Monday, January 25, 2021

Why Was Sylvia Plath Shut Out From Harvard Summer School?

Sylvia Plath’s summer 1953 breakdown and suicide attempt are said to have hinged on being denied admission to author Frank O’Connor’s short-story-writing course at Harvard Summer School. The course catalog said enrollment was limited, but how was it that Plath, a well-published writer at age 20, was not admitted?


Irish-born writer O’Connor (1903-1966) in 1953 was internationally famous, a literary star. Enrollment in his course that summer was not restricted to undergraduates or Boston-area locals. Anyone could apply. The catalog entry stated only a preference for those with some experience in creative or critical writing.


Plath recorded her very reasonable doubts about competing for admission with “professional writers and grown-ups” from across the nation (CL1, 636). Plath saw the summer-school course catalog in March (CL1, 586), but applied only after Harvard offered her a $75 scholarship, news that arrived at her home in Wellesley around June 3. Plath was in New York for the month. Her mother Aurelia Plath, opening Sylvia’s mail, relayed this information, and also that O’Connor’s course required applicants to send in a writing sample. Plath asked her mother to retype her story “Sunday at the Mintons’” and mail it to her in New York. From there Plath mailed her sample between June 8 and 13 (CL1, 636).


Andrew Wilson’s 2013 biography Mad Girl’s Love Song hazards that because Wilson did not find Harvard’s rejection letter among the hundreds of other letters in Plath archives, Mrs. Aurelia Plath “perhaps” intercepted and destroyed what was in fact an acceptance letter so as to keep Plath at home serving family members that summer (pp. 209-212). If so, it was the only time Mrs. Plath shot down her writer daughter’s rising star to get her own way. Biographer Carl Rollyson gave no source for a claim that O’Connor deemed Plath “too advanced for his class” (American Isis, 64). Heather Clark’s Red Comet notes that source is an unpublished Plath biography archived at College Park, Maryland. 


All of that is wrong.


It is unlikely that Mrs. Plath, an educator, plotted to deny her daughter instruction from the moment’s most celebrated short-story writer at the nation’s most prestigious university, where Sylvia might write stories to sell for badly needed money. Wilson guesses that Sylvia was fooled but then discovered, too late, her mothers treachery, triggering that summer's matricidal and suicidal urges. The “Sylvia was too advanced” theory flatters Plath. A 2010 essay by Peter K. Steinberg reasoned:


Plath had, after all, published five stories and four poems in Seventeen and Mademoiselle before June 1953. In addition, she had three poems and three journalism pieces in The Christian Science Monitor, and more than two dozen articles published anonymously as a Press Board correspondent in the Daily Hampshire Gazette and Springfield Daily News. While she had no published criticism, it would be surprising if other candidates for O’Connor’s class had such a résumé. (1)


This ingenue’s résumé might not have impressed O’Connor, an Irish Republican Army veteran, former political prisoner, W.B. Yeats playwriting protege at Dublins Abbey Theater, biographer, poet, translator, critic, memoirist, and fiction writer. Knopf published his collected stories in 1952. An O’Connor biography, quoting OConnor's assistant, said Plath’s writing sample made OConnor think her “demented” and when Plaths suicide attempt made local and national news that summer OConnor said it proved he had been right (2). Mrs. Plath wrote in Letters Home (LH, 123) and elsewhere that Sylvia’s application, sent in mid-June, was a late one for a course that began on July 6 and had already filled.


In Plath’s novel The Bell Jar, a careworn Esther Greenwood, just back from New York, sourly accepts this bad news. Esther soon receives and opens for herself a follow-up letter:


Propped on the table I found a long, businesslike letter from the summer school and a thin blue letter on leftover Yale stationery, addressed to me in Buddy Willard’s lucid hand.


I slit open the summer school letter with a knife.


Since I wasn’t accepted for the writing course, it said, I could choose some other course instead, but I should call in to the Admissions Office that same morning, or it would be too late to register, the courses were almost full. (Bell Jar, 97)


If this second letter is as much fact as fiction, and OConnors assistant told the biographer the truth, Harvard and not Aurelia Plath denied Sylvia admission to the writing course, the only course she cared to take that year. Sylvia Plath’s Journals (pp. 185-187, pp. 546-549) show her weighing and dismissing summer-school alternatives and choosing, for financial and not familial reasons, to stay home in Wellesley and write on her own.


