Saturday, December 31, 2022

Top Research Posts of 2022

August 16, 2022: First Known Photo of Otto Plath's parents

July 12: Four Generations of Pop-Up Weddings

June 7: Digitized video footage of Aurelia Plath, permission of Dr. Richard Larschan

April 12: Photo of Otto Plath's first wife and his in-laws

MOST POPULAR POST: January 25, "Otto Plath Was a Pacifist, Not"

PERSONAL FAVES: April 26, Aurelia Schober's college days reconstructed from day planners purchased from eBay; April 19, reviewed the 1986 French-language film of Letters Home, directed by Chantal Akerman

In 2022 this blog had 35 posts. Coming in 2023: "The Lost Lines of 'Eavesdropper,'" and much more.

In March 2022 I chaired a session for "Sylvia Plath Across the Century" and over the conference's two-day span heard many inspiring presentations. In April, I researched recordings and Linda Wagner-Martin's files at the Lilly Library; in July translated Sylvia's German essay into English. In late April, a first and a landmark: The Bloomsbury Handbook to Sylvia Plath was published, with my essay introducing Aurelia's shorthand annotations. In June, transcribed for Dr. Gary Leisig Aurelia's shorthand marginalia on Sylvia's published poems. In October, attended via Zoom definitive sessions of the Sylvia Plath Literary Festival in Hebden Bridge, U.K. In November, consulted with a British author on her draft of Mothers of the Mind, a forthcoming study of the mothers of Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, and Agatha Christie. A personal fave: Dr. Amanda Golden at the Woodberry Poetry Room discussing Sylvia Plath's use of pink paper (March 8, 2022; on YouTube here).

A thrilling year in Plath World! As always, English transcriptions of the shorthand on Sylvia Plath's papers can be downloaded from this site at and viewed.

Friday, December 30, 2022

Too Busy To Drink Sylvia's Blood

"Sylvia" the movie, 2003

Aurelia Plath taught five days a week during the academic year and usually summer school at Boston University. When her children Sylvia and Warren were in college Aurelia also tutored on weekends so they could buy clothing as good as their peers'. [1] When we realize that from 1942 Aurelia worked full time with a twice-daily 40-minute commute, plus evenings at home with two dependent parents and student papers and class planning to do, plus seeing friends and paying bills, and having (please note!) a son she cared for as much as she did her daughter, and personally liking to read and needing to sleep, Aurelia didn't have much time to suffocate Sylvia and drink her metaphorical blood.

Sylvia only imagined Aurelia was preoccupied with Sylvia. Like a much younger child, Sylvia seemed unaware that her mother's life was already full.

From her girlhood summer camp days until her death Sylvia wrote her mother weekly, often more. What if instead of saying Sylvia wrote so many letters because her mother needed reassurance, try taking the view that Sylvia was the insecure one, wanting to occupy the center of her mother's world and consume her time and resources despite the miles between them. 

(No working woman of forty-five needs an eighteen-year-old's reassurance.)

Aurelia told a reporter in 1979, "They say [Sylvia] wrote the letters to keep me happy, to hide the darker side. Sylvia? Putting herself out day after day? The reason she wrote those letters was to get a reply, and she always did. I wrote them on my lunch hours, with my sandwich beside me." [2] We learn from Sylvia's volumes of letters about Sylvia's dependence on Aurelia not only for letters but for favors and support: typing and mailing manuscripts, banking, giving feedback about her new poems, shopping and sending money and packages.

Sylvia wrote from college so often that Aurelia sometimes had little to report except that Grammy had baked a cake last night. Sylvia read her mother's letters aloud to her roommate Marcia Brown to make fun of such trivia [3]. Although only ten mailings from Aurelia to Sylvia survive, from those and from Sylvia's replies we can see Aurelia's letters typically described family news, or books Aurelia was reading, and gave advice that Sylvia read as infantilizing or manipulative.

If genuinely bothered by her mother's letters Sylvia could have replied to them less often or not at all--or with honesty. But she did not. Casually we say "Sylvia wrote only what her mother wanted to hear," but read the letters and see how often she wrote her mother about distressing happenings and fearful moods; and no one knows what Aurelia wanted to hear. Maybe Aurelia wanted her lunch hour for her lunch. Sylvia's was the almost physical dependence, calling her mother's letters a "sustaining life force," and, when asking Aurelia for a quick reply, "Well do send me an infusion of energy, it will do me more good than thyroid."

[1] ASP to Leonard Sanazaro, Lilly.

[2] Robertson, Nan; NYT Book Review, October 9, 1979.

[3] Harriet Rosenstein's interview with Marcia Brown Stern, Emory.

Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Otto Plath Was Born In a Violent Year

"Prussian Expulsion" ("Rugi pruskie") by Wojciech Kossak

Otto Plath was born in a violent year in Prussia: 1885. If all of Otto's life he objected to military service and so much hated the sight of uniforms he forbade his daughter Sylvia to join the Girl Scouts, maybe it’s because he saw Prussian soldiers forcing out ethnic Poles, mostly small farmers and migrant laborers. From 1885 to 1890 Prussia with threats and violence herded 30,000 Poles across the border into Russia and stationed guards there to keep them out. 

Otto grew up in the province of Posen, on land Prussia had taken from Poland and largely Polish-speaking. So although his parents were German he learned Polish and was part Polish through his paternal grandmother. Otto's parents were not farmers or migrants but town people, so Otto’s immediate family was safe, although the world around them rocked. Without its migrant farm laborers, Prussia was left short of food. Prussian garrisons by the dozen had town residents seeing soldiers every day and hating them. You can imagine how the hostilities affected the kids.

Otto’s Polish grandmother and German grandfather left Prussia for America in 1885. Persecution and demonization of Poles and Jews, a culture war Prime Minister Otto von Bismarck began in 1872, is where "Polack" jokes and slurs came from. Purges such as the Expulsion followed, practice for later expulsions that were photographed. The painting above (1909) is one of an Expulsion series.

Otto had been born in Grabowo, but grew up in Budsin. His papers say this, and all his siblings were born in Budsin. An 1880s map, showing the town where Otto searched hayfields for bees he could take home and keep in cigar boxes, shows a nearby Forest Durowo. The forest is still there. I wondered if Otto watched birds and insects there and learned to respect them as he could never respect things military.

Otto Plath emigrated to the U.S. in 1900.

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

"I Love Her Work, I Hate Her Mom"

Looking for the root of the general contempt for Aurelia Plath, I thought some popular article or influential essay, some Ur-takedown, must have seeded it. Whether Aurelia deserves contempt is not the issue here. Contempt is in place before Sylvia's abridged Journals (1982) reveal Sylvia's now-canonical "hate her hate her" entry. It precedes the Letters Home backlash (1975). It precedes "Mrs. Greenwood's" appearance in The Bell Jar (U.S., 1971), "her face a perpetual accusation," the review in the New Yorker  said, although the novel does not say that.

