Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Otto Plath Was A Pacifist -- Not

The only known photo of Aurelia Plath with Otto, July 1933.

Sylvia’s Plath’s poem “Daddy,” written in 1962, implies that her Prussian immigrant father was a Nazi. He was not. But it is time to stop saying “Otto was a pacifist.” His widow Aurelia Plath promoted that view, idealizing her late husband before undercutting him by telling much more. Her preface to Letters Home (1975) says Otto Plath emigrated from Prussia to the U.S. to escape compulsory military service and told her he would never bear arms. As an entomologist Otto had such reverence for life that he grieved when he stepped on ants, and forbade his wife and children to kill any bugs except mosquitoes and houseflies. [1]

Thus defined, pacifism is principled opposition to war but also a way of life. Nothing in the record of Otto’s life demonstrates a principled commitment to peace or peacemaking. Millions of men have dreaded, and still dread, conscription and the hardships of army life. Otto’s Prussia drafted all men at age 20 for three years of service and five in the reserves. In Russia it was six years of service and nine in the reserves. You didn’t have to be a pacifist to hate this. Europeans in a great wave fled to the U.S. and Canada, Otto Plath in 1900, age 15. [2] Frenchman Emile Arnaud coined the word “pacifist” and it first appears in print in French and English in 1901. It means “peacemaker.”

When the FBI grilled German citizen Otto in 1918 as to his opinion of the war, he did not say he was a pacifist. Otto and Aurelia began dating in 1930 when he was 45, too old for military service, so any claims to pacifism then were for show. As a husband Otto made anything but peace. Aurelia testified to this at length in her preface to Letters Home and briefly in private letters. In public an estimable, even jovial professor, Otto at home was jealous, possessive, hectoring, and wrathful. He commandeered their household and forbade socializing. One year into their marriage, when “talking things out and reasoning” (Aurelia doesn’t admit to arguing) had failed, the formerly spirited young woman, a new mother, became submissive—because she wanted a peaceful home. (LH 13) Esther Greenwood, narrator of Sylvia’s novel The Bell Jar, says her mother learned she’d been baited-and-switched before her honeymoon began, “and from that day on my mother never had a minute’s peace.” (TBJ 69) 

Sylvia was four when they moved to a larger house. Otto the bug-lover was so volatile and irritable that when he was home Aurelia kept the children upstairs, confined and quiet. “Barely daring to breathe or whisper,” Sylvia wrote when drafting “Daddy”—and revised it to “barely daring to breathe or Achoo,” a word choice that plants the scene in her childhood.

In Letters Home Aurelia describes trying to pacify her Herr des Hauses. Aurelia had secret dinner guests, had her parents move into their 750-square-foot apartment for the first and second summers after her marriage: human shields. Letters Home reviewers did not recognize the marriage as abusive. Instead they jeered Aurelia as a "martyr," called Otto a “self-punishing” presence. [3] Aurelia made excuses: He was 21 years older than she, his mother had been terrible, his work was important, he had long lived alone, uncontrolled diabetes fueled his mood swings. But somehow Otto got tyrannical only at home. Not always, of course. Jekyll-and-Hyde types can be dear and loving when they choose, will even buy you a pearl necklace and fur (!) stole. But they will make you wear the fur on a July day just to show that you have it [pictured].

Sylvia Plath witnessed all this for her first eight years. Later she despised her mother for not standing up to and leaving the man Sylvia, never Aurelia, called an “ogre.” After Otto died Aurelia became a peace enforcer. Our “proofs” of Sylvia’s pacifism are mostly juvenilia created under the influence of her mother and peers (“Almost all my classmates are against all war,” [4]), such as her early poem “Bitter Strawberries,” and a self-portrait of schoolgirl Sylvia envisioning a battlefield and seeming to weep.  Adult Sylvia had opinions but never registered to vote and only watched for an hour a passing peace march in London in 1960.

When Sylvia in her journal remarks that Otto—waning in health and strength—“heiled Hitler in his own home,” it doesn’t mean he was a Nazi. Otto left Europe twenty years before the Nazi party existed. It means Otto was at that moment (at home) identifying with a dictator. Sylvia wrote in her story “Among the Bumblebees” about hearing through the walls, at night from her parents’ room, her father raising his voice “like thunder.” It wasn’t Sylvia he was yelling at. “Daddy”’s notorious “boot in the face” I hope is an invention. As of now, there is no record of physical assault in the Plaths’ marriage—only in Sylvia’s.

Sylvia identified with her father and came to revel in bullying first her brother Warren and then a Jewish neighbor boy, and she outdid her father in possessiveness. She chose to marry a “violent Adam,” policed his every move and jealously accused him. Letters Home excerpted her letter to Warren mentioning “every so often” marital fighting: sprained thumbs, missing earlobes. (LH, 344) Unlike her mother, Sylvia was not a submissive wife. She wrote in her journal: “I do not hit often. Once or twice.” Her unabridged journals (2000) gave startling details. [5] In 2018 some newly released Plath letters included her accusations of domestic violence. These were received by the press and by fans as if they were the first anyone had heard of violence in the marriage.

