Tuesday, February 23, 2021

A Friend of the Family


“Robert J. Roberts, teacher of gymnastics,” pictured above, witnessed and signed Francis Schober’s Petition for Naturalization papers in Boston in February 1909. Francis "Frank" Schober, born in Austria, was Aurelia Plath's father and Sylvia Plath's grandfather and father figure.


I looked up "Robert J. Roberts," expecting nothing, and got a surprise.


While employed at the Boston YMCA for 40 years, athletics director Roberts revolutionized the gym, installing floor mats, mirrors, and the first indoor track. He invented pulley weights and the “ring” shower head for the one-minute showers he recommended after exercise. Roberts coined the terms “body building” and “medicine ball.” In youth, Robert Jenkins Roberts (1849-1920) modeled for the iconic "Minute Man" statue at Concord, Massachusetts, sculpted by Daniel Chester French.


Before Roberts, gyms were “gymnastic” as in the sport of gymnastics: parallel bars, pommels, rings, swings, tumbling; acrobats and ropewalkers used gyms and taught there. Skinny “pigeon-breasted” Roberts in his teens lifted huge heavy “strong man” weights (the only type available) to develop his chest and shoulder muscles, neglecting his back, and learned the hard way how unsafe and unhealthy that was. He conceived of the gym as a place not for stunts but for Everyman to exercise, mildly and daily, all muscle groups for physical, mental, and spiritual health. His ideas caught on. In the above photo, taken in 1901, Roberts was age 51 or 52.

“All exercises,” Roberts opined, “must be safe, short, easy, beneficial, and pleasing.” Roberts invented the 20-minute workout – with light dumbbells; he loathed heavy ones. That daily 20 minutes was all the exercise the body needed, he said. He recommended four small meals a day rather than two large ones, and deep breathing, stretching, fresh air, and daily spiritual reading. Roberts also invented those little cards at the gym on which to record changes in one’s measurements. Roberts was 5’5”, waist 32” and chest 43".


It is not known how Roberts met Frank Schober, a waiter then in his late 20s, but nightly at 8:00 the Boston YMCA invited visitors to watch the famous light-dumbbell workout class. Six months' acquaintance was required to serve as a petitioner's character witness, and Schober was granted the favor by this avatar of the Y's founding principles of "muscular Christianity" and helping young immigrants assimilate. Scraps of information do exist about Frank Schober’s athletic interests, and we know "Grampy" swam expertly, Sylvia clinging to his back when she was a child.

Roberts led classes for gym instructors, who spread his ideas nationwide; the YMCA, founded in London in the 1840s, spread them worldwide. The book The Body Builder (1916; reprinted 1921) was compiled and published by the YMCA in Roberts' honor and preserves Roberts’ exercise routines and sayings such as, "Men should look their best in their birthday suit until old age wears it out."

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Aurelia Plath's Birthplace and the Myth of Her Childhood

2047-2049 Columbus Ave., Boston, today. Built in 1890.

Sylvia Plath's memoir "Ocean 1212-W" says of her grandparents' house at Point Shirley in Winthrop, Massachusetts, "My mother was born and brought up in the same sea-bitten house," and a bunch of biographers have assumed that is true when it's false. Records show that her mother Aurelia's parents, the Schobers, lived from Aurelia's birth in 1906 until 1918 in Boston's landlocked neighborhood Jamaica Plain, moving to Winthrop and the seaside house when Aurelia was 12.

Downtown Jamaica Plain, 1906
For two years, until 1908, Aurelia's parents rented a flat in a three-story rowhouse at 2047 Columbus Avenue [color photo up top], where Aurelia was born. The young family then separated, and in 1909 Aurelia's father, Frank Schober, a waiter, was listed as a roomer at 95 Gainsborough while the toddler Aurelia and her 21-year-old mother left the U.S. and stayed on the Italian Riviera. Reunited in mid-1909, the Schobers moved back into the same Columbus Avenue rowhouse, this time occupying number 2049. Anticipating the birth of Aurelia's sister Dorothy in 1911, in December 1910 Frank bought a duplex at 34 Peter Parley Road in Jamaica Plain.