Maybe O’Connor’s choice not to admit Plath to his writing course was unfair. Maybe, as Steinberg suggests, “Plath’s creative self . . .was still forming,” meaning Plath was adolescent and so was her work. At age 20 no writer, even Plath, is too advanced to learn from a successful writer with 30 years’ experience and an international reputation. “You are too advanced” is to this day a common rebuff to an applicant maybe naïve enough to believe it. “The course has filled” also softens a “No.” For whatever reason, “no” was a disappointment, the greater because Plath had planned her entire summer around O’Connor’s course.


Showing professionalism rare in disappointed young writers, Plath never groused in writing that O’Connor had misjudged her tremendous value or that her qualifications had entitled her to admission--or that it was Mother’s fault she didn’t get in. Plath wrote in her journal that the course “was closed to me” (J 543), and to correspondent Eddie Cohen that she had felt “miffed” (CL1, 655) rather than devastated or furious. In a few years she would pore over OConnors stories, seeking the secrets of success.


(1) Peter K. Steinberg, “They Had to Call and Call: The Search for Sylvia Plath,” Plath Profiles 2010, p. 108.


(2) My blog post of November 1, 2022 documents in detail the source of this remark, mentioned in passing in Deirdre Blairs “Enmity, Torment, Adversity,” review of Voices: A Life of Frank O’Connor, The New York Times, Section 7, page 11, May 22, 1983.

Monday, January 18, 2021

Rosalind Constable is Why You Are Reading This: Time Magazine's "Ariel" Review

Screen grab from Constable's Warhol screen test, 1964


Perhaps you’ve read it:


On a dank day in February 1963, a pretty young mother of two children was found in a London flat with her head in the oven and the gas jets wide open. The dead woman was Sylvia Plath, 30, an American poet whose marriage to Ted Hughes, a British poet, had gone on the rocks not long before. . . .


But within a week of her death, intellectual London was hunched over copies of a strange and terrible poem she had written during her last sick slide toward suicide. Daddy was its title; its subject was her morbid love-hatred of her father; its style was as brutal as a truncheon. What is more, Daddy was merely the first jet of flame from a literary dragon who in the last months of her life breathed a burning river of bale across the literary landscape. . . . 


So begins the review of Sylvia Plath’s Ariel in Time magazine (June 10, 1966; on newsstands June 6). From this unsigned work, the first Ariel review for America’s general public, Plathdom as we know it unfolded. The national newsweekly’s paid circulation was then 3.3 million, newsstand sales 4 million, its worldwide readership 17 million, the 1966 equivalent of going viral; The New York Times and its Book Review had not one-tenth its reach. Time reprinted alongside of the Ariel review the poem “Daddy” in full, and family photos lent by Aurelia Plath.


The author was British-born Rosalind Constable (1907-1995), Times arts-and-culture correspondent from 1948 to 1967. A talented trendspotter, her reports on the avant-garde helped nudge the edgiest art and artists toward the middle. She wrote for Fortune, The New Yorker, Vogue, Life (Times sister publication), Esquire, New York, and Saturday Review. She was friends with Andy Warhol and championed Pop artists. From 1940 she scouted out new artists for gallery owner Betty Parsons, who launched the Abstract Expressionists, and Constable in the 1950s was rebel novelist Patricia Highsmith’s crush.


Time’s juicy Ariel review set a trend. Three generations of Plath criticism, highbrow and low, aped this review's narrative architecture, almost helplessly leading with Plath’s suicide followed by a capsule biography. Then, if only to slight it, critics referenced “Daddy, a poem that in 2021 is just past being interpreted literally. In 1966 this review established Daddy” as  Plaths flagship poem and Plaths father as the core Plath preoccupation -- until the year 2020 when Heather Clarks Plath biography Red Comet suggested that regarding Otto Plath “myth has overshadowed truth.” This review made Plaths head in the oven her lifes most basic fact.


