Wednesday, May 19, 2021

How Far Is It? The Tiny Town of Plath, Germany

The German surname "Plath" is geographical. A tiny town in Germany called "Plath" sits 62 miles north of Berlin and about 30 miles south of the Baltic Sea. Deep in northeastern Germany's "land of a thousand lakes" where tourists come to ride trail bikes or horses, Plath is served by one road and ringed by woods. Visitors to Plath may book the apartment Urlaub auf dem Bauernhof (literally "vacation on the farm"), pictured below, for $78 US per night. Or Der Nussbaumhof ("The Nut Tree Inn") in Plath can accommodate three people, has three horse stalls, and quiet is assured; the webpage says it's good for meditation and communing with nature.

The name "Plath" derives from the German word "platt," meaning "flat and wide," as is the topography of northern coastal Germany and the Netherlands: boggy and marshy coastal plain.

Sylvia's father Otto Plath was born about 300 miles away in the Prussian town of Grabow, now in Poland. (See the map.) Otto and his five siblings grew up in his father's hometown of Budszyn, formerly in Prussia, now in Poland, about 200 miles from the town of Plath, so it has been a while since Sylvia's paternal line actually lived in Plath, if ever. Slavic tribes in the 700s conquered the area's original Germanic residents, lived there 400 years, then were Christianized and Germanized, so bloodlines in northeastern Germany are not pure Germanic but mixed.

The language "Plattdeutsch," in English called Low German, akin to Dutch, is a variation of the Saxon language and therefore an ancestor of English. When schools teach German, it is the more common "Hochdeutsch" or High German. (This is a geographical reference to "highlands" and not a value judgement.)

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Aurelia to a Scholar, September 8, 1986: The "Double" Theory

"I have one deep-seated wish: that the truth of my relationship with my beloved Sylvia would be made public. I am 80 years old now and do not wish to leave this planet believing that I did not cherish, love, serve, (sacrifice gladly for her) my daughter from the time of her birth (dreamed of my child and loved her from the first I knew of her conception) and still work to correct the terrible misconceptions concerning our relationship. After that first shock treatment (these should be abolished forever!) she, as I have told and written you many times, became her own "double." And as she had to plan to earn her own living, soon found out that the public was more interested in tragedy, unhappiness, -- these writings SOLD and writing in the first person made it all realistic for the uninformed read[er]s. [handwritten:] She fantasized brutally time & again."

I am interested in finding out when Aurelia Plath, after Sylvia's death, first discovers or hits on the theory of good-daughter Sylvia's brutal "double" emerging after Sylvia's shock treatments in 1953. By 1986, Aurelia's concept of "the double" is a well-rehearsed set piece and appears in other correspondence and papers with examples of what Aurelia took as proof, such as Sylvia's Smith College thesis (written in 1954) on the topic of "the double" in Dostoyevsky's novels. I could make a good guess about when, but regarding Aurelia, and Aurelia and Sylvia, we have arrived at the point in scholarship when assumptions and guesses are no longer acceptable as facts.

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Aurelia Plath's Grave: "No One Ever Mentions"

photo by Shaun L. Kelly

Aurelia Plath lived for 31 years after Sylvia’s death and died of Alzheimer’s disease on March 11, 1994, age 87, at the North Hill retirement complex in Needham, MA. She was buried near her parents, the Schobers, in the Woodlawn Cemetery in Wellesley.


These photos of Aurelia’s grave were taken by Shaun L. Kelly, Wellesley native, Wellesley High School graduate and student of Wilbury Crockett's (Sylvia’s favorite teacher), who has memories of Aurelia Plath. From 1970 to 1973, teenaged Kelly worked after school as a grocery-store bagger, and when Mrs. Plath shopped he carried her bags to her car. They’d have pleasant, affable chats. Kelly remembers that Mrs. Plath wore a “ratty grayish-like coat that did look bad, but very academic, like a lot of teachers you’d see,” and she had a wonderful laugh. When The Bell Jar became a bestseller and the talk of the town in 1971, Kelly politely refrained from asking Mrs. Plath about the book. A few years later when they met by chance, Mrs. Plath remembered Shaun the grocery boy and was thrilled he had chosen a career in education. Kelly [@ShaunLKelly1955] is a Sylvia Plath fan and has taught for 31 years at a Connecticut high school. He says that in Sylvia's final BBC recordings her voice and Aurelia's sound identical.


