Thursday, December 28, 2017

Otto Plath's First Wife Lydia, and Her Career
Otto Plath’s first wife, Lydia Clara Bartz (1889-1988) was “Mrs. Lydia Plath” all her long adult life. She is buried in her home town, Fall Creek, Wisconsin. She and Otto married in 1912, lived together about two years, and maintained some contact after they separated. Apparently Otto’s youngest sister Frieda became Lydia’s friend. Most of this material except where noted came from The bracketed material is mine.

I had wondered what became of Lydia. She never remarried. Here's what I've learned so far:

1913-14: The UC student register for Berkeley shows Lydia Clara Plath as an undergraduate (p. 113) and Otto Emil Plath (p. 48) as a graduate student. Both live at 2216 Bancroft Way.
1915: Lydia Clara Plath, "housewife," appears in the register for UC-Berkeley summer session.
1919, June 6: After three years of training, Lydia Bartz-Plath graduates as an R.N. from the Evangelical School of Nursing in Oak Lawn, IL. Frieda “Plath-Hendricks” was in the Class of 1918. [Frieda's married name was actually “Heinrichs.”]
1922: Lydia has four months of post-graduate training in surgical nursing. 
1925: Takes and passes the Wisconsin nursing license exam.

Lydia's nursing school closed in 1988.
Highlights from the Eau Claire Leader, archived at

1928, April 21: Mrs. Lydia Plath is identified as “operating nurse, Luther Hospital [Eau Claire].”
1929, June 27, p. 4, “Mrs. Lydia Plath, who has been visiting at Chicago, returned home to spend the rest of her vacation with her mother, Mrs. Mathilde Bartz.”
1930, Sept. 8, p. 8, “Mrs. Lydia Plath has gone to Los Angeles, California, to visit her brother, Rupert Bartz, and her sister Alma.”
1932, Aug. 12, p. 2, “Miss Elsie Roettiger [R.N.] of Fountain City [WI] arrived here Wednesday at the Mathilde Bartz home where she will spend several days visiting with Mrs. Lydia Plath who is spending a month’s vacation from her duties at the Luther Hospital in Eau Claire.” [Had Lydia learned at this time that Otto Plath had divorced her and remarried?]
1932, Oct. 22, p. 3. “Mrs. Lydia Plath motored to Oshkosh Sunday where she will attend a nurses’ convention.”
1934, Sept. 25, p. 12, operating room supervisor; on the faculty of the new Luther Hospital School of Nursing.
1934, Nov. 24, p. 2, contributes to the Eau Claire Community Welfare Fund.
1936, May 14, p. 4, named one of the Directors of the Tenth District of the Wisconsin State Nurses Association.
1939, Sept. 15, p. 4: "Mrs. Lydia Plath described her visit to New York, including her trip to the NBC studios, Radio City, and seeing King George and Queen Elizabeth, guarded by 4000 policemen, at the World's Fair."
1942, Feb. 26, p. 2, "Lydia Plath, R.N., supervisor, shows there was a monthly average of 271.3 cases while in 1935 the average was 179."
1950, Nov. 2, p. 5, "received recognition in a monthly bulletin, 'Ideas of the Month,' published by a hospital supply company," outlining an instrument-sterilization process used at Luther Hospital.
1951, Jan. 11, p. 5, Eau Claire Daily Telegram, the article “Luther Hospital Guild Purchases New Surgical Table for Operating Room” says “Mrs. Lydia Plath, supervisor of the surgical department at Luther Hospital, demonstrated the machine."
1960, Jan. 19 [1]: Lydia took the annual Wisconsin nursing license renewal exam for the final time; she was 71 years old.

Rupert Bartz (1890-1934) introduced his sister Lydia to Otto Plath. Lydia’s sisters were Alma, Dora, Odelia, and Caroline. Of all the girls, only Lydia married.

