."  —Jonathan Yarley, Washington Post Book World

Library Journal
Butscher's portrait of Plath was the first full biographical study of the deceased writer and tortured soul. For this reprint, the author has updated the 1976 original. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

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Schaffner Press, Inc.
Publication date:
Edition description:
Second Edition, Second edition
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.09(d)

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Sylvia Plath

Method and Madness

By Edward Butscher

Schaffner Press

Copyright © 2003 Edward Butscher
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-936182-32-9


My Childhood Landscape Was Not Land

For Sylvia Plath, as even the most casual reading of her poetry demonstrates, the central obsession from the beginning to the end of her life and career was her father, Professor Otto Emile Plath. His life and, more importantly, his death nine days after her eighth birthday left an imprint upon her imagination that time did not erase or soften. He would become part of the myth projected by the poetry, would surface again and again in varying disguises: as Freud's pivotal father figure, as icon and divinity, as totem and demon, and as ultimate modern monster, a Nazi "panzer man."

His reality, the factual and the impressionistic, the human, have been lost in the process, deliberately so from the daughter's viewpoint; and no critical biography about Sylvia Plath would be complete without some effort to restore that reality. Although the facts are sparse, there is at least sufficient information to provide a rough profile.

Otto Plath was born on April 13, 1885, in the German town of Grabow or Grabowo, in the so-called "Polish Corridor," to Theodore and Ernestine Plath, his mother's maiden name being Kottke. He was one of five children, with two brothers and two sisters. Nothing else is known of his childhood. The family appears to have been solidly middle class. Otto's father next turns up in North Dakota, in a small town named Maza, where he was listed by trade as a blacksmith. The rest of the family seems to have remained behind in Germany.

When he was fifteen years old, Otto too emigrated to the United States, moving west to join his father in North Dakota. On September 28, 1903, he entered the Preparatory Department of Northwestern College, a small Lutheran school where the majority of students boarded. At this time he was a second-year high-school student and obviously several years behind in his education. He would remain at Northwestern for the next seven years, earning his Bachelor of Arts degree on June 21, 1910. Like other parochial schools, Northwestern College had the virtues and flaws of its kind, being superior in its rigid concentration upon fundamentals, but far too severe in its discipline, its conservative standards, and pervasive concern for religious teaching. Otto would always resent what he felt was the school's restrictive orthodoxy and eventually abandoned the Lutheran faith altogether.

During the three years that Otto was in preparatory school, he gained a solid grounding in a wide variety of classical courses. Besides the mandatory English and German, which included exercises in spelling, composition, and grammar, memorization of poetry and readings in many German, American, and English literary masterpieces, he had to take geography and history (taught in German) all three years, along with religion and Latin. Penmanship and drawing were required for two years and Greek was a mandatory subject in the final year. Mathematics was likewise required and in his senior year Otto studied algebra.

Being essentially a liberal arts institution, Northwestern was patently weakest in the physical sciences, although Otto would, during his four years as a college student, devote three years to the study of chemistry and physics. Zoology had been his favorite subject in preparatory school and he had also taken a course in botany. French was optional, but Latin and German were required and put to use in a variety of other subjects. Many years later this grounding in languages was to prove of considerable advantage to Otto when he decided to pursue graduate studies at Harvard University.

When Otto entered his freshman year at Northwestern College, his registration card indicated that he and his father had again changed residence. Their home was now listed as Harney, Oregon, and Theodore Plath's occupation was entered as "farmer." The records of Harney County, however, show no evidence of a deed having ever been made out to any person by the name of Plath, which suggests that Otto's father may temporarily have signed up as a farm hand in Harney until he could obtain work in his own profession. Undoubtedly the older Plath had to make a financial sacrifice to maintain his son at boarding school, and this, along with the possibility of a business reversal, may account for the move to another state. Regardless, Oregon remained the Plath home for at least the next twelve years. During this time there was never any question of Otto's leaving Northwestern before graduation, though he did resent the "gloominess" of the Lutheran temperament with increasing bitterness. When Otto graduated from Northwestern in 1910, he went immediately to Washington University in Seattle, where he would receive his Master of Arts degree two years later.

The years from 1912 to 1920 are almost blank as far as my information about Otto Plath is concerned, although The Bell Jar has the father slicing sausages in a California delicatessen during World War I. As he possessed a master's degree he might very well have earned his living for a while at teaching; but up to this point his educational background had little to do with his ultimate goal, which was to become an entomologist. At some time during these years he married a girl named Lydia; and on November 5, 1918, his father died in the Oregon City Hospital of an abscess in the right lung at the age of 68. Once again the older Plath's trade was listed as "blacksmith." Not long after his father's death, probably in 1920, Otto headed east for Massachusetts, finally determined to pursue his keen interest in entomology. In all likelihood he left Lydia behind, since he was remembered by his colleagues at Harvard as being unmarried during his years there.

