Saturday, April 27, 2024

Ernestine Plath, Sylvia's Grandmother, Oregon State Hospital

Sylvia Plath's paternal grandmother Ernestine Plath, photograph c. 1916 in her file at the Oregon State Hospital (formerly "Insane Asylum"). Read about her fate here.

This is the second known photo of Ernestine Plath. The first known photo, c. 1907, I found and published in 2022. Documentation of the above is being researched and is pending.

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Five Reasons Why We Hate Aurelia Plath

Witch, bloodsucker, martyr -- and she probably voted for Eisenhower. She's not a writer, not talented. She was manless, not sexy, not a real professor. She had bad taste in clothes, furniture and wallpaper: Photos prove it. She gave her daughter Sylvia Plath advice she didn't ask for, was a terrible role model, a helicopter parent who nearly suffocated Sylvia out in the suburbs -- except Sylvia got away and became a great creative artist! 

Aurelia Plath worried, lied, edited, tried to make her dead daughter seem like a happy person, sacrificed to give her children what she had not had and brand-name schooling, and loved them and her grandchildren in very wrong ways and anxiously. Folks just hated Aurelia, couldn't stand her: There is testimony. She was Mrs. Greenwood, blind to Sylvia's pain, prim, unenlightened, never had much of a life.

That narrative of Aurelia's evil banality is so embedded I can only build on it. I wondered why trolling Aurelia -- even now! -- is so easy and popular that anyone can do it. It must come down to trolling basics.

1) Sexism. Sylvia's father was her important, influential parent, yadda yadda, and his death was her life's most important event; next-most was marriage to Ted. Aurelia had no man and thus no life worth looking into. Sylvia believed that, and as she came of age under patriarchy scorned her mother and allies as hags and rivals. She wrote that being like her mother was the worst that could happen. First Worlders aware that starvation or prison might be worse can sort of sympathize, because of:

2) Freudian cultural debris. Yes, we are post-Freudians but still vigorous individualists and deep down blame our own and other people's parents for all ills. We can't forgive Aurelia or our own mothers for Not Letting Us Be Ourselves and other psychic injuries. We experience Sylvia's hate-my-mother rants as quintessential and truthful, not political or cultural or even a problem.

3) Snobbery. Aurelia's immigrant parents, who never went to college, had three kids and no money and had Aurelia choose either two years in secretarial college or no college. Exceeding expectations Aurelia became a teacher and married a man with better degrees than hers, which makes him brilliant but her not. Widowed and, it is said, coveting WASP respectability, Aurelia moved her family from the oceanfront to a boring suburb and taught business subjects and never had sex with strangers or did anything cool that we know about.

4) Ageism. Letters Home, published in 1975, was Aurelia Plath's debut as a public figure. She was 69 years old. Sylvia, dead at 30, is a forever young and ageless rebel -- as are we! Otto, being male, looked seasoned, never old. Aurelia kept sorting and doing and saying things of no value until she had to be put away.

5) Cultism. Venerating Sylvia's every word and thing, we annotate, edit, air our views and skip what doesn't fit our narrative. We identify with Sylvia and sentimentally cling to any trace of her. Our view is the only accurate view. Polite and passive-aggressive in public, among ourselves we are judgy and pissy. In short, we are Aurelia.

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Otto Plath's Wives and His Sister Frieda Plath

Frieda Anna Plath and brother Hugo, Sylvia's aunt and uncle, c. 1918 [1]

Otto Plath blamed and hated his first wife, Lydia Bartz Plath, but gosh, it seems she tried to be a good wife, and at UC-Berkeley where Otto was teaching German and working toward his doctoral degree, Lydia too took courses, passing a two-credit course in German and the noncredit "Phys Ed 4a" and "Household Econ 6" and a first-level course in Graphic Art. [2]

Part of Otto's complaint was that Lydia was not educated, and that is true: The first high school in her hometown, Fall Creek, Wisconsin, opened in 1913, the year after she'd married Otto and moved west with him. But Lydia was not stupid or lazy, and when Otto in 1915 went East to graduate school and did not send for her as he had promised, she went home, earned college credit from a University of Wisconsin correspondence course, and enrolled in a Chicago hospital's nursing school where Otto's younger sister Frieda -- who had grown up in her aunt's house in Wisconsin -- was a year ahead of her.

