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. https://acdc.amherst.edu/view/asc:1407028/asc:1407057

[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.

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

The Movie of Letters Home (1986): Four Stars Out of Five

Letters Home

Directed by Chantal Akerman

In French with English subtitles. 104 minutes

Playing on Mubi.com; free viewing with a 7-day trial


Sit through the first few minutes of the film Letters Home and it will get better. I could not believe that playing over the opening credits of Letters Home was the old English nursery rhyme/street song “Hot Cross Buns,” repeated until my initial shock and distaste gave way and the lyric came through: “If you have no daughter, give them to your son.”


Realizing the song must refer somehow to Sylvia and Aurelia Plath, I began to overthink it. Street vendors sold hot-cross buns on Christian Good Fridays and still do. The song is short, simple, cloying, rhyming. Female voices sing it in English for a French-language film; the song, attested from the eighteenth century, is in the public domain. It asks for pennies. The song is—it’s—it’s trivial! It’s trivializing Sylvia Plath!

Outraged but unable to think of any music I might prefer in its place, reason at last stripped away from my thinking all but the plainest facts about Sylvia Plath. She was human, a child, flesh and bone and fat, a daughter and sister in a family that earned its daily bread. She had heard the banalities all children hear, and those that young women hear (cue Brenda Lee singing her hit “I’m Sorry”). Sylvia married, had children, and died, and that is ordinary too. Eventually it gets through to me that the film is not about a legend but about a life.

Then I hear the typewriting. We are shown a small stage. It will be a filmed play. A Sylvia figure, in near-silhouette, scampers in, wearing a bronze-colored strapless top and tulle skirt, fairylike except that her feet pound the bare floor. The backdrop is blue sky with white clouds. Oh, no, I thought. The cliches . . . of arty videos made in 1986, their colors now faded and mossy, aqueous . . . Having said nothing, Sylvia scampers off, and I am about to click away . . .

Then arrives, like a great ship in a harbor, a middle-aged Aurelia in a chic skirt suit, pumps, and pearls, blond hair in a perfect French roll. She seats herself, faces the camera and in French (because it’s a French movie) first thanks Warren and Margaret Plath, and Ted Hughes for giving copyright permission, and dedicates her book to her grandchildren Frieda, Nicholas, Jennifer, and Susan: real people. These are in fact the opening words of Rose Leiman Goldemberg’s play Letters Home (1979); this movie, based on the Paris production, is its only filmed version. Immediately, then, there is tension between the real and the dramatized, embodied in the Aurelia figure.

Act II: “We can hardly see each other over the mounds of diapers and demands of babies”

Playing the Aurelia role is European-avant-garde actor Delphine Seyrig, star of Last Year at Marienbad (1961), later the founder of a feminist film collective and a director herself. Letters Home director Chantal Akerman had at age 25 directed Seyrig in Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), (“the first masterpiece of the feminine in cinema” –New York Times). Akerman’s News From Home (1976) featured her own mother’s letters mailed from Belgium to New York where young Akerman was living on the cheap and making experimental films. English speakers might not recognize these names. But be assured that the film knows exactly what it is doing, and after the first few minutes it reveals what a good play Rose Leiman Goldemberg wrote and what an intense movie Akerman made from Aurelia Plath’s edit of Sylvia Plath’s Letters Home (1975).

Because the two actors voice only the written words of Aurelia and Sylvia Plath, viewers can sense what it was like to live Sylvia’s life but also how it might have felt to receive  these letters churning with anxiety and pathos and giddy with Sivvy’s love, not for her mother—love cannot grow in this desert of a stage set—but for fairy-tale moments such as Maureen Buckley’s coming-out party, the scene that will hook you. In the stage play and film, mother and daughter, in a verbal duet, revel in Sylvia’s lyrical retelling (“There is a sudden glorying in womanhood, when someone kisses your shoulder and says ‘You are charming’. . .”). Later, though, when Sylvia rhapsodizes about being Mrs. Edward James Hughes, Aurelia, having been Mrs. Otto Emil Plath, knows better. As Sylvia expends the energy of her one and only life on her husband, her bébés, and country house, the soundtrack writhes: more nursery songs, Charlie Parker’s sax, crying infants, snippets from classical music, while Sylvia articulates for her mother her ambitions and troubles.

