Tuesday, June 29, 2021

"One Sweet Ulcerous Ball": A Chronology

Aurelia Plath suffered from and wrote frankly about her stomach ulcer before studies in the 1980s proved that most chronic ulcers are caused by a bacterium, H. pylori, spread by person-to-person contact and treatable with antibiotics. Before then doctors said stress caused ulcers. In white-collar cases, it was “executive stress,” which gave those ulcers value as proof the sufferers had worked too hard and given too much.


So Aurelia very much wanted her ulcer story, and its dramatic surgical cure, written into the Plath narrative. She tastelessly told People magazine (October 27, 1975) about her ulcer, and in her introduction to Letters Home linked its origin and episodic activity to the burdens she carried as a wife, widow, and breadwinning mother. She linked ulcer attacks to Sylvia’s 1953 suicide attempt in Letters Home (138) and blamed those events for her 1955 subtotal gastrectomy in a letter to Judith Kroll (1 December 1978) and in notes for a speech in 1979. For the latter, Aurelia wrote, in Gregg shorthand, “Mention my operation following her [Sylvia’s] recovery for her breakdown. She had said, ‘You pretended it hadn’t happened.’ With 3/4 of my stomach removed, the long scar on my abdomen alone would not allow me to forget! I lived in dread of a recurrence.” (1)


Otto Plath’s final illness and leg amputation haunt Sylvia’s life and later creative work. Aurelia Plath’s 17-year illness, with its gruesome internal hemorrhaging, does not; or maybe it does and no one has yet perceived it. (2) Sylvia’s Journal belittles Aurelia’s bleeding as drama, calls her “one sweet ulcerous ball,” and mentions bad breath, a symptom of H. pylori infection. (3)


Aurelia in Letters Home wrote that her duodenal ulcer formed two years before her husband Otto’s death, meaning 1938. The family was then living in Winthrop to enjoy its beaches, so it is possible Aurelia became infected or co-infected with the parasitic Giardia duodenalis from the sewage piped into Boston Harbor. (4) In February 1943, the Plaths’ first winter in Wellesley, Aurelia hemorrhaged while shoveling snow and was hospitalized. In March, Sylvia mailed letters to Aurelia at Pratt Diagnostic Hospital, where Aurelia’s brother-in-law Joe Benotti headed the chemistry laboratory. Aurelia hemorrhaged again in July, and from summer camp Sylvia, age ten, wrote Aurelia c/o Aurelia’s sister, Dorothy Benotti, “Are you well? I worry when I don’t receive letters from you” (July 18).


Aurelia had unrelated surgery in September 1947. This is noted in Sylvia’s diary and commemorated in Sylvia’s poem “Missing Mother,” mailed to Aurelia at Carney Hospital. Brief and scattered mentions in Sylvia’s letters, and a few notes, then become our only clues to Aurelia’s health. The ulcer stirs in February 1951; its stressor is not clear. Aurelia’s mother, Sylvia’s “Grammy,” the Plath family housekeeper, falls ill in early 1953 and Aurelia is distraught. On May 13 Sylvia writes her brother that their mother is eating baby food “again.” Aurelia takes that summer off from teaching, but Sylvia’s suicide attempt in August and months of hospitalization vex the ulcer. It begins bleeding, Aurelia noted, in April 1954, but she might have kept this from Sylvia because it is July before Sylvia mentions her mother’s “nasty ulcer pains.” That September Sylvia chides her mother, “You know that any problem makes you sick.” On October 1, 1954, Sylvia writes Aurelia c/o The New England Medical Center, and the ulcer is an issue at least until November.


On January 29, 1955, Sylvia comforts Aurelia after another ulcer attack. There is yet another in April. Now Aurelia has been sick for a year. Admitted to Newton-Wellesley Hospital in May, Aurelia is intravenously fed to build her up for her gastrectomy. Then, the death-defying-mother moment: With doctors’ permission, Aurelia on June 6, 1955 travels in a station wagon, flat on a mattress, to Sylvia’s graduation from Smith College. One witness says Aurelia was carried on a litter to the ceremony grounds. The gastrectomy is June 10. On June 24, Sylvia writes Aurelia, “Welcome Home!,” and on July 6 writes her brother that Aurelia is convalescing and friends are lining up to see her.


Aurelia, and Napoleon, and that character on Mad Men—if their chronic ulcers came not from responsibilities but from H. pylori, are they still to be admired? Stress aggravates whatever ill one has, but it turns out that “executive stress” is a myth from a misbegotten study of rhesus monkeys, its result pushed by antacid manufacturers. The fact is that ulcers afflict low-status workers much more often than bosses. (5) Today a popular meme blames “working too hard, being strong for too long” for another life-threatening, invisible illness—depression; Sylvia’s cross.


(1) Box 9, folder 11, “Letters Home – Notes.” Sylvia Plath Papers, Smith College.

