Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Sylvia Plath's Parents Fall in Love

"Unter den Linden" is a boulevard in Berlin lined with linden trees. "Unter der Linden" is the signature lyric of the greatest German poet before Goethe, troubador Walther von der Vogelweider (1170-1230). The poem's gist:

Under the linden tree / on the moorlands . . . there’s a patch of crushed grass and crushed flowers, and passersby might see that and smile, but what really happened there only my boyfriend and I truly know, and maybe a little bird. . .

Professor Otto Plath taught "Unter der Linden" in his Middle High German course in autumn 1929. He taught too the epic romance Tristan and Isolt and the Nibelungenleid (starring Siegfried and Brunhilde) and the Arthurian Parzival. Over texts like these, Professor Plath of Boston University, a self-confessed romantic, decided he might like to know better his poetry-loving graduate student Aurelia Schober.

Middle High German was the only graduate course in German that Otto taught during Aurelia's fateful graduate year, 1929-30. [1] Her A.M. degree in German and English would net her an enviable job teaching at Brookline High School and a suitor, two decades older than she, who b.s.'ed the idealistic young woman about their future as equals.

Otto Plath taught the Middle High German course, part one, in autumn, and part two in the spring -- if at least ten students enrolled. Aurelia wrote that she persuaded 15 students to enroll, a story I have always doubted. Yet it might have been so in spring 1930, when the German department was offering fewer than its usual 11 graduate courses -- because the prof who taught six of those courses was on leave. [2]

The "2" signifies "2-credit course."
How would I know that, or which poems our star-crossed lovers read? Last week I secured a rare 900-pp. Boston University Course Catalogue for the academic year 1929-30. It's a picture window into their world. Surprises for me mean surprises for you!

[1] Graduate course listings, pp. 817-818. Otto, instructor in German at B.U. since 1922, became Assistant Professor of Biology in 1928 (772). [2] Dr. Marshall Perrin (1855-1935, one of Aurelia's favorite profs) was on leave in spring 1930 (248).

Tuesday, July 18, 2023

How Did Aurelia Plath Control and Manipulate Sylvia?

Aurelia Plath is called a “manipulative, controlling mother.” I wanted to identify what Aurelia manipulated and controlled.


I mean what Aurelia said or did hoping to alter her daughter Sylvia’s choices and behavior to match Aurelia’s own desires, and succeeding in altering them.


Sylvia was not easily manipulated or controlled. She resisted Aurelia’s “suggestions” to

  • learn shorthand
  • make a secure marriage
  • maintain chastity
  • Aurelia Plath in 1971
  • continue teaching at Smith College
  • learn stenotyping to support a jobless mate
  • have Frieda treated medically so she would not grow too tall
  • write about decent courageous people
  • move with her children back to the United States. 


About the larger things, at life’s turning points, Sylvia made her own choices.


Aurelia did try. She urged her young daughter to write cursive and practice the piano and inscribed her gift of a new diary with "Not to be written in after 8 p.m." College-aged Sylvia when depressed volunteered in a hospital as her mother advised. That soon ended. On record is one parental threat from June 1954, when Sylvia told her psychiatrist Dr. Beuscher that her mother said something like, “If you have sexual affairs I will stop funding your schooling.” This was an empty threat, because Sylvia did as she liked that summer and her mother continued to pay.


Adult Sylvia typically did the opposite of what her mother wanted. You've "heard" that while visiting in 1962, during the week of July 9, Aurelia urged Sylvia to throw her husband Ted out of the house, but the fact is that while he was in London, Sylvia ordered her houseguest Aurelia to move out by Friday when Ted was returning for the weekend. Unable to find a hotel room, Aurelia moved in with Winifred Davies. (Aurelia portrayed the move as her own idea, but it wasn’t.) Ted left for good on 11 October 1962, Sylvia ejecting him on the advice not of her mother but of Dr. Beuscher, whom she trusted more. “I keep your letters like the Bible,” Sylvia wrote Beuscher, and actually carried those letters around. Rather than taking pleasure in the breakup, Aurelia pleaded with Sylvia not to leave her children without a father.


"Feeling" manipulated into overachievement, or that her mother demanded of her happy letters and “dividends of joy” – well, Sylvia could have quit or modified her achieving and letter writing at any time. She didn't.