Constable used advantageously her British sources, reporting that in Britain Ariel, published in March 1965, had sold 15,000 copies in ten months. The Time review also recycled from Britain into the international mainstream crippling buzzwords from a year’s worth of snooty British Ariel reviews: “sick,” “morbid,” “psychotic,” “confessional.” Constable had read The Bell Jar, not available in the U.S.; this enhanced the review's authority and snark. She found and interviewed a witness to Plath’s pathetic final weekend. In March 1966 she interviewed Aurelia Plath in Wellesley.


Aurelia had thought Constable’s phone voice “pleasant,” but in person Constable took no notes and asked questions so invasive that Aurelia would not answer. (1) The review is unsigned, and Constable, although she had an office at Time-Life, is not on Times masthead, but Aurelia named Constable in a letter and later wrote that only she could have told Constable that three-year-old Sylvia, sighting a bumblebee, would say “Bombus bimaculatus,” a statement the review styled as that of an attention-seeking Daddys girl.


Time magazine today is of interest only because of its past and because its cover photo makes its subject a celebrity. Plath quoted from Time in a letter dated 11 September 1950. The Bell Jar, set in 1953, described withered copies of Time and Life lying on a coffee table. Let another poet attest to the power and ubiquity of Time (founded in 1923) during its midcentury heyday. In 1956 Allen Ginsberg wrote, addressing America:  


Are you going to let your emotional life be run by Time Magazine?   

I’m obsessed by Time Magazine.

I read it every week.

Its cover stares at me every time I slink past the corner candystore. 


Even Time’s covers, with their familiar red borders, made news. The April 8, 1966 cover stunned and riled the readership, baldly asking “Is God Dead?” Time once forged and ruined reputations. In one bruising review that sounds a bit envious, it made Sylvia Plath a household name. (2)


1. Aurelia Schober Plath to Olwyn Hughes, March 7, 1966: “The day after your letter arrived, I had a long-distance call from New York and heard Mrs. Rosalind Constable’s pleasant voice for the first time. She is coming to Wellesley this next weekend.” ASP to Ted Hughes, March 29, 1966: Mrs. Rosalyn [sic] Constable, the reporter and writer of the article on Sylvia for LIFE INTERNATIONAL was here over a week ago . . .  She took no notes to speak of . . . ASP to Ted Hughes, July 6, 1966: Only two words from my tapes occur [in the review] and identify the author: Bombus bimaculatus -- and then they are used in such a way as to be utterly ridiculous. ASP to Miriam Baggett, July 7, 1966: “Last March, when confronted by a reporter (an English woman), I refused to accept her invitation to develop a very disparaging remark .  . . She did not need to sign this brutal, malicious article in TIME; her fingerprint is there unmistakably . . . her revenge.” [ellipsis in original]. 

Read the original review, “The Blood Jet is Poetry,” Time, June 10, 1966, 118-120.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Otto Plath's Family Matrix

Ship's manifest listing immigrants Ernestine Plath and five of her six children, 1901

Here's rare information about Sylvia Plath's extended family on her father Otto's side. Otto Plath was the eldest of six children born to Ernestine and Theodor Plath, residents in the zone of  Prussia called Posen, ethnic Polish territory ruled by the German Empire from 1871 to 1919, when it became part of Poland. Otto had five siblings. From immigration papers, the U.S. Census, city directories, draft cards and other official documents we can learn about their lives. Of all her aunts and uncles, Sylvia met only her Aunt Frieda, briefly, on a 1959 trip to California. Here is the family:


Otto Emil Plath: April 13, 1885-Nov. 5, 1940. Ships' manifests show 15-year-old apprentice shoemaker/bootmaker Otto Plath, traveling in steerage, arriving in the U.S. on September 9, 1900, ahead of his father Theodor, a blacksmith who arrived in March 1901. In December 1901, through Canada, came Otto's mother Ernestine with Otto's five younger siblings, ages 3 to 13. They lived on an uncle's North Dakota homestead while Otto lived with Wisconsin relatives. In the 1905 Wisconsin state census, Otto is a boarder in Watertown, WI. Otto marries for the first time in Washington State in 1912. In 1920's federal census, Otto is a boarder in Berkeley, CA. In 1930, Otto, a boarder in Boston, for some reason shaved five years off his age. Otto Plath married Aurelia Schober in Carson City, Nevada, on January 4, 1932. Sylvia was born October 27, 1932. Otto died November 5, 1940, age 55, on the 22nd anniversary of his father Theodor's death.