(2) https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/324990#symptoms. Sylvia Plath in summer 1951 overheard her employer, a physician, discussing a patient’s duodenal ulcer, and quoted his description of its symptoms in her journal, wondering how she might work it into a story. (Journals, entry 109, p. 87)

(3) Journals, December 12, 1958.

(4) The anti-parasitic drug Flagyl was not available in the U.S. until 1962.

(5) https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-myth-of-executive-str/.

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

The Only Aurelia Tape at Emory: A Guide to Digital File v7b4x

Taped recordings now digitized and held by Emory University Libraries’ Special Collections preserve the words of about 60 interviewees who in the 1970s told researcher Harriet Rosenstein what they knew about Sylvia Plath. Aurelia Plath’s voice is on only one recording, at the tail end of the digital file named v7b4x. Abruptly, at 38:15, Aurelia is heard in mid-sentence speaking about Sylvia, and is about to take questions from an audience.


A friend brought Rosenstein this partial, undated and often inaudible audio cassette, and the pair listened for 16 minutes, taping its contents and chafing while Aurelia says only what they already know: about Sylvia’s second novel of “adventure, joy, and romance,” burnt in summer 1962; that Sylvia never wanted her novel The Bell Jar published in the U.S.; the composite nature of its characters, such as Mrs. Greenwood (“the character that’s made my life miserable,” Aurelia says, and explains why). Early on, the pair begin to complain, mock Aurelia, and laugh at her taped remarks. Exasperated (“For Christ’s sake! She just goes on, huh?”), they halt Aurelia’s tape at 54:05 and discuss it, then shut off their own tape recorder at 54:29.

To be fair, the two listeners are no more pitiless than any other two high-literates who verbally skewer lesser people for sport. They are, after all, critics. Here's a brief partial transcript; listen in. Aurelia speaks about Letters Home, published in November 1975, so the date of the talk might be March 16, 1976, when Aurelia spoke at the Wellesley Club. The blanks represent inaudible words or phrases.


Aurelia: And for those of you who haven’t read it [Letters Home], it starts off with her entering Smith as a freshman, with all the fears and all the hopes of a freshman student.

Listener 1: (sarcastic) A normal, solid, American freshman girl.

Aurelia: ____________ of the fall, and it also takes the time of her experiences at Mademoiselle and her junior year, goes right straight through to _______________.

Listener 1: (sighs) Oh matter.

Aurelia: And she wrote a letter to a friend of hers, whom I refer to as “E” in the book, to protect the person

Listener 1: From what?

Aurelia: describing her reaction, her own evaluation of the whole experience of her breakdowns. And that’s _________. And then a mother of a son who knew her well, was going through a depression, had written me asking my advice about how to handle a child who was suffering a depression, and I sent that letter over to Sylvia, who was at that time happily married, and asked her to write

Listener 1: She wasn’t “married,” see; she was “happily married.”

Listener 2: You betcha.

Listener 1: You understand?

Listener 2: You betcha.

Listener 1: It’s a whole other category!


I transcribed this recording because I too hoped it would reveal more about the Plaths, but instead it reveals part of a process of diminishment and erasure.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Sylvia's "Favorite Place in America": Childs Park

Rather than details about dead folks today, here are photos of Childs Park (Northampton, Massachusetts) in June's full bloom. This elegantly landscaped 40-acre park is only steps away from the apartment Sylvia shared with Ted Hughes while she taught at Smith College. Sylvia wrote her poem "Childs Park Stones" about the boulders dotting the park, ironically its least interesting feature. Yet her creative mind viewed the primordial stones "as juxtaposed to the ephemeral orange & fuschia azaleas and feel the park is my favorite place in America." (Journals, June 11, 1958).

The wealthy Childs family, owners since 1915, opened their property to the public in 1950. It is still privately run, so rules of conduct apply: no organized games; no skating or skateboards; all cars out by 5 p.m.; everybody out by dusk. Besides the fabulous azalea/rhododendron bushes, the park includes formal gardens, a rose garden, a small pine forest, and, pictured, two views of the frog pond full of lilypads, with a bench for contemplation at one end.

Hear Plath read her poem, recorded June 13, 1958.

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Beyond "Medusa" and "Mrs. Greenwood": From the Rosenstein Papers

Notes and tapes of 1970s interviews with Sylvia Plath’s friends, dates, and teachers, now in the Harriet Rosenstein research files at Emory University, are wonderfully valuable Plath resources, and include random comments and observations about Aurelia Plath. Interviewees such as Marcia Brown Stern or Elizabeth Compton Sigmund, whom Sylvia prepped to dislike Aurelia Plath before ever meeting her, had harsher things to say, but I sought first-hand impressions that went beyond “Mrs. Greenwood” and “Medusa”:

Marcia Brown Stern, Sylvia’s college friend: “Bitter and careworn” Aurelia was “struggling every minute of every day of every year to pay the bills and to keep herself together – just holding on for dear life – and there is no room for color – in her tone of voice or her hairdo or her aprons or her living room or inside her head.”

