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 Etsy.com):
Choice of 12 colors, $64 made to order: https://tinyurl.com/msccn456

“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!