Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Was Aurelia A Virgin Bride?

When Aurelia Schober married Otto Plath, January 4, 1932, she was 25 and he 46. Because Aurelia said nothing about whether she was a virgin at marriage, I will marshal what evidence I have to show why I think its answer is no.


Before she met Otto Plath, Aurelia, barely 20, started a two-year relationship with an Austrian engineer and MIT professor in his 40s. [1] Dashing, divorced Dr. Karl Terzaghi, pursued by Boston society ladies married and single, had one-nighters when out of town on business. His diary—kept meticulously all his life—mentions in August 1926 hiring “Miss A. Schober” as his secretary and German-to-English translator. A college junior with Austrian parents, the intelligent and warm-hearted girl (his words) eased Karl’s loneliness, and he hers. They went to museums, saw plays, conversed about art and poetry. By November they were kissing in the park, in the dark. This was Aurelia’s first romance, and she fell crazy in love, as did Karl.

Aurelia’s parents met Karl, and between Christmas and New Year’s her mother told her to quit seeing him. Karl (born in 1883), said her mother, was too old for her to marry, a mere three years younger than Aurelia’s father, so we know the issue of marriage had come up.


Heartsick and stuck at home during winter break, Aurelia on December 29, 1926, bought poet Sara Teasdale’s most recent book, Dark of the Moon, and retreated into its wistful love lyrics. She checkmarked and bracketed lines that moved her, and—in Gregg shorthand, which she had learned in college and her family couldn’t read—processed her feelings:


I wonder if this is true about Karl. (page 45)


This I have said in my heart when with Karl, “At least we two have had today.” (67)


This is something that I must not do. Yet I am afraid that I may. What is better—to do what one’s heart dictates or what one’s conscience tells you is right? I only hope this day will not come to me eventually. (79)


If I said good-bye to Karl I would be afraid to feel this too. Therefore I will not say “good-bye.” (79) [2]


Karl by then was calling Aurelia “Lilly,” the German nickname for a dream girl, and his diary refers to her also as “L.” (This confused Karl’s biographer, who thought “L.” was someone else.) [3] Aurelia turned 21 in April 1927 and apparently that made Karl okay. He stayed overnight at the family home in Winthrop after Aurelia’s junior prom. In May a colleague invited Karl and Aurelia on a camping trip. The colleague’s wife made Karl phone and reassure Aurelia’s mother. He also heard his girl war-whooping in the background. Sylvia Plath in her bathing suit is famous, but Karl’s diary gives Aurelia her own “bathing-beauty” moment: “Enjoyed seeing Lilly in bathing suit, well built and very pretty.”


Aurelia worked at a YWCA camp in Maine during summer 1927. Karl was a guest there for a week in July, and the couple spent evenings rowing on the lake, swimming in coves, and were for the first time “alone-alone” with a blanket. Karl wrote:


Before midnight . . .  on a lonesome clearing at the lake shore, experiencing again the delight of perfect and unrestricted communion with my girl, listening to the sounds of the woods and the low, tender, musical voice.


That’s as explicit as Karl’s diary gets. He returned to Boston so much in love he wondered what to do. At Christmas 1927, he gave Aurelia mementos of the idyll at Camp Maqua: an eight-by-ten photo of himself in a gauzy shirt and another of Aurelia in a meadow in her middy dress.


But by April his diary said he’d decided against marriage, citing her family. He was traveling more often to muddy and godforsaken sites to design hydroelectric dams. If they married, what would Aurelia do with herself but write him letters? He left on a four-month business trip only days before her June graduation. An anguished Aurelia hoped it wasn’t over, but it was. On their final date in December she huffed to Karl that she did not want to be an “episode,” but for him, she was. “Almost a wife,” his biography calls her. But Karl married someone else.


In the 1970s Aurelia wrote to her granddaughter Frieda about her lost love, never naming him, saying her heartache persisted until Sylvia was born. [4] In other words, Otto Plath was not a substitute for Karl, whose photo she kept all her life. When Otto came calling, this time Aurelia’s mother didn’t object to a suitor twenty years older; in 1932 the median age for women at marriage was 21, and Aurelia was 25 going on 26, approaching the spinster zone.

Steady or engaged couples in the Depression era tended to delay marriage and children, yet about one-third had sex before marriage, and the older they were, the higher the percentage. The 1920s had normalized premarital sex and contraception. Recalling his first wife’s distaste for sex, Otto probably asked Aurelia about her past, or for a road test, so maybe Otto, if not Karl, was her first. Aurelia said or did something, such as let slip a word about her ex, because after their honeymoon Otto the so-called pacifist shocked her with jealous rages, and we can gauge what they were like by comparing them with Sylvia’s marital rages.


Aurelia wrote on a draft of her Letters Home preface that regarding sex she “felt that my daughter should be better informed than I had been.” [5] So we know she had personal regrets, and she also gave Sylvia an article titled “The Case for Chastity,” to cajole Sylvia into remaining a virgin until marriage. Aurelia’s paragraphs describing the sex education she gave her children were deleted from the preface, and the published version turns the tables and shows Sylvia educating herself by reading and underlining passages in a book.


