Tuesday, January 30, 2024

What Happens to the Estranged

After her children died of influenza and her husband vanished, Anna Greenwood Nicholson lived alone in Atlantic City and was working as a domestic when the Great Depression hit. Anna's whole family had come to the U.S. from Vienna, and Boston was her only American hometown, but her married sister there had a full house and would soon have a granddaughter named Sylvia Plath. Anna's mother and brothers knew Anna had married a black American and they never forgave her. Anna left Atlantic City but cannot be found anywhere in the U.S. census of 1930. She was 45.

Two years later in Manhattan, registering as Anna Greenwood, Anna married Joseph Campbell, born in Lancashire, England of Irish parents. Anna Campbell filed with Social Security in 1938. That was the last U.S. trace of her until her mother's obituary (1945) called Anna "Ina Champee of London, England," and her brother's obituary (1957) called her "Mrs. Joseph Chappell, England."

This told me that 1) Anna's family knew she had remarried but was unsure of her name. 2) Anna was alive in 1957 and had moved to England. 3) For a while Anna shared an island with her great-niece Sylvia Plath. So Sylvia wasn't the first in her family to reverse-emigrate: It was the errant, whispered-about great-aunt she never met -- who couldn't be, could she, the "gypsy ancestress" who got around?

Hard-to-get British records (below) show Joseph and Anna in 1939 lived far from London, in the Lancashire shipbuilding town Barrow-in-Furness, population then about 75,000: the industrial north as Orwell described it in Wigan Pier. Anna was ninth in a household of nine, six of them Campbells. I hope she liked these relatives better. Joseph worked as a "boiler fireman, heavy." The town survived two 1941 bombardments, and Joseph died in Barrow-in-Furness in 1959 and Anna in 1964. Joseph has a grave. Anna doesn't.

British National Archives register, 1939, address 12 Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria, E.B., Lancashire, England. Anna's identity is confirmed by her birth date, 28 March 1888*, and her husband's. Housewives were listed as "unpaid."

*Anna's baptismal record says she was born 28 March 1885, but much of her life she used the date 1888.

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Book Review: Sylvia Plath Day by Day, Volume I, by Carl Rollyson

Sylvia Plath Day by Day, Volume I (1932-1955),
by Carl Rollyson, University of Mississippi Press (2023), 400 pp., $24.14 at Amazon.com.

If you want Sylvia Plath without poetry, dip into this timeline of gleanings from diaries, letters, personal calendars, and other Plath biographies and sources, spanning her life from birth to September 1955. Biographer Carl Rollyson has published 40-plus books including two Plath biographies which elided Plath's early years. Currently he is completing a biography about Plath's early years. Sylvia Plath Day by Day Vol. 1 assembles his source facts, quoting the published and unpublished. According to Rollyson this chronicle restores "precious details" and the objectivity lost when biographers shape facts into narratives. His introduction says:

In effect, you are presented with the raw data, without commentary, so that you become the biographer.

Rollyson edited this raw data, so it is not raw data. The introduction explains:

The entries in this book are shorter than the sources they are taken from. My principle of selection has been to record the most striking events and comments that reveal Plath but also to minimize repetition, except when repetition . . . seems important . . .

Examples (I'm choosing interesting ones):


October 14: Writes up the program of a school assembly, featuring a reading, a piano solo, choral singing and reading, a harmonica solo, a skit, a vocal trio, tap dance, and an accordion solo.

October 15: A sixteen-line poem for Miss Cox, which ends "But behind the cold, white stillness / There's the promise of a spring."

October 16: Clippings about World Series games, visual-aid education, physical exams.

October 17: "World news is really discouraging--wish I could run things for a while."

October 18: Orchestra rehearsal, pleased to realize she has left her ancient history book at home, "Oh! Well! I'll get along."

October 19: Wears a yellow evening gown with black velvet bows to a dance. One boy steps on her toes, but she has fun dancing with another partner who is "very nice" [drawing of a heart].

October 20: "All the girls were talking about last night happenings and were comparing partners."

October 21: "Dear Diary, I don't know what possesses me to mess you up by such scribbling. Some old nagging things inside me prompts me to waste such nice paper. . . . From now on I won't let the weak side of my character hold sway."


April 28, 9:30 a.m.: "Hair."

10:00 a.m.- 12:30 p.m.: News office.

2:00-6:00 p.m., 7:00-10:00 p.m.: "STUDY MILTON."

April 29, 8:30 a.m.: Chapel.

9:00-10:00 a.m.: In News Office.

10:00 a.m.- 12:30 p.m.: Studies Milton.

2:00 p.m.: "Davis paper due."

3:00 p.m.: "Milton Exam."

6:00 p.m.: Press board banquet, Auden in attendance.

April 30, 8:00 a.m.: "Activities board."

9:00 a.m.: Audits science class.

10:00 a.m.: Bells.

Hampshire Book Shop.

2:00 p.m.: Class with Professor Davis.

3:00 p.m.: Milton class.

4:00-6:00 p.m.: Sally.

"Phi Beta Banquet."

Day by Day is the first Plath bio to poach lots of direct quotations from Plath's childhood diaries, so I focused there. Those diaries remain unpublished because they are boring. From art teachers to camp counselors, every authority every hour dangled rewards and awards for doing as they asked. Plath responded like a trained seal. The flip side was that she grew up firmly disciplined and knowing her own value. She could control the situation when "parking" with dates. Plath fighting off a rapist (December 3, 1950) Day by Day however renders as "She strongly rejects the idea."

