Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Maybe You Too Have Felt Like This and Know It's Not a Joke

Unable to look on the bright side. Aurelia is 22.

While I take a week's break from posting, here is a yearbook photo of Aurelia Schober with Melrose High School's faculty, winter 1928-29. Distanced and then dumped by her boyfriend that November, Aurelia cried, despaired, then angrily told him she did not want to be "an episode." He said, too bad. Unlike her colleagues in this photo she is too dispirited to rustle up a smirk or close her coat.

But the sting wakes her up. Aurelia, 22, resolves to next year earn a master's degree, lines up a summer job waitressing at a fancy resort to make tuition money, envisions a teaching career like the world has never seen, and so on.

Aurelia Plath in 1984 recalled that while she was teaching a high-school English class a school inspector came by to observe her. Aurelia had memorized and was acting out, word for word, for her students, all the parts of the most dramatic scene in the novel Ivanhoe. The students loved it and eagerly took up the original. Afterward, the inspector came up to Aurelia, “shaking his head in wonderment,” and said to her, “Sheer genius; sheer genius.” [1]

[1] AP to L. Sanazaro, 2 December 1984.

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Two Young Men

Plymouth, NH merchant to COs working in the area, 1940s

  • Edwin Akutowicz, born in Connecticut in 1922, in the 1943 Trinity College yearbook is pictured with its junior class, but he wasn't there; U.S. Civilian Public Service records show that from August 12, 1942 until July 5, 1943 he served in two different camps for conscientious objectors (COs) who refused military duty. Working for the U.S. Forest Service, COs in these camps cleared brush on federal lands, dug ditches, fought fires. The smaller camp ran low on food.  In the larger camp with 350 COs, some men were "guinea pigs" for the Harvard Fatigue Laboratory.

Akutowicz [above] is pictured among Trinity's class of 1944 graduates, same photo as 1943. Phi Beta Kappa, he was voted "Best Student" and "Most Conscientious." The Plath biography Red Comet points out that he was tall, blue-eyed, brilliant, a Harvard Ph.D. (1948), a professor at MIT, and what's more, a pacifist--in summer 1954 impressing Sylvia Plath. (Let me add that like Sylvia's father Otto, he had a cleft chin.) After 1965 Akutowicz taught in France, had a wife and children.

Otto Plath as a young man

  • I toured the sites of Otto Plath's schooling. His Northwestern College merged in 1995 with Martin Luther College in Minnesota, and its former campus in Watertown, WI is now Luther Preparatory School, a modern compound with a nice green quad, its oldest building cornerstoned in 1912. Otto, class of 1910, never saw it. 
The Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary that Otto quit moved in 1929 from Wauwatosa, WI, near Milwaukee, to 80 acres in rural Mequon, WI. In Otto's time, Wauwatosa was home to the city's psychiatric sanitarium, orphanages, potters' fields, and a few fine houses for the very rich. A pacifist? Questioned by the FBI in 1918, Otto didn't say so and as far as we know he didn't act like one except with insects. His wife Aurelia later wrote in a letter that Otto said he would take up arms in defense, but not aggression. (ASP to Mary Stetson Clarke, 1 May 1971).
    The Northwestern College Club in 1912 funded this music auditorium, the oldest building on what is now a Lutheran boarding-school campus, Watertown, WI.

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

So Glad You Liked My Poem

How many poems did Sylvia Plath enclose in her letters to her mother Aurelia and which poems were they? I can name 36. Please send any corrections! Sylvia asked Aurelia for feedback on some of them.

1943: 20 March, "Plant a little seedling"; "I have a little fairy,""You have to have my fairy ears"; "I found a little fairy"

1945: 7 July, "At night I watch the stars above"; 9 July, "Camp Helen Storrow"

1946: 16 July, "The Lake"; 19 July, "Mornings of Mist"

1947: 8 September, "Missing Mother"

1950: 5 October, "Gold leaves shiver"

1951: 8 October, "gold mouths cry"; 3 November, "Sonnet" ("see what you can derive from this chaos")

1953: Before 1 March, villanelles including "Mad Girl's Love Song"; 11 April, opening stanza of "Dialogue en Route"; 22 April, "Parallax," "Admonition" and "Verbal Calisthenics" ("Tell me what you think"); 30 April-1 May, "Oh bother!" Before April 25, "To Eva Descending the Stair" ("the one you like so much")

1954: 16 April, "Doom of Exiles," "The Dead" ("tell me what you think of them")

1955: 2 February, "Apparel for April," "Temper of Time," "Winter Words" ("Read aloud for word tones, for full effect.")