There’s one more clue to the answer to the question I have no right to ask unless it grants Aurelia the heart and humanity printed pages have denied her. Plath scholar Tracy Brain noticed a significant deletion from an earlier draft of The Bell Jar. Its narrator Esther, wanting to lose her virginity and seeking the right man for the job, shares, “Then, since my mother had hinted of the thralldom a woman undergoes in the hands of her first lover, to be on the safe side, I wanted somebody I didn’t know.” Plath deleted the italicized clause that reveals Esther’s mother as both her sex educator and the voice of experience. [6]



[1] See “Aurelia Plath’s First Love,” blog post May 9, 2019.

[2] Rankovic, “Aurelia Plath Shorthand Transcriptions,https://epublications.marquette.edu/aureliaplath/4/

[3] Goodman, Karl Terzaghi: The Engineer as Artist, p. 111.

[4] Andrew Wilson’s Plath biography quotes a letter dated April 21, 1978, from the Cruickshank Archive, not available to the public.

[5] “IX. Aurelia Plath,” Box 30, folder 57, Sylvia Plath collection, Smith College. See also “Aurelia Plath and the Case for Chastity,” blog post December 21, 2021. 

[6] The Other Sylvia Plath, p. 154.

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Aurelia Plath and "The Case for Chastity"

Aurelia Plath gave Sylvia Plath a Reader’s Digest article titled “The Case for Chastity,” written by a married mother of four, cautioning young women against premarital sex. Sylvia bristled, and later trounced this article in her journal and in The Bell Jar, where it’s renamed “In Defense of Chastity.” 

But for that article, Sylvia might have wished to model herself after its author, Margaret Culkin Banning [pictured]. Banning’s New York Times obituary says she published 40 books, and 400 stories in the slick high-paying magazines Sylvia ached to write for. [1] Yet this bestselling novelist—Vassar graduate, a lawyer, pro-women’s rights—might have been forgotten without Plath’s reference to the chastity article, Exhibit A among Sylvia’s reasons Sylvia (and we) should hate her mother.


Reader’s Digest published “The Case for Chastity” in August 1937. It was so popular that in September, Harper (Margaret Banning’s publisher) printed it as a pamphlet. Tightly argued and exhaustive, it explains to would-be female sexual rebels and those putting off marriage the many ways unchastity can ruin their lives: diseases, babies, abortions, regrets, and, a new twist, psychological breakdowns. The article quotes statistics and experts. Read it for yourself, here.


Pamphlets were rife in the 1930s when folks were too poor to buy books. Aurelia Plath was into pamphlets. Her shorthand annotation on Sylvia’s letter of December 19, 1961, notes the Chicago address for a free pamphlet titled Adventures in Conversation. She hoped to forward this to Sylvia for little Frieda’s edification. Frieda was then 20 months old.


Exactly where Aurelia got “The Case for Chastity” and when she gave it to Sylvia is not known. [2] In autumn 1937, Sylvia was age four going on five, so not then. The pamphlet in its time was truly and insanely topical. In December 1936 the most reliable known birth control device, the pessary or diaphragm, became legal in the U.S.—if prescribed by a medical doctor for health reasons. This landmark case is called United States vs. One Package of Japanese Pessaries, and Margaret Sanger engineered it all. [3] Sylvia Plath in her “platinum summer” of 1954 had an illegal diaphragm; Massachusetts did not legalize birth control for singles until 1972. Yet diaphragms could be obtained from sympathetic doctors, or by stealth, or from overseas, or if you borrowed a wedding ring. In January 1954 Mary McCarthy published in Partisan Review a story opening with the shocking words “Get yourself a pessary,” later Chapter 3 in her novel The Group (1963). 


Aurelia Plath’s original preface to Letters Home (1975) included five paragraphs about how she provided her children with a liberal sex education. When they were school age she gave them a book called Growing Up. Aurelia wrote that she read and discussed frankly with Sylvia numerous edgy books and plays. Here is part of the preface that Aurelia’s editor cut:


. . .  In The Bell Jar an article from the Reader’s Digest, titled “The Case for Chastity,” is handed the heroine as a manual to be followed. Our shared reading, however, went far afield of this and went on intermittently throughout high school years and the first three years of college . . . We discussed the work and writings of Margaret Sanger, the unfairness of the double standard . . . I did tell my children that I hoped they would wait until they had completed their undergraduate education before involving themselves in what I considered a serious commitment with another life . . . The decision, however, had to be theirs. (47-48) [4]


“The Case for Chastity” as represented in The Bell Jar was a thorn in Aurelia’s side, belittling her years of conscientious mothering; and the cuts to her Letters Home preface erased her noble efforts utterly. However, the Rosenstein papers, opened in 2020, record that in 1953 Aurelia told Dr. Ruth Beuscher that Sylvia knew the facts of intercourse by age 15. Later additional mother-daughter discussions made Sylvia “extremely avid for the most minute detail about sex, and this caused [her] mother some embarrassment. But she answered all questions.” [5]


Also in the cut paragraphs, Aurelia tried to establish that she was not a prude. In New York in 1929 she saw a play banned in Boston, and in 1933 she delivered to the Boston University faculty wives’ book club a report about Brave New World—so full of drugs and sex the book is banned in some places today.


Aurelia’s status when at age 25 she married Otto Plath, 46, who was married the whole time they dated, is nobody’s business and no one should care. Yet the answer to “Was Aurelia a virgin?” could illuminate Aurelia’s character, the battleground Sylvia Plath tragically died on, dreading a life like her mother’s and seeing in her more bad than good. Whether yes or no, the culture is rigged so Aurelia cannot win. Had she been a man this would not be an issue.