Critical contempt was in place by 1970, when researcher Harriet Rosenstein, planning a Plath biography, interviewed Aurelia in Wellesley. Previous interviewees briefed Rosenstein on the whole tragic Plath story, and Rosenstein's interview notes show frustration at what Aurelia did not say (Aurelia never said "suicide") and judged what lay beneath what Aurelia did say: bitterness, resignation--nothing good. No other interviewee, of about sixty in all (and we are very grateful for these interviews), gets treated as if they failed a test of character. Rosenstein later reminded herself that her book's purpose was not to nail Aurelia to the wall but to explain the Ariel poems.

The Bell Jar in German, 1968

Rosenstein's biography was never published. In her early twenties, a feminist and up on the trends, she had read The Bell Jar in its U.K. edition and learned Esther hated her mother. Rosenstein located a short German review (1968) of the German translation of The Bell Jar. It said, "the mother smiles, suffering and forgiving and being a little too sweet." That scrap of a critique must have been reassuring, since U.K. reviews of The Bell Jar (1963) and subsequent essays, even one titled "An American Girlhood," do not mention a mother. At all! Instead they spotlight Buddy Willard, or Esther Greenwood's frequent references to babies. 

By 2003, Mrs. Greenwood looms very large:

In the novel The Bell Jar, Sylvia depicted her mother as a dominating, soul-destroying woman responsible for a good deal of the psychological pain that eventually led to Sylvia's suicide at the age of 30. [1]

The novel's text does not support such a reading. Re-reading shows Mrs. Greenwood's role in the novel is quite small.

Reviews and essays about Ariel's debut (1965, 1966) focus mostly on suicide and the poem "Daddy." Mom was such a bit player in this father-daughter drama that she is absent from the decade's Anglophone lit-crit except as a nameless factor in Sylvia's Electra complex. Critics didn't even know her name. M.L. Rosenthal in 1967 read The Colossus and wrote about the poem "The Disquieting Muses" as if it were about Sylvia's muses! In 2016 even the best of us firmly believed the same poem is "a fateful family romance" making it "easy to see what is wrong with Aurelia." [2]

My best efforts did not locate any "root." I saw instead faddish pop psychology expanding precisely alongside of Sylvia Plath's rise to fame. Sylvia in the 1950s knew Freudian theory was insubstantial but when troubled she returned to it, as to a faith, and in the 1960s put it in her novel. That fellow poets of the era wrote about their mental health problems and treatments made Sylvia Plath an ideal case study. Armchair analysis boils down to blaming mothers for whatever on the globe is wrong. Plath scholar Jacqueline Rose protested exactly this in her 2018 book Mothers (for example, governments blame mothers for having "too many children" or "not enough"). Yet Rose still manages to blame Aurelia Plath for quoting from Plath's "Three Women" lines other than the ones Rose thinks she should have.

The difference pop psychology has made between the 1960s and today is the difference between early Plath critics' dismay at the poem "Daddy"'s appropriation of the Holocaust and today's readers saying, "Sylvia's husband cheated on her and left her, and that was her personal holocaust. And her mother actually being there only made the breakup worse. Probably even caused it."

[1] Anita Gales, "What's My Motivation, Mom? Oh, It Must Be My Anger at You." New York Times, 7 September 2003, p. AR69.

[2] Pollack,Vivian. Our Emily Dickinsons. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.

Tuesday, November 1, 2022

Sylvia Plath's Harvard Summer School Rejection: The Teacher's Reason

Here is how and why author Frank O'Connor rejected Sylvia's application to his summer 1953 short-story writing course. O'Connor had first taught the course in summer 1952. He viewed Richard T. Gill as his top student that summer, and chose Gill as his assistant in summer 1953. I quote from the biography Voices: A Life of Frank O'Connor, by James Matthews (Atheneum, 1983):

"At the time O'Connor arrived [at Harvard], Gill had already narrowed down the applicants, among whom was a young woman named Sylvia Plath. O'Connor read her story and rejected her application at once. Gill was curious about the abrupt finality of this judgement and pressed the matter until O'Connor reminded him of the fellow whose madness had nearly fractured the class the year before. To his mind, Sylvia Plath's story suggested a similarly deranged mind. Later that summer his intuitions were confirmed by her breakdown [which was a local and national news story], in which, ironically, he had played some part." [289] . . . .

"Toward the end of the summer [O'Connor] was talking one evening with Dick and Betty [Gill and his wife] about Sylvia Plath's breakdown. Speculating that O'Connor might be harboring some guilt about the incident, Dick broached the subject of neurosis. O'Connor said that he avoided disturbed people because he could not deal with madness. Art to him was discipline . . . "[290]

Sylvia had submitted as her writing sample a typescript of "Sunday at the Mintons,'" published in Mademoiselle in August 1952.

Richard T. Gill (1927-2010) published some short stories, and became a Harvard professor of economics and an opera singer. See Gill's New York Times obituary here. Gill also gave biographer Matthews a detailed account of O'Connor's summer 1952 class (pp. 281-282). [1] Sylvia had met Richard Gill at a party (Journals, Dec. 16, 1958), and didn't like him.

Harvard's rejection letter, never located in any archives, might have told Sylvia she was "too advanced for the class." But schools and writing workshops even today use "you are too advanced" to deny admission to applicants egotistical enough to believe that. In a previous post I addressed the allegation, published in 2013, that Sylvia's mother Aurelia Plath secretly destroyed or hid Harvard's "acceptance letter" to keep Sylvia home that awful summer. Richard Gill's is a first-hand witness's account that has been ignored.

[1] Gill published a very detailed essay about O'Connor's Harvard Summer School courses in Michael/Frank: Studies on Frank O'Connor, ed. Maurice Sheehy (Knopf, 1969). That essay does not mention Plath.

Tuesday, September 6, 2022

This Famous Plath Happy-Family Photo

I finally read Otto Plath’s book Bumblebees and Their Ways (1934), by a bee geek who spent the 1920s digging up and micromanaging 225 colonies of bees, observing their eating, breeding, and warring and compiling his discoveries. The first 131 pages are prose; the other 70, taxonomy. Otto got stung enough to put him into bed. His introduction says, “It is my ambition and hope to continue the investigations of the past thirteen summers by devoting at least three months each year to the study of bumblebees in various parts of the world.”

Three months per year? One wonders: with or minus the new wife and baby acquired in 1932? Finishing the manuscript – a dissertation he and Aurelia rewrote for lay readers -- got Otto promoted to full professor of biology. Aurelia Plath later wrote about the book: “Won my husband recognition and lost him money.” But before the book was published they hoped it might make them rich.

So the family celebrated in July 1933, taking the only known photo of Sylvia Plath with both her parents and the only one of Aurelia with Otto. They’re on a hillside in the Arnold Arboretum, the park where Otto spent the Jazz Age observing bees and was still not over it. (His book says observations continued until October 1933.) I wonder if Otto’s dream deferred, for lack of funds or excess of human baggage, ultimately made his life seem not worth living.