Small-town newspapers in those days reported on hunting parties, birthday parties, who checked into or out of the local hotel or the hospital, and even the card party thrown for Rupert Bartz when he left town in 1914 to work in real estate in North Dakota.
[1] Wisconsin Board of Nursing; Registered and Practical Nurses Permanent Record Cards, Circa 1912-1982; Series: Registered and Practical Nurses Permanent Record Cards; Book Series: 2675 or 2676

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Otto Plath's First Wedding

While seeking background information about Otto Plath, I dug up Otto Plath's Certificate of Marriage to his first wife, Lydia Bartz, on August 7, 1912 in County of Spokane, City of Spokane, Washington. Click on the image to enlarge it for reading.
Below is Spokane in 1912, a boom year for that city, in a photograph from the Spokane Public Library.

As you know, Otto Plath's first marriage did not "take" and the couple separated without troubling to divorce. Otto got a divorce in Nevada in 1932 when he wanted to marry Aurelia Schober. Otto had been to Nevada; a notice in the Reno Gazette-Journal (16 September 1914, page 8): "Otto Plath of Berkeley is visiting Reno relatives for a few days." Why? Let's say he suddenly had been made to feel unwelcome in Berkeley in August. There's more to the story.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Sylvia Plath and Speedwriting

c. 1960s

Sylvia Plath did learn a form of shorthand -- "Speedwriting," the "cn u rd ths" note-taking system invented in the 1920s by Emma B. Dearborn, a suicide, and persistently advertised for 50 years in the unglamorous back pages of Mademoiselle, but also in Popular Mechanics, Glamour, and Ebony: pretty much everywhere. Plath certainly saw these now-iconic ads; they ran in the August 1953 issue of Mademoiselle Plath had guest-edited. Mademoiselle had the last word, printing in September 1977 the latest Speedwriting ad I could find. It said, in plain block letters, "Yes, I went to college. But Speedwriting got me my job."

And so it was with Smith and Cambridge graduate Sylvia Plath who couldn't get her secretarial job at Harvard in 1959 without it. I wrote a paper, "Sylvia Plath and Speedwriting," that goes into depth about the topic. It includes the history of Emma Dearborn, her invention of Speedwriting and why it became big business, when and where Sylvia learned and used Speedwriting, and why she wanted to use it again while living in London. There are no known examples of Sylvia's Speedwriting, but some might yet be discovered. 

Shorthand and 1950s office practice and office machines will always be relevant in Plath studies, as they were in her life. Plath's clerical and secretarial skills -- typing poetry manuscripts, keeping track of submissions, filing carbon copies, answering editors' letters -- were essential to Plath's career and her husband's. My paper was published in Plath Profiles, vol. 11, 2019.

Monday, December 25, 2017

The First-Ever Aurelia Panel

The Sylvia Plath Conference at Ulster University hosted an unprecedented "Aurelia panel," titled "'Old Barnacled Umbilicus': Considering Aurelia Plath." I was delighted to have as co-panelists Dr. Adrianne Kalfopoulou of The American College of Greece, and Dr. Janet Badia, of Indiana University-Purdue University. "Panel on Aurelia is on fire!" said a tweet from our audience as we knocked it out of the park. Some other comments: "Jaw hit the floor." "Mic drop."

Cathleen Allyn Conway chaired a thrilling 90 minutes that acknowledged that Sylvia Plath had a mother, or shall we say a parent, who introduced her to poetry and helped shape her voice, as Dr. Kalfopoulou described in her paper, "Witches in the Gingerbread: The Making of the Plathian Voice." After Dr. Badia presented "'There is nothing between us': Mother-Daughter Intimacy in the Plath Archive," there can be no question Aurelia was Plath's first and most important poetry critic. During her formation and as an adult, Plath sent her mother sheaves of poems, requesting feedback.

I'm not saying Plath loved or used all her mother offered. We don't know, right now, what her mother offered. Plath burned her mother's letters. Like any daughter Plath worked against her mother's influence as much as with it. But you can't do either without first having a mother who has influence.