[1] New York Times, January 6, 1982.

[2] Probably the pamphlet was mailed to Sylvia at college in 1954 when Aurelia was most worried about Sylvia’s chastity. Aurelia wrote biographer Linda Wagner-Martin in 1987 that along with the chastity article she gave Sylvia an article with an opposing viewpoint. (ASP to Wagner-Martin, October 29, 1987, p. 2.) I believe that is false.

[3] United States v. One Package of Japanese Pessaries, 86 F.2d 737. Read the decision here at Justia.com.

[4] Plath mss. II, Box 9, folder 3, Lilly Library.

[5] “McLean Hospital Record,” Collection 1489, Box 3, Folder 10, Rose Library – Emory University Archives.

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Could Aurelia's Letters to Sylvia Still Exist?

Somebody wiped Aurelia Plath's letters to Sylvia Plath off the face of the earth. Who was it?

When biographers have guessed -- no one has proof -- that Sylvia Plath in 1962 made a bonfire of "all of her mother's letters," allegedly burning "upwards of a thousand," they make an odd assumption. [1] When Sylvia moved to England with Ted Hughes in 1959, she left at her mother's house in Wellesley her schoolbooks, manuscripts, childhood diaries, scrapbooks, letters from former boyfriends and Ted, her artworks, and all the letters Sylvia had written to Aurelia up to then. The bonfire story asks us to believe that Sylvia packed up her mother's letters, ten years' worth (c. 1950-1959), hauled them across the Atlantic to store in the couple's small London apartment, then three years later at her country house, Court Green, burned them all at once. We don't know why, so biographers have guessed "to symbolize her liberation from maternal influence."

Sylvia moved overseas in part to get away from her mother. Aurelia might have mailed to Sylvia from Wellesley a box of mother-letters, or brought them when visiting, but that sounds unwieldy and costly. Whatever happened, the voidance of Aurelia's side of the mother-daughter correspondence is so near perfect as to suggest it was methodical, and only one person in the Plath story was that methodical and had the opportunity to wipe the whole shebang: Aurelia.

Ten letters from Aurelia to Sylvia are all that exist in Plath archives. [2] Those archives hold dozens of letters Aurelia wrote to everyone else in her life, letters both sent and unsent, originals and carbon copies. Sylvia moved house six times between 1955 and the end of 1959, and was not the "pack rat" her mother was, or as sentimental. The bonfire story asks us to believe Sylvia sentimentally maintained and carried with her to England an accumulation of her mother's letters. I don't believe it.

Even the burning of "all" Aurelia's letters at Court Green in July 1962 would leave six months of letters Aurelia mailed to Sylvia after that time. Let's say Sylvia did burn all her mother's letters in the yard at Court Green, not in July but before she moved to London the first week of December. Sylvia had yet to receive letters Aurelia sent in late December and in January 1963. Sylvia received those, because she wrote replies. But they are missing too.

Aurelia had the right to take from London or Court Green in 1963, or on subsequent visits to England, any of her own letters to Sylvia that she could find, and destroy them if she liked. But Aurelia kept thousands of other Sylvia-related papers, even scraps, now in Plath archives. Aurelia thought highly of her own writing skills and evidence indicates she planned to include some of her own letters to Sylvia in her edit of Letters Home (1975), to show a loving mother-daughter relationship. Either the Hugheses or her own editor shot that idea down.

But that would mean that Aurelia had kept at least some of her own letters well into the 1970s.

Sylvia's poem "Burning the Letters" is dated August 13, 1962, so Sylvia did burn letters, once, and the poem makes them sound like Ted's. But all accounts of "bonfires" (and Sylvia dancing around them like a witch, etc.) in that turbulent period are suspect. Aurelia told The Listener in 1976 that at Court Green in July 1962 she watched Sylvia burn in the yard an armful of papers and Sylvia's new ("second" and "happy") novel in manuscript titled The Hill of Leopards, dedicated to Ted. [3] No trace of that "happy" novel has ever been found. Aurelia in 1976 said it had hurt her to watch, but she had to hold the children. She did not say Sylvia burned her letters.

If Sylvia destroyed a thousand of Aurelia's letters, in front of her or not, Aurelia would likely have told someone about her hurt or anger, or what a tragic loss it was, over her next 30 years of intimate letter-writing and friendships. Richard Larschan said Aurelia told him she was sad they had been burned, but I think a large, perhaps selective, portion still exists and could tell us much.

Did no biographer or critic ask Aurelia while she lived, "Where are your letters to Sylvia?"

[1] Rough Magic (1991, p. 286) says "upwards of a thousand" and that Aurelia watched Sylvia burn them; it cites no sources, but the book's second edition (1999) says the author spent a lot of time with Aurelia. Aurelia wrote others that the biographer's presence over three days had annoyed her; she might have lied to him. Clarissa Roche said Sylvia told her she made a bonfire of Ted's papers a few days before Roche arrived for a visit in November 1962; but also that Sylvia told the story jokingly.

[2] The ten known surviving Aurelia-to-Sylvia mailings are cataloged on page 3 in Bridget Anna Lowe's essay "Burning Free" in Plath Profiles, 2012.

[3] Unpublished anecdote from a draft of Aurelia's Letters Home introduction, Sylvia Plath collection, "Aurelia Plath," Box 30, Folder 66a/b, Smith College, written c. 1975. The anecdote says Aurelia verified the event and date, July 10, 1962, by consulting her travel diary, but this too is suspect.