Harvard University was in those days the natural destination for a young man intent upon a career in entomology. Professor William Morton Wheeler, head of its biology department, was an energetic, well-known specialist in the study of ants. Otto's chosen field was bees, where his knowledge of German gave him a distinct advantage, since most pioneering monographs on the subject had been written by Central European scientists whose work had not yet been translated into English. Though old for a graduate student, past 35 at the time, Otto more than made up for this by the intelligence and dedication he brought to his studies. While liberal in political and religious matters, he was still the sum of his German background, maintaining a deep respect for knowledge and the immigrant's typical allegiance to hard work. At Harvard he lived at the Bussi Institute, which was part of Boston's Arboretum on the south side in the Jamaica Plain section. The Institute and the Arboretum were the property of Harvard; but the latter, consisting of acres and acres of lush trees, bushes, and plants from all over the temperate zone, was used by the city for a park.

It was unusual for a student to actually live at Bussi, where the university then held classes, but Otto was also a graduate assistant, and an impoverished one at that. Near the end of the month, like many other fellow assistants, he was not above dining on rat stew when short of money. Such hardluck fare notwithstanding, his love of eating is one aspect of Otto's personality which seems to stand out in the memory of several friends and co-workers. Norman Bailey, for instance, whose brother would be responsible for hiring Otto at Boston University in 1928 and who himself took several courses there under Professor Plath, recalls the sandwiches Otto used to eat with gusto at lunch time, huge sandwiches thick with mayonnaise. Bailey remembers this so vividly because he knew that his teacher had a diabetic condition and was supposed to be watching his diet.

Otto remained at Harvard until 1928 when he received his Doctor of Science degree in applied biology, a degree that is no longer granted except for honorary purposes. His field work and thesis were devoted to bumble bees, which he studied at the Arboretum. Devoting so much attention to a single insect and studying them in their natural habitat, as opposed to controlled laboratory conditions, placed him in the tradition of such grand European entomologists as Henri Fabre. This approach required a great deal of time and patience, locating the nests, observing the bees over an extended period of time regardless of weather, making sufficient notes of all pertinent data, and then organizing the material to conform to accepted academic practice. Like Professor Wheeler, his idol and mentor, Otto was something of an American pioneer in his specialty. Dr. George P. Fulton, present Chairman of Biology at Boston University, who once studied under Professor Plath, recalls that "In some respects, Professor Plath was ahead of his times, because of his course and research interests in animal behavior ... Today, we would call him a behavioral psychologist, or behavioral biologist."

During his career at Harvard and Boston University, Otto wrote a number of essays and monographs on bees and other insects "which are still of interest today," according to Professor Stewart Duncan, also of Boston University. Otto's doctoral thesis was eventually published in 1934 by the Macmillan Company under the title Bumble Bees and Their Ways, with an Introduction by Professor Wheeler. Further, as a tribute to Professor Plath's writing skill, the thesis did not have to be revised for publication. Not only did it evince a lively narrative style, but it also established him as one of the country's leading specialists in the study of bees. Later he was to broaden this reputation with his work in ornithology and ichthyology.

None of this really tells us very much about the man. His intelligence and dedication are evident enough, as is that singleness of purpose which impelled him to become a graduate student at an age when most men are already well settled in their careers. Physically, despite an apparently healthy appetite, he was a slender man of regular features, with blue eyes and almost black hair that was sprinkled with gray as he entered his forties. His hair was usually cut short in the style of the era and he wore a small, neat mustache. Professor Bailey remembers him as being "fairly tall" and giving the impression of angularity. "He also had an ambling, shuffling gait and always seemed in a hurry."

All those who knew Otto Plath intimately agreed that he was nothing like the Prussian tyrant later projected by his daughter's writing; but in varying degrees they also felt that there was a certain rigidity about him, a stiffness in his behavior and attitudes, which became more pronounced as he grew older. Another colleague from Boston University, in the mathematics department, Professor Elmer Mode, characterized Otto as "friendly, sort of kindly in a way, gentle," but then went on to add that "I couldn't say he was the kind of personality I could get enthusiastic about." Professor Mode recalls one incident when Otto, while in the backyard of his home at Winthrop, suddenly snapped out his hand and caught a bee flying past; held it cupped, unharmed, in his palm; and then discoursed at length about its habits.

Otto was forty-three when he graduated from Harvard and began teaching at Boston University. It was in one of his German classes that he had Aurelia Schober for a student. She was working towards her master's degree and, having been born in 1906, she was twenty-one years younger than Otto. In fact, Aurelia's future husband was only four years younger than her own father.

