Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Smith College Shorthand Transcriptions Now Available

Transcribed into this downloadable Excel file (click the blue "Download" button when you get there) are Aurelia Plath's shorthand annotations on the Sylvia Plath papers in Smith College's Mortimer Rare Book Collection. Mrs. Plath donated her portion of this collection to Smith in December 1983. At that time Mrs. Plath was moving out of her house in Wellesley to an apartment in a brand-new retirement community called North Hill in Needham, Mass.

Compared with the wealth of shorthand annotations at the Lilly Library, those at Smith are few. I scoured the collection for shorthand and am pretty sure I captured what there is. Mrs. Plath wrote most of her annotations in longhand, but her most emphatic comments -- those she didn't want family members to read -- she wrote in shorthand. My favorite find: At the end of a typescript of the story "Among the Bumblebees," Aurelia wrote, "realistic."

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Otto Was a Rebound

Aurelia Schober was a Boston University undergraduate when in 1926 she started secretarial work for an M.I.T. guest professor 22 years her senior and a native of Austria. They fell in love, dated for two years, nearly married, and he -- Dr. Karl von Terzaghi -- wrote at length in his diaries about their relationship as it happened, leaving an unprecedented record of Aurelia's life before she became a Plath.

Karl was Aurelia's first love and he, M.I.T.'s engineering genius-in-residence, introduced Aurelia to his friends, took her to her junior prom, sat at her hospital bedside. They hiked, dined, camped, danced, went to museums and concerts. She was dazzled; his feelings confounded him. "What shall I do with my love for this child?" he asked his diary. He called her "Lilly," a nickname for an idealized German-speaking girl. A civil engineer in mid-career, Karl often traveled to consult at distant construction sites and, in summer 1928, just after Aurelia's college graduation, he spent four months in Central America working for the United Fruit Company. Aurelia, age 22, worked that summer at Camp Maqua in Maine, hating it and worrying that her 44-year-old Karl didn't need her anymore.

Karl returned to Boston in September 1928 to a stack of job offers. He took what he had planned, a professorship in Vienna, and would be moving to Europe in a year. Already in April he had confided to his diary that he would not ask Aurelia to marry him. In November 1928 the couple had the dreaded "talk" and broke up. Devastated, Aurelia cried and asked Karl, "What will become of me if you leave?" On their final date they saw the Chicago Opera Company's Carmen. He wrote about their evening, “It was like a farewell and symbolic. [Aurelia] does not want to be an 'episode' and I can offer no more. The dear little girl. She takes life so seriously.[Footnotes are the end of this post.]

Not three weeks later, on December 18, 1928, Karl met with and dined with a smart, independent female college student Aurelia's age: Radcliffe graduate student Ruth Doggett. Smitten -- the more so because Ruth was a geologist -- Karl fought for a year his impulse to propose, but finally proposed to Ruth from half a world away.

The word "rebound" meaning "post-relationship phase" has been around at least since 1818, so yes, in the 1920s it helped drive people's choices as it does today. After a breakup, sometimes long afterward, people resembling the lost one tend to catch our eye or attract us.

Boston Herald, April 1, 1930, p. 4

About the news clipping pictured above, from The Boston Herald, April 1, 1930: It says Miss Ruth Doggett at Cambridge City Hall was denied a license to marry her fiance Karl Terzaghi of Vienna because he lived overseas. A reporter noticed Karl's still-newsworthy name. 
Boston was Aurelia's hometown, the daily Herald had printed Aurelia's name frequently during her college years, and later printed her daughter Sylvia Plath's first published poem. So most likely at least one of Aurelia's classmates, friends, neighbors or family members, all of whom had known Karl Terzaghi as her beau, read the Herald and saw "Radcliffe Girl to Wed Viennese Professor" and told Aurelia, or Aurelia herself read that Karl was engaged. Maybe she already knew.

How Aurelia felt about this we do not know. The Herald story was no April Fool's joke: Karl and Ruth wed two months later. We do know that around April 1, 1930, Aurelia was completing her Boston University master's degree and bilingual thesis about Paracelsus as a literary figure, consulting with her German instructor Professor Otto Plath -- like Karl, a fine-looking, German-speaking, divorced European-born professor of science two decades older than she. On the semester's final day, Otto asked Aurelia for a date: a weekend with him and his professor friends who owned a farm. "I was ready for some fun," Aurelia recalled in Letters Home, so she agreed to go.