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Aurelia's Basement Tapes

Screen grab from Voices & Visions, 1988

Aurelia Plath in 1986 spoke on audiotape about Sylvia while rehearsing for an interview with Voices and Visions, a TV series about poets (PBS, 1988). PBS really wanted Aurelia on videotape, but first she said no, then maybe. Her friend since 1982 and U.Mass. professor of English, Dr. Richard Larschan, suggested they practice audiotaping some conversations about Sylvia’s life and poems. Aurelia was more forthcoming on tape than on paper, he says; and at age 80 she didn’t give a fig anymore for what the neighbors thought, and that’s a bonus for us. Here they discuss Sylvia’s first published poem from 1941, when Sylvia was 8 years old:


“Every Sunday she looked for the children’s page in the Boston Herald, which I had shown her in the newspaper. And she thought she’d send her [poem] in.”

“So, in other words, it was self-initiated?”

“It was self-initiated.”

“And this is at the age of…?”

“Oh, about 8.”

“That’s very interesting because she’s taking initiative and trying to get public recognition, it seems to me, at the age of 8.”


“Why else would you print something?”

[Several-second pause.] “She wanted the dollar.”


In 1983 Aurelia had announced she would no longer speak publicly about her daughter. Yet three years later Voices and Visions got Aurelia on video: a coup for its producers and for us an encounter with a primary source.


Short clips from the six hours of Larschan’s “practice,“amateur” audio and videotapes went into two half-hour educational videos about Sylvia’s poetry, produced in 2000 by U.Mass. and televised for remote college credit. One discusses Sylvia’s “mother poems,” the other her “father poems.” Writer and narrator Larschan assumes the viewer can accept that Plath’s father and mother poems have elements of myth. Thats how Plath transformed literal truth into emotional truth. In “The Myth of the Monstrous Mother” video, Aurelia throws both light and shade on poems such as “Medusa” (“The ‘stooges’ were Sylvia’s friends!”) and recites ecstatically from “Three Women.”


The two Larschan videos were on VHS only, and rare. They are now viewable through this site, the posting of June 7, 2022.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Above All, Does It Pay? The Plaths' Financial World

Otto Plath died in 1940. Aurelia Plath said he left his family a $5,000 life-insurance policy. In 2021, the equivalent of that payout would be $93,000.


The cost of a typical funeral in the US in 1940 was about $800; $650 of that was for the casket. Burial is a separate expense; Aurelia paid $375 for Otto's burial, about $7,000 today. A typical funeral/burial package in 2021 costs $12,000.


Fee for leg-amputation surgery in 1940 is unknown; in 2021, it’s $20,000 to $60,000. A prosthesis is a separate expense.


Aurelia Plath’s Money:


Aurelia did substitute teaching at $25/week in 1941, equivalent to $420/week in 2021. At that rate a 40-week school year would pay Aurelia our equivalent of $16,880/year. The average US public-school teacher in 1940, working 40 weeks, made $1,435/year, or about $36/week.


Aurelia in 1942 became a full-time instructor at Boston University at $1,800/year, the equivalent of $30,250/year today. (Letters Home, 29) This put their household of five below today’s poverty level ($31,000). Aurelia taught summer school and tutored to earn more, and there were Grampy’s earnings, amount unknown.


A survey of 158 US colleges and universities for 1947-48, the year Aurelia was promoted to assistant professor, showed the median salary of assistant professors to be $3,000/year. In 2021 dollars that’s a bit over $36,000.


Aurelia in 1953 wrote Olive Higgins Prouty she earned $3,900/year. The 2021 equivalent is $38,000.


Associate Professors in 1968-69, shortly before Aurelia retired with that title, made a national median salary of $12,151/year; $93,300 in 2021 dollars. But counting only faculty salaries in non-public colleges such as Boston University, the median salary sank to $7,662, or, in 2021 terms, $59,000/year. As a female, Aurelia would likely have been paid about 70 percent of whatever her male colleagues made.


A publisher’s $5,000 advance payment in 1975, such as Aurelia got for Letters Home, would equal $25,000 today.


Sylvia Plath’s Money


In 1947 if Sylvia earned $25, that would be like $302 today.


The $850 Olive Higgins Prouty scholarship given Sylvia in 1950 would equal $9,400 today. (SP to ASP, 31 October 1950)


A “classic pair of silver closed pumps” priced at $12.95 in 1953 would cost $126 today. (SP to ASP, 3 March 1953)


In a May 21, 1955, letter to her mother, Sylvia summed up her past year’s earnings from writing: $470, which would look like $4,585 in 2021.


Smith College paid Sylvia $4,200 to teach Freshman English for nine months. The equivalent today would be $39,640 (SP to ASP, 12 March 1957). The median pay for instructors in 1957 was $4,562, equivalent today to $40,300. Women’s colleges were known for paying lower salaries all across the board.


Sylvia and her friend Anne Sexton’s 70-cent cafeteria meal would be $7 in 2021.


What was, in 1959, a $15 eagle tattoo would cost $135 today.


In 1960, the US median monthly apartment rental was $71; in Massachusetts, $74. Source.