Bolstered by the new Volume One of Plath's complete letters, most of them to Aurelia and her family, the Aurelia panel provided Plath biographical scholarship with much-needed corrective lenses. We have liked to believe with the Romantics that artists create themselves and their work independent of their contexts, cultures and families. But those provide the support and friction that help a born artist become a consummate and pathbreaking artist.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Which Shorthand Did Aurelia Teach?

Gregg shorthand, its first manual published in 1888 by Robert Gregg, who initially called his phonetic shorthand system "Light-Line Phonography," evolved along with the business world’s requirements and vocabulary. Periodic revisions also made it leaner and easier to learn. 

Aurelia Schober (b. 1906) was probably schooled in what is now called “Pre-Anniversary” Gregg, likely that edition’s fifth and final iteration (1916). In 1929 the “Anniversary” edition superseded it. Mrs. Plath would have taught that edition at Boston University’s College of Practical Arts and Letters from the time she was hired in 1942 until the “Simplified” edition of Gregg came out in 1949. The “Simplified” edition was later superseded by the “Diamond Anniversary” edition (1963-1978), the edition I learned.

No iteration of Gregg is a truly radical departure, but each can be different enough so that, for example, a single shorthand character formerly transcribed as “love” now represents the phrase “will have.” Gregg’s efficiency is such that the stroke representing “d” can also be read as “would,” “did,” “dear,” “date,” “dollars,” or the suffixes “-ward” or “-hood”; pre-1963 it might also represent the diphthong “ch”. Context is everything. Change the angle slightly and write it as a downstroke instead of an upstroke and it's the letter "j." How to know an upstroke from a downstroke? Context is everything.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Doing the Numbers

In the Lilly Library's Sylvia Plath archive collection of correspondence known as Plath mss. II, boxes 1-6a, we can find Aurelia Plath's shorthand annotations. The first instance is on correspondence dated July 8, 1948 and the last dated July 1974.

Mrs. Plath wrote her Gregg shorthand annotations on letters and/or their envelopes -- very often on their envelopes. She was careful not to overwrite or deface any of Sylvia's letters (except the two black-marker redactions we can see in The Letters of Sylvia Plath, volume 2).

Of the Gregg shorthand instances, many relate to Aurelia Plath's editing of Letters Home in 1973-74. These, always in margins, are "typed" or "excerpted" or "omit" or "used."

Of the Gregg shorthand instances, two were so vigorously erased as to be illegible, but they are recognizable as Gregg shorthand.

Mrs. Plath made many more annotations in longhand on the correspondence than she made in shorthand.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Otto Plath as a Husband

In a March 19, 1980, letter to an SP fan, Mary Ann Montgomery, who became Aurelia Plath's penpal, Aurelia has just described her California honeymoon in 1932 and her and Otto's decision to live back East. It continues with what she imagined family life would be like:

"I loved [my parents] and took them for granted--after all, I knew nothing else but that we were close, enjoyed each other, which I thought was the essence of most family life. Oh, what hard lessons lay ahead--what shocking, terrifying revelations. My husband never knew love in his family; I was ready to share all of mine with him. I never witnessed jealousy before, distrust, possessiveness--all augmented through untreated diabetes that I did not know existed within him. On the outer personality, high idealism, honesty--oh, well, why dig into the past? It would take forever to give a complete picture and then who ever knows another completely or is competent to judge. The thing to do is remember what was good and go on with that."

Sylvia Plath must have witnessed a jealous, distrustful, possessive marital dynamic in her family home -- born as she was 10 months after her parents' wedding. That could explain a lot.