Sylvia noticed her mother’s passive-aggressive smiling through pain, calling anger “hurt,” wearing dowdy secondhand clothes to advertise her sacrifices, quoting books and sayings instead of speaking her mind, worrying, identifying too closely with her. But as attempts to control or manipulate Sylvia, these all failed.


We do not see here gaslighting, deception, stalking, monitoring, abuse, coercion, trickery, isolating, stonewalling and other tactics controllers and manipulators use.

Tuesday, July 11, 2023

Books About Sylvia Plath That I Hate to Love

-Claiming Sylvia Plath: The Poet as Exemplary Figure by Marianne Egeland (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013) An academic work roundly hated by every big name from Al Alvarez on down the alphabet who ever bullshitted about Sylvia Plath. Cohorts grouped as Critics, Biographers, Feminists, Psychologists, and Friends all get bitch-slapped for crafting the Sylvia Plath they liked best or could sell. Also they were crafting and positioning themselves. The original "strong smell" of Sylvia's hair that Alvarez later called a "faint smell" is an example of the type of gaming that has Egeland calling for some ethics around here.

Egeland says cultural change has made it easier for not only highbrows but middlebrows to find in Plath's life and works proofs of whatever one wants to prove. I delight in every word except for the conclusion, “The Sylvia Plath Formula,” explaining why readers still care about Plath. It has to do with ancient hero-worship. Author could not imagine Plath displaced by singer-songwriters. Egeland's scholarship is solid as rock. A book never popular, hard to find and so expensive I considered thievery. Traded a week’s groceries to buy a copy from its publisher--so promptly mailed that I sensed it felt relieved.

-I hate Sylvia Plath novelizations, so when given as a gift Euphoria by Elin Cullhed (Canongate, 2022, translated from Swedish) I opened the book weeks later only to be enthralled as its Sylvia Plath ruminates and rages (“Can’t they see my greatness?”) from December 1961 to December ’62. Thrilling first-person narration of the birth of Nicholas, of the artist picking fights with Ted, her manic desperation at being deserted and unfucked, beset with the care of her beautiful children and pathetically swanning for her nanny. I often dip into this book to marvel at how the author vivified Plath’s mind and motherhood. I genuflect to Jennifer Hayashida, translator. Cullhed clearly drew on recently published primary sources.

-After many years I spent $2 to re-buy and re-read Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness (wait! Keep reading!) by Edward Butscher (Seabury, 1976). This very first Plath biography impressed me with how author Butscher (pronounced “Boo-shay”) before the Internet found his sources--most valuably some people later skittish about interviews or about speaking frankly. Its frame is “Sylvia Plath’s central obsession with her father,” and its engine the unleashing of Plath’s inner “bitch goddess” via the Ariel poems. “Bitch goddess,” an unfortunate phrase to use at the high-water mark of second-wave feminism, got the book sneered at and shoved to the sidelines.

Butscher said his critics were classist and I am weighing that. His interpretations of the poems were never good, and no one knew that the Ariel of 1965 was Ted Hughes making Sylvia look "mad" when Plath’s own edit was really a women’s magazine complete with parody ads. Method and Madness is dense with facts and rich in quotations from Sylvia's letters.

-Letters Home (Harper & Row, 1975), edited by Aurelia S. Plath. Jeered as a 500-page whitewash of The Bell Jar’s caustic author, Aurelia’s selection from Sylvia’s letters was edited to balance the popular novel's “raging adolescent voice” and hide a certain widower's perfidy. Aurelia's preface told more about Sylvia than anyone knew, and instead of being grateful Janet Malcolm twenty years later -- it still wasn't out of her craw? -- thought Sylvia's mom had released a toxic "oil spill.” 

If it were really poisonous, everyone would have loved the book. Instead it was anodyne and focused on Sylvia’s efforts to become a professional writer. How dull. It is best read as a view into a gifted young hothouse female and her mother, survivors of an autocrat who married Aurelia to make her write while he took credit. Sylvia believed Aurelia was doing that to her. At this distance, how Sylvia was patterned by her family is so obvious it's blinding. Published without an index. Letters Home is so far out of favor there’s no electronic download. I wish for an autographed copy.

-Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953, by Elizabeth Winder (Harper Collins, 2013). Yes, the author is a poet, not a Ph.D., meaning I should belittle this girly claret-jacketed book arranged in thematic fragments like a book of poems. I like Winder's substantial interviews with people who met Sylvia and share their impressions and their experience at Mademoiselle magazine and after. By their fruits you shall know them, and this is a tasty read about a time and place long gone yet crucial to Sylvia's biography. Did you know her favorite drink was a strawberry daiquiri? Only this book makes me wish I had been there, or even--never otherwise--wish I were her: 

"As always, she was wearing lots of cherry red lipstick, and Mel got close enough to catch its carnation scent. Sylvia was fetching, but not beautiful enough for her looks to overpower her personality. In the end it was her enthusiasm--her own sexy, leggy sort of optimism--that bewitched. Though he would not see her again for another year, Mel Woody 'fell in love' with Sylvia that night in the Village, in a cloud of hops and smoke and fermented grape."

Facts are not lacking. "Sylvia Plath appears in the issue four times: on page 54 in a silvery strapless frock and deep blackberry lipstick, on page 213 interviewing Elizabeth Bowen, on page 235 in kilted star formation, and again on page 252 dangling a rose."

Tuesday, July 4, 2023

What the Hell Is The Christian Science Monitor?

Ukrainian soldiers training to use a grenade launcher, Christian Science Monitor 10 May 2023. Photo and story by Scott Peterson

Sylvia Plath's first nationally published poem was “Bitter Strawberries” in The Christian Science Monitor. An international reader asked me what The Christian Science Monitor (CSM) was to Sylvia, a non-Christian, and what might be Christian about the paper, because looking at the content (a daily, now online only) it is not obvious.

Christian Science is a faith established in 1870s Boston. For ills of the body and soul, believers looked to the healing miracles of Jesus and prayed for healing instead of calling doctors. That made Christian Science somewhat infamous. Today's followers may see doctors if they want. They won't go to hell because the faith does not believe in hell. Christian Science peaked in the 1930s with a quarter-million members. Its best legacy is its newspaper, one of the few surviving national U.S. dailies, and not so much Christian as it is secular humanist.

We do not know what inspired the Plath household to subscribe to the Christian Science Monitor. Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar complained that the Monitor treated suicides and sex crimes and airplane crashes as if they didn't happen.

That is not true; it just didn't rub atrocities in your face. Below is part of the page "Bitter Strawberries" appeared on (11 August 1950). Readers got briefed on Korean War battle news, missing atomic-research papers, revolt in Jakarta, threats of a mass strike in Italy. And Australia, fearing Korean aggression, was re-arming but couldn't pay for it:

CSM's editorial board in 1953 favored executing the Rosenbergs because the justice system had operated as it should and found them guilty (20 June 1953).

Sylvia's ex-boyfriend Peter Davison told a biographer that at dinner in Wellesley in summer 1955, Sylvia and Aurelia "talked about the Christian Science Monitor, which they were very serious about." [1] Sylvia might have been play-acting, or Davison was maybe making a posthumous dig at her. What's for sure is that Aurelia favored the paper.

Rather than daily photos of bombed-out Ukraine or pits full of corpses, a recent story profiled the survivors of a bombed-out town as they raked up debris, planning to rebuild. Called "human-interest stories," the New York Times published several about Ukraine on 03 July 2023 and pretty much every day now. Regarding the faith, "The Christian Science Perspective" on things is walled off in a daily column of that name. The paper quit publishing poetry around 2016.

Was Sylvia Plath a Christian Scientist? No. Someone told the budding writer she had her best chance of publishing in periodicals she was familiar with. It worked! The editorial staff got to know and publish Sylvia's contributions, even feeble ones, sometimes on its "youth page." [2] Because CSM paid little, like $10 or $15, it was Sylvia's last resort after every other paying publisher rejected poems such as "Midsummer Mobile" (1959).

Was Aurelia Plath a Christian Scientist? No, Aurelia was Unitarian, and saw doctors often. She liked a daily paper low on gore and rumors and higher on human resilience and "decent courageous people." God knows why.

P.S. The Monitor did not re-sell Sylvia's poems to other papers. ("Hey, little Alabama paper, it's the poetry resale desk at the Christian Science Monitor! Need a poem? Mail us a check!") Uh, no. Papers read other papers and lifted what they wanted, mostly as filler. They still do.

[1] Butscher, E., Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness, p. 164.

[2] Sylvia knew that content was feeble, only filler, letter SP to ASP,  21 Oct. 1959.