Sylvia’s $100 bonus for signing a New Yorker contract would equal $874 today. (SP to ASP, 1 March 1961)


1000 British pounds in 1962 would today equal $22,500 US. (SP to ASP, 9 October 1962)


The $700 check Sylvia received from her Aunt Dot was the equivalent of $6,000 in 2021 money. (SP to ASP, 29 November 1962)


The book Lord Byron’s Wife, in 1962 priced at $6.50, would be priced at $56 today. (SP to ASP, 29 November 1962)


The equivalencies were calculated with the DollarTimes.com Inflation Calculator. Median salaries for college and university faculty are from the US Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbooks for 1949, 1951, 1959, 1970-71, accessed through “Prices and Wages by Decade,” https://libraryguides.missouri.edu/pricesandwages. Federal poverty guideline information here. There were no US federal poverty guidelines until 1963.

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Otto Plath Was Disowned Because . . .

A personal insight: Aurelia Plath's Letters Home introduction tells us that Otto Plath's Lutheran grandparents financed his college education on the condition that he become a minister. When Otto told them he could not as a matter of conscience continue at the seminary, his grandparents disowned him and struck his name from the family bible.

That seems exceptionally harsh, but I'm from Wisconsin, in the general area of Milwaukee, 50 miles from Watertown, where Otto lived and attended Northwestern College. Wisconsin was and still is full of Lutherans of German descent, and the Wisconsin Synod is so extremely strict that it will not cooperate with other Lutheran synods on matters of doctrine.

A folk belief among these Lutherans was that if a boy became a minister, God granted his parents automatic tickets to heaven. The first time I met the Lutheran parents of a boy I was dating in the 1970s, they told me this. My date's younger brother was attending Northwestern College, preparing for the ministry; the parents spoke of him with pride. My date was majoring in pre-medical studies and his parents were soooo disappointed that he was not studying to become a minister, and told him so repeatedly. In his junior year of college they were still pestering him to become a minister. They threatened not to strike his name from the family bible but to cut off funds.

Friday, November 12, 2021

Errors of Fact in Aurelia's "Letters Home" Introduction

-Aurelia Frances Schober (later Plath) was born and lived her "early childhood" not in Winthrop, Massachusetts, but the working-class neighborhood of Boston called Jamaica Plain. Irish families were settled in Jamaica Plan when Aurelia was born in 1906; Italians began congregating there in 1910. Her family did not move to seaside Winthrop until 1918, when Aurelia would have been 11 or 12, well past early childhood. 

-It was at the close of Aurelia Schober's sophomore year, 1926, when a German-speaking, highly cultured guest professor at MIT hired her as his secretary. Letters Home says this happened "at the close of my junior year (1927)," but his diaries first mention "Miss A. Schober" in August 1926. He was 43, she 20. Aurelia gives broad hints but does not actually name Dr. Karl Terzaghi, or admit that the pair fell in love and dated for two years. Aurelia knew well, from her own notes, that they met in 1926. But placing their first meeting in 1927 makes Aurelia 21 years old instead of 20, shielding Karl, 50 years after the fact, from any jeers about cradle-robbing, and perhaps shielding herself from any side-eye about her naivete

-Otto Plath was born in April 1885 in the "country town of Grabow" in Prussia, but was still an infant when his parents moved 150 miles northwest to Budzyn, where Otto actually "grew up." Otto's five younger siblings were all born in Budzyn, beginning with Paul in December 1886. When Otto arrived in the U.S. he listed his last residence as Budzyn. (8)

-Otto Plath was 15 years old, not 16, when he arrived in the United States on September 9, 1900, according to the ship's manifest. 

-"[w]hen his father, years after his son's arrival here, came to the United States": Correctly, Otto's father Theodor Plath arrived in the U.S. less than a year after Otto did, in March 1901.

-Otto "spoke English without a trace of foreign accent" - those who had met him, interviewed in the 1970s by Harriet Rosenstein, said Otto spoke English with a German accent. (9)

-Frieda Plath Heinrichs, Otto's youngest sister, did not die in 1966 but in 1970. She and her husband's Walter's names appear together in California voter registration rolls until 1968, when Frieda's becomes the only name listed. Walter died May 26, 1967.

-A cost accountant figures out how much money a firm is really spending to put out its product. Aurelia's father Francis Schober was never a "cost accountant" for Boston's Dorothy Muriel bakery company. Rather, in the 1930s the former hotel headwaiter and maitre d' was listed as "manager" of dining rooms; in 1938 it's specifically a Dorothy Muriel bakery-tearoom on Tremont Street, one of a chain of about 50 local Dorothy Muriels. The Boston city directories for the 1940s list a Herman F. Schober, who was a relative, employed as a "cost accountant" for Measurement Engineering and the American Meter Company. Herman F. Schober was born in Boston in 1893, and between 1926 and 1940 the city directory gave his occupation as "foreman." 

Maybe Francis Schober counted the day's proceeds at his own Dorothy Muriel location, but he was never a "cost accountant" for Dorothy Muriel, which had its factory and offices in Allston. (28)

Take Note

-Aurelia Plath is careful to say her two siblings grew up in a matriarchy, but that she as the eldest was the only one of Schobers' children brought up in the European (patriarchal authoritarian) style. The Introduction says: "[m]y father made the important decisions during my childhood and early girlhood" (3) and Aurelia says that it did not occur to her, in her late teens, to argue when her father decreed she would attend either secretarial college or no college.

The Letters Home edition referred to is a hardbacked first edition, 1975.

