Sunday, December 31, 2023

Top-Rated Plath Research Posts of 2023

Studious me with manual typewriter, junior year

Most Popular

Diary of an Aurelia Plath Researcher (May 16) Thank you for your interest in what I'd tell you privately.

Aurelia and Sylvia Plath Had Black Cousins (November 14) The most emotional, heart-pounding research I've ever done.

How Did Aurelia Plath Control and Manipulate Sylvia? (July 18) They sadly underestimated Sylvia.

Books About Sylvia Plath That I Hate to Love (July 11) This was fun to write.

Top Research Posts

Sylvia Plath's Hungarian Roots (September 26) Genealogy proves Sylvia Plath was not a Jew.

Aurelia and Sylvia Plath Had Black Cousins (November 14) An inconvenient truth.

Diary of an Aurelia Plath Researcher (May 16) First interview with one of Aurelia's former students.

Hype: The Sales Numbers of Ariel (February 7) Neglected business papers shatter a 50-year-old fantasy.

Personal Favorites

Aurelia Goes to a Poetry Reading (June 27) A Cape Cod archivist's help plus research revealed an Aurelia facet totally new.

Prussia: What Does It Mean? (September 19) I am proud of having condensed thick dusty histories of Prussia into an easy "Prussia for Plath fans" post.

There were 48 weekly posts in 2023, my tenth year of posting. It's having the effect I wanted. Thank you for being so interested in Sylvia Plath's world that you want to know more. There is more.

       -Your researcher,


Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Guest Post: One Sunday in 1973, by Evelyn C. White

Evelyn C. White is the author of Alice Walker: A Life (2004).

I met Sylvia Plath’s mother in the 1970s shortly after I’d begun college in a Boston-area suburb. Reportedly drawn to the enclave because of its excellent public schools, Aurelia Plath, a widow, had lived in the town since 1942. Then age 10 and already published, young Sylvia was soon lauded as one of the most gifted students in the community.

Encouraged by her mother, Sylvia joined a prison ministry during her teenage years. “She traveled into Boston with her Sunday school group to visit the Charles Street jail,” writes Andrew Wilson in Mad Girls Love Song (2013) which details Plath’s life before her ill-fated marriage to British poet Ted Hughes. There, Plath mingled with a “smattering of murderers, gunmen and thieves” during church service, Wilson notes.

As for me? Mindful of the many 1960s-70s era Black freedom fighters who’d been incarcerated (among them Angela Davis, Huey P. Newton, and Assata Shakur), I’d entered college determined to become a prison warden.

Aurelia Plath signs a copy of Letters Home, 1976

In addition to my coursework, I longed for “hands-on” experience in the field of corrections and was thrilled to discover that a group of local women visited inmates at a nearby facility. I arranged to join them.

On a bright Sunday morning, I was picked up at my dorm. The driver introduced me to the other passengers whose names I barely registered but met with a nod. Settled into the backseat, I did note the lustrous crown of auburn hair on the woman next to me. It stood in stark contrast to her somber demeanor.

After clearing security at the prison we were escorted into a chapel for worship service. I don’t recall the sermon. But I’ll never forget the inmates who sat, stony-faced, on the opposite side of the sanctuary surrounded by armed guards. “This might not be a fun career,” I thought to myself.

After church, visitors were led to another room to “socialize” with the prisoners. Directed toward a ring of folding chairs, I took a seat. By chance, my backseat companion on the morning drive sat directly across from me.

Eyes trained on a stream of sunlight from a distant window, I listened as the inmates (still under armed guard) and guests introduced themselves. After a few people had spoken, the woman from the car said her name; one that hadn’t sunk in when I’d first met her: Aurelia Plath.

In the sliver of silence before the next voice, I locked eyes with the woman whose daughter, in the small hours of February 11, 1963, had gassed herself in a frigid, London flat. Aurelia Plath held my gaze until a mutual flash of recognition passed between us. She knew that I knew. And vice versa.