The addresses 2047 and 2049 Columbus Avenue have adjacent entryways. Housed at the 2049 building in the year 1910 along with the Schobers, who were German-speaking Austrian immigrants, were the Ranks, a German immigrant and his American wife; and the Winslows, an American husband with a German wife and one child. Most neighbors on the block were American-born with Anglo surnames. The 1910 census also shows Irish immigrant families concentrated a few blocks away on Washington Street.

Frank Schober’s brother Henry, also a waiter, lived at the Peter Parley Road address during 1912. In June 1912 Henry married, and in October his wife had a baby girl named Esther. Henry and his family then moved to 1 Roslyn Place, also in Jamaica Plain: a house with a verandah that Aurelia said in Letters Home she liked to visit.

Aurelia's mythical seaside childhood stems from Plath's "Ocean 1212-W," written in 1962, and was reinforced by the phrase "early childhood" in Aurelia's autobiographical introduction to Letters Home (1975), page 4. Before Aurelia ever mentions Winthrop, she narrates her "first day of school" incident and her promotion from first grade to third, events that had to have happened in Jamaica Plain. 

Aurelia then writes that Sylvia Plath's "interest in minorities" grew out of Aurelia's "account of my early childhood in a primarily Italian-Irish neighborhood in Winthrop, Massachusetts, during World War I." Aurelia proceeds to describe schoolmates bullying her for having a Germanic surname, Schober. Such harassment was common during World War I. But even in her first days in Winthrop, Aurelia was past "early childhood" and into girlhood. The families on the Schobers' Shirley Street 800 block in 1920 were named Hagen, Whittier, Fletcher, Somerby, Thompson, Boles, Ryan, Brimsley, Hughes, Ferington, Pert, Walsh, Eaton, and Harwood. By "minorities" Aurelia meant Germans, and she met the Irish and Italians not in her Winthrop neighborhood but at school, which was far enough away that Aurelia rode a bus to get there; and in Jamaica Plain rather than Winthrop.

Sylvia Plath, born to Aurelia and her husband in October 1932, lived in Jamaica Plain until autumn 1936 when the Plaths moved to 92 Johnson Avenue, a middle-class Winthrop neighborhood populated by families with Anglo surnames ("Ingalls," "Tewksbury," "Westcott," "White") and a few Jews. Aurelia implies that Sylvia (in her memoir "America! America!") appropriated as her own her mother's multi-ethnic schoolyard milieu.

Because Aurelia's father was an avid swimmer, Aurelia probably had memories of early-childhood days on Boston-area beaches, or on Cape Cod in summer, or archaic memories of the Riviera. Aurelia loved the sea, and so did Sylvia. But neither was born or reared from infancy at 892 Shirley Street in Winthrop.

Only Aurelia’s much younger brother Frank Schober Jr., born in 1919, spent his early childhood at 892 Shirley Street, between a bay and open ocean, the only home Sylvia had ever known “Grampy” and “Grammy” Schober to have. By 1942 the Schobers had moved in with their widowed daughter and her children Sylvia and Warren Plath, ages nine and seven, to the Johnson Avenue house in Winthrop. Then they all moved, as a unit, west to Wellesley.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