1956: 9 March, "Pursuit," "Channel Crossing" ("eager to hear what you think of these"); 19 April, "Metamorphosis"; 21 April, "Ode for Ted," "Song"; 20 April, "Strumpet Song," "Complaint of the Crazed Queen," "Firesong"; 2 October, "Epitaph for Fire and Flower"

1957: 8 February, "The Lady and the Earthenware Head"; 23 April, "Happy Birthday to You"

1958: 22 March, "Battle Scene From the Comic Operatic Fantasy The Seafarer," and "Departure of the Ghost" 

Below, the poems we know Aurelia liked, because Sylvia wrote:

"Glad you liked the New Yorker poem" (22 June 1960) ("Watercolor of Grantchester Meadows")

"So glad you liked the poems in Poetry." (16 April 1962) ("Face Lift," "Widow," "Heavy Women," "Love Letter," and "Stars over the Dordogne," April 1962 issue)

Without specifying which poems she was referring to, Sylvia wrote:

"It's too bad my poems frighten you" (25 October 1962)

Poems that Aurelia had copies of and in the margins indicated that she did not like:

"Snowman on the Moor" (published in Poetry, July 1957)

"Zeitgeist at the Zoo" (c. 1956; unpublished. Aurelia wrote: "Awful!")

Tuesday, August 8, 2023

Mothers of the Mind: Remarkable Mothers of Woolf, Christie, and Plath

Delighted to tell you History Press of U.K. will publish on September 14, 2023, Dr. Rachel Trethewey's triple biography Mothers of the Mind: The Remarkable Women Who Shaped Virginia Woolf, Agatha Christie, and Sylvia Plath. Dr. Trethewey asked archivists who to call about Aurelia Plath. She got the right number: mine!

I shared with Dr. Trethewey facts and resources about Aurelia Plath, and Dr. Trethewey wove them into an Aurelia-Sylvia narrative you will like -- the first of its kind of any consequence -- plus intriguing and enlightening stories of mother-daughter pairs Julia Stephen-Virginia Woolf and Clara Miller-Agatha Christie.

Too often Woolf, Christie, and Plath have been defined by and discussed in terms of their lovers or mates -- when for each there was one person who loved them better.

Pre-order the book from History Press UK here.

Pre-order from Amazon.com here (available in April).

Tuesday, August 1, 2023

"My Mother Is My Best Friend" -- Uh, No

Reacting in 1972 to an article called "My Parents Are My Friends," Aurelia Plath judged it "excellent and was my aim in life because my mother was my best friend!" Aurelia and her parents shared a house for 40 of Aurelia's first 50 years, so warm feelings or feigning them was required, but being friendly with parents is one thing and "best friend"-level intimacy with one's mother is another. 

Sylvia wrote that her mother was "always a child" while her grandmother lived, but let's take Aurelia's word that Aurelia and her mother were each other's best friends. For exploring what mother-daughter "best friends" meant in the Plaths' house, we have what Aurelia wrote in 1982:

Maybe parent-child friendship was once an ideal, but today it's widely agreed that children feel emotionally burdened when their parents try to be friends and confidants. Thank goodness Millennial parents know better:

The emotional burden of "best friendship" with parents usually falls on daughters. Did "friend for life, such as I was for my mother" oblige the daughter to fulfill the mother's needs?

Sylvia's letters home are "intimate correspondence" as Aurelia said, and they read like best-friend letters, but Sylvia was not into fulfilling Aurelia's needs. Aurelia fulfilled Sylvia's needs and hid or downplayed her own. She liked keeping Sylvia close, but didn't depend on Sylvia for best-friendship because Aurelia had her own good friends who valued and helped her.

Aurelia had friends from her decades-ago college days and high-school teaching days. A friend from the 1920s, a novelist, in 1969 wrote her editor about Aurelia's idea to publish Sylvia's letters as a book. When the time was ripe, it happened! Friends in 1953 had hosted Aurelia for two weeks and six weeks, and in the 1970s, hosted her five days a week for three years while Aurelia taught at Cape Cod Community College. Sylvia's juvenile diaries mention Aurelia slipping out of the house to visit the "Ortons," meaning the Nortons, Aurelia's intellectual equals and, for her first ten years in Wellesley, her very good friends.

As friends and family members, including Sylvia, died, moved away, or distanced themselves -- the family saw close-up Aurelia's faults and critical side -- new people such as playwright Rose Leiman Goldemberg even wanted to be Aurelia's friend. Goldemberg was concerned that it might be asking too much. Others weren't so concerned and pretended friendship, love, and goodwill to get closer to the late great Sylvia Plath. 

Pretending she did not know some pen friends were opportunists, Aurelia feigned affection as long as both parties could keep it up. To us this seems strange and unnecessary. To women of Aurelia's time, it was only polite.

Bereft of old friends and increasingly injured as Sylvia's meaner words about her were published, aging Aurelia hungered for love and friendship. Her move into senior housing in 1984 separated her from neighbors who esteemed her and set her among people unfriendly because of what Sylvia had written. She had counted on family to love her as she had loved them. Only daughter-in-law Margaret Wetzel Plath regularly wrote Aurelia, and arranged for her an 80th birthday party. She made Aurelia feel loved, and according to Aurelia's last good friend, Dr. Richard Larschan, Aurelia was desolate when Margaret died of cancer in her fifties.

Sylvia was not around to be Aurelia's best and lifelong friend.