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More Is More: Sylvia Plath’s Letters
Imagine a Sylvia Plath you’ve never known before. Not a depressed, suicide-obsessed brooder—the stereotype so many people seem to have in mind—but an optimistically driven intellectual (as well as industrious wife, mother, and homemaker) who, in ten year’s time, not only produces and publishes poems, stories, a novel, and criticism, but privately writes voluminous journals and letters. A sizable body of work, and of the highest quality. In addition to the journals that have been published (a hefty, unabridged, seven-hundred-page tome), several (the journals she kept the last three years of her life) are still missing. And although a volume of Plath’s letters to her mother, Letters Home, was published way back in 1975 (a volume that was heavily edited by both her mother and Ted Hughes), there exists a wealth of Plath letters—1,320, to be exact—very few of which have made it into print in unexpurgated form. These letters, intimately hand- and typewritten, addressed to a wide variety of correspondents (boyfriends, teachers, friends, editors, etc.) give us a much fuller (and more honest) portrait of Plath than the buoyant and dutiful daughter presented in Letters Home. A Plath, as I say, we have yet to know.
For the past six years, I’ve been immersed in research on Sylvia Plath. A number of essays about her poetry and life have resulted from this research (here and here). Also a number of poems of my own. I’ve made pilgrimages to the Lilly Library at Indiana University Bloomington and the Mortimer Rare Book Room at Smith College, where the bulk of Plath’s papers are archived. I had no idea I’d become so involved in Plath; I simply wanted to read her uncensored letters, when I learned I could read them (anyone, it turns out, can), to fill in the many frustrating ellipses (which signify deletions) in Letters Home. Bloomington’s only a four-hour drive from Chicago, where I live, and it’s easy enough to rent a car. I was a Plath fan, a curiosity seeker. Oh, and I wanted the dirt about the famous breakup—don’t we all?
Initially I was drawn to the letters Plath wrote at Court Green—her and Hughes’s manor house in Devon, England, where she wrote most of the Ariel poems—and in London during her final weeks. My interest soon expanded to other phases of her life: the year she spent teaching at Smith College (1957-1958), her 1959 cross-country trip and stay at Yaddo, her year and a half in London prior to moving to Court Green in 1961. Her early years as a student at Smith, all the boyfriends, and Bell Jar suicide attempt are not as strong a pull for me—I find the later years, when she really comes into her own as an artist, more exciting. Ariel had a huge impact on me when I first read it in the early seventies (it was assigned in a college literature class); it’s one of the handful of books I encountered when I was young that I knew would stick with me for life. It seemed only natural that I would start my adventure in Plath research by zeroing in on her state of mind and activities during the fall of 1962, when she produced Ariel in an astonishing creative outburst.
I wasn’t prepared for the way Plath comes to life in her letters, or for how much I would come to like her as a person. She’s energetic, intense, chatty, happy, a meticulous chronicler, a poetic observer, interested in and outraged about things, hardworking and determined to grow as an artist—she’s simultaneously living and describing her life. And you live it with her. It’s addictive—you can’t stop watching the movie of her life. Nor do you want it to stop—which makes it all the more tragic when, abruptly, on February 11, 1963, it does. Too painful—the genius gives up. But continues to live in her words. (I know that sounds trite, but so few writers really do.)
Plath’s letters are both personal and literary: she’s speaking to someone she knows, but also beyond them, to us; it’s as if you can feel her, as she is writing, feeling our presence. This is weird, I know. But other Plath researchers have described similar mystical inklings. Perhaps it’s the mark of a true artist that I’m trying to describe. You can’t fake that. It infuses everything Plath touched, and engenders a feeling of closeness. Poet and writer Anne Stevenson has expressed, beautifully, what the experience is like: “These letters, these breathing pieces of paper, brought [her] to life for me . . . I came to feel in Indiana that I had finally met Sylvia Plath; that I was fonder of her because I knew her.” Stevenson also says that the letters maintain a sense of Plath’s “still-happening present.”
I got what I came for—the precious dirt. Plath catches Hughes having an affair with Assia Wevill and goes berserk. The letters she writes after Hughes moves out of Court Green (at her own insistence) are truly something—pure unadulterated rage and hurt. Plath lashes out, in letters as well as poems, at Hughes (she repeatedly calls him a “bastard”), at Wevill (Plath tries to convince herself, and others, that, due to too many abortions, her rival is barren), at anyone within firing distance: her parents, Hughes’s uncle, faithless friends, even venerable Marianne Moore. Anger was the missing ingredient, the spark needed to make all the hard work pay off, unlock her authentic voice. A voice that would shock—that was meant to shock—the staid poetry community.