Frieda Plath befriended and encouraged both of Otto's wives. They needed the solidarity. Lydia's only work experience was as a clerk in her hometown's general store. She liked Frieda well enough to join her at nursing school. After Otto married Aurelia, Frieda wrote the new well-educated wife and they exchanged letters as long as Frieda lived. Frieda sent gifts to her niece Sylvia and nephew Warren, and was the only Plath relative Sylvia ever met, out in California, where Frieda had married Walter Heinrichs, M.D. Aunt Frieda left a good enough impression that Sylvia, pregnant when they met in 1959, named her daughter Frieda. Up for auction not long ago was an ugly little German hymnal owned by Aunt Frieda (1897-1970) and passed down to her namesake. Frieda Plath Heinrichs and her husband had no children.

Otto had left Lydia owing her money. He told people she had been sexually "cold." (Always, when defaming a woman, reference her sex life!) Lydia Plath by 1924 was an operating-room supervisor at Luther Hospital in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, a title she held until retirement. In the 1930 federal census, although still married she called herself "single," probably to keep her job; all the hospital's nurses are listed as single, and that was still true in 1940. In 1950 Lydia declared herself divorced.

Laws made life hard for women. Sylvia Plath's life was bounded and frustrated by laws governing birth control, marriage, and divorce. Inheritance and copyright laws still dog her estate. Aurelia Plath dated married man Otto because Lydia wouldn't divorce him, and Aurelia couldn't marry him until new Nevada laws opened a way. After marrying, Aurelia would not leave Otto -- Sylvia's big complaint about her mother -- because Depression-era law gave any open jobs to men or single women -- and separated-with-kids was not "single," as Sylvia found out. 

While Otto Plath pursued his academic dreams, Lydia kept writing him, proof that she had not legally deserted him. He hated her letters. I'd love to read them. There is one sample of Lydia's writing in researcher Harriet Rosenstein's archive at Emory University, dated 12 July 1975:

Dear Miss Rosenstein,

In reply to your letter, I have just two things to say:

1) My life with Otto Plath became a closed book when we were divorced; and so, under no circumstance, would I give out any information about him.

2) You had your nerve sending me an open copy of a letter, which you had addressed to me, to the village clerk.

Yours truly,

Lydia Plath [4]

Rosenstein, undaunted, did a workaround, and in February 1977 the Fall Creek village clerk Marjorie Shong spilled the tea about Otto's investing and losing his wife's and in-laws' money, and that Otto wanted his sick brother to move in with them and Lydia said no, and that Otto got to thinking he was too good for her. But by 1977 Rosenstein had given up on writing a Plath biography.

Years after separating, Lydia still had to mop up after Otto when she -- born in Wisconsin -- had to petition for U.S. citizenship. Under the law, Lydia had become a German citizen when she married German citizen Otto. Otto was naturalized in 1926, but by then the laws had changed so that wives married under the old law had to petition for naturalization on their own.

On 15 September 1931 Lydia Bartz Plath renounced The German Reich, and a Wisconsin circuit court restored her U.S. citizenship. [2] After fifteen years estranged, Otto, she wrote, was still "my husband." But not for long.

[1] Studio photo taken in Chicago, dated by its former owner 1917, but Hugo Plath first enlisted in the army in July 1918 and was discharged in December 1918. [2] Wisconsin State Board of Health Application for Registration, Wis., dated 5 December 1924; U.S. Employment Records, 1903-1988. [3] Wisconsin, County Naturalization Records, 1807-1992, Eau Claire, Petitions, v. 4-13 1927-1943, p. 73. [4] Rosenstein mss. 1489, Plath, Otto, circa 1927-, "Otto Plath Colleagues Bussey"

Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Toxic Handwriting

Sylvia Plath's distinctive handwriting

A professional handwriting analyst in 1953 assessed Sylvia Plath's character through a sample of her handwriting: 

"Strength: Enjoyment of working experience intense; sense of form, beauty and style, useful in fields of fashion and interior decoration. Eager for accomplishment. Weakness: Overcome superficiality, stilted behavior, rigidity of outlook."