Kelly’s parents too are buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, 50 yards from Mrs. Plath. Aurelia's is not a gravestone like that of her parents, the Schobers, but a “flush marker,” meaning “flush with the ground,” now almost obscured by grass. “I feel obligated enough that I still take care of her grave when I go up and see Mom and Dad,” Kelly said in an interview. “Obviously, if I didn’t like her, and if she were a jerk, I never would have gone over there to pay my respects, but every time I go to my parents’ grave I make sure to see Mrs. Plath as well. I almost feel obligated, it looks so forlorn. I know how Sylvia’s grave is a monument, almost like a celebratory, iconic place to visit for thousands every year, but Mrs. Plath’s grave no one ever mentions, and that makes me sad.”

Aurelia's parents' gravestone with her marker in the foreground

Monday, April 26, 2021

A Birthday Present for Aurelia

It's Aurelia Plath's 115th birthday (born April 26, 1906). Happy birthday, Sylvia's mom, and here is a present for you.

Hoping to write Sylvia Plath's biography, researcher Harriet Rosenstein on June 16, 1970, interviewed Sylvia's psychiatrist Dr. Ruth Barnhouse Beuscher, who treated Sylvia at McLean Hospital in 1953 and later. Among the first topics Rosenstein and Beuscher discussed was The Bell Jar as autobiography. Rosenstein took extensive notes, now in the Rosenstein Papers at Emory University. (How do I know what's in those papers? I went there in March 2020.)

Beuscher told Rosenstein The Bell Jar is factual, that what happened to its narrator Esther Greenwood happened to Sylvia, but some events were moved or altered. Fourth on the list:

"Esther's easy admission that she hated her mother [is] inaccurate. She [Sylvia] had spent at least the first month in the hospital asserting that she loved her mother. Beuscher says that she had to work hate admission out of Sylvia."

Aurelia, when Rosenstein interviewed you a few weeks later, in July, you blamed psychiatry for making Sylvia hate you. For the rest of your life you kept saying and writing that. Now we have Beuscher's word for what happened.

Beuscher by 1970 had become a Christian theologian like her father but was also deeply interested in the occult. She pursued a personal friendship with Rosenstein and entrusted to her the desperate letters Sylvia wrote to Beuscher in 1962 and 1963.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

You Shouldn't Have Worn That

Smith College freshman Sylvia Plath and her best friend Marcia Brown co-wrote a satirical article about dating, published in a special section of the Princeton Tiger (May 5, 1951, pp.13-15), Princeton’s college-humor magazine. The co-written article, “In Retrospect: A Plea for Moderation” is a taxonomy of college males who in the authors’ opinion are disappointing blind dates. There’s the “Super-Egoed Rah-Rah,” the “Cousins, Brothers, and Cast-Off Suitors,” “The Athlete,” “The Responsible,” and the “Mother’s Boy.” All non-starters. Yet the co-authors conclude they “hopefully but cynically look forward to the next weekend.” 
The special section’s contributors are all women from women’s colleges. Jani Kettering of Bennett College (Millbrook, NY) drew for Plath and Brown’s article comical illustrations of the “Rah-Rah,” “The Athlete” and “Mother’s Boy.”  On page 23 of that issue, sharing a page with two seriocomic poems (a doggerel about dating, signed “Smith,” and a poem mocking strapless dresses) is Kettering’s cartoon, captioned “Bob and Ceil Chapman didn’t get along so well tonight.” It recalled for me the moment in The Bell Jar when Esther Greenwood must hold her dress together after a blind date rips it during a sexual assault.
“Ceil Chapman” (1912-1979) was in the 1950s a very popular designer of strapless and off-the-shoulder cocktail and evening gowns; she was Marilyn Monroe’s favorite designer.

Sylvia wrote Aurelia on March 19 that Marcia typed their article while Sylvia cleaned her dorm room, and wrote on May 14 that their article had been published.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

"Do Not Let Mother See This!"

Sample of Aurelia's shorthand.

It is false to say Sylvia Plath’s “letters home” to Wellesley were written for her mother’s eyes and gratification only. Although addressed to Aurelia Plath, Sylvia’s letters were in fact written for the Plath household, including Sylvia’s brother and grandparents, and Aurelia shared the letters soon after receipt with other relatives and friends, such as Marcia Brown Stern.


Sylvia was aware of that, because in some letters she asks Aurelia to keep them confidential. For example, Sylvia’s letter of February 24, 1956, says, “I am being very naughty and self-pitying in writing you a letter which is very private. . .” This suggests Sylvia typically felt obligated to keep her letters family-friendly, but in this case singled out her mother for more intimate communication.


