Tuesday, February 21, 2023

The 1950 Censu$ and the Panic of '52

Recently made public, t
Sylvia's high-school yearbook photo, 1950
he 1950 U.S. census tells us more about the Plath household than I thought, slightly altering the overall picture.

Head of household Aurelia Plath, "associate professor" (although her title was assistant professor) stated she worked 25 hours a week, 36 weeks a year, for an annual income of $3,200.

Sylvia and Warren Plath, teenagers, were counted as students. Their live-in "Grampy," Frank Schober, Sr., 69, worked 48 hours a week at the Brookline Country Club, earning $3000 a year.

Those were modest salaries, but in 2023 terms, the five-member Plath household in 1950 earned a tidy $75,000. Yet the two breadwinners seem to have kept their money separate, or nearly. When Grampy retired around November 1952, Aurelia went into crisis mode and took on weekend jobs tutoring and babysitting (Sylvia to Aurelia, Nov. 5 and 11, 1952). Sylvia wrote Warren in May 1953 that financially their mother "was really down to rock bottom" and despite poor health intended to teach summer school. Sylvia wanted to write anything at all that might help her pay her own way and felt increasingly depressed that summer when she produced nothing.

In the 1950 census "Grammy," Aurelia's mother and Frank's wife, is not listed although she lived until 1956. In a much later letter (Jan. 16, 1960) Sylvia mentions Aurelia and Aurelia's sister, Aunt Dot, having clashed over "Grampy's money," suggesting that Grampy and his wife had saved some or all of his earnings for retirement: enough for their daughters to fight over.

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

The Beaches at Winthrop

"At Winthrop Beach," 1951

"Point Shirley and Beach," 1936

"Point Shirley and Deer Island", 1937

"After the Blow," March 8, 1931

"The Boulevard," 1907

The Schobers moved to Winthrop, Mass., in 1918, the Plaths in 1936. Wanting to see the Winthrop they knew and lived in and Sylvia wrote about, I sorted on eBay through postcards, focusing on waterfront scenes. Those from 1905-11 feature resort hotels and the Boulevard promenade atop the seawall. A plethora of cards are postmarked summer 1907, just before the stock market plunged by 50 percent ("The Panic of 1907"). Several postcards, such as the 1931 example, picture disastrous storm damage: flooding, a shattered boulevard, winter waves. I purchased the hand-colored postcard above. It gives me context for the time the Plaths moved to Winthrop, what it looked like then.

Winthrop goes out of style in the late teens and 1920s after people buy cars and drive to vacation places beyond the reach of trains. Yet there were vacationers enough that the Schobers in 1932 and 1933 rented their Shirley Street house and stayed with Otto and Aurelia in Jamaica Plain. Aurelia, Sylvia, and Warren spent the dreadfully hot summer of 1936 in Winthrop with the Schobers, and the Plaths bought their Winthrop house on Johnson Avenue that fall. 

Sylvia's uncle Frank Schober Jr. built his own sailboat, rather like the young men on the 1937 postcard, and in 1940 Otto Plath bought it and that summer went fishing in the bay, daily catching mackerel he insisted be served for supper.

Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Hype: The Sales Numbers of Ariel

"Published last year in Britain, the last poems of Sylvia Plath sold 15,000 copies in ten months," says a 1966 review of Ariel, and you will find that figure repeated everywhere, but below are reports for the British edition of Ariel covering 1) 1965; Ariel was first published March 11 of that year; 2) the first half of 1966; 3) the second half of 1966. 

Publisher Faber & Faber sent these royalty statements to Olwyn and Ted Hughes. The royalty money accrued to the children. For a book of poems these are excellent sales figures, but if these reports are accurate, we can henceforth revise that stupendous "15,000 in ten months" downward by four-fifths.

969 copies sold up to December 1965.
999 copies sold from January through June 1966. Notice how after 1000 total copies had been sold, the royalty was bumped up from 12.5 percent to 15 percent of the cover price; that is typical.

1,010 copies sold in Britain in July-December 1966. At this time, the first printing of 3100 copies would have sold out; demand enough for a second printing of another 3100 copies.
Ariel the book was no runaway hit with the British public. Excepting Plath's personal friends, early British reviewers had never read such a book, didn't know what to make of it, called it "sick" and "violent." Reviewers mentioned Sylvia Plath's "early death" and "fascination with death," but it was October 1965 before any British reviewer dared to out Plath as a suicide. That inspired the Times of London and its Times Literary Supplement to review the book in November 1965, TLS calling it "one of the most marvelous volumes of poetry published for a very long time."
The U.S. publisher Harper & Row published Ariel in June 1966. The claim of "15,000 copies" in Britain, "almost as many as a bestselling novel," originates in the U.S., in a hypersensational review of Ariel in Time magazine, one that fetishized the suicide for a readership numbering in the millions. The Time review (June 10, 1966) can be read in full here. The story about the reviewer's meeting with Aurelia Plath is here. I couldn't possibly be the first to have seen these statements in the archives. If you can prove that Ariel sold 15,000 copies in Britain in ten months, please let me know.
The above Faber royalties from 1965-66, added up, would in 2023 amount to about 5000 British pounds or 6000 American dollars.