Aurelia's Germanic background and great respect for academic achievement and status were two of her most compatible qualities for Otto. Though she had been born in Boston, her parents were Roman Catholic immigrants from Austria. Her mother Aurelia (née Greenwood) came from Vienna and her father Frank apparently from the Tyrol. The Schobers owned their own home at Point Shirley, the extreme tip of Winthrop, facing the ocean but in view of the bay and of Deer Island, the location of a prison. Frank Schober was a waiter and he and his wife had two other children besides Aurelia, a daughter named Dorothy and a much younger son, Frank Jr. The Schobers had lived at 892 Shirley Street since 1918, moving there at the end of World War I, which had been an unhappy time for German immigrants. In The Bell Jar, Esther observes, "My mother spoke German during her childhood in America and was stoned for it during the First World War by the children at school." Sylvia herself, exaggerating a bit, would claim she always envied her mother for having been born and brought up in "the same sea-bitten house."

Professor Plath and Aurelia Schober were married early in 1932. During the Christmas recess, they travelled to Reno, Nevada, where Otto divorced his first wife Lydia and wed Aurelia. The couple set up housekeeping in the Jamaica Plain area so as to be near the university where Otto taught and the Arboretum he loved. Aurelia was apparently content to play the traditional role of faculty wife. Her friends appreciated her congenial disposition and recall her as intelligent and charming. She displayed a sincere, if unprofessional, interest in the arts, including literature, and like Otto seemed to prefer people with similar Germanic backgrounds, such as the Modes, who remained close friends.

If she had any ambitions, beyond the vicarious satisfaction of being a professor's wife, she apparently never mentioned them. More than likely she was content to play daughter to her husband's role of paterfamilias and enjoyed the security of it all. Otto had always been a single-minded man devoted to his work, devoid of outside interests and hobbies, a condition which naturally intensified as he grew older.

On October 27, 1932, Sylvia was born in Boston's Memorial Hospital. The child's name was supposedly derived from the herb "salvia" and the adjective "sylvan," which would have suited Otto's classical education and scientific training. Sylvia herself might have preferred a reference to Shakespeare's "Silvia" in The Tempest. Whatever its derivation, the name seemed fitting. The baby was pretty, blonde, and somewhat frail, having been born with a troublesome sinus condition that would afflict her for the rest of her life.

Sylvia was an only child, an only child with an elderly father. Years later she would tell a friend that Otto had not wanted a child but, after seeing her, changed his mind and loved her very much. True or not, it was part of the myth of childhood that Sylvia would feel essential to maintain. She was a bright and attractive child and there is no reason to believe that Otto was not delighted with her. Nevertheless, he eventually did let it be known that he also wanted a son, that he would have a son in a few years. Two and a half years later, Warren Joseph Plath was born and created a fissure in his sister's closed world. In "Ocean W-1212, an impressionistic memoir of her early childhood written near the end of her life, Sylvia described the intrusion of a younger brother with amused vehemence:

A baby! I hated babies. I who for two and a half years had been the centre of a tender universe felt the axis wrench and a polar chill immobilize my bones. I would be a bystander, a museum mammoth. Babies!

The wound is thus mocked, but picked at, picked at, never setting. No amount of analysis or sophisticated detachment could conceal this obsessive absorption with a spoiled paradise. As Freud has observed, "The unwelcome arrival of a baby brother or sister is the oldest and most burning question that assails immature humanity." For the parents, the family unit was complete, and life must have appeared satisfying. Though academics were notoriously underpaid, Otto had a secure position at Boston University among people he liked, and a solid reputation — Bumble Bees and Their Ways had come out the year before his son's birth.

It was in late 1936 or early 1937 that the Plaths bought a small home at 892 Johnson Avenue in Winthrop, the town Aurelia had grown up in and still loved, the town where her parents and younger brother still lived. The house on Johnson Avenue faced the bay and later Logan Airport, one in a series of similar houses that crowded Winthrop's bay shore, but it had its own small yard, was relatively inexpensive to maintain, and was close enough to Boston to make Otto's trips to the university no great ordeal. More important, from Aurelia's perspective, it was much nearer her parents' home, which lay on the tip of Winthrop. Here in Winthrop Sylvia would acquire her powerful, almost obsessive love and fear of the ocean, envisioning it from a romanticized adult perch as "a deep woman" who spoke "of miracles and distances," but who could "also kill," as a mother, the mother, mother of the universe that transformed the ordinary processes of existence into the stuff of myth and poetry.


Excerpted from Sylvia Plath by Edward Butscher. Copyright © 2003 Edward Butscher. Excerpted by permission of Schaffner Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Edward Butscher is the biographer of Adelaide Crapsey, Conrad Aiken, and Peter Wild; author of poetry collections Child in the House and Poems about Silence; and the editor of Silvia Plath the Woman and the Work. He lives in East Hampton, New York.

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