On this clearly sunny and hot day in Boston, Aurelia is wearing a fur piece over her shoulder. A wintertime photo shows her with a fur scarf – fur was fashionable – but this more substantial piece resembles a wrap or collar. Puzzling over fur in July I have imagined it was Otto’s thank-you for the year and a half he browbeat Aurelia and yelled while they edited the book that ate their marriage (“My, how he lit into me” when she used too many adjectives, she said). Aurelia called this “too academic an atmosphere” for infant Sylvia and brought in her own parents to supply love and laughter [Letters Home, 13]. The other photo from that day shows Aurelia looking much happier posed with her mother and Sylvia, with no fur unless it’s beneath Aurelia’s hat. I don’t want to read too much into Sylvia’s expressions.

Aurelia Schober, Sylvia Plath, Aurelia Plath

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Aurelia Plath Is Still a Bad Mother

They're called secondary sources for a reason.
Look into Sylvia Plath’s tie with her mother and you will often find little intimations of murder. That’s a very serious charge. Lacking proof we say Aurelia Plath killed her daughter psychologically. In Marianne Egeland’s Claiming Sylvia Plath: The Poet as Exemplary Figure (2013) the chapter "Psychologists" shows how we were fed our certainty that Aurelia wrecked her daughter's life and caused her suicide.

I am quoting at some length the book’s page 191 to entertain you. Plus a bonus. Egeland writes:

". . . to appease [Sylvia’s] sibling jealousy when Mrs. Plath was caring for her baby son, Mrs. Plath encouraged Sylvia to read the newspaper. What the busy mother with her hands full perhaps just devised as a way to redirect attention in specific situations, [psychoanalyst Benigna] Gerish invokes as: 


"a desymbolizing and resymbolizing process in Plath’s inner world in which the emotionally loaded experience (jealousy and anger) is inadequately redirected into a world of symbolic speech, which binds and masks the emotion only enabling its distorted expression. (739) [1]* 


"[Gerish adds that] the eczema Sylvia Plath supposedly suffered from as a child was very likely a consequence of her mother’s profound ambivalence towards her. At the same time, the alleged eczema is not an issue addressed in any of the biographies, and Gerish gives no sources to confirm either its importance or its existence.** Aurelia Plath describes her daughter as “a healthy, merry child -- the center of attention most of her waking time” (Letters Home, 13)."***


"[A study by Lisa Firestone and Joyce Catlett proposes that their] "Voice Therapy" would have made Plath “able to feel the death wishes that her mother must have felt toward her (on an unconscious level) throughout her childhood” (1998, 687). Firestone and Catlett write that Aurelia Plath and Ted Hughes “both claimed to love her, while criticizing and attempting to control her life.”* They further maintain that Plath’s hostile attitudes to herself, to others, and to life in general were more representative of her mother’s views than her own (673).* No sources are stated in support of their pronouncements on either Mrs. Plath or Hughes.**


"[In the hypothetical Voice Therapy session] . . . “S.P.” gratefully confides to her therapist that the negative voice which has told her so many times how worthless and what a no-good writer she is, actually came from her mother, together with “the final command” to kill herself."* [2]



"Sylvia Plath’s rage at her abandoning husband and at her late beloved father was partly a displacement of anger toward her loving but smothering mother.* Her schizoid pathology resulting from the symbiosis (along with her bipolarity) helped prompt her suicide.* . . . In Ariel Plath attempted and succeeded in turning herself into a tragic, mythic heroine, eventually drowning herself in a gas oven as she would have in the ocean -- a key metaphor for her mother."*


[1] Gerish, Benigna. "This is Not Death, It Is Something Safer:" A Psychodynamic Approach to Sylvia Plath, Death Studies, 22 (7), 1998, 667-692.

[2] Firestone, L. & Catlett, J. (1998). The treatment of Sylvia Plath. Death Studies, 22 (7), 1998, 667-692.

[3] Fierstein, F. A Psychoanalytic Study of Sylvia Plath. Psychoanalytic Review, February 2016, 103-26.


*But that's true, that's fact, I just know it!

**How rude to suggest that scholars cite sources.

***That's a barefaced lie!

Tuesday, August 16, 2022


Meet Sylvia Plath's grandfather Theodor, master-blacksmith/inventor, and his wife Ernestine, grandmother who died in the Oregon State Hospital for the Insane. These are Otto Plath's parents, from Budsin, Prussia (today, Poland). Otto got to America the year before they did.

The props of fancy chair plus classical column mean the portrait was taken in the U.S.A. where bad taste reigns in such things. I mean, our four-year-olds get studio-photographed holding golden plastic "4"s. Already approaching age 50 when Mr. and Mrs. Plath arrived in 1901, they are likely closer to 60 in this photo. The narrow necktie suggests it's after 1905. Ernestine was in a North Dakota mental hospital from 1905 to at least November 1910, so it was taken between then and October 1916 when Theodor signed her into the Oregon state mental hospital, where she came to a tragic end.

Embossed in the corner is the photographer's name, hard to read. If it says "Hale" it was Herbert A. Hale, longtime Portland, Oregon photographer, turn of the century to 1917. Enlargement reveals beneath the logo small roman letters that look like "ego" or "eco" and might say "Oregon."

I think there is something of Otto Plath in the looks and stance of both parents. The photo, scanned into a public family-tree gallery, is the first I've seen of either parent. Ernestine died in Salem, Oregon, the tin of her ashes finally claimed by a descendant in 2020; Theodor, buried in Oregon City, had a pauper's grave with no stone. But, very good news: In 2021 a seeker located and marked his grave.

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Plaths in Steerage

In picturing young Otto Plath wretchedly alone in steerage to the U.S. I was wrong. The ship’s manifest shows that 20-year-old Louis Schulz of Fall Creek, Wisconsin, went to Hamburg to bring Otto, 15, to New York. They landed September 9, 1900. Otto’s grandparents in Fall Creek paid Otto’s passage on S.S. Auguste Victoria, and maybe Louis’s, too. They ensured their special grandson’s safe arrival. And this is how Sylvia Plath’s father came to the U.S.A.

Deck plan, steerage class, S.S. Auguste Victoria. Single men bunked in the bow, single women in the stern, and families in between.

Steerage class was cheap and crowded. Passengers packed two or three to a berth at bow and stern [pictured]. Capacity 580 people. Boilers and coal burners and the ship’s three funnels occupied most of the space. There was no privacy. Meals were ladled out at wooden tables. Toilets were on the deck above. 

Yet whoever chose this ship for Otto’s crossing chose well. The Auguste Victoria express steamer could cross the Atlantic in eight or seven days. The vomit and pee might not get too deep. Photos show the first-class passengers on this liner (named for Germany’s empress) enjoying Gilded-Age luxury. Hamburg America Line had it christened Augusta Victoria, then learned the empress spelled her name with an e.