During the year-plus that she and Otto Plath dated, if Aurelia noticed any "red flags" she ignored them or married Otto in spite of them. They married on January 4, 1932, and were not happy.


Goodman, Richard E. Karl Terzaghi: The Engineer as Artist.  Reston, VA: ASCE Press, 1999, pp. 108-121.

Norwegian Geotechnical Institute (Oslo), Karl Terzaghi Library, Terzaghi Diary 26.1: entry 24 August 1926, "Miss A. Schober, unmarried, every evening until dinnertime and I thoroughly enjoyed the company of the warmhearted, clever girl"; Diary 27.1: 13 May 1927, junior prom;  29 September 1927: "What should I do with my love for this child?"; 2 October 1927, "In the evening three hours in the Homeopathic Hospital at the bedside of my girl"; 4 December 1927, "The poor one still needs her crutches"; Diary 27.2: 6 April 1928, "Thought seriously about marriage. Settled for me"; 6 November 1928, "hated Maqua," "What will become of me if you leave?"; 3 December 1928, "I can offer no more"; 27 April 1929, "Back to 1928: Dec. 18. Phone call from Miss Doggett. . .Called in my office 5:00 p.m.  . . Dinner at University Club"

Plath, Aurelia S., ed. Letters Home by Sylvia Plath, Harper & Row, 1975, pp. 6-10.

Plath, Aurelia S., to Mary Ann Montgomery, 21 April 1980, re the hospitalization: Mrs. Plath wrote that she broke her ankle at age 10 and again at age 20. In October 1927 Mrs. Plath would have been 21.

"first published poem," "Poem" by Sylvia Plath, Boston Herald, August 10, 1941.

"Herald had printed Aurelia's name frequently," "Studying Aurelia Plath," blog post May 14, 2019.

"The word 'rebound'": "The heart was caught, Miss Edgeworth says, on the rebound" Letter to S.E. Williams, December 8, 1818, A.G.K. L'Estrange, ed. The Life of Mary Russell Mitford, Told by Herself in Her Letters to Her Friends, vol. 1. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1876. Mitford used "rebound" in that sense in a novel she published in 1830 (OED).

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Inside "Ocean 1212-W"

892 Shirley Street, Winthrop, Mass. USA, photographed in 2018.
Sylvia Plath claimed her grandparents' house at Point Shirley as her true childhood home and spiritual nexus in a 1962 essay we know as "Ocean 1212-W." Prepare for a unique and savory treat: Aurelia's Austrian beau Karl in 1926 described in his diary his first view of and visit to the town of Winthrop and Point Shirley, and an evening in Aurelia's family home. Present were her parents (later "Grammy" and "Grampy" Schober; Karl culls a few new facts) and Aurelia's siblings, future aunt and uncle to Sylvia and Warren. More about Karl here. I discovered this passage in May and you are the first to read it. It's verbatim and I think beautiful. Thanks to the Norwegian Geotechnical Institute for granting access to the Karl Terzaghi diaries. Diary page numbers are in the brackets.

