Poetry News

New York Times Launches 'Overlooked' With Obituaries for Poets Sylvia Plath & Qiu Jin

By Harriet Staff

In an effort to address the historic gender imbalance in their obituary section, the New York Times launches a new initiative today to acknowledge women who never received a Times obit at the time of their death. Amisha Padnani and Jessica Bennett introduce the new section, "Overlooked," writing:

Obituary writing is more about life than death: the last word, a testament to a human contribution.

Yet who gets remembered — and how — inherently involves judgment. To look back at the obituary archives can, therefore, be a stark lesson in how society valued various achievements and achievers.

Since 1851, The New York Times has published thousands of obituaries: of heads of state, opera singers, the inventor of Stove Top stuffing and the namer of the Slinky. The vast majority chronicled the lives of men, mostly white ones; even in the last two years, just over one in five of our subjects were female.

Among the fifteen profiles in this initial installment, the Times includes poets Qiu Jin (1875-1907), described as "A feminist poet and revolutionary who became a martyr known as China’s ‘Joan of Arc’" and Sylvia Plath (1932-1963). Anemona Hartocollis begins the Plath obituary by surveying the death notices that were published at the time of Plath's passing:

Because the death was a suicide, Plath’s family did not much advertise it, said Peter K. Steinberg, an editor, with Karen Kukil, of “The Letters of Sylvia Plath,” the second volume of which is to be published this year. And although she was a published poet who had received good reviews, and had determinedly made her way in a literary world dominated by men, the press did not pay much attention.

There were eight-line death notices in tiny print in The Boston Globe and The Boston Herald. To find them, a sharp-eyed reader had to look under “H,” for Plath’s married name, Hughes. The notices were almost as terse as a headstone: of London, England, formerly of Wellesley, Mass., wife of Ted Hughes, mother of Frieda and Nicolas (her son’s given name mysteriously missing its “h”), daughter of Aurelia, older sister of Warren.

Plath’s hometown paper, The Townsman of Wellesley, falsely reported that she had died of “virus pneumonia.” It nodded toward her literary career, “as poet and author.” But it did not name her poetry collection, “The Colossus,” first published in 1960 to positive reviews in the British press, or say that her poems had been printed in prestigious magazines like The New Yorker.

In its Fleet Street sensationalism, the St. Pancras Chronicle’s report was more satisfying, and more truthful.

“Tragic Death of Young Authoress,” the headline blared, before subordinating her reputation to that of her husband. “Found with her head in the gas oven in the kitchen of their home in Fitzroy-road, N.W. 1, last week was 30-year-old authoress Mrs. Sylvia Plath Hughes, wife of one of Britain’s best-known modern poets, Ted Hughes,” the article said. It went on to say that her doctor had arranged for her to see a psychiatrist, “but the letter was delivered to the wrong address.” It ended with the coroner’s verdict that Plath had died of carbon monoxide poisoning and, to leave no doubt in the matter, “that she killed herself.”

We applaud the NYT's efforts and look forward to reading additions to the ongoing series. Read all fifteen obituaries here, and then head here to nominate your own candidate for inclusion in "Overlooked."