Tuesday, November 29, 2022

"I Love Her Work, I Hate Her Mom"

Looking for the root of the general contempt for Aurelia Plath, I thought some popular article or influential essay, some Ur-takedown, must have seeded it. Whether Aurelia deserves contempt is not the issue here. Contempt is in place before Sylvia's abridged Journals (1982) reveal Sylvia's now-canonical "hate her hate her" entry. It precedes the Letters Home backlash (1975). It precedes "Mrs. Greenwood's" appearance in The Bell Jar (U.S., 1971), "her face a perpetual accusation," the review in the New Yorker  said, although the novel does not say that.

Critical contempt was in place by 1970, when researcher Harriet Rosenstein, planning a Plath biography, interviewed Aurelia in Wellesley. Previous interviewees briefed Rosenstein on the whole tragic Plath story, and Rosenstein's interview notes show frustration at what Aurelia did not say (Aurelia never said "suicide") and judged what lay beneath what Aurelia did say: bitterness, resignation--nothing good. No other interviewee, of about sixty in all (and we are very grateful for these interviews), gets treated as if they failed a test of character. Rosenstein later reminded herself that her book's purpose was not to nail Aurelia to the wall but to explain the Ariel poems.

The Bell Jar in German, 1968

Rosenstein's biography was never published. In her early twenties, a feminist and up on the trends, she had read The Bell Jar in its U.K. edition and learned Esther hated her mother. Rosenstein located a short German review (1968) of the German translation of The Bell Jar. It said, "the mother smiles, suffering and forgiving and being a little too sweet." That scrap of a critique must have been reassuring, since U.K. reviews of The Bell Jar (1963) and subsequent essays, even one titled "An American Girlhood," do not mention a mother. At all! Instead they spotlight Buddy Willard, or Esther Greenwood's frequent references to babies. 

By 2003, Mrs. Greenwood looms very large:

In the novel The Bell Jar, Sylvia depicted her mother as a dominating, soul-destroying woman responsible for a good deal of the psychological pain that eventually led to Sylvia's suicide at the age of 30. [1]

The novel's text does not support such a reading. Re-reading shows Mrs. Greenwood's role in the novel is quite small.

Reviews and essays about Ariel's debut (1965, 1966) focus mostly on suicide and the poem "Daddy." Mom was such a bit player in this father-daughter drama that she is absent from the decade's Anglophone lit-crit except as a nameless factor in Sylvia's Electra complex. Critics didn't even know her name. M.L. Rosenthal in 1967 read The Colossus and wrote about the poem "The Disquieting Muses" as if it were about Sylvia's muses! In 2016 even the best of us firmly believed the same poem is "a fateful family romance" making it "easy to see what is wrong with Aurelia." [2]

My best efforts did not locate any "root." I saw instead faddish pop psychology expanding precisely alongside of Sylvia Plath's rise to fame. Sylvia in the 1950s knew Freudian theory was insubstantial but when troubled she returned to it, as to a faith, and in the 1960s put it in her novel. That fellow poets of the era wrote about their mental health problems and treatments made Sylvia Plath an ideal case study. Armchair analysis boils down to blaming mothers for whatever on the globe is wrong. Plath scholar Jacqueline Rose protested exactly this in her 2018 book Mothers (for example, governments blame mothers for having "too many children" or "not enough"). Yet Rose still manages to blame Aurelia Plath for quoting from Plath's "Three Women" lines other than the ones Rose thinks she should have.

The difference pop psychology has made between the 1960s and today is the difference between early Plath critics' dismay at the poem "Daddy"'s appropriation of the Holocaust and today's readers saying, "Sylvia's husband cheated on her and left her, and that was her personal holocaust. And her mother actually being there only made the breakup worse. Probably even caused it."

[1] Anita Gales, "What's My Motivation, Mom? Oh, It Must Be My Anger at You." New York Times, 7 September 2003, p. AR69.

[2] Pollack,Vivian. Our Emily Dickinsons. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.

Tuesday, November 1, 2022

Sylvia Plath's Harvard Summer School Rejection: The Teacher's Reason

Here is how and why author Frank O'Connor rejected Sylvia's application to his summer 1953 short-story writing course. O'Connor had first taught the course in summer 1952. He viewed Richard T. Gill as his top student that summer, and chose Gill as his assistant in summer 1953. I quote from the biography Voices: A Life of Frank O'Connor, by James Matthews (Atheneum, 1983):

"At the time O'Connor arrived [at Harvard], Gill had already narrowed down the applicants, among whom was a young woman named Sylvia Plath. O'Connor read her story and rejected her application at once. Gill was curious about the abrupt finality of this judgement and pressed the matter until O'Connor reminded him of the fellow whose madness had nearly fractured the class the year before. To his mind, Sylvia Plath's story suggested a similarly deranged mind. Later that summer his intuitions were confirmed by her breakdown [which was a local and national news story], in which, ironically, he had played some part." [289] . . . .

"Toward the end of the summer [O'Connor] was talking one evening with Dick and Betty [Gill and his wife] about Sylvia Plath's breakdown. Speculating that O'Connor might be harboring some guilt about the incident, Dick broached the subject of neurosis. O'Connor said that he avoided disturbed people because he could not deal with madness. Art to him was discipline . . . "[290]

Sylvia had submitted as her writing sample a typescript of "Sunday at the Mintons,'" published in Mademoiselle in August 1952.

Richard T. Gill (1927-2010) published some short stories, and became a Harvard professor of economics and an opera singer. See Gill's New York Times obituary here. Gill also gave biographer Matthews a detailed account of O'Connor's summer 1952 class (pp. 281-282). [1] Sylvia had met Richard Gill at a party (Journals, Dec. 16, 1958), and didn't like him.

Harvard's rejection letter, never located in any archives, might have told Sylvia she was "too advanced for the class." But schools and writing workshops even today use "you are too advanced" to deny admission to applicants egotistical enough to believe that. In a previous post I addressed the allegation, published in 2013, that Sylvia's mother Aurelia Plath secretly destroyed or hid Harvard's "acceptance letter" to keep Sylvia home that awful summer. Richard Gill's is a first-hand witness's account that has been ignored.

[1] Gill published a very detailed essay about O'Connor's Harvard Summer School courses in Michael/Frank: Studies on Frank O'Connor, ed. Maurice Sheehy (Knopf, 1969). That essay does not mention Plath.