Saturday, December 31, 2022

Top Research Posts of 2022

August 16, 2022: First Known Photo of Otto Plath's parents

July 12: Four Generations of Pop-Up Weddings

June 7: Digitized video footage of Aurelia Plath, permission of Dr. Richard Larschan

April 12: Photo of Otto Plath's first wife and his in-laws

MOST POPULAR POST: January 25, "Otto Plath Was a Pacifist, Not"

PERSONAL FAVES: April 26, Aurelia Schober's college days reconstructed from day planners purchased from eBay; April 19, reviewed the 1986 French-language film of Letters Home, directed by Chantal Akerman

In 2022 this blog had 35 posts. Coming in 2023: "The Lost Lines of 'Eavesdropper,'" and much more.

In March 2022 I chaired a session for "Sylvia Plath Across the Century" and over the conference's two-day span heard many inspiring presentations. In April, I researched recordings and Linda Wagner-Martin's files at the Lilly Library; in July translated Sylvia's German essay into English. In late April, a first and a landmark: The Bloomsbury Handbook to Sylvia Plath was published, with my essay introducing Aurelia's shorthand annotations. In June, transcribed for Dr. Gary Leisig Aurelia's shorthand marginalia on Sylvia's published poems. In October, attended via Zoom definitive sessions of the Sylvia Plath Literary Festival in Hebden Bridge, U.K. In November, consulted with a British author on her draft of Mothers of the Mind, a forthcoming study of the mothers of Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, and Agatha Christie. A personal fave: Dr. Amanda Golden at the Woodberry Poetry Room discussing Sylvia Plath's use of pink paper (March 8, 2022; on YouTube here).

A thrilling year in Plath World! As always, English transcriptions of the shorthand on Sylvia Plath's papers can be downloaded from this site at and viewed.

Friday, December 30, 2022

Too Busy To Drink Sylvia's Blood

"Sylvia" the movie, 2003

Aurelia Plath taught five days a week during the academic year and usually summer school at Boston University. When her children Sylvia and Warren were in college Aurelia also tutored on weekends so they could buy clothing as good as their peers'. [1] When we realize that from 1942 Aurelia worked full time with a twice-daily 40-minute commute, plus evenings at home with two dependent parents and student papers and class planning to do, plus seeing friends and paying bills, and having (please note!) a son she cared for as much as she did her daughter, and personally liking to read and needing to sleep, Aurelia didn't have much time to suffocate Sylvia and drink her metaphorical blood.

Sylvia only imagined Aurelia was preoccupied with Sylvia. Like a much younger child, Sylvia seemed unaware that her mother's life was already full.

From her girlhood summer camp days until her death Sylvia wrote her mother weekly, often more. What if instead of saying Sylvia wrote so many letters because her mother needed reassurance, try taking the view that Sylvia was the insecure one, wanting to occupy the center of her mother's world and consume her time and resources despite the miles between them. 

(No working woman of forty-five needs an eighteen-year-old's reassurance.)

Aurelia told a reporter in 1979, "They say [Sylvia] wrote the letters to keep me happy, to hide the darker side. Sylvia? Putting herself out day after day? The reason she wrote those letters was to get a reply, and she always did. I wrote them on my lunch hours, with my sandwich beside me." [2] We learn from Sylvia's volumes of letters about Sylvia's dependence on Aurelia not only for letters but for favors and support: typing and mailing manuscripts, banking, giving feedback about her new poems, shopping and sending money and packages.

Sylvia wrote from college so often that Aurelia sometimes had little to report except that Grammy had baked a cake last night. Sylvia read her mother's letters aloud to her roommate Marcia Brown to make fun of such trivia [3]. Although only ten mailings from Aurelia to Sylvia survive, from those and from Sylvia's replies we can see Aurelia's letters typically described family news, or books Aurelia was reading, and gave advice that Sylvia read as infantilizing or manipulative.

If genuinely bothered by her mother's letters Sylvia could have replied to them less often or not at all--or with honesty. But she did not. Casually we say "Sylvia wrote only what her mother wanted to hear," but read the letters and see how often she wrote her mother about distressing happenings and fearful moods; and no one knows what Aurelia wanted to hear. Maybe Aurelia wanted her lunch hour for her lunch. Sylvia's was the almost physical dependence, calling her mother's letters a "sustaining life force," and, when asking Aurelia for a quick reply, "Well do send me an infusion of energy, it will do me more good than thyroid."

[1] ASP to Leonard Sanazaro, Lilly.

[2] Robertson, Nan; NYT Book Review, October 9, 1979.

[3] Harriet Rosenstein's interview with Marcia Brown Stern, Emory.

Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Otto Plath Was Born In a Violent Year

"Prussian Expulsion" ("Rugi pruskie") by Wojciech Kossak

Otto Plath was born in a violent year in Prussia: 1885. If all of Otto's life he objected to military service and so much hated the sight of uniforms he forbade his daughter Sylvia to join the Girl Scouts, maybe it’s because he saw Prussian soldiers forcing out ethnic Poles, mostly small farmers and migrant laborers. From 1885 to 1890 Prussia with threats and violence herded 30,000 Poles across the border into Russia and stationed guards there to keep them out. 

Otto grew up in the province of Posen, on land Prussia had taken from Poland and largely Polish-speaking. So although his parents were German he learned Polish and was part Polish through his paternal grandmother. Otto's parents were not farmers or migrants but town people, so Otto’s immediate family was safe, although the world around them rocked. Without its migrant farm laborers, Prussia was left short of food. Prussian garrisons by the dozen had town residents seeing soldiers every day and hating them. You can imagine how the hostilities affected the kids.

Otto’s Polish grandmother and German grandfather left Prussia for America in 1885. Persecution and demonization of Poles and Jews, a culture war Prime Minister Otto von Bismarck began in 1872, is where "Polack" jokes and slurs came from. Purges such as the Expulsion followed, practice for later expulsions that were photographed. The painting above (1909) is one of an Expulsion series.

Otto had been born in Grabowo, but grew up in Budsin. His papers say this, and all his siblings were born in Budsin. An 1880s map, showing the town where Otto searched hayfields for bees he could take home and keep in cigar boxes, shows a nearby Forest Durowo. The forest is still there. I wondered if Otto watched birds and insects there and learned to respect them as he could never respect things military.

Otto Plath emigrated to the U.S. in 1900.