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, ancestry.com. "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.