It’s not all about dirt, of course. The financial and domestic distress Plath experiences as a suddenly single mother (of two young children) after Hughes departs (he was more famous than Plath at this point, bringing in substantial income from his radio work) is excruciating. The irony is she is OK financially, but can’t see that. She’s too angry that Hughes is in London spending some of the money they saved—joint earnings from their writing, mind you—on Assia Wevill. “And money the sperm fluid of it all,” she writes in “Amnesiac”—a nasty line. When Plath frets about the writing she could be doing if she didn’t have the children tugging at her, we again see more than she does: she’s too volatile to get along with the nannies she hires. We want to walk through the one-way mirror and offer our help. I’ve had dinner discussions with other Plath devotees about “rescue fantasies.” How would you save her? Mine involved a time machine and. . . . But she would have had to save herself.
The amount of self-documentation, in the letters and other archival materials, is staggering. I found that it’s possible, utilizing these materials, to create a kind of hologram of Plath. Here’s one small example: a color photograph of Plath and her children, taken in the living room at Court Green in the fall of 1962. Almost everything we see in this photo is mentioned or described in one of her letters. Plath sits (with her son in her lap) in a chair with a scrolled back that she and Hughes bought for sixty cents at a local auction; Plath had it reupholstered in black corduroy. To the right of her daughter is the round brass engraved table that they bought from their neighbors, the Tyrers, when they moved away. The window seat is covered with red corduroy; you can see a sliver of the curtains, made of the same material. There’s the wool Wilton rug, which Plath describes lovingly: it has a pattern of off-white, green, and black flowers and leaves. Behind them are the bookshelves that Hughes built just after they moved into Court Green; in the corner, atop the shelves, the radio she and Hughes purchased in January 1962. Plath tells the story of how they came to buy the radio and describes it, too, lovingly: it has a matte walnut finish—no garish chrome or knobs. The red living room and radio show up in Plath’s poem “The Detective”: “a red room / Where the wireless talks to itself like an elderly relative.” Is this merely obsessive? I mean to illustrate how close you can really get to Plath, how alive she can become. Such microscopic study helps us understand the extent to which she wove her lived experience into the fabric of her art. Plath sports, by the way, the haircut she got in the first week of November 1962, when Ariel was near completion (she finished the final poem for the book, “Death & Co.,” on November 14): “I had my fringe cut . . . in the most fashionable style—high on top, curling down round the ears—and kept my long coronet in back. It looks fabulous and the cut, shampoo & set was only a dollar-fifty. From the front I look to have short hair, & from the back, a coronet.” She planned to get some fancy combs and clips for the back and do away with elastic.
The good news, for Plath fans as (or less) obsessed as I am, is that you won’t have to travel to Indiana University or Smith College to read Plath’s letters. A new volume is on the way. Karen V. Kukil (who edited The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath) and Peter K. Steinberg (who created and maintains A celebration, this is, a website about Sylvia Plath that is an invaluable resource for Plath readers and scholars) are currently editing the letters. It’s not yet certain if this will be a selected or collected letters (you can bet which one I’m hoping for—more is, well, more). Whichever it turns out to be, I believe these letters will change the way we see Sylvia Plath. She wasn’t a listless, depressed poet contemplating suicide each waking moment. As I indicated earlier, there are currently 1,320 surviving letters. Plath was a compulsive letter writer. “It makes me feel lazy,” says Steinberg, “when I compare her productively with what we do today.” Steinberg is anything but lazy. He has read all of Plath’s extant letters, and transcribed and proofed over a thousand of them. “The universe of her letters is probably closer to 2,000,” Steinberg speculates. Many remain in private hands or are unaccounted for. Many were lost or destroyed. Psychiatrist Ruth Beuscher, for instance, chose to destroy what she described as an entire shoebox full of Plath’s letters. Many, one can only hope, will surface in years to come. They add to the mosaic. And since Plath’s letters, in toto, form an autobiography of sorts—rich with particulars and colors, and her authentic human voice—they may well make all present and future biographies of her pale in comparison.