American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath

American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath

by Carl Rollyson

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ISBN-13: 9780312640248
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 01/29/2013
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

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Carl Rollyson, a professor of journalism at Baruch College,
the City University of New York, has written over forty books ranging in subject matter from biographies of cultural icons such as Marilyn Monroe,
Lillian Hellman, Martha Gellhorn, and Norman Mailer, to studies of American culture, genealogy, children's biography, film, and literary criticism.















































































































































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Actor George Newbern has appeared in Father of the Bride, Father of the Bride II, Evening Star, Adventures in Babysitting, and many other films. On television, he has had roles on Friends, Nip/Tuck, Hot in Cleveland, CSI, and more.

Read an Excerpt

American Isis

The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath


By Carl Rollyson

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2013 Carl Rollyson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-02315-5



CHAPTER 1

PRIMORDIAL CHILD OF TIME

(1932–50)


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.'"


(Continues...)

Excerpted from American Isis by Carl Rollyson. Copyright © 2013 Carl Rollyson. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's 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.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Author's Note xiii

Introduction 1

1 Primordial Child of Time (1932-50) 8

2 Mistress of All the Elements (1950-53) 26

3 Queen of the Dead (1953-55) 60

4 I Am Nature (1955-57) 94

5 Queen of the Ocean (1957-59) 138

6 The Universal Mother (1960-62) 170

7 Queen Also of the Immortals (1962-63) 194

8 In The Temple of Isis: Among the Hierophants (1963-) 232

Appendix A Sylvia Plath and Carl Jung 269

Appendix B Sylvia's Plath's Library 273

Appendix C David Wevill 277

Appendix D Elizabeth Compton Sigmund 279

Sources 285

Bibliography 297

Index 301

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