J. Melvin Woody, Sylvia’s date from Yale: Sylvia insisted he accompany her from New Haven to her Wellesley home “so she wouldn’t be with her mother alone. I found that a little hard to understand when I met Sylvia’s mother, who seemed harmless . . . . an intelligent, alert woman who was probably much better qualified to deal with a daughter like that than most women.”

Richard Sassoon, Sylvia’s boyfriend, met Aurelia once: “I remember her as sort of cold and academic and I suppose repressed. New England style.”

Pat O’Neill Pratson, Sylvia’s friend since tenth grade, a frequent visitor to the Wellesley house: Aurelia Plath served as a “bridge” between her own Austrian-immigrant parents and her Ivy-League children. Aurelia “recognized things she might like to have done that she saw the children doing in her place. It was very lonely for her.”

Peter Davison, Sylvia’s “summer romance” in 1955: Aurelia was “Terribly eager for her girl to get ahead. And very interested in someone [Davison] who worked for the Harvard University Press.”

Jon K. Rosenthal, one of Sylvia’s dates: Aurelia was “a very attractive woman at that time. Almost statuesque.”

Elizabeth Compton Sigmund, describing Aurelia visiting Devon in the summer of 1962: “And Mrs. Plath – ‘These are my grandchildren. You come to Grammy – Grammy will read it to you – Grammy will do it—’” 

Nancy Hunter Steiner, Sylvia’s college roommate: Aurelia was “sweet and well-meaning and very intimidated by Sylvia.”

Susan Weller Burch, Sylvia’s Smith classmate: Aurelia “just seemed to slip into the shadows.”. . . “gone at work most of the time. Grandparents in residence.”

Wilbury Crockett, Sylvia’s high-school English teacher: “Mrs. Plath was very much in control. I always had the feeling that she was very much aware of Sylvia’s gifts and considered Sylvia a precocious child. I think she was driven by the thought that Sylvia and Warren might not get all that they ought to have. Financial security was a very real factor.”

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Why Sylvia Plath Loved to Tan

Boston's L Street Beach and Bathhouse, 1915

Sylvia Plath in her story/memoir “Among the Bumblebees” described how her big strapping father swam expertly and let her cling to him, but Aurelia Plath in Letters Home (22) clarified that it was Sylvia’s grandfather, Aurelia’s father Francis Schober, who took Sylvia on those memorable swims. In 1914 Schober was one of four Boston hotel waiters in the support boat as fellow waiter Charles Toth aced the Boston Marathon of open-water swim challenges: Charlestown Bridge to the Boston Light[house] on Little Brewster Island, 11-plus miles. Toth swam it in six hours and 42 minutes. [1]


The following year Toth swam the same route as a round trip, in 15 hours 47 minutes. Toth in 1923 became the fifth person to swim the English Channel and the first American to swim it from France to England. Toth famously trained for the Channel swim by towing a rowboat full of passengers, the tow rope in his teeth. Toth was built like a bear. Still he felt he ought to call himself Bavarian when his surname and all immigration papers declare he was born in Hungary.


The Boston Light race began in 1907 and was suspended from 1941 to 1976 because Boston Harbor was so filthy. The race’s route today begins at the venerable oceanfront L Street Bathhouse [pictured], home of Boston’s “L Street Brownies” who every January 1 since 1907 have taken an icy dip in the water. This has inspired others nationwide to do the same.


And the reason: In 1910, recent immigrants, mostly Europeans such as Schober and Toth, were a solid 30 percent of Boston’s population. They imported the habit of a steam bath followed by a plunge in icy water, for their health. Some swam almost every day of the year. These were called “Brownies” because of their perpetual suntans. Photos show Sylvia Plath in the 1950s enjoying beaches and sun. She equated tanning with health and her mother Aurelia did too. [2] It wasn’t for the view alone that Frank Schober bought a house on Point Shirley. And, unlike non-swimmer Otto Plath, Sylvia’s Grampy had several very athletic friends.


Before air-conditioning, those in urban housing had only the beach to cool down. The above photo, taken in 1915, is titled “Big Crowd at the L Street Bath House, Boston, on a 94 Degree Day.” You can tell the European-born from the Americans by their swimwear. The photo appears here with the permission of the Estate of Leslie Jones, Boston Herald photographer.

Photo: Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection

[1] "Charles Toth Waiter-Athlete Swims to Light," Boston Herald, September 21, 1914, p. 11.

[2] Aurelia Plath made sure baby Sylvia was well tanned. (See the Baby Book, Lilly Library.) Sylvia Plath, from summer camp, to Aurelia Plath, July 5, 1947: "When I come home please do not expect me to have a very dark tan since I don't."