But the company sold the ship away, ordering bigger ones because Zwischendeck (steerage) passengers were profitable. The S.S. Pennsylvania held 2,382 travelers in steerage, ten times the capacity of its first- and second-class cabins, four times the steerage limit of Auguste Victoria

Only steerage passengers were processed at Ellis Island or other licensed ports such as New Orleans or Halifax. Theodor Plath, Otto’s father, traveled steerage class Hamburg to New York on the S.S. Batavia March 3-19, 1901.

Otto’s mother Ernestine Plath, with his five siblings, ages 3 to 15, left Hamburg and at Liverpool boarded the packet boat R.M.S. Lake Ontario operated by Canada’s Beaver Line. At sea December 14-27, 1901, they landed at Halifax. Records show them among 671 passengers. [1] On December 29 officials processed the Plaths at St. John, New Brunswick, where their condition was as listed as good.

[1] Canada, Incoming Passenger List 1865-1935, St. John N.B. 1901 December, p. 46.

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

"Black Velvet Toreador Pants"

Sylvia Plath wrote to her mother Aurelia Plath on December 8, 1957, “I am sitting so cosily in my lovely black velvet toreador pants which I think are my favorite garment, my knee socks under them, and my little leopard slippers on, very warm and informal.” Sylvia’s velvet pants were leisure wear, a new post-war category of clothing a step up from pajamas. They might, if one was daring, be worn before guests and friends.

A most adaptable 1950s women’s leisure style, the toreador pant vanquished 1940s pleated trousers and struck Bermuda shorts dumb. Wearing skirts in public and at home as girls and women had to, Sylvia wore jeans when camping and in the countryside and as a housewife in London. Jeans then were work wear, or for roughing it. The fit was boxy and hems often worn rolled. The fitted toreador pant in finer fabric was for fun and the sass of showing off a figure.

Sylvia in jeans, Wyoming, 1959
On December 21, 1962, after goosey old ladies sent Sylvia money to buy new clothes, Sylvia wrote her mother from London that she bought along with new skirts and tops “black fake-fur toreador pants.” Certainly those were for leisure, the “fur” a bit exotic like the “tiger pants” that in Sylvia’s poem “Lesbos” were garb for a cheap adulteress.

Only five days later, December 26, Sylvia wanted still more toreador pants, this time a set, surely hoping a guest or guests might see and admire her in it. “Dear [Aunt] Dottie sent a $20 bill,” she wrote her mother, “& I shall treat myself to a green velvet set of Oriental toreador pants & top . . .”

Rather than imagine Sylvia’s toreador pants (I know of no photos), I sought photographic examples. 
In 1953, when the look was new, what made Marilyn Monroe’s velvet pants “toreador” was a high waist, close fit, flat front, and tapered leg. The sash too is “toreador.”
Monroe with designer William Travilla, 1953

Toreadors cropped at the ankle, called “cigarette pants,” were popular U.S. 1950s and 1960s casual wear, revived every few decades ever since. In this illustration they are worn as originally intended with bullfighters’ espadrilles. (photo from
Choice of 12 colors, $64 made to order:

“Toreador” came to allude to length as well as fit. Below, see a black velvet calf-length “toreador” pant ensemble, not formal but made cocktail-party respectable with pearls, on a 1957 limited-edition Madame Alexander doll. “Evening pants” were then a new concept, limited to early-evening hours.


Here is a 1960s fake-fur for anyone inclined to sit on a rock off Cornwall and comb their hair:

Tiger pants plus!

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Aurelia's M.A. Thesis: All You Need to Know

It's bilingual, but its first half is mostly in English, and reading Aurelia's thesis online I liked best its sympathetic portrait of Swiss physician and surgeon Paracelsus, "the Luther of medicine," bold enough to replace the ancient texts of Galen with medical science -- in the 1500s -- and denounced by enemies and posterity as "the demon doctor." In fact Paracelsus shocked the physicians of his day by saying they should be like Jesus, living humbly and healing the poor for free.

Aurelia Schober first studied Goethe's Faust in German, as an undergraduate, and in her thesis framed the life of Paracelsus as one of the sources feeding into Goethe's multi-faceted poetic drama, written around 1800, and into two related literary works, one in German and one in English (Robert Browning's Paracelsus). "The Paracelsus of History and Literature," 101 pages, capped Aurelia's master's degree in English and German, earned in less than one year, granted in 1930. Here's an excerpt:

Paracelsus told [students] that neither degrees nor books made physicians, only much toil in acquiring the knowledge of things themselves, in studying actual sicknesses, their causes, symptoms, remedies. He, their teacher, was willing to share all his experience, would take his advanced students with him when he visited the sick so that they might watch his diagnosis, learn from his treatment. He would lead them into Nature's apothecary shops -- the fields and forests, and there teach them herbal science.

"I wish you to learn," he would urge, "so that if your neighbor requires your help you will know how to give it, not to stop up your nose, like the scribe, the priest, and Levite, from whom there was not help to be got, but to be like the good Samaritan, who was the man experienced in nature, with whom lay knowledge and help. There is no one from whom greater love is sought than from the doctor."

How true that last sentence was for Sylvia Plath.

Aurelia Schober's table of contents. Sylvia Plath read Faust in an English translation.

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Four Generations of Rebel Weddings

I read somewhere that Sylvia Plath really stuck it to her mother by announcing, the day Aurelia got off the boat, that she and Ted Hughes (who was there) were getting married in three days: as if triumphantly quashing her mother's dream of a tame and crew-cut son-in-law. Didn't agree then, thinking Sylvia might have been too ecstatic to be mean, but I agree now because I found a pattern of defiant little weddings in her family. Four generations:

  • Sylvia's "Grammy" and "Grampy," Aurelia Greenwood and Frank Schober, defying her father, got their marriage license July 3, 1905, the day the bride turned 18 and did not need parental permission. They wed as soon as legally possible: Monday, July 10 at Boston's Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.
  • Otto Plath in a Nevada courthouse really stuck it to his estranged and hated first wife with a quick-and-dirty divorce-mill divorce and by marrying Aurelia Schober on the spot the same day: January 4, 1932.
  • Aurelia's daughter Sylvia Plath with Ted Hughes told her mother, arrived in London for a visit on June 13, 1956, that they were marrying June 16. Aurelia puked up her dinner that night. She was the couple's only guest at St. George the Martyr church in London. (Glimpse its inside, in the church's promotional video.)
  • Fast-forward to 1979, when Sylvia's daughter Frieda Hughes, "now 'engaged,' will be 19 on April 1," Aurelia Plath wrote a penpal, as if "engaged" was her granddaughter's teenage daydream, and maybe forgetting her own mother married at 18. But Frieda at 19 married a farmhand. It was a rebellious marriage and short. Ted moaned in a letter to a friend that his daughter was divorced at 23.

Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Translation of Sylvia Plath's German Essay

Sylvia Plath wrote this essay for her Smith College course "Deutsche 12," and the typescript carbon, in German, titled "Wie Ich Einmal Kleinen Bruder Neckte" is in the Lilly Library's Plath mss. II, Box 8, folder 19, "Prose-fiction." I would call it nonfiction. Because I have never seen a translation or even a discussion of this essay, here it is in English:

How I Once Teased Little Brother


It was in 1938. Autumn had come and the sky was blue and clear, the sun glowed like a diamond, and the little leaves were very colorful. Afternoons I hopped joyfully on my way home. I thought the whole world was a wonder, in my first year of elementary school.