Paul Plath: Dec. 20, 1886-Sept. 24, 1933. Paul in the 1910 census is named Paul "Platt" and is farming in Oregon with his father Theodor Platt (who'd entered the U.S. as "Plath"). Paul's brother Max "Platt" is a "hired man" for their neighbors. Wife and mother Ernestine is not listed in their household in 1910, and neither are the two Plath daughters, Martha and Frieda. Paul "Plath" in 1920 is a laborer in Washington State, and in 1930 a laborer boarding in Portland, Oregon. Paul could not have been born in December 1888 as papers sometimes claim, because his brother Max was born in February 1889. Paul in 1933 married his widowed landlady, Christina, a Russian 10 years his senior. Paul died later that same year, 1933, of pneumonia.


Max Theodor Plath: Feb. 15, 1889-Dec. 21, 1953. Max Plath took after his father and was a homesteader and mechanic, then became an inspector at a lumber mill. He moved frequently, living in 1910 with his father in Harney, Oregon, then shared a house with his mother until she was hospitalized in 1916. In 1920 Max lived in Saddle Butte, Oregon; in 1926 in Portland, in the early 1930s in Salem, in 1936 in Eugene, in 1946 in Cottage Grove. Max married Bertie in 1917, then Harriet in Stevenson, Washington, in 1935. The 1930 U.S. census said Max had two children, born in 1928 and 1930.


Hugo Fredericks Plath: Dec. 6, 1890-Aug. 17, 1974. Hugo kept the surname "Platt." Around 1911 he visited Canada, it seems on business. His draft card, signed in June 1917, says he both lived and worked at Standard Auto Supply in San Francisco. On that card Hugo asks exemption from the draft, saying his mother and father are his dependents. Hugo enlisted anyway on July 29, 1918, and served until December 23, 1918. The longest-lived of the siblings -- 83 years -- Hugo dwelt mostly in and around Los Angeles, at one point giving his occupation as "carpenter."


Martha Bertha Plath Johnson: Feb. 21, 1893-April 8, 1961. Theodor Plath in 1901 sent his wife Ernestine and his five younger children directly from Europe to Maza, North Dakota. As Martha's father and brothers moved farther west, Martha seems to have stayed in Maza, and in 1910 at age 17 works as a "servant" for family there. At 19 Martha marries the town postmaster. She has two daughters, stays in Maza, and is buried, alongside her husband, near what is left of that town.


Frieda A. Plath Heinrichs: Mar. 15, 1896-Dec. 19, 1970. In the 1910 census, Frieda, age 13, is not living with her parents but rather is listed as "niece" of the Stapel family in Green Lake County, Wisconsin. Mrs. Stapel was Theodor Plath's sister. Frieda graduated from a Chicago nursing school. She visited her mother Ernestine in the Oregon state mental hospital in summer 1919; Ernestine died there September 28. In 1930 Frieda is a nurse in San Francisco, and by 1935 is married to physician Walter J. Heinrichs. They live in and around Los Angeles. In Letters Home, Aurelia S. Plath incorrectly gives Frieda Heinrichs' death date as 1966. California voter-registration rolls show both Walter and Frieda registered in 1966, but Frieda alone in 1968.


The seven Nix brothers in Sylvia Plath's children's book The It-Doesn't-Matter-Suit are named for her paternal relatives. The fictional seven are named Paul, Emil, Otto, Walter (the name of Sylvia's uncle by marriage), Hugo, Johann (the name of Sylvia's paternal great-grandfather), and the central character, Max. Written in 1959, the book was first published in 1996.


For sources or to make corrections, please contact me. Official papers and books aren't always right.


Theodor Plath lists his minor children on his naturalization papers, filed in North Dakota; Otto at age 22 is not a minor.