Sylvia’s parents had modeled for her a marriage so dysfunctional Sylvia expressed it in her art as the coupling of Nazi and Jew. “In the[ir] daughter the two strains marry and paralyze each other,” she said, introducing the poem “Daddy” on a BBC program. The daughter “has to act out the awful little allegory once over until she is free of it.” The poem draws a parallel not only between the worst traits of Sylvia’s father and her husband, but between the worst traits of Sylvia’s parents’ marriage and her own.

[1] ASP to MSC, May 1, 1972.

[2] Escaping conscription was a common reason for emigration. Donald Trump's Bavarian grandfather fled to the U.S. in 1885, age 16. When he returned to Germany for a visit, the German Empire convicted him of evading military service.

[3] New York Times Book Review, December 14, 1975, page 1.

[4] The Letters of Sylvia Plath, volume 1, page 140.

[5] Journals, June 11, 1958.

N.B. Celebrated pacifists who privately abused their spouses, children, or students/followers include Gandhi, Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein, Robert Lowell, John Lennon, and John Howard Yoder.

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Leaving 26 Elmwood Road

In 1983, six years after selling Sylvia’s letters and juvenilia, Aurelia Plath at 26 Elmwood Road in Wellesley still had “oceans of papers, out-of-print magazines, clippings of reviews, letters”; “dozens of boxes of family pictures; my notebooks (travel, journals)”; “four three-drawer filing cabinets, three desks, an eight-drawer bureau of papers.” While paging through these, she uncovered yet more. [1]

Age 77, after 40 years in that house Aurelia had to sell it and move to an apartment. She wanted the papers by and about Sylvia to go to the Sylvia Plath archive at Smith College’s library—donated, to get a tax break. Yet the prospect of sorting them was overwhelming.

That summer she told this to Wellesley neighbor and friend Dr. Richard Larschan, who volunteered his help. I asked Dr. Larschan where in the house Aurelia had kept all the papers and memorabilia so vital to Plath studies now.

“I only know that when we were sorting, Aurelia kept it in two walk-in closets in the room where her parents had slept,” he remembered. Self-described “pack rat” Aurelia “kept everything she touched in meticulous order—hundreds of letters neatly organized according to correspondent, and tied with ribbons.”

A U-Mass. professor of English (now Emeritus), Larschan was the right helper for sifting the goods systematically. He said they met “thrice-weekly [for] two- or three-hour sessions, during which Aurelia and I would evaluate the accumulation of 60-plus years, including things from Sylvia’s childhood like the letter opener she had carved, Sylvia’s Girl Scout uniform, Otto’s doctoral certificate, multiple copies of every newspaper clipping and magazine article Sylvia ever published, hundreds and hundreds of letters from readers of Letters Home, et cetera. I would type a list of things Aurelia would either discard, give to me, or donate to Smith and Indiana University after being evaluated by a rare-book expert.”

This task drained Aurelia emotionally. She wrote a friend, “Have to part with most reminders of my past—it hurts, as you know. (Eyestrain slows me down.)” Not only did her eyes hurt, but “Discarding thousands of pages of correspondence tugs at the heart. So many good people have given of themselves!” She means they threw away the fan letters. On the good side, Larschan and Aurelia developed a bond. Like Sylvia, he had had been a Fulbright fellow. At Exeter University in 1962-63 he had lived only fifteen miles from Ted and Sylvia’s Court Green, although they never met. Larschan admired Aurelia’s independence (“a burden to nobody”) while acknowledging her sometimes cloying sentimentality, rather like his own mother’s.

Sentimentality is of course repellent, but the next time you marvel over the rich resources in Plath archives, thank Sylvia’s sentimental mother.

Smith College received the donation in December 1983. Still, not every notable piece of paper went there. “In 1984,” Larschan said, “Aurelia gave me her correspondence with Olwyn Hughes about publishing (or NOT publishing!) The Bell Jar, which I sold to Smith College. She also gave me duplicate copies of Sylvia’s various publications that I sold privately and are now housed at Emory—along with [Sylvia’s] downstairs neighbor Trevor Thomas’s [self-published memoir] Last Encounters, inscribed to me when I lived in England."

Also withheld from the archives were Aurelia's own notebooks and journals, and photos of family members besides Otto or Sylvia: maybe of sister Dottie or son Warren, and so on. Asked if he saw any packets of Aurelia’s letters to Sylvia, Larschan said he did not.

So the task was completed. “When we were through cataloging and evaluating the materials Aurelia donated to Smith, in 1984 [Smith College] President Jill Ker Conway invited Aurelia and me for lunch, and so I drove us to Northampton,” Larschan said. [2] That lunch was their thank-you.


[1] ASP to Mary Ann Montgomery, letters of April 1980 and September 6, 1983, Lilly. ASP to Rose Leiman Goldemberg, postcards June and October 1983, Rose Goldemberg Papers, *T-Mss 2016-003, box 8, folder 1, Billy Rose Theatre Division, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

[2] Emails, Richard Larschan to the author, December 2 and 4, 2021.