My little brother, who was too young to attend elementary school, was very jealous. Every day I bragged that I could read and write, and my father and my mother were very proud of me.


My little brother stayed silent. Finally he said, in a clear, loud voice: “I don’t go to school; I do something better! I live every night on the other side of the moon. . .”


My father and my mother now listened to the inventive story my little brother told. Now I was the silent and jealous one. He was too smart for me.

Plath enrolled in this intermediate-level German course in her senior year, spring 1955, then dropped it to better prepare for her comprehensive exams (letter to Aurelia Plath, 25 April 1955). Aurelia Plath mentions in her preface to Letters Home young Warren ("little brother") Plath's "Other Side of the Moon" adventure tales, spun when he was two and a half years old.

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

The Perfect Set-Up (for Aurelia and Otto's First Date)

Let's say your German professor, tall and good-looking, has been favoring you the whole semester, and after you hand in your master's thesis he asks you for a date: a weekend on a farm owned by friends.

Let's get to know each other.  
Your hosts will be two professors who taught your undergrad German courses, really great people: Mr. Haskell and Mrs. Haskell, whom you count among your friends. Every year, undergrads from the grimy Boston campus picnicked for a day on the Haskells' farmette in Walpole. So you have been there four times with classmates and with German professors invited for the day. 

But Plath wasn't your professor then. Today he smells of pomade and aftershave. He is 20 years older than you are, but so was your engineering professor boyfriend, Karl. Your first love. Two years together. Then just before your college graduation, at dinner on your birthday no less, like heaving a brick through glass Karl said he was leaving for the summer, then going home to Austria. Pointedly he did not ask for your hand in marriage.

Two years passed, and then a month ago everyone in town read the newspaper and saw that your ex, Karl -- rich, top of his profession, future chief consultant on the Aswan Dam that stoppers the Nile; you'll secretly keep until the day you die the portrait showing his dueling scar -- is marrying a Radcliffe graduate student, a geologist. Your Bachelor of Secretarial Sciences degree blanches. This master's degree in English and German ought to temper it so no one will ask again whether you qualify to teach languages in high school.


Busy typing your 98-page bilingual thesis, substituting quotation marks for umlauts, you aren't aware that Mr. Plath was doing his homework too. As a graduate student often around the German department, you have chatted with Mr. Haskell, asking after Mrs. Haskell, who teaches B.U.'s vocational students. To Otto Plath they've spilled the tea about your glittering undergraduate career: valedictorian and yearbook editor '28, officer of this and that, faultlessly organized, employed now teaching high school, and as far as they knew not seeing anybody else. Mrs. Haskell met your ex and knows it kills you that he's marrying, but keeps mum. Otto crows about making extra money teaching Middle High German: Miss Schober got 15 students to register when Otto said he'd teach it if she got 10, doubting she'd persuade even five. He doesn't know you chaired the girls' debate team in high school.

(Fifty years later, talking to an audience, event caught on tape, earliest available recording of your voice, you are halting and cowed, fumbling, not at all like you were; and everybody hates you.)

Otto has also asked the dean of liberal arts, a pharaoh among men, Dr. William Marshall Warren, about dating a student, and he said to wait until she finished her coursework. History chair Dr. Warren Ault, Otto's age, right then had a graduate-student fiancee Aurelia's age. Ault said her Latin and typing were excellent. [1]

Otto liked the idea of a warm-hearted intelligent young wife with secretarial and editorial skills. Plus, Miss Schober, Mr. Plath approves of your strong tall frame. You don't know Latin but he will see to it that you learn. You like the idea of having a man take your mind off Karl, for once.

The Haskells offer to host Otto and his prospective date for a weekend after the semester's end. He has only to ask her. Come on, the Haskells say. It's ideal. She won't be scared.

[1], June 18, 2021.

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

"But You Stopped the Piston!"

Aurelia Plath shorthand annotation on London Magazine, p. 32

London Magazine in April 1963 and Encounter, in October 1963, published some of Sylvia Plath's "Ariel" poems, hot properties after her death. Encounter published a group of ten. Aurelia Plath collected and preserved magazines that published Sylvia's work, read them thoroughly, and wrote on them in longhand and Gregg shorthand, mourning or talking back to her famously dead daughter, or guiding future scholars and biographers to what they ought to notice.

In 1983 Aurelia donated her collection to Smith College's Plath archive. In Boxes 7 and 8, Dr. Gary Leising of Utica University found those two British litmags with shorthand annotations alongside two Plath poems, and sent me photos. As you know, I read shorthand. These annotations express mixed grief and fury.

Sylvia's poem "Years" (a favorite of mine), in London Magazine, includes these lines:

What I love is

The piston in motion.

Aurelia underlined and penciled alongside of this, "But you stopped the piston!"

She was speaking directly to Sylvia, a rarity among Aurelia's annotations. Aurelia visited this page more than once, adding an exclamation point in black ink.

In Encounter's shorthand annotation, on "Daddy," -- this is the context:

Encounter, October 1963
Penciled in shorthand next to "The vampire who said he was you" is " = Ted."

Understand that Aurelia knew the poem's references long before critics caught on. For years, through interview after interview, 1966, 1970, Aurelia withheld the "vampire's" identity, never said the "black telephone" incident was real and she had actually witnessed it. Ted Hughes told Aurelia she must stay silent about the circumstances of Sylvia's death or never see Sylvia's children again. Aurelia would not risk that. 

So under this gag rule, keeping secret the "why" of Sylvia's suicide that puzzled a generation of critics and fans -- had Sylvia Plath been in love with death? A victim of incest? A gifted woman driven mad? Was a crazy bitch? -- when journalists and biographers probed, Aurelia changed the subject, or simpered, said nothing and passed the cake plate.

But Aurelia could annotate. In shorthand, which no one else in the family could read, Aurelia penciled Ted's name. Besides pencil, in Encounter ther eis black ink, disclosing a second visit to the page, this time singling out identifying details. Dr. Leising added that on London Magazine's table of contents, Aurelia "marked a cross followed by the date of Sylvia's death. That little detail was, to me, a very poignant reminder of Aurelia's grief."

Not only that: where the poem says "I was ten when they buried you," Aurelia circled "ten" and wrote "8." Encounter's headnote, written by Ted, says Sylvia was nine when her father died. Aurelia corrected it to 8. These annotations, not dated, were probably made before it was widely known that Sylvia Plath's father died when she was eight: before 1975, when Aurelia Plath's preface to Sylvia's Letters Home made that clear.

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

What's In Biographer Linda Wagner-Martin's Archive?