Thursday, September 2, 2021

Things Aurelia Plath Did Not Say to Sylvia:

Buy your own damned bras.


You picked him!


I will marry again if I feel like it.


Say hello to your new father!


Sorry to hear that good nannies are hard to find.


I’ve been too busy to answer your letters.


Can you bail me out?


I need my own bedroom.


I’ll knock some sense into you.


Don’t come crying to me about it.


It’s my turn to buy new clothes.


After forty-five rejections I think it’s time you find something else to do.


Try applying yourself to that chemistry class.


Bills came due and yours was the only account with money in it.


Fix me a double martini.


Too bad you feel depressed, but that’s life.


I’m so tired of your drama.


It’s your birthday?


I threw out all the clutter you left here.

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Was Sylvia Plath a Witch?

A solid quartz or lead-crystal ball 7 inches across weighs about 22 pounds.

Was Sylvia Plath a witch? References in Sylvia Plaths creative work to the supernatural, weird, and mythic are in fact typical of her time and place, the era of plays and Hollywood movies called I Married a Witch, The Bad Seed, and Bell, Book, and Candle. [1] Plaths references to the unseen do not mean or prove Plath was a witch. That idea first emerges in the USA and UK around 1970 when faddish interest in the occult, and cute media portrayals, made witches trim and beautiful, feminist and cool. [2] Popular fiction and film have since kept their modern witches young and appealing. Everyone who feels stronger owning an Isis poster or consulting Tarot cards, or takes pride in their zodiac sign, as Plath did -- is a witch an occultist.

For those pursuing the Was Plath a witch/mystic/psychic? question, precise definitions of what she was are crucial.

An occultist seeks power or advantage through rituals or tools such as Tarot cards, crystals, chanting, Ouija, or horoscopes; the use of such tools for those ends is called magic(k). A person can do occult work with and for other people. Most major religions prohibit occultism. An occultist is not automatically a witch.

A mystic (from a Greek root meaning with eyes or lips closed) looks inward, is receptive, seeks personal spiritual union with a higher power, and wants less from the material world rather than more. [3] Therefore Tarot cards, crystal balls, charms, prayers, and so on used to cull deliverables, such as predictions or good health, are not in fact “mystical.” One cannot do mystical work for other people. Major religions revere their mystics, and they are few. Being an occultist or being spiritual or intuitive does not make someone a mystic.

Mysterious,” “mystical,” and “magical,” are not synonyms. An example to show that word choices matter: Which slogan would the Disney Corp. likely choose?

-Disney World is mysterious.

-Disney World is mystical.

-Disney World is magical.

A psychic (noun) has clairvoyant, healing, mind-reading or prophetic ability. Such ability, on call and consistent enough to make a reputation and money, is extremely rare. It is rarer yet to possess more than one such ability. Psychic (as an adjective) seers supported by cards, crystal balls, pendulums, drugs, fire, and so forth are occultists, not psychics. Mostpsychics are, alas, performers. Intuition is not psychic. Intuition originates in the body.

Ones psyche is defined as the totality of ones mind or spirit or soul; the being, without the body. That we all have a psyche is a useful philosophical concept, but not a fact. Unfortunately the adjectival form of psyche is psychic, which makes people think of crystal balls and mind-reading. Plaths post-breakdown psychic regeneration is not related to occultism.

A witch is a person of any gender who self-identifies as a witch. Plath never called herself a witch. No one is a witch just because someone says or thinks so. Things we call “witchy,” such as dancing around a bonfire, or using Tarot cards or bibliomancy to reveal desired information (“divination”), do not make Plath a witch. They make her an occultist, like her idol, poet William Butler Yeats.

All the above labels have been muddled, misused, corrupted, sensationalized, and contradicted, because people read Harry Potter and watch Disney and The Craft and anime and Buffy, playful fictions drawn from misinformation. Sylvia Plath herself was misinformed about the differences between psychic and occult and intuitive. She wrote in a 1956 letter to her mother Aurelia Plath:

[a]ll my horoscope points to my psychic, occult powers, & certainly if I give them play, I should at least, with my growing womans intuition be able to join Ted in becoming a practising astrologist. [4]

Plath soon found out that casting horoscopes is not intuitive or psychic but instead required her to do math, so Ted Hughes remained their house astrologer while Plath elected to use Tarot cards. Friends say Sylvia used Tarot ever more obsessively as her life came to a close. Using Tarot cards or playing Ouija (a Victorian parlor game, trademarked in 1902), still do not make Plath a witch, a psychic, or a mystic. They make her an occultist. Collecting and burning Hughess stray hairs and nail clippings for spite is something Plath read in The Golden Bough. [5]

Sylvia Plath only dabbled in the occult. Ted Hughes, through his mother, had lifelong occult interests, but no one asks Was Ted Hughes a witch? That suggests that Plaths gender has encouraged this line of Plath-as-witch inquiry. Even asking the question is frivolous, because whatever the answer, it does not matter. Nor (as Hughes would have it) was his wife bedeviled by “psychic gifts,” seemingly never used except to catch him cheating.

Plaths writings show a character hyper-rational, practical, keen-eyed, and worldly. The “Mystic” of her eponymous poem after one big moment falls to Earth with a thud. The speaker of Witch Burning is a dartboard for witches” and never admits to being one. It was poet Anne Sexton who in a poem (Her Kind) called herself a witch. Maybe Plath was a witch persists because people still suspect, as in the witch-burning days, that black magic is how high-achieving women get their edge.