Astonished by the realization that I was in the presence of Sylvia Plath’s mother, I went blank. I couldn’t concentrate as I thought about the brilliant writer who’d chronicled her debilitating depression in The Bell Jar and later, in Ariel, the posthumous poetry collection (“The woman is perfected”) that secured her international acclaim.

Back then, I didn’t have the capacity to convey my condolences to Aurelia Plath nor to understand the impact of our encounter in that setting. But I was indelibly shaped by the experience which effectively ended my prison warden ambitions. In hindsight, I know I couldn’t handle all the sorrow that marked the day.

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Credit Where It's Due

Vera Zorina as Ariel with Arnold Moss in The Tempest, 1945.

As my eyes continue to open I see critical essays about Sylvia Plath using the passive voice and just plain disregard to delete her mother from her life. Biography is subjective; so is scholarship. Neither genre can include every detail. The dodge happens most, though, when Aurelia Plath was not a detail, or she is due some credit:

"Plath's own copy of Thus Spake Zarathustra is much annotated, and its importance for her creative work is shown in her 1955 poem "Notes on Zarathustra's Prologue". . . Where did Plath get her own copy of Thus Spake Zarathustra, so important? From her mother. For Christmas 1949.

"Plath's upbringing may have been strongly pacifist." If true, who brought her up that way?

"The Tempest in Boston was the first play that Plath ever saw." It was January 20, 1945 and Plath was 12. The experience resonated throughout her life. Who bought the tickets to that play?

"Sylvia and Ted went to Paris on their honeymoon." Yes, but the newlyweds tagged along, all day for eight days, with Aurelia, who had planned to tour Paris by herself.

Family photo from Sylvia's wallet
At the time of her death Sylvia had in her purse Aurelia's Christmas card from 1955, printed with a photo of Sylvia and Warren. Aurelia said so. That's so poignant it might not be true. We know for sure Sylvia carried in her wallet a photo of herself with her brother and their mother.

"From childhood Sylvia showed a talent for poetry." In childhood, showed whom?

"Unsurprisingly, for someone brought up with Unitarian beliefs, Sylvia's intellectual development was not inhibited by any narrow religious dogma." Then credit Aurelia for bringing up her kids as open-minded Unitarians.

I do not blame critics of years past for not having the information we do. I do wonder what made and still makes for unease about acknowledging Aurelia Plath's presence when she was present, or as a sometimes positive factor in her daughter's life and artistry.

Tempest photo by Eileen Darby: Special Collections, Cleveland State University Library. "her wallet": Plath's wallet with its contents was auctioned in 2018.

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

The Verger's Bastard

Train station at Budzyn, point of departure for three generations of ambitious Plaths.

The young couple whose parents wouldn't consent to their marriage could and did produce what was then called a bastard, shaming both sets of parents into giving the consent required by law.

The would-be bride and groom were not kids. They were both 26. The trouble was that she was Catholic and he was Lutheran.

Baby Theodor -- Sylvia Plath's future grandfather -- was ten months old when his parents Johann and Karoline Plath were at last married. The pious pair then argued about raising their children in this faith or that.

Station still stands at Budzyn (now in Poland).

Theodor's birth record in the town of Budzyn, Prussia, November 5, 1851, shows his mother's name, Karoline Kaszmarek, but in the space for his father's name is "ignatus" (unknown). Oddly, the record then shows the father's occupation: verger.

A verger was a layman hired to clean and maintain a church and help the priest or minister as a messenger and greeter. For public processions, vergers took up a stick or wand called a virge and cleared a path through the crowds. Thus our phrase "on the verge" -- the leading edge.

A verger didn't have to be literate -- Johann Plath was not. But he respected education or the educated. Maybe Johann wished he could have been a minister, and verger was as close as he could get.

When Johann, emigrant to the U.S., heard that Theodor's teenage son was super-smart, Johann generously paid for young Otto Plath to come to the U.S. and for Otto's tuition for Lutheran prep school and college, on the condition that Otto become -- a minister.