"Medusa's Metadata" - Plath Conference Paper

Nearly 700 letters from Sylvia Plath to her mother, Mrs. Aurelia Schober Plath, are held in the Sylvia Plath mss. II files at the University of Indiana’s Lilly Library. Mrs. Plath, a professional instructor of Gregg shorthand, wrote on these letters and their envelopes scores of comments and notes to herself and to posterity. One hundred fifty-nine annotations in the Plath mss. II correspondence are in in Gregg shorthand. Never before cataloged or transcribed, the shorthand annotations on Plath’s letters, labeled “unreadable” and ignored, provide new metadata about Plath—who rather famously never learned shorthand—and her uneasy relationship with her only surviving parent and provider.

The transcriptions include Mrs. Plath’s most urgent and personal responses to her daughter’s needs, marriage, suicide, and posthumous fame; bitter negotiations with Ted Hughes over the U.S. publication of The Bell Jar; and detail Mrs. Plath’s role as curator of her daughter’s correspondence: with friends (“Share with Gordon if the time is right,” 30 August 1954), family (“Do not let Mother [Granny] see this!” 2 February 1956) and ultimately the public (Letters Home, 1975). That role does not end with the publication of two volumes of The Complete Letters of Sylvia Plath. In fact, Mrs. Plath is that collection's first cause.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

"Medusa" and the Meaning of "Paralyzing the kicking lovers"

Aurelia Plath wrote to her frequent correspondent, independent Plath scholar Leonard Sanazaro, on September 8, 1986. On the letter's page 4, Aurelia describes the hours just before she left Court Green in July 1962 to stay with Winifred Davies and give the troubled Hugheses their privacy. Aurelia had packed and was prepared to go. But she couldn't -- she was caring for six-month-old Nick while his parents were in their bedroom, where they stayed for two hours past Nick's feeding time. Aurelia wrote:

"I kept walking the floor with sobbing Nick in my arms. Finally, I knock on the [bedroom] door and announced my departure -- so 'please take Nick.'

"Sylvia grumbled something; I knocked, opened the door and handed the baby to his mother. His parents were in bed; I put the baby down, turned, shutting the door and left the house. What else could I do? That is the only thing -- and Sylvia later blew it up into the shocking poem 'Medusa'."

So that is Aurelia's version of what "paralyzing the kicking lovers" refers to. According to an unsent letter from Aurelia to Warren Plath, dated July 17, 1962, Aurelia moved to Davies' house on July 16.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Sylvia Was Fat? No, It Was Assia

Seeking reviews of Letters Home I found in the Sydney (AU) Morning Herald, April 3, 1976, page 18, a review by novelist Jill Neville titled "The Sylvia Plath Industry." Neville didn't say who her "great friend" of Plath's was, but it was Al Alvarez; Neville was his girlfriend from 1960 to 1962. Neville wrote:

"A great friend of hers was my great friend. I glimpsed those surrounding her at the final drama; even the woman who acted as the detonator of her own life, I knew. She was too fat and not particularly young but when she came into a room men swayed like wheat in an evening breeze. To look into her perfect Russian-Jewish face was to hear a singing in the ears."

I misunderstood her to be saying Plath was fat and not young and had a Russian-Jewish face. I found it puzzling that Neville would so describe her. The "She" is Assia Wevill, Ted Hughes's "other woman" who in 1976 could not be publicly named.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Plath Conference in Belfast in November 2017

I completed the Aurelia Plath shorthand project in February; it had taken another trip to Bloomington's Lilly Library, last September, to double-check all the correspondence in the Plath mss. II Boxes 1 through 6a.

On April 15, Mrs. Plath's estate granted me permission to use the findings for scholarship. Now I feel completely free to write. November's Sylvia Plath Conference in Belfast will coincide with the publication of The Complete Letters of Sylvia Plath and I will be presenting a paper there about Mrs. Plath's shorthand annotations, which I call "metadata," on said correspondence.

Conference information: Sylvia Plath Conference: Words, Letters and Fragments, at Ulster University, Belfast, November 10-11, 2017. Website here. Twitter: @plathconference. There's also a Facebook page.