"Forbidden Fruit": Aurelia Plath's Poems*

Aurelia Schober was 17 years old when her high-school yearbook, The Echo, 1923, published her poem "Forbidden Fruit." The Winthrop, Massachusetts High School yearbook, like many high-school and college yearbooks of the time, printed samples of students' creative writings. Aurelia's college yearbook in 1928 published another of her poems, unsigned (p. 196), but in the 1970s Aurelia Schober Plath identified it for Plath biographer Harriet Rosenstein:
The sky is blue and the wind blows free,
Oh come for a run on the beach with me!
We will delve in the sand and race with the waves
We will jump on the rocks where the salt sea laves,
We will ponder the driftwood strewn up by the tide,
We will search for a cavern where mermaidens hide.
And then in a calm we might hear a roar
Of very great waves on a distant shore.
Far out on the point a light tow'r we see,
Oh won't you come for a run with me?
Emotionally and technically "A Child's Wish" is such a regression that if Aurelia wrote it after writing "Forbidden Fruit," and after reading contemporary poetry books that we know Aurelia owned and annotated, such as Sara Teasdale's Dark of the Moon (1926) and Edna St. Vincent Millay's The King's Henchman (1927), "A Child's Wish" might be a "decoy" or "dummy" poem. Remember, Aurelia in 1928 was not yet married, a mother, or a schoolteacher, so did not write this poem for her children.
A "decoy" poem is what a college student caught in and crushed by a fiery love affair with a man 22 years older writes to show her parents, who want her to be a secretary, that she is still pure and innocent. Aurelia was her college yearbook's editor that year. The yearbook's creative-writing pages printed 17 pieces, all unsigned; at the end are listed ten different authors, including Aurelia. What I call a "dummy" poem is a bloodless exercise on an unobjectionable topic, such as a child on the beach. Maybe a reader of "Forbidden Fruit" had hinted to Aurelia that young women should not write, for all the world to see, about succumbing to temptation, and suggested to her that poetry in general led into morally dubious territory.

Or else "A Child's Wish" was the best Aurelia could do.
Aurelia's annotations on her daughter Sylvia Plath's letters and papers show how habitually Aurelia expressed one thing while thinking another. Proof that she wasn't born that way is that Aurelia never hid her feelings well. What's building as I research Aurelia's life is a picture of young Aurelia as a leader, intrepid, adventurous, game; then backpedaling. Sylvia too played at feminine artifice, but became renowned for finally telling it like it was.

Aurelia also wrote a greeting-card-type poem for her daughter Sylvia's 13th birthday, rather cliche, nothing special. Yet it is fortunate for literature that Aurelia loved poetry and had practiced the craft, hands-on, and then guided and supported her gifted Sylvia, although Aurelia herself ultimately gave it up.

*Aurelia Plath did not compose the poem "Rebecca," about a little girl with a doll, Rebecca, who "caught a chill" and needed special care. The poem, credited to Eleanor Piatt, first appeared in St. Nicholas, a magazine for children, vol. 36, in 1909. Aurelia copied it into a letter she sent to Sylvia in 1938, specifying that it was a poem she had enjoyed as a child.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Aurelia and the Great Equality Debate: Winthrop High School, 1924

Debating team, Winthrop High School yearbook 1924, p. 58

Among the first four girls to break Winthrop High's debate team's gender barrier was senior Aurelia Schober [front row, third from left]. A packed auditorium heard the boys debate the girls about whether female teachers should be paid as much as males. The school yearbook, The Echo, narrates:

By reason of the fact that we of the class of '24 have been as radical in all our enterprises as one could reasonably expect from students who want something different, it is not at all remarkable to note that the debating team has also been changed somewhat and is now co-ed.


The girls made their debut, and debut it was, for they completely took the boys off their feet with their eloquence and ability that had previously been a joke among the opposite and superior (?) sex, on Friday evening, February 29 [1924], in a debate with the boys on the subject: Resolved that women teachers should receive a salary equal to that of men teachers for equal device.


Much propaganda had been broadcasted during the first term but no results were apparent until the girls began coming to the boys' trial debates and holding sessions of their own. Then from a group of aspirants that rivaled one of our athletic turnouts, [team coach] Miss Drew selected four of the best and issued a challenge to Coach Sowle, which was to prove a nemesis to his well organized crew ere long.


In the meantime several outside debates were talked of and even scheduled for the boys as in the past, but because of various affairs that conflicted and made these impossible, they were one by one cancelled until the high school debate, that of the boys and girls, was the main feature in this field.


The affirmative was upheld by the girls, comprising: —

Aurelia Schober, Rebuttal Speaker

Esther Chisholm

Marjorie McCarthy

Elizabeth Kent, Alternate 


And the negative by the following boys: —

Morris Jacobson, Rebuttal Speaker

Charles McCarthy

Walter O'Toole

Newall Perry, Alternate 


Speaking in an overcrowded auditorium, the girls won a unanimous vote from the judges, and also the right to be represented by two speakers at any other debate in which the High School might participate during the rest of the year. Miss Chisholm was chosen best speaker of the evening.