Linda Wagner-Martin wrote and published Sylvia Plath: A Biography in 1987, and for many years it was the best Plath biography, enriched by details Aurelia Plath provided. Wagner-Martin first contacted Aurelia in 1984, sending her a draft subtitled A Literary Biography, and then interviewed her. Wagner-Martin secretly tape-recorded an interview and admitted to doing it. Aurelia was hurt and angry. Wagner-Martin's husband immediately returned the tape with apologies.

Aurelia forgave Wagner-Martin and kept in touch until 1990. Wagner-Martin also contacted other people acquainted with Sylvia Plath. In the Wagner-Martin files at the Lilly Library I found information and observations new to me, most of them not in any published biography:

Aurelia, age 13, in 1919 took on the care of her siblings, including her infant brother (born September 1919), while their mother was still weak from influenza and double pneumonia. This experience made Aurelia long to become a mother. (March 9, 1986)

Sylvia's classmate Donald Junkins, quoted as saying that Sylvia in Robert Lowell's poetry workshop looked "mousy," after reading the biography described Sylvia as "all silkwormy and opera-lonely and mono-blonde in that thin straggly way she had with her brain competing with everything in sight." Her lively classmate Anne Sexton outshone her. (Jan. 10, 1988.)

Eddie Cohen wrote Wagner-Martin (Sept. 3, 1985; Oct. 14, 1985) that Sylvia kept all letters she received, meticulously, as her mother did, and kept copies of her own letters. Cohen wrote to Aurelia after Letters Home was published in 1975, and from her first learned the details of Sylvia's ruined marriage and how Sylvia destroyed her second novel.

Regarding Plath biographies, "It is strange that nowhere have I read about my own education," Aurelia wrote Wagner-Martin on September 1, 1984. But that was Aurelia's own fault: "In those days a girl who made high grades kept the fact to herself -- it was unpopular to be a 'green stocking'! So the secret has been kept all these years that I [w]as Salutatorian of my high school class and Valedictorian of my college class. . . I am a retired Associate Professor Emerita -- really!" Wagner-Martin quoted this letter in this biography and a later one.

Gordon Lameyer, Sylvia's boyfriend in 1953 and '54, wrote Wagner-Martin in 1987 complaining that everyone he met, including Anne Sexton, asked him about Sylvia's virginity. Lameyer's unpublished memoir said Sylvia had sex with him only after secretly losing her virginity to a stranger because, Lameyer said, Sylvia was afraid to seem to her boyfriend like a beginner or unskilled.

Senior housing. Aurelia probably added the "Peace" sticker.
Dido Merwin criticized Wagner-Martin and Letters Home for not mentioning astrology when astrology had been essential to the Hughes-Merwin friendship. What Dido wrote in this 1985 letter about Ted and Sylvia's visit to Lacan is retold in grating detail in Dido's postscript to Anne Stevenson's 1989 Plath biography Bitter Fame.

The senior-housing complex where Aurelia lived her final ten years, North Hill, had 454 residents, most of them strangers to Aurelia. The Wagner-Martin archive includes a Christmas greeting picturing the complex (Dec. 9, 1985; pictured) and a postcard photo of North Hill (June 25, 1990).

Elizabeth Sigmund alleged in a phone interview that Ted deliberately moved Sylvia to their Devon country home, "the most alien place he could have put her," to keep her isolated.

"I have read, weeks ago, your [manuscript]. . . I am very pleased with most of it. . ." Aurelia wrote to Wagner-Martin in June 1984. Aurelia objected chiefly to the the portrayal of herself. She told Wagner-Martin she had not been an absent parent but was always home when school-aged Sylvia and Warren came home from their extracurricular activities.

Perry Norton's ex-wife Shirley (Mrs. Tom Waring) wrote on March 28, 1985 that Mrs. Mildred Norton, mother to young Sylvia's friends Perry and Dick, was a "charming but manipulative mother" whose sons had to excel academically, win scholarships, and become doctors. "And from Mildred too was the frantic message against physical attraction" that made sensitive Perry a worrier. Mildred sent eldest son Dick away to boarding school because he was becoming attracted to a girl.

It was known in the 1980s that a character named "Esther Greenwood" appears in a 1916 short story, "The Unnatural Mother," by first-wave feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman. ("Greenwood" was Sylvia's grandmother's maiden name, and Sylvia had a cousin Esther in Boston.)

Aurelia congratulated Wagner-Martin on her "most attractive book" on October 29, 1987, but not without bitterly criticizing again the portrayal of herself, which caused her a "pressure-heart attack." On January 10, 1989, Aurelia wrote a thank-you note for two copies. And thanked the author again on June 25, 1990, for sending the "fine English paperback."

A sample of Ted's and Olwyn's objections to Wagner-Martin's manuscript.

Young Sylvia and Warren were always invited to "professors' kids" summer picnics and Christmas parties, according to a July 13, 1984 interview with C. Loring Brace (1930-2019). Aurelia at these events met Loring's mother Margaret, a Boston University graduate who "may have had a class from Otto Plath. She befriends Aurelia and always felt sorry for her, married to Otto. He was a real tyrant, and Aurelia suffered. So her need for companionship of other educated women was real. Mildred Norton and Margaret Brace were sorority sisters at B.U. . . Made the Plath-Norton connection much easier." Wagner-Martin paraphrased this information, leaving out the reference to Otto.

The thickest folder in the Wagner-Martin Box 1 holds letters from Olwyn Hughes, starting in 1982. In 1986 Olwyn read Wagner-Martin's final draft and sent the biographer 15 pages of deletions and changes [a sample is pictured] required by Ted and herself. Olwyn kept requesting changes until Wagner-Martin balked. Olwyn then denied Wagner-Martin permission to quote from Sylvia's poems. Despite the Plath Estate's efforts, Wagner-Martin's biography was published and she went on to publish another, more specifically literary biography, Sylvia Plath: A Literary Life (1999; second edition, 2003) and four other Plath-related books I know of.

Tuesday, June 7, 2022

See Aurelia In These Two Rare Educational Videos, Now Online

I am pleased to provide (at last!) access through these private links to two made-for-television videos, produced in 2000 for the "Sylvia Plath" segment of The Poets of New England series. They include rare footage of Aurelia Plath. At the time she was filmed (1986) Aurelia was 80 years old, and you bet she gets her say about how Sylvia's poetry creatively transformed her parents, Otto and Aurelia, into figures with the stature of myth.

Dr. Richard Larschan, professor of English and Aurelia's good friend, wrote and narrates these well-wrought 28-minute films woven through with Sylvia's image and recorded voice. 

-The "Monstrous Mother" video interprets "Medusa" ("that stinking poem," Aurelia says), "The Disquieting Muses," "Morning Song," "Kindness," and a portion of "Three Women" which Aurelia recites from memory and savors. 

-The "Omnipresent/Absent Father" features "Ballad Banale," "The Colossus," "Electra on Azalea Path," "Daddy," and the graveyard scene from The Bell Jar. Aurelia appears mostly in this video's first few minutes. Sylvia demonstrated intense creativity as she tried in each poem to articulate her mixed feelings about her father and his early death. Note that for the purpose of this video Sylvia's recording of "Daddy" has been abridged.