I did like Day by Day's glimpses of Plath's grandfather, who gave her hugs, gifts of money, and violets for planting. Extremes of mood, symptoms of Plath's mental illness, emerged when she was 16 or 17.

It is a standard joke that writings about Plath must be faultless, so I will fine-tooth and fume over Day by Day's errors, and omissions not only of childhood events I think significant but those important enough for Dr. Heather Clark to flesh out in her definitive biography Red Comet. For example, Red Comet (p. 93) gives most of a paragraph to Sylvia's diary entry of July 25, 1947, a rare hateful one calling her mother a stinker and a "damn cuss'd old thing" for not buying her a dress she wanted. Sylvia then recanted her angry words. Rollyson's version reads:

July 25: "It's good to be able to spread out and stretch again, knowing that I have a new diary waiting." Buys "a dream of a dress" at Filene's "aquamarine with black bands around the neck, waist, the sleepers, and a narrow black-square outline all through the material."

Maybe these are not the same diaries?

Understanding that the text I read was in galleys, I think if Rollyson had taken a minute to check the first few pages of Plath's Letters Vol. 1 he'd know it's incorrect to say that "Plath's first extant letter to Aurelia Plath is a postcard dated July 14" [1944] (note 102, p. 329). It was Aurelia Plath, not Sylvia, who inscribed Sylvia's diary with "Not to be written in after 8 p.m." Visitors designated Uncle Henry and Aunt Elizabeth "Aldrich" -- the surname of Plath's neighbors -- were in fact Sylvia's blood relatives Henry and Elizabeth Schober (9, 31). And "Grampy" died in 1965, not 1963.

Now I feel better. (What made me feel better?)

The accuracy improves and, oddly, interest heightens as the timeline enters and atomizes familiar territory. I was grateful that author comments were few. When in May 1945 12-year-old Plath rescued and fed a baby bird, a comment says this prefigures the baby bird that Plath and her husband tried to save in 1958. This has nothing to do with her art and growth, and in this world of real fire and bombs through the roofs I felt it should be embarrassing to care.

And I wonder how every detail about Sylvia Plath's life has come to be so precious there's a market for barrel scrapings and granules ever smaller, as if by crafting lists and footnotes and smartmaps instead of prose we stay safe.

Tuesday, January 9, 2024

"Family Reunion"'s Real People

Sylvia Plath published the satirical poem "Family Reunion" in The Bradford, her high-school newspaper (she was co-editor) in April of 1950, her senior year; she was 17. Aurelia Plath first read the poem in the paper and was shocked, in part because it names real family members. The poem's speaker is upstairs at home, listening as relatives arrive for a visit:

Oh, hear the clash of people meeting--

The laughter and the screams of greeting:

Fat always, and out of breath,

A greasy smack on every cheek

From Aunt Elizabeth;

There, that's the pink, pleased squeak

Of Cousin Jane, our spinster with

The faded eyes

And hands like nervous butterflies;

While rough as splintered wood

  Across them all

Rasps the jarring baritone of Uncle Paul;

The poem is witty but at the expense of the real-life Elizabeth and Paul, Aurelia's aunt and cousin, both by marriage. Elizabeth C. Schober, nee Etlin, married Aurelia's uncle Henry Schober in 1912. They named their only child Esther, then a fashionable name.

Paul McCue, college grad, 1931
Esther Schober might have been the model for the poem's pallid "Cousin Jane." After high school Esther got a secretarial job and lived with her parents until she was 30, escaping spinsterhood by marrying Paul McCue in 1943. In the extended family there was no one named Jane.

Esther's wedding was late enough in 1943 so that Boston's 1944 city directory (above) still shows her as one of three Schobers employed in Boston. Her husband Paul McCue, a college graduate, worked at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts as shipping clerk and custodian, finishing his career at Harvard University Art Museums, which threw him a retirement party in 1973.

The poem does not name or describe "Schober Herman F," a more distant relative. Yet he was close enough that Aurelia in her preface to Letters Home transferred Herman's job title "cost accountant" -- an industrial job -- to her own father, Frank Schober, a waiter like his brother. In the 1930s Frank managed a tearoom and after 1942 was maitre d'hotel in a country club outside of Boston. Good at his job, Frank was bad with money, losing family funds to the stock market, prompting his wife to take control. He was never a cost accountant. Why Aurelia wanted readers to see her father more prestigiously titled and employed than he was, we don't know.

"Family Reunion" specifies and belittles maternal relatives. Yet before assuming, because Sylvia in this early poem said so, that all of them must have been laughable or gross, know that Sylvia never met a paternal relative until she was 26 and went to visit one.

Tuesday, January 2, 2024

Aurelia Plath Videos and Audio

Mini-cassette, 1967
Delighted by a lively 1976 radio interview with Aurelia Plath from WGBH-Boston, a recording recently recovered by Peter K. Steinberg, I have created and will keep at the top of this blog a page with links to all publicly available Aurelia media, audio and video, mostly educational films. Click here to access the 30-minute radio interview, interwoven with recordings of Sylvia reading her poems.