The first sentence in Aurelia’s introduction to Letters Home (1975), a book often characterized as “Sylvia’s letters to her mother,” explicitly states that Sylvia wrote the letters to her “family.” Aurelia specifies that “family” includes Warren Plath and Olive Higgins Prouty. Aurelia did not tell readers she acted as a curator, deciding on her own and case-by-case who else should be allowed to read or hear her read Sylvia’s letters. We learn this from Aurelia’s shorthand annotations on some of Sylvia’s original letters, now in the Lilly Library at Indiana University.


Aurelia wrote her annotations mostly on envelopes. (Aurelia was the only person in the family able to read or write Gregg shorthand.) I have transcribed all her “share/don’t share” annotations, appearing on seven letters in all, and present here the transcriptions and the date of the letter they’re associated with. Use your copies of Plath’s Collected Letters to figure out why Aurelia might have made these curatorial decisions.


·      share with Gordon if the time is right.  1954, August 30 ["Gordon" was Plath's steady boyfriend.]


·      do not share   1955, October 5


·      (do not share) 1955, November 14


·      do not share!  1955, December 5


·      Do not let Mother see this!   1956, March 9  [“Mother” means Aurelia’s mother, Sylvia’s “Grammy,” who lived in the household and was then dying of cancer. Sylvia asked Aurelia to keep this letter private.]


·      do not let Dot or Frank see this.  1960, January 16 [“Dot” is Aurelia’s sister and Sylvia’s “Aunt Dot”; “Frank” is Aurelia’s brother. Neither lived in the Plaths’ home.]


·      don’t share    1962, October 21  [“don’t share” is written twice on this letter, on the inside and the outside.]


A few things to know: 1) Dozens of Sylvia’s letters home, especially in her first years at college, were penny postcards and openly readable. 2) We cannot rightly assume that Aurelia shared with others all the letters which she did not mark “do not share.” 3) Aurelia penciled in shorthand on Sylvia’s letter of April 25, 1951, “file in safe in my bedroom.” That letter she really didn’t want to leave lying around. Why? 4) Aurelia also read Warren Plath’s “letters home” aloud to visitors (Sylvia Plath to Warren, July 6, 1955).

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Sylvia Plath Quotations From "Letters Home"

"Simply gutted of all strength and energy. I wear about five sweaters and wool pants and knee socks and can't stop my teeth chattering. The gas fire eats up the shillings and scalds one side and the other freezes like the other half of the moon. I was simply not made for this kind of weather. I have had enough of their sickbay and hospitals to make me think it is better to perish in one's own home. . . " (1956, February 24) 

"When one feels like leaving college and killing oneself over one course which actually nauseates me, it is a rather serious thing." (1952, November 19)

"I can't wait to get out of this dusty, dirty coalbin of a house" (1957, May 5)

"[a]ll the other little 'creative' writers were similarly dismissed, but I was singled out for particularly vicious abuse" (1957, June 8)

"I am sacrificing my energy, writing, and versatile intellectual life for grubbing over 66 Hawthorne papers a week and trying to be articulate in front of a rough class of spoiled bitches." (1957, November 5)

"Oh, we have rousing battles every so often in which I come out with sprained thumbs and Ted with missing earlobes. . ." (1958, June 11)

"I lost the little baby this morning and feel really terrible about it." (1961, February 6)

"The next five months are grim ones." (1961, November 5)

"I got so awfully depressed two weeks ago by reading two issues of The Nation--Juggernaut, the Warfare State--all about the terrifying marriage of big business and the military in America and the forces of the John Birch Society, etc.; and then another article about the repulsive shelter craze for fallout, all very factual, documented, and true, that I simply couldn't sleep for nights with all the warlike talk in the papers" (1961, December 7)

"I simply cannot go on living the degraded and agonized life I have been living, which has stopped my writing and just about ruined my sleep and my health" (1962, August 27)

"I guess my predicament is an astounding one, a deserted wife knocked out by flu with two babies and a full-time job" (1962, October 18)

The next time you hear or read that Aurelia Plath's edit of Sylvia Plath's Letters Home (1975) "expurgated" "everything negative or political" in Sylvia's letters and made Sylvia's life and character look sunny and sweet, "like a child's pink frilly bedroom". . . send them this page of quotations from Letters Home.