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] bakerhistoryblog.com, 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