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The Search for Sylvia Plath’s Obituary
At the time of her death by suicide—50 years ago, on February 11, 1963—she was a published novelist and an acclaimed poet; beyond that, she was also a statuesque, stylish American married to the celebrated English poet Ted Hughes. Surely there had to be some written public remembrance, on one side of the Atlantic or the other, of an author who’d done readings of her work at Harvard and for the BBC. But, no: I couldn’t unearth a single piece of news about the death of Sylvia Plath.
Before long, I found that Peter K. Steinberg, author of the 2004 biography Sylvia Plath, had encountered the same problem when he wrote his 2010 paper on Plath’s first suicide attempt in 1953. At age 20, Plath had swallowed 40 sleeping pills and gone to sleep in a crawl space in her family’s basement, only to be found two days later and hospitalized. The media attention local Massachusetts news outlets gave to this pretty, troubled, largely anonymous Smith student’s sensational story dwarfed the press coverage of her actual death by gassing herself 10 years later in England. It caused Steinberg to wonder, in the last paragraphs of his essay, “Why, then, in 1963, when Plath died and when she was conceivably better known and more widely published, was there comparatively so little written about her?”
Fetters investigated this odd lacuna by calling Steinberg, who related a similar sense of shock when his research turned up a dearth of obituaries. He did find a few, but the ones he did find were peculiar in a variety of ways. Their conversation begins:
I’ve been digging around for some obituaries or press coverage of Sylvia Plath’s suicide 50 years ago, and I’ve been very surprised at how little I’ve—well, at the fact that I’ve been able to find none. It sounds like something similar happened to you.
Yeah, that’s exactly right. And I think part of it is that it was a suicide. There’s a scene in The Bell Jar where Esther Greenwood says that the only newspaper they read in their house was the Christian Science Monitor, which treats suicides and murders as though they never happened. So part of my thinking is that possibly, [her mother] Aurelia Plath didn’t want the actual details of Sylvia’s death to be known. I certainly think Ted Hughes didn’t either.
The death notices that I did find were kind of curious, because they were about the death of “Sylvia Hughes.” That was her legal, married name, and they were mostly in the local Boston papers. Most didn’t mention that she was a writer. One full obituary was published in The Wellesley Townsman, and it said that she’d died of viral pneumonia. Obviously that’s a lie—and that was done, I think, to try to draw away a connection to the 1953 suicide attempt. That was one of the earlier obituaries, about 16 days after she died. I think that had something to do with the fact that a lot of people didn’t take notice.
Their conversation then focuses on the 16 days that elapsed between Plath’s death and the notice in the The Wellesley Townsman. Steinberg accounts for the gap this way:
I don’t think at first Aurelia Plath was told how Sylvia Plath died, and there may have been some apprehension about how Aurelia Plath was going to handle an influx of questioning from people. She had a history of ulcers, and when her nerves acted up, she had some pretty serious health problems.
The way it was handled is really kind of cold—the backstory is, Plath dies on the 11th, and then on the 12th, Ted Hughes sends a telegram to Aurelia Plath’s sister. He didn’t even send one to Aurelia Plath. All the telegram said was, “Sylvia died yesterday.” Really terse. Really vicious. Cowardly, too, I think.
Her brother and his wife went over to England for the funeral, and he sent regular letters to his mother giving details about the situation, including the fact that she had killed herself. And I don’t know when Warren Plath flew back to Massachusetts, but it may have been that the reason for the delay in the obituaries may have been so that he could get back and be with their mother and help her cope with it.
Head over to the Atlantic to read the rest, including how Plath may have read the initial reviews of The Bell Jar, the editing of Ariel, and how people did find out about her death. How did they, anyway? Go!