I think you'll be surprised, especially by the "Monstrous Mother" video.

These videos are not public. They are available online only through this site. I did not want YouTube ads posted on them. I wanted to preserve for online study the contents of these videos still otherwise confined to VHS format [pictured] and did the transfer at my own expense. Please do not copy, sample, embed, or alter these videos. Thank you.

*Sylvia Plath and the Myth of the Monstrous Mother

*Sylvia Plath and the Myth of the Omnipresent/Absent Father

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Aurelia's Edits to Sylvia's Letters: A Sample

Is it okay with you that Aurelia Plath in Letters Home (1975) quoted one of Sylvia’s letters as saying:


Aurelia Plath, 1960s

  Had a sad, longing . . . letter from Dick


when Sylvia’s original said:


  also a sad, longing pathetic letter from dick


Sylvia’s steady boyfriend Dick Norton had been hospitalized for tuberculosis. Sylvia visited him once and wrote her mother on February 25, 1953, that she did not want to visit him again. Her reason, in the Letters Home version:


  The thing I am afraid of is that he will try to extort a promise to him to try again when he comes out . . .


while the original says:


  The thing I am afraid of is that he will propose to me when he sees me face to face, will try to extort a promise to him to try again when he comes out . . .


Aurelia should have indicated with ellipses her deletion of “propose to me when he sees me face to face,” but she did not. This is called a silent edit. It is not the only one in the book.


To see how much editing, and what kind of editing, Sylvia Plath’s mother Aurelia did when crafting her selection of Sylvia’s letters titled Letters Home, I compared it with the original Plath letters that a team meticulously transcribed and published in two volumes in 2017 and 2018. As my sample, I selected at random the span of Plath’s letters from February 25 to May 15 of 1953.


Sylvia was then a junior at Smith College, doing her schoolwork, writing and sending out new poems, and dating Myron Lotz while breaking up with Dick Norton, one of three sons of close family friends. The Nortons and Aurelia had hoped Dick and Sylvia would marry. Sylvia’s letter of February 25 explains why it won’t happen. Here is another excerpt from that letter in Letters Home. The words within the brackets were cut and replaced with ellipses:


“I could never be happy married to him: physically I want a colossus; <hereditarily, I want a good sane stock;> mentally I want a man who isn’t jealous of my creativity in other fields than children.” 


Aurelia’s edit did let readers know why Sylvia thought Dick fell short of her ideals. But Sylvia’s opinion that the Norton family’s genetics were less than good or sane got cut. This was not to make Sylvia seem like a nicer girl. The statement, were it published, fits the legal definition of libel: 1) it is not true 2) it smears living people and 3) might cause mea$$$urable damages to the prospects of the Norton clan for generations to come. In 1975 the Nortons were all living and rich enough to sue, as were most of the people Sylvia in her letters had made rude remarks about.

Sylvia’s breakup ruined Aurelia’s treasured friendship with Mrs. Norton. Aware of this, Sylvia in the next letter home explained her reasoning at length. Aurelia omitted from Sylvia’s letter of 28 February-1 March 1953:


  as you may imagine, the whole dick affair distresses me no end. I feel a great pity for him, and a sad sort of maternal fondness; but you know how fatal that has been to love in the past. I feel, ever since I made the irrevocable decision not to marry him last summer, that I am suddenly, blissfully free of an overwhelming bear trap. for one thing, as I said, I wouldn’t want to marry perry’s brother because I have always been fond of perry, even though I would never marry him either because he is too intensely singleminded for me (and I am very happy he has found shirley, because I like her: she is my type of person.) as much as I love the nortons, I am glad I’m not marrying into their family. barring the hereditary liabilities involved in tying up with dick, I feel that our protracted togetherness would be abrasive, more than anything else. we are too alike in the unfortunate ways. I have analyzed this thing for two years now in my notebook, and I am soon going to need another notebook. in case you are ever over at the Harvard Coop, or could persuade Mr. Aldrich to get it for you, I would like an exact duplicate in the form of my book now: about the size of typing paper, ruled, etc. 


Assigned to choose among and abridge Sylvia’s letters, Aurelia deleted boring or repetitive material, including the next 1200 words from the above letter. The topics were Dick, his brother Perry, Sylvia’s date with Myron to see maple sugaring, and her position as secretary on her college’s electoral board. What remains of that letter in Letters Home tells of a Smith student gushing to Sylvia that she had read Sylvia’s work and was a fan. And Sylvia was glad Aurelia liked her villanelles. This suggests that Aurelia prioritized for Letters Home Sylvia’s mentions of writing and publishing; that is, Aurelia shaped the material for readers interested in her daughter as a writer.


Deleted from Sylvia’s original letter of March 9, 1953 is her disgust that Dick had gained weight in the hospital. Sylvia wrote that she and Myron “both hate fatness.” Did readers need to know this? Is this deletion proof that Aurelia in Letters Home hid Sylvia’s unhappy and unpleasant side? Would you reinstate it?


Was Aurelia slighting Sylvia’s creativity when in Letters Home, letter of March 17, Aurelia corrected “Myron Michael Lotz thinks I am brilliant creative and beautifulallatonce” to “Myron Michael Lotz thinks I am brilliant-creative-and-beautiful-all-at-once”? Or was that just Aurelia’s pedantry? I think it’s pedantic to fifty years later rip Aurelia and Letters Home for imperfect fealty to Sylvia’s text when portraiture rather than fealty was the plan.


In the letter of April 25, Aurelia silently moved a sentence from one place to another. “Mentally, I dedicate this Harper’s triumph to you, my favorite person in the world” was placed in front of “The Atlantic and the New Yorker remain my unclimbed Annapurnas.” There are more such cut-and-paste edits in Letters Home but too few and minor to harp on when the whole book ended up a cut-and-paste threats-and-lawyers free-for-all so fraught that Aurelia once considered substituting for Letters Home a book of Sylvia’s letters paraphrased.


The most frequent edits in the sample were capitalization and punctuation. Aurelia changed periods to exclamation points and vice versa. Letters Home replaced Sylvia’s original ellipses with dashes. Ellipses in the published Letters Home indicate deletions made by Aurelia, by Ted Hughes (who suggested cutting “drastically” in his letter of July 16, 1974), and Aurelia’s editor, advised by lawyers about living people’s right to privacy. Cut, cut, cut; then reinstate some cuts. The same issue of The New York Times Book Review that printed a negative review of Letters Home (page 1) printed the editor’s explanation (page 37) of how and why the book’s content had been compromised.


The Letters of Sylvia Plath set out to collect and print every single letter Sylvia wrote to anyone, unabridged and exactly as she wrote it. Letters Home had a different goal.

Is that okay with you? 

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Finding Barbara Greenwood, Sylvia's Great-Grandmother

Aurelia Plath's maternal grandparents Mathias and Barbara Greenwood, parents of Sylvia's "Grammy," were both over 50 when they came from Vienna and settled in Denver, Colorado. Aurelia definitely met them; she and her mother took a road trip out West in 1922. 