Diary 26.1, p. 104 October 24, 1926

Yesterday, Saturday, met A. at the [105] Public library, lunch among lights and colors at Brau Haus, a delightful, quiet hour. After lunch to Orient Heights, from hill above station one of the most beautiful views of Boston I ever saw. Beacon Hill in blue grey against the lighter sky, dominated by the Custom House tower. Chelsea: a series of drumlins with gentle skyline covered with grey houses. At the foot of the hill the red brown saltmarshes with wide, winding channels, mother of pearl; so beyond Beachmont N.E., the silver grey ocean, the horizon behind the flat, grey shape of Nahant Island on the horizon & in the East [106] the friendly hills and narrows & peninsula of Winthrop. From the Orient Heights we wandered across Winthrop, & on the Boulevard, along the beach, from Drumlin to Drumlin: Grovers Cliff, Winthrop Head and out to Shirley Point: the ocean calm, in color reminding the Persian sea, now and then a low, gentle wave breaking at the beach. Dark stone standing out of the water – low tide, a brown belt of sea weed stretching between the water and the seawall – the dominating white water tank of Winthrop [107] Head standing like the tower of a Sarazene castle – and the dear little girl with shining brown eyes, showing her treasures, the beach, and the walls and the sea she loves. An evening in her home at Shirley Point, remote from the world. Her mother a plump little lady with irregular features, brutish forehead, but lovable and kind and goodnatured. The father, who arrived somewhat later, serious, official, simple, but sincere, agreeable, regular features. Assistant manager of the Alston Manor. The light and [108] the beauty of the home: The children. Sitting at the fireplace, fed with driftwood, paved with cobblestones from the Drumlins. A., the oldest, with her gentle, lovable features, her sister, fifteen, a strong husky girl, with clear, open grey eyes, blond, straight hair and a strong nice chin, and finally came the little boy, warm from his bed, insisted to see me, tried to behave like a little man, and explained to me his monkey. – About storms in Winthrop, the breakers washing through the gaps between the houses, the children [109] spending days on the beach, in bathing suits, in direct touch with gentle and violent nature – the library in Shirley Point, grocery store a little world in itself. The father from Aussee, Gasthof Schober, wanted to study medicine, some time in Italy, met in London brother of his wife, both went over to Boston and settled. His brother-in-law headwaiter at Copley Plaza. The early days of the young couple, tramping up in White Mountains, since then living in this little home, no travels, except the family for short time [110] to Colorado Springs – her father.
            Towards eleven I left, went with A. and her father around the Shirley Point back to W. station beautiful moonlight, the ocean calm. The dear little girl tight at my side and while we walked behind her father, I told her silently how I felt, by a kiss.
            Today, a quiet day, still under the impression of yesterday’s evening. The picture of the girl was with me: her innocence, her happiness at her wealth in her modest surroundings, the [111] blessings of an education paid for by the self restraint of conscientious parents, a bud, on the point of becoming a flower – her lovable way of nursing the smaller ones of the family, the drumlins and the ocean as a background. I had the feeling as if I had found something I was longing for since years.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Aurelia Schober in the News, 1926-1932

During her college years in the 1920s, The Boston Herald daily newspaper, relying on press releases from the student Press Club at Boston University's College of Practical Arts and Letters, mentioned Aurelia Schober more often than one might imagine. It was not unusual for students to have so many extracurricular interests. The surprise is that Aurelia had such a high profile.

1926, May 25, p. 31: "B.U. Writers' Club Elects Officers" -- Aurelia Schober, elected Writers' Club vice-president, was also "president of the college German Club, and is well known for her ability in dramatic work."

1927, February 3, p. 28: "B.U. German Club to Present Play" -- "Miss Aurelia Schober of Winthrop has been assigned the leading part of Strubel in Sudermann's play "Die Ferne Prinzessin," to be produced by the German Club of the Boston University College of Practical Arts and letters Friday night, in place of Miss Emmi Koster of Hamburg, Ger., who is ill." [In this one-act comedy, "Strubel," a male poet, declares his hopeless love for a princess to a male who is actually the princess in disguise.]

1927, May 23, p. 4: "Who's Who in B.U. Yearbook" -- Under "Senior Honors" bestowed by peers at the College of Practical Arts and Letters, Aurelia Schober ranked third in the category "Busiest," second in the category "Most Studious," and first in the category "Class Dictionary."

1928, May 25, p. 3: "Miss Schober to give B.U. Class Valedictory" -- ["Class" means College of Practical Arts and Letters, class of 1928.] Besides being valedictorian, Miss Schober "was editor-in-chief of the junior yearbook, and has served as president of the German Club, and as a member of the student government board, the English Club, the Writers' Club, and Sigma." [Sigma was a scholastic society for seniors; according to the College's yearbook for 1929, page 44, Aurelia had been elected to that society as a junior, an honor granted to one student per year. Graduation day was June 6.]

1932, September 13, p. 13: "B.U. Alumni Directors Meet This Evening" -- "Mrs. Aurelia S. Plath, '28, Jamaica Plain" is listed as one of two women representing College of Practical Arts and Letters alumni. Mrs. Plath was then pregnant with Sylvia, to be born on October 27.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Aurelia Plath's First Love

Austrian civil engineer Dr. Karl von Terzaghi was invited to the U.S. in 1925 to teach and establish a program at M.I.T. and, incidentally, to explain why new M.I.T. buildings on the Charles River banks had been sinking an inch per year. Terzaghi (1883-1963) founded two new sciences: soil mechanics (the physics and hydraulics of soils; he proved that soil types, like any other building materials, had principles) and foundational engineering, now called geotechnology. Terzaghi hired "Miss A. Schober" as his secretary in 1926 -- not 1927, as Aurelia has it in her introduction to Letters Home. That's where Aurelia, who never gave his name, wrote about:

". . .[w]orking at the close of my junior year (1927) for a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He had a handwritten manuscript in German dealing with new principles of soil mechanics. As he had a publication deadline to meet, I usually worked into the early evening, so we often had dinner together before I left Boston for home. It was during these meals that I listened, fascinated, to his accounts of travel and colorful adventures, fully realizing that I was in the presence of a true genius in both the arts and sciences. I came away with my notebook filled with reading lists. . ." (6)

She wrote that this self-education would one day benefit her children, but that is not the whole story. The friendship ripened into love.