There are no poems in the script. Every word is from Sylvia’s letters as they appear in the book Letters Home and from Aurelia’s preface and headnotes. In another stage production each character sat at her own desk, suggesting Aurelia too was a writer. The script gives them equal face time. This annoyed some critics. We go to Letters Home for Sylvia and only Sylvia. Yet once in a while the drama Letters Home makes us see and hear her mother. Or Sylvia addresses her brother Warren, reminding us that Sylvia came from a home and a family. Like most people, while wanting independence from her family, she replicates it.

“I am so happy, so encouraged!” Act II

Coralie Seyrig, Delphine’s real-life niece, plays Sylvia Plath, the forces that shaped her expressed with clever costumes: A button-front dress with earrings and a pillbox hat for a month in New York becomes a bathrobe for the summer of 1953. The Sylvia of Act II wears a braid. Aurelia, though, never alters. She pages through letters and photo albums, even while grieving is cucumber-cool, as we know Aurelia Plath was not. In summer 1962 a humiliated Sylvia sends Aurelia away and enforces the distance. With an ocean of space between them, for a time they talk over one another, helpless not to. Then there is only Aurelia left to speak her daughter’s words.

With Goldemberg’s script in hand, I can tell you that the movie makes deletions, mostly in Act II, largely from script pages 24 and 26, referring to Smith College in 1954 and 1957. They are good deletions.

  • Chantal Akerman (1950-2015) directed 40 films, created artworks, wrote books, and taught. Personally, Akerman was so enmeshed with her mother, a Holocaust survivor, she lived only a year after her mother’s death, dying of suicide at 65. Letters Home is not mentioned in critical works or obituaries. It seems to have been a made-for-television movie.
N.B. Yes, I caught on the soundtrack in Act II the German lyric “mit ein Schiessgewehr” [lit., “with a gun”], from a children's song that says never to play with a gun; it might be loaded.

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

A Photo of Otto's First Wife and In-Laws

Here is a family photo of Otto Plath's first wife, Lydia Bartz, with her sisters and their mother Mathilde Kluck Bartz, taken near their home at Fall Creek, Wisconsin, on July 22, 1912. Soon afterward, Lydia left home for Washington State and married Otto Plath on August 7, 1912.

Besides the daughters in the photo, mother Mathilde (1855-1941; second from left) gave birth to four sons and a younger daughter, for a total of ten children. Three of the sons and the younger daughter died in infancy. The son who lived to adulthood, Rupert, introduced his sister Lydia to Otto Plath.

Pictured, left to right: Alma (b. 1887); proud mother Mathilde; Dora (b. 1885); Caroline (b. 1895); Lydia (b. 1889), and Odelia (b. 1892). A published, captioned photo shows Caroline and Odelia Bartz with a friend on the day of their high-school graduation; they were in the local high school's first graduating class.

Of all of Mathilde's girls only Lydia married, and at the time of this photo Lydia had worked for two years as a clerk in a general store; she wrote "clerk" on her marriage license. Lydia and Otto separated within a few years of marriage, but did not divorce until much later. None of the girls had children. Rupert (b. 1890) married and had two children.

When Mathilde Kluck married August Bartz (1839-1901), a U.S. Civil War veteran, he was a widower with seven living children. Lydia's half-sister Pauline Bartz Robinson, along with Rupert, witnessed Lydia and Otto's wedding in Spokane. August and Mathilde were both born in Posen, Prussia, the area Otto Plath and his family came from. The source of the above photo is an Ancestry.com gallery that stated the date the photo was taken and identified each woman. 

More about Lydia Bartz Plath's life and career.

Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Who Am I? Your Host Tells All

Paying my respects at the William S. Burroughs centennial, St. Louis.

I am Catherine Rankovic, living in Missouri USA within driving distance of the Lilly Library Plath archives and easy flying distance from Emory. In my twenties I lived in Boston, Massachusetts, wrote for newspapers and magazines, drank and vomited in Kenmore Square (a crowd was cheering me! That’s Boston!) and haunted Harvard Square bookstores. A friend and I, radical feminists, saw John Updike in Harvard Square and yelled after him, “We hate your books!”


