Poetry News

Literary Hub Investigates Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes's 'Cultural Exchange'

By Harriet Staff
Merve Emre, Paraliterary, cover

A recent University of Chicago Press book, Paraliterary: The Making of Bad Readers in Postwar America, explores the dawn of the United States's Fulbright Scholar Program and its intended purpose, as a cultural exchange meant to "breed love" for American literature around the world. At Literary Hub, dive into Merve Emre's book with a segment investigating the details of the international romance between Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. "How can a program of scholarly exchange 'breed love?'" Emre asks. Let's begin there: 

Consider Plath’s cheerful testimony of her readerly romance with Ted Hughes to the 1956 United States-United Kingdom Fulbright Commission. “I went to London yesterday to make my announcement of marriage to the Fulbright [Commission],” Plath wrote to her mother on November 1, 1956, worried that the commission would strip her of her fellowship if she confessed her affair with Hughes, a poet she had met at Cambridge and whose work she “much admired.” As it turned out, the commission was far more sympathetic to her international liaison than Plath had expected. “They raised no question of continuing my grant,” she announced with relief, and added, “I did not expect, however, the royal welcome I got! Congratulations from the handsome young American head who told me my work, both social and scholastic, in Cambridge was so fine they wished they could publicize it (!) . . . One of the main qualifications of the grant, I discovered, is that you take back your cultural experience to America, and they were enchanted at my suggestion that I was taking back double in the form of Ted.”

In Plath’s retelling of her testimony, the “work” of the Fulbright scholar, described by the handsome head of the Commission as equal parts “social” and “scholastic,” reached its triumphant apotheosis in the institution of marriage. Plath’s double status as a scholar and a wife thus offered a model of international love making celebrated, and even publicized, by the commission as magnifying the exchange of “cultural experience.” She was not only bringing her love of Hughes’s poetry back to readers in the United States; she was also “bringing back double in the form of Ted”—Ted incarnate, a lover and a husband, as well as a reader of her work and a writer of poems about her, the loving Fulbright scholar. His account of their early romance would later appear in his 1996 poem “Fulbright Scholars,” in which he would recall an official Fulbright photo of Plath and her “grin,” her “exaggerated American / Grin for the cameras, the judges, the strangers, the frighteners.”

Read more at Literary Hub.

Originally Published: December 6th, 2017