Tuesday, September 6, 2022

This Famous Plath Happy-Family Photo

I finally read Otto Plath’s book Bumblebees and Their Ways (1934), by a bee geek who spent the 1920s digging up and micromanaging 225 colonies of bees, observing their eating, breeding, and warring and compiling his discoveries. The first 131 pages are prose; the other 70, taxonomy. Otto got stung enough to put him into bed. His introduction says, “It is my ambition and hope to continue the investigations of the past thirteen summers by devoting at least three months each year to the study of bumblebees in various parts of the world.”

Three months per year? One wonders: with or minus the new wife and baby acquired in 1932? Finishing the manuscript – a dissertation he and Aurelia rewrote for lay readers -- got Otto promoted to full professor of biology. Aurelia Plath later wrote about the book: “Won my husband recognition and lost him money.” But before the book was published they hoped it might make them rich.

So the family celebrated in July 1933, taking the only known photo of Sylvia Plath with both her parents and the only one of Aurelia with Otto. They’re on a hillside in the Arnold Arboretum, the park where Otto spent the Jazz Age observing bees and was still not over it. (His book says observations continued until October 1933.) I wonder if Otto’s dream deferred, for lack of funds or excess of human baggage, ultimately made his life seem not worth living.

On this clearly sunny and hot day in Boston, Aurelia is wearing a fur piece over her shoulder. A wintertime photo shows her with a fur scarf – fur was fashionable – but this more substantial piece resembles a wrap or collar. Puzzling over fur in July I have imagined it was Otto’s thank-you for the year and a half he browbeat Aurelia and yelled while they edited the book that ate their marriage (“My, how he lit into me” when she used too many adjectives, she said). Aurelia called this “too academic an atmosphere” for infant Sylvia and brought in her own parents to supply love and laughter [Letters Home, 13]. The other photo from that day shows Aurelia looking much happier posed with her mother and Sylvia, with no fur unless it’s beneath Aurelia’s hat. I don’t want to read too much into Sylvia’s expressions.

Aurelia Schober, Sylvia Plath, Aurelia Plath