Plath above all was a dedicated and hard-working writer. Writers experience inspirations and breakthroughs to higher  levels – not of spirit, but of confidence, nerve, and skill. Such breakthroughs are part of a working writer’s experience: remarkable, but not mystical or magical at all. Sylvias hard work on the Ariel poems is documented in the many drafts of them archived at Smith College.

Eternity bores me, 

I never wanted it.

[1] Plath saw the play Bell, Book, and Candle and wrote her mother about it on 21 January 1953. Her letter of 13 December 1954 says she had just seen the play The Bad Seed in New York.

[2] Examples: U.S. TV sitcom Bewitched (1964-72), openly based on a 1942 Paramount comedy starring beautiful Veronica Lake as a witch; U.S. TV program, animated, Sabrina the Teenage Witch (1970-74). Sabrina stars in her own comic-book series starting in 1971. Read here about the U.K. witchploitation TV and media fad of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

[3] https://www.encyclopedia.com/philosophy-and-religion/other-religious-beliefs-and-general-terms/religion-general/mystic 

[4] Sylvia Plath to Aurelia Plath, October 28, 1956. Astrologist and astrologer are synonyms; the former is rarely used. 

[5] Plath's copy of this book is held by Smith College. https://libguides.smith.edu/c.php?g=1227026&p=8978322

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

New: AureliaPlath.info, and an Aurelia Video

Facts about Aurelia Plath need to be "out there" and more available to the public, so I have made two positive changes! This blog can now be accessed using the simpler name Aureliaplath.info. Easier to remember. Then, using some of my research and getting professional guidance, I made a video about Aurelia and Sylvia, 4 minutes 44 seconds, now posted on YouTube. No, I don't appear in it.

I'd like to make more videos about the wealth and vitality of Sylvia Plath studies and the community of Plath scholars and fans.

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Aurelia and Her Man Friend at Camp Maqua

Camp Maqua in season welcomed girls and women age 16 to 35 to its rustic lakeside cabins in Poland, Maine. The above brochure said $15.50 per week included a bunk and meals plus camp activities: swimming, boating, guest lectures, fireside storytelling and singing. In 1927, college student Aurelia Schober left her home in Boston for a summer office job at Camp Maqua. She was 21. She returned to Maqua in summer 1928. One of those summers was heavenly and the other was hellish, and not because of the weather.


On Sunday, July 24, 1927, Aurelia welcomed to the camp a very special visitor: her boyfriend, an Austrian engineer guest-teaching at MIT. Dr. Karl Terzaghi in 1926 had needed a German-speaking secretary, and college sophomore Aurelia Schober, 19, daughter of two Austrians, got the job. When they met, Karl was 43, divorced, and dashing. In a few months he and Aurelia were dating. It was not a fling or a dirty-old-man thing. He admired her intelligence and sensitivity. Aurelia brought Karl home to meet her parents. Karl took her to her junior prom. They both loved the great outdoors. In July, Karl was delighted to leave stuffy Boston and spend a week at Camp Maqua near his girl.


In the camp’s guest quarters, Karl wrote in his diary, “Felt today five years younger. Strain gradually disappearing, the wrinkled skin gets smooth under the gentle touch of L.’s caressing hand.” Karl called Aurelia “Lilly,” a nickname German speakers use for a dream girl. Karl’s diaries, now in archives, describe the pair’s two-year relationship and refer to Aurelia first as “Miss Schober,” then “A.,” and then “L.” All that idyllic week, after Aurelia finished her workday, the pair spent late afternoons and evenings rowing for miles, swimming in springs and coves, hiking at sunset, dining at farmhouses. Of course they shared quiet moments. Curfew was midnight.


A geologist by training, Karl observed nature with an artist’s eye:


. . . One more hour at the lake shore. Separated from the world. No sound but the voices of sleepy birds and now and then the breeze gently passing through the foliage. Fragrant smell of the woods, and the passionate kisses of the girl, curled up on the blanket and pressing her body against mine, trembling with overflowing tenderness. Rowing home at midnight, 6 miles to the camp. No moon. The sky fairly clear, the stars shining through transparent mist. To the left an unbroken wall of dark forest, the smell of the woods saturating the atmosphere. To the north the silvery lake stretching as far as the eye can see, smooth like a mirror, bordered by a pale blue rim of low hills, covered by forest, with horizontal crests. Vast distances, pale colors, horizontal lines, here and there a little light shining at the lake shore as a link between now and the endless past and the future . . . . [1]


On July 30 Karl boarded the train to Boston and “the memory of a week in fairyland went with me.” “What shall I do with my love for this child?” he asked his diary. Karl Terzaghi (1883-1963) was famously plainspoken, but never wrote a critical or salacious word about Aurelia except to say he scolded her: “You will never make a man friend unless you get rid of your self-sufficiency!” [2]


The following summer Aurelia pined for Karl while again working at Camp Maqua. Karl was with clients in Central and South America. She worried he no longer needed her. The couple met again in autumn, only to break up. Aurelia was inconsolable. Karl moved on. His colleagues had become her friends and she probably heard he was dating a Radcliffe graduate student.


In summer 1929 Aurelia waited tables at a New Hampshire vacation hotel, saving up to go to graduate school herself. In summer 1930 she worked for camps in Pine Bush, New York, possibly at the YWCA’s Echo Lodge. [3] The Great Depression closed Maine’s Camp Maqua. [4] It was sold and became a boys’ camp in 1936.