But when Otto told his grandfather he would rather teach than be a minister, Johann crossed Otto's name out of the family bible, an act of Christian righteousness sowing alienation and Otto's future bitter atheism.

It was meant to be a memorable scene, and Otto long remembered and told about that one selfish act.

"argued about raising their children": Clark, Red Comet, 6. "A verger didn't have to be literate: Johann Plath was not": U.S. Census, Wisconsin, 1910. See also Somerset Maugham's short story "The Verger" (1936). "bitter atheism," The Bell Jar. Spelled "Budsin" in Prussia, the Plaths' hometown is now Budzyn, Poland.

Tuesday, December 5, 2023

The Mysterious Gap of 1958

Aunt Aurelia bought us a parakeet!

There are no letters from Sylvia Plath to her mother Aurelia between August 13, 1958 and July 9, 1959. Aurelia in Letters Home said that Sylvia and her husband Ted had moved to Boston and "We were close enough to visit often, and used the telephone." (322)

Sylvia wrote that Aurelia phoned ("the usual depressing call from mother") and visited. But knowing how militant Aurelia was about presenting her family as conflict-free, I think Sylvia in that 11-month gap must have mailed her mother something, at least one thing, that has been removed. There is not even a December happy-birthday note to Sylvia's Grampy. 

Aurelia was conscious of that gap and tried to fill it in Letters Home with three excerpts from her own journal, dated August 3, September 9, and September 20, 1958. Aurelia's editor at Harper & Row published only the August 3 entry (348).

In one of Aurelia's notebooks her reflections on autumn 1958 have been razored out.

All this made me suspect dirty family laundry.

Aurelia maybe didn't want us to know that in 1956 she dismissed from her house her 75-year-old widower father, "Grampy," after his 12 years in residence, telling her sister Dotty and brother Frank that it was now their turn to host him.

Grampy was also going blind. None of his three adult children wanted him. Sylvia wrote her brother that Aurelia faced Grampy's resentment along with Dotty's and Frank's. Sylvia's letter is dated April 23, 1956; Grampy's wife wasn't even dead yet.

They sound like a typical American family.

Dotty lived near Wellesley and Frank in Pennsylvania, and both had spouses and kids. In June 1956 Grampy went to Dotty and lived on a porch enclosed to make a room. [1] Aurelia from then on did only respite care, taking Grampy to Bermuda and doing summer Dad-sitting. Aurelia wrote a friend in 1959 that she abandoned the novel she was writing, to keep her father company. [2]

Grampy was a burden. But whoever hosted Grampy got access to his pot of retirement money.

Dotty and Frank's "underhanded business with Grampy's money" -- as Sylvia described it; we don't know the details -- was perhaps exposed or fought over in autumn 1958. In 1959 Frank and Dotty both bought really nice new houses; Dotty's a second house. Sylvia's letter to Aurelia (January 16, 1960) comments on Aurelia's report that Dotty ducked questions about the purchase.

Shipped away to Frank's house, Grampy stayed only eight months because Frank became seriously ill. Grampy went back to Dotty's.

What Grampy wanted is not known. But Aurelia wrote a friend that she bought Grampy a parakeet, an unpredictably noisy little gift and hard for a man with low vision to care for.

Aurelia and siblings were willing to offload and carousel their elderly dad so they might enhance their own lives with his money. If this wasn't the issue, whatever it was, Aurelia wiped it from written records. Meanwhile, in autumn 1958 Sylvia was entangled in her own agonizing problems, described in detail in her journal.

While Aurelia was in England in summer 1962, Dotty put Grampy in a nursing home. On August 27 Sylvia wrote to Aurelia, who was back in the U.S., "I am glad to hear that Grampy is better off in the home and think that decision was the best & only one."

[1] "a converted porch," Harriet Rosenstein transcript of K. Goodall interview on 24 June 1974, Special Collections #1489, Box 3, Folder 3, Emory. [2] "the novel," ASP to Miriam Baggett, 6 February 1960, Smith.