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Before Sylvia Was Famous: A Review From 1962

Sylvia Plath's first collection of poems, The Colossus, was published in England in 1960 and in the U.S. in May 1962. The Oakland [California] Tribune ran this review on July 29, 1962. I thought it was a refreshing read, without all the biographical baggage Plath's poems carry today.

Book-review editors get literally tons of new books and can review in print only a select few. The reviewer, Jack Anderson (b. 1935) had the good taste to review The Colossus. In 1959 he had quit UC-Berkeley to work for the Oakland Tribune. Anderson became a New York Times dance critic and a pioneering dance historian as well as a poet.

Friday, January 7, 2022

Sylvia Plath's Sacred Baboon

Here's the "sacred baboon" Sylvia Plath found on the beach in Winthrop when she was two and a half years old, and described in her memoir "Ocean 1212-W":

According to "Ocean 1212-W," Sylvia found this "simian Thinker" washed up on the seashore the day her brother was born. She was jealous because she would no longer be her parents' only child. But finding the baboon sculpture on the beach that day was a sign that she was special.

The fact is that Sylvia did not find this sculpture. Her neighbor and playmate David Freeman found it, he said, between the ages of 8 and 14 (before 1946). It had drifted in covered with tar. David's father "figured it belonged to some sailor" and cleaned it. [1] The photograph is courtesy of David's sister Ruth Freeman, via Dr. Richard Larschan.

The ancient Egyptians honored Hamadryas baboons as one of the incarnations of their god of wisdom.  They portrayed these sacred baboons in art and made mummies of them. This particular sculpture was more recent, a remnant of a then-new Western fascination with hominid intelligence and behavior. In the 1920s, U.S. psychobiologist Robert Yerkes adopted chimpanzees, published a book about them titled Almost Human, and founded the first primatology laboratory, at Yale (it's now at Emory). Popular interest, plus the influence of Egyptian art on modern sculpture, culminated in the Baboon Fountain featured at the 1939 New York World's Fair. The photo below shows two of the fountain's five godlike baboon figures, with the fair's iconic Pylon in the background.

[1] Harriet Rosenstein's notes from her interview with David Freeman on 17 July 1974, Emory.

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Sylvia Plath's Poem "Daddy" in 2022

Here are four things to know when the topic of your essay or lesson plan in 2022 will be Plath’s poem “Daddy”: 


My Friend, My Friend

(for M.W.K., who hesitates each time she sees a young girl wearing The Cross)

Who will forgive me for the things I do?
With no special legend of God to refer to,
With my calm white pedigree, my yankee kin,
I think it would be better to be a Jew.

I forgive you for what you did not do,
I am impossibly guilty. Unlike you,
My friend, I can not blame my origin
With no special legend or God to refer to.

They wear The Crucifix as they are meant to do.
Why do their little crosses trouble you?
The effigies that I have made are genuine
(I think it would be better to be a Jew).

Watching my mother slowly die I knew
My first release. I wish some ancient bugaboo
Followed me. But my sin is always my sin.
With no special legend or God to refer to.

Who will forgive me for the things I do?
To have your reasonable hurt to belong to
Might ease my trouble like liquor or aspirin.
I think it would be better to be a Jew.

And if I lie, I lie because I love you,
Because I am bothered by the things I do,
Because your hurt invades my calm white skin:
With no special legend or God to refer to,
I think it would be better to be a Jew.

-Anne Sexton wrote this poem, first published in Antioch Review in 1959. Sylvia Plath probably saw one of its earlier drafts in the poetry-writing seminar Plath and Sexton attended in 1959, or maybe Plath read it in the Antioch Review, in which Plath published a poem in 1961. Sexton did not include this poem in any of her books, so it is not in Sexton’s The Complete Poems volume (1981), but is in Selected Poems of Anne Sexton (1988). “M.W.K.” is Sexton’s poet friend Maxine Kumin, who was Jewish.


“In Russia I was often asked why Plath had taken her own life, and I outlined all I knew—the adultery, the two children, the freezing cold, her history of depression—and was met with incredulity. Against these Russians’ desperate history of slaughtered millions, her misery seemed almost childish, and they had no belief in Freudian theory. They were missing, as perhaps Plath intended that they should, the pain that went to the very center of her fragmented self.”


-Elaine Feinstein (1930-2019), British poet, novelist, translator and biographer of the Russian poet Marina Tsvetayeva. The above is the concluding paragraph of “A Close Reading of ‘Daddy’,” an essay available in full here on the British Library website.



Plaths friend Clarissa Roche wrote in a memoir, Sylvia Plath: Vignettes from England, published in Sylvia Plath: The Woman and the Work (1977) that on a visit to Sylvia in November 1962, Sylvia read her a new poem, Daddy,” and both women laughed and laughed.


Consider how a neo-Nazi might respond to Daddy, neo-Nazis being fairly common now, as they were not when the poem was written 60 years ago.