Barbara Greenwood's children on official papers had given Barbara's maiden name as Meier, Beier, Heimer, and Hemmer. [1] According to Vienna church records, Barbara's maiden name was Bayer (pronounced "byer"). Her father Franz was Hungarian and in Vienna changed his name from Paier (also spelled Pajer) to Bayer. Through Franz, Sylvia was part Hungarian.

Barbara married Matthias Grunwald, a waiter, and at age 54 left Vienna to join him and their children in the U.S. and arrived with her daughter Barbara, age 27, and son Richard, 12. [2] In the 1910 census Mathias and Barbara, last name "Greenwood," were renting a house in Denver. Barbara spoke English; Mathias did not. Their daughter Aurelia Romana Greenwood had come to the U.S. and married waiter Francis Schober, and in 1906 they had a baby girl named Aurelia, who became Sylvia Plath's mother.

In the 1920 census, Barbara Greenwood, 65, is called "Betty," a nickname for Barbara. Barbara Greenwood was buried as "Betty Josephine Greenwood" in Nebraska, which is why it took me ages to confirm any basics about her. Aurelia said her mother's mother had been an orphan; that is proven true. Roman Catholic parish records from the 1700s to the 1900s show absolutely no Jewish family background.

Barbara and Mathias rest in adjacent plots in North Platte Cemetery, which fronts on the Lincoln Highway in Lincoln County, Nebraska. This information is from that cemetery's records:

Mathias Greenwood: Born 19 February 1849 in Vienna. Died 19 June 1926, age 77. Barbara Greenwood: Born 24 September 1854, place not stated. (Her baptismal record says Vienna.) Died 24 May 1945, age 90.

Why should a great-parent matter? Because Sylvia Plath didn't appear out of nowhere. None of us do. 

[1] "Bayer" is confirmed on the marriage record in the Vienna Austria Catholic Church Records 1600-1960, "Hammer" was Mathias's mother's maiden name.

[2] Richard was in fact the son of 27-year-old Barbara, Junior (1879-1966). The 1930 U.S. census records that Barbara Junior's age at first marriage was 15. In the U.S. she married Henry A. Davis who had a son, Frank. Richard as an adult moved to Michigan and Aurelia, later in life, visited her cousin and his family there.

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

"Be Sure That You Conform to the Rules"

The student handbook from Aurelia’s alma mater divided its rules into sections:

  • Rules
  • College Rules
  • Dormitory Rules
  • Miscellaneous College Rules
  • Reminders
“Remember that you are being watched”

These rules, formulated by the college’s student government, include a 5 percent reduction in your final grade for each unexcused absence from class, and 2.5 percent off for tardiness. The dormitory had mandatory study hours and curfews. The handbook said that more important than good grades were high standards of personal conduct and character.

“to be very strictly enforced”

My point is that at Aurelia’s all-female college in midtown Boston in the 1920s and early 1930s caution and conformity were not unusual values. Nor were they Bostonian or working-class values; handbooks from women’s colleges in all regions, including Smith College, said much the same. [1] So what Plath fans like to call “Aurelia’s Victorian values” were not Aurelia’s own inventions or her personal failings. They were cultural and institutional norms. [2]


I was delighted to find on eBay three consecutive Boston University College of Practical Arts and Letters (CPAL) handbooks/personal appointment calendars for the school years beginning in 1932, 1933, and 1934. That was not too long after Aurelia’s graduation in 1928. CPAL student Gudrun Hetzel owned and wrote in all three of them brief personal notes about her classes, campus events, and social life. I hoped Hetzel’s cellphone-sized handbooks would bring me nearer to understanding Aurelia Schober Plath’s undergraduate experience.


Hetzel noted that CPAL tuition in 1932 was $180 per year; textbooks $1-$5 each; lunch 25 cents. On Hetzel’s calendar were dances, sorority rush, the German Club play, teas, numerous meetings of clubs and classes. She took and proctored exams. She wondered, “Is a real Christian ever blue?” Every Wednesday a mandatory assembly featured a guest speaker. In 1932-33 Hetzel penciled several pages of undated notes about Richard B. Harrison, African-American actor who at 65 had his first Broadway role as “De Lawd” in Green Pastures. The performance was so celebrated it landed him on the cover of Time. [3] Hetzel’s calendar does not say she saw the play.


From year to year CPAL rules did not change, but the 1932 handbook’s gleeful pages about earning pins and letters for CPAL athletics were reduced and moved to the back of the handbook in 1933-1934, the worst year of the Great Depression. Hetzel made these notes:


1933, February 4: “all banks in country closed for bank holiday – no one can draw out money except for payrolls and necessities after holiday ends”


1933, March 13: “Poverty party” [4]


1933, March 18: “Papa stopped working”


Hetzel said no more about her home or family. CPAL had opened in 1919 as a business-science a.k.a. secretarial school, but like Aurelia, Hetzel was a “degree student” preparing to become a teacher of languages. Hetzel’s senior-year courses in fall 1934 were Philosophy, Foreign Affairs, French, German Drama, and German 13-14. In spring 1935 Hetzel studied Psychology of Education, French, “Soc,” Shakespeare, and Ethics.

Hetzel’s calendar, September 1934. Sat. 29 says, Picnic at Haskell’s Farm, the shorthand says “with Sam”. Sun. 30 says, “Football game in the afternoon, supper, movies in the evening.”

Several of Hetzel’s notes are in Gregg shorthand. Hetzel met a man named Sam in December 1933. In February he brought her Valentine candy. I liked seeing their romance unfold week to week. Sam became her only date for dances. They also went sledding, and to a Red Sox game, and horseback riding. Just before graduation in 1935 Hetzel wrote, “Engaged to Sam.” Her Gregg shorthand notes say nothing scandalous, and only one surprised me:


In her senior-year handbook Hetzel wrote that a Mr. Benson recommended her to the North Andover (MA) school district to teach German, or French and English. He might have been the one who advised her:


Applying for position

  • smooth appearance
  • no nail polish
  • Type-write letter 
  • [in Gregg shorthand] religion will make a difference


[1] For example, North Carolina College for Women handbook, 1929-30: “The best things in life must necessarily come from service and self-sacrifice.” Typical of men’s-college handbooks was the dean’s message to Amherst’s class of 1933 stressing how others had sacrificed so that they might flourish.

[2] Gordon Lameyer’s unpublished memoir, p. 214, refers to “her rigid, Victorian values” (but wanted Aurelia to be his mother-in-law anyway).

[3] Time magazine, March 4, 1935, retrieved 24 April 2022.

[4] Guests at a poverty party wear ragged or dated clothing and hairdos, speak with ethnic or regional accents, take refreshments in tin cups, etc. Usually such parties were fundraisers.

N.B.: Gudrun Hetzel and Sam Hodges married in June 1936 and had three children. Gudrun died in 1988 and Sam in 1991, both in Florida, and were buried in the Hetzel family plot in Woburn, Massachusetts.