[1] Terzaghi Diary 27.1, pp. 57-72.

[2] Ibid., p. 37.

[3] Letters Home, p. 8.

[4] Another YWCA Camp Maqua operated in Michigan until the 1970s.

The pier at Camp Maqua, Maine, 1924

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Move Over, Daddy: Professor Aurelia Plath's University Teaching Career

“Sylvia Plath’s father was an entomologist and professor of biology at Boston University. Her mother was a shorthand teacher” is how biographies commonly explain it when Aurelia Plath’s job is mentioned at all, although she taught for 29 years at the same university. History.com says that after Otto Plath’s death in 1940, “Sylvia’s mother went to work as a teacher.” End of story. Less vague, from poetryfoundation.org: “Aurelia Plath taught advanced secretarial studies at Boston University.”


At Boston University, Aurelia was Professor Plath. Sylvia Plath called her that in one letter, but only one. [1] Aurelia Plath’s New York Times obituary calls Aurelia an “associate professor.” Yet no Plath biography or archival materials, including Aurelia’s own writings, answered the question: Professor of what?


Seeking information about Aurelia’s work life -- territory entirely unexplored -- I knew only that B.U. hired her in 1942 to establish a medical-secretarial program and teach it. Her employer, Boston University’s College of Practical Arts and Letters, closed in 1955, and B.U.’s College of Business absorbed it. Sounds disastrous, but in fact Aurelia got promoted. Sylvia wrote Ruth Beuscher in 1962 that her mother had lost her job. [2] Is that true? And besides Gregg shorthand, what did Aurelia teach? Can we have any sense at all of how Sylvia Plath’s mother spent most of her days?


I found out, thanks to Boston University archivist Jane Parr, who scoured and photocopied B.U. General Catalogue annuals. Meet the other Professor Plath:


1942: Instructor in Secretarial Studies

1947: Assistant Professor of Secretarial Studies

1957: Associate Professor of Secretarial Studies, College of Business Administration

1971: Associate Professor of Secretarial Studies, Emerita


But really, now: How demanding could secretarial studies be? It’s not as if it was a real discipline like Otto’s, or taught anything serious, right? Here’s a sample of what Aurelia taught, from the 1967-68 Boston University General Catalogue’s course listings, with my commentary:


SE 203, 204. MEDICAL SECRETARIAL PROCEDURES. Prerequisite: SE 102, 104, 131, 134.  


-Prerequisite SE 102 was Shorthand II; SE 104, Typewriting II. From the B.U. School of Medicine, Professor Plath brought Drs. Alice Marston and Matthew Derow to teach SE 131 and 134:


SE 131. Human Biology for Medical Secretaries. Background in anatomy and physiology for the secretary in the physician’s office. Lectures and demonstrations using skeletons, dissections, histological slides, films, and other practical material.


SE 134. Bacteriology for Medical Secretaries. Survey of the principles of bacteriology. Application to the fields of food, nutrition, and medical diagnosis.


-After acing those courses, you may enroll in Professor Plath’s 12-credit two-semester course:


SE 203-204. MEDICAL SECRETARIAL PROCEDURES. Development of secretarial skills, with emphasis on accuracy and speed in transcribing from shorthand and from recording machines. Use of office machines, including the IBM Executive typewriter. Medical terminology and transcription of medical case histories and correspondence. Practical problems in office and records management, including filing systems.


-The medical-secretarial student then faced SE 232, which Professor Plath might have coordinated, but others must have taught:


MEDICAL SECRETARIAL LABORATORY. Lectures and demonstrations in hematology, clinical pathology, tissue pathology, and clinical chemistry. Lectures and library research in areas related to the present-day practice of medicine. Field trips.


-I cannot prove, but I will bet, that Professor Plath taught also the course SE 419, limited to senior students in the Business Education division:


SHORTHAND METHODS LABORATORY. Perfection through practice of the basic techniques of teaching shorthand, such as blackboard shorthand writing, introduction of principles and brief forms, and dictation.


-Aurelia’s boss at that time was Donald G. Stather, Professor of Secretarial Studies and Business Education; B.S. in Ed., State College at Salem; Ed.M., Ed.D., Boston University. He supervised an all-female faculty of five.


Then, in the 1969-70 General Catalogue, the College of Business Administration announced:


The programs in Secretarial Studies have been discontinued with the last entering class in September 1968. Students presently enrolled in the program should consult the Division of Secretarial Studies for curriculum requirements.


The end was near for what must have been among the most rigorous of medical secretarial programs. In 1970, Professor Plath was age 64, one year away from mandatory retirement. B.U.’s pension plan for profs was 20 percent of their salary. [3] Lacking the money to retire, Professor Plath hoped for five more years of teaching work at Cape Cod Community College, where she taught secretarial studies from the autumn of 1970 until 1973. Then Professor Plath asked for and was granted time off to edit Letters Home.


[1] SP to ASP, November 22, 1962, refers to Aurelia as “Professor A.S. Plath.”

[2] SP to Ruth Beuscher, September 22 and 29, 1962.

[3] ASP to Hilda Farrar, April 20, 1970.

A favorite piece of Aureliana: B.U. President John Silber’s letter promoting Aurelia into joblessness, with Aurelia's correction of his Latin.