Was he right? We can discuss that all day.

There are few online images of Aurelia Plath's handwriting, and as far as I know it's never been analyzed. So here is a sample from her college's yearbook of 1928, when she was Aurelia Schober. On top is a classmate's inscription (to the yearbook's owner), to compare with Aurelia's inscription at bottom left.

The yearbook's owner, named Muriel, asked each classmate to write "something original." Aurelia's text says, "Dear Muriel: It's hard to be original during exam time, so I'll just hope that you'll recover from them & have a delightful summer. Here's to the day when we wear cap and gown. Sincerely, Aurelia."

In Muriel's 1927 yearbook, Aurelia had drawn a pointer to herself in the group photo of the English Club. She printed rather than using cursive, again using very tiny lettering, here taking up 1.5 vertical inches of the page's inner margin.

It says, "Here's to two more years of joy and struggle at P.A.L. Like Browning we must get our joy out of the struggle. Sincerely, Aurelia"

"P.A.L." was short for Boston University's College of Practical Arts and Letters, founded as a women's business and vocational college. To help pay her way, Aurelia after her sophomore year got a summer job as a secretary and translator for an M.I.T. guest professor in his forties. In his diary he noted his young secretary's handwriting. He saw in it "something stiff and sober I cannot well digest.”

He digested it anyway, and he and Miss "Sober" soon fell into a red-hot two-year love affair (described in his diaries) you can read about here. He and Aurelia nearly married. He married someone else. Aurelia on the rebound dated and married Boston University professor Otto Plath.

So, our analysis?

How about: "The Plath women lived in a culture that presumed to judge women through isolated examples of their writings and their effing handwriting."

Notes: The analysis of Sylvia Plath's handwriting by Herry O. Teltscher, 1953, for Mademoiselle magazine, is in the Plath mss. II at the Lilly Library. Quotation from the Karl Terzaghi Diaries, October 1926.

Tuesday, April 2, 2024

"The Passing Dazzle of Each Face"

Eternal vigilance is the price of more context for Sylvia Plath and her mother Aurelia Schober Plath. In March came up for sale a set of college yearbooks for 1926, 1927, and 1928, for the college Aurelia attended, the years she was there, and I bought them. Yes, Aurelia Plath went to college. Her college yearbook was called the Sivad.

Although not Aurelia's personal copies, Aurelia inscribed in them personal notes to owner Muriel Brigham, fellow 1928 graduate of Boston University's College of Practical Arts and Letters, called by its students "P.A.L." Muriel Brigham (1898-1983) majored in English. She and Aurelia were both members of the college's Writers Club.

The 1928 Sivad -- Aurelia Schober, editor-in-chief -- is scarce and insanely priced when auctioned. A blurry, faulty scan costs $99; I would not pay that. I secured all three yearbooks for less. Star and valedictorian of her class, Aurelia appears in each volume. How instructive to see Aurelia's face among those of a few hundred of her peers (sadly, none interviewed while it was possible) and good photos of the campus and dorm rooms as she knew them. I learned that not only Aurelia but some classmates staffed Camp Maqua in Maine in summer 1927 -- when Aurelia invited her 43-year-old boyfriend for a week and sneaked around. Will present Aurelia's inscriptions next week.

The yearbook had to go to press in early spring, so Aurelia's late-spring honors are published in the 1929 Sivad, in which Aurelia is called "Daughter of the Dawn." Think you that I am joking? Here it is:

The Junior year in many ways was the most active of the lot, filled as it was with college work, a wonderful SIVAD and a Prom that has glittered as only Betelgeuse has glittered on the shoulder of Orion. In the midst of this radiance that Daughter of the Dawn, Aurelia Schober, shone as editor-in-chief of SIVAD, adding many new features . . .

I'm seeking a copy of Aurelia Schober's 1928 valedictory speech, delivered June 6, 1928. Do you know where I can find it? It's not in the yearbooks or the Winthrop, Mass. newspapers.