For two years they enjoyed the theater, museums, hikes, camping, gardens, evenings with Karl's faculty friends, dining and dancing, and conversation most of all. The above photo was taken in 1926, when Karl, 43 and divorced, Boston's most eligible bachelor, chose Aurelia Schober, 20, moved by her innocence, intelligence, and sensitivity. He took her to her junior prom at the Kenmore Hotel on May 13, 1927 and then at 4:00 a.m. in Winthrop ate the post-prom breakfast Aurelia's mother had left prepared for them with instructions, Austrian style. Terzaghi wrote about it in his diary. His 82 volumes of diaries are in Oslo. I learned where his diaries were by reading his biography. ("Aurelia's boyfriend has a biography?")
Terzaghi centennial stamp, Austria, 1983

Shorthand transcription unlocked and confirmed his identity; he's the "Karl" in young Aurelia's lovelorn Gregg shorthand annotations in her copy of poet Sara Teasdale's Dark of the Moon. That book is in Sylvia Plath's personal library at the Lilly Library in Bloomington. Find the transcriptions here.

In 1928 Terzaghi left the U.S. for a prestigious engineering professorship in Vienna. Ten years later when the Nazis expelled his Jewish students and pressured him to work on the German Autobahn he returned to Boston, taught at Harvard and consulted worldwide. His legacy includes the Chicago subway system and the Aswan Dam, plus immortal equations and elegant problem-solving designs. In 1975 Bostonians in certain circles, or engineers, or Aurelia's college friends, could have guessed whom Aurelia was describing in Letters Home -- it's obvious, now that we know.

Their story is heartbreaking. For more of it, click here. Sylvia, taking her cue from her mother, married her own foreign-born male genius, Ted Hughes.

References: Karl Terzaghi: The Engineer as Artist (Goodman, 1998); Letters Home 1950-1963 (Plath, 1975); Norwegian Geotechnical Institute Terzaghi Library; Geoengineer.org; Wikipedia: Karl von Terzaghi (mentions Aurelia Schober, future mother of Sylvia Plath); Wikipedia: Ruth Terzaghi; Geotechnical Hall of Fame; American Society of Civil Engineers

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Aurelia Plath's Shorthand Transcriptions Have a Home

Aurelia Plath's shorthand annotations on the Lilly Library materials, cataloged and transcribed, are now available to all on the open-scholarship platform at Marquette University (my alma mater). The Excel files and short "keys" to each (PDFs) can be accessed and downloaded here. Take your time; there's a lot.

Marquette University Libraries digital librarian Heather James, herself a poet and Plath fan, welcomed the Aurelia Plath materials and skillfully uploaded the files. You must agree the Excel files are handsome and easy to use. Please credit Catherine Rankovic when referencing my work in your work. The Estate of Aurelia S. Plath granted me permission to release these transcriptions for scholarly purposes. Contact me at aureliascholar [at] gmail.com with questions re the shorthand.

Peter K. Steinberg kindly published a notice on his SylviaPlath.info blog that this project was ready.
I'm grateful that this project chose me. Currently I'm creating a chronology of Aurelia's life, gathering biographical information from every available source. It bears saying (because I've never heard it said) that Aurelia is an important key to Sylvia.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

One of Aurelia's Dreams

Sylvia Plath’s letter to Aurelia Plath of 11 June 1960 said that Ted Hughes had written a second play better than his first. On the envelope that contained Sylvia's letter of 24 June 1960, Aurelia penned a note, its latter part in shorthand:

[longhand:] Write about my dream of Ted’s [shorthand:] writing a play – a comedy about Khrushchev & it being played everywhere in the world and everyone laughing at it!

Sylvia's July 9, 1960 letter to Aurelia said, "So you are prophetic!" Sylvia reported to Aurelia that Ted had indeed written a play about a military captain, just accepted for broadcast by the BBC.