How did you get interested in Sylvia Plath?


My high-school friend pinched her mother’s copy of The Bell Jar. I read that flirty Lois Ames endnote about Plath’s poetry and suicide. My Ariel paperback I inscribed with the date “6-10-74.”


That was a long time ago.


Back when typewriters made noise and telephones rang I read Plath books as they were published and watched Plath fandom and scholarship unfold. I published my first Plath article in 1982; where were you? But time and only time equipped me for the honor of doing Plath studies a service. Many thanks to those who crowd-funded the first days, in 2013, of my Aurelia Plath shorthand transcription project, encouraging my further inquiries and the creation of this online Aurelia biome.


What are your academic credentials?


B.A. Journalism, Marquette University; M.A. English Literature, Syracuse University; M.F.A. poetry, Washington University in St. Louis. I left Boston, age 29, for graduate studies that cost me nothing; both schools paid my way. Syracuse was stringent: huge reading loads and criticism about criticism and transcribing medieval manuscripts. Washington University paid my train ticket to visit the campus. My host Eric Pankey and I were in the department hallway when Howard Nemerov shuffled up, in blue felt bedroom slippers, saying, “Did you hear? Did you hear?” He had just been named U.S. Poet Laureate. I could drop you names galore. Derek Walcott quit needling me after I called him a tyrant. Diane Wood Middlebrook talked to me for three hours about her Anne Sexton biography. I studied with and interviewed for print all types of poets, fiction writers, and biographers. Thirteen interviews are collected in my (fourth) book, Meet Me: Writers in St. Louis. Sylvia’s favorites T.S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, and Sara Teasdale were all born in St. Louis. You can see here also Kate Chopin’s house and the Tennessee Williams Glass Menagerie Apartments.


How can we trust someone with no Ivy League ties or Ph.D.?


Assuming that one must be so certified, so tinselled, must belong to that club to write about Plath, who was kinda-sorta a member of that club although she decided it sucked, has left gaps and enormous blind spots in Plath scholarship. [1] Aurelia is one of those blind spots. It would still be that way were I not here.


What are your languages?


German, helpful with Plath studies if I keep it up. Rusty Russian but enough to tell a rare-books library that their manuscripts were not Marina Tsvetayeva’s. Gregg shorthand. My mother’s parents were Poles from Belarus. A clerk-typist, Mom had me trained as a secretary. Neither of my parents was college educated. Dad was Serbian. A blacksmith’s apprentice, he went to war and was a prisoner in Germany from 1941 to 1945. He arrived at Ellis Island in 1950 and worked in a foundry with other displaced persons, who became family friends. Dad was proud that his kids, all U.S.-born, got “real high educated.” But it was crucial that Mom was an American and employed outside the home.

Serbian refugees enjoying life in America, studio photograph. The drinks and food are studio props. My stepfather, top row, fourth from left.


Why do you focus on Aurelia Plath?


Aurelia has a place in Plath studies. I’m not sure of its magnitude; it will take more than one scholar to assess that. I understand that Sylvia is a career but Aurelia is not, so in the past 40 years there had been no incentive to probe: What did Aurelia do? Where did she study? Do Sylvia’s letters prove that theirs was a sick relationship? Did Aurelia really “never have much of a life”? Compared to whose? Why is it, when viewing a photo of Sylvia and her brother, that scholars see only Sylvia? What are the facts? Primary materials engage me most.


Do you love Aurelia?


No. She did her job. While admiring Sylvia’s writing and striving I also see she had every advantage available. I value objectivity. The unnoticed and unsaid intrigue me. Aurelia was the first to notice Sylvia’s talent and nurture it. Sylvia was Otto’s mini-me, a difficult daughter for Aurelia to raise. Yet theirs was an alliance, the most durable Sylvia had, and it worked.


Why don’t you emote more? Like, describe your deep feelings or how Sylvia’s handwriting looks like brass knuckles or how intensely you identify with Sylvia or dream about her?


Don’t I emote? I once dreamed I received a Sylvia Plath kit. All it contained was a pair of ears and a pair of eyes.


[1] No study has yet addressed Plath's anti-academic stance, as expressed in her letters of 1/29/57, 3/12/57, 11/5/57, and 11/28/57, for starters.