Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Before Sylvia Was Famous: A Review From 1962

Sylvia Plath's first collection of poems, The Colossus, was published in England in 1960 and in the U.S. in May 1962. The Oakland [California] Tribune ran this review on July 29, 1962. I thought it was a refreshing read, without all the biographical baggage Plath's poems carry today.

Book-review editors get literally tons of new books and can review in print only a select few. The reviewer, Jack Anderson (b. 1935) had the good taste to review The Colossus. In 1959 he had quit UC-Berkeley to work for the Oakland Tribune. Anderson became a New York Times dance critic and a pioneering dance historian as well as a poet.

Friday, January 7, 2022

Sylvia Plath's Sacred Baboon

Here's the "sacred baboon" Sylvia Plath found on the beach in Winthrop when she was two and a half years old, and described in her memoir "Ocean 1212-W":

According to "Ocean 1212-W," Sylvia found this "simian Thinker" washed up on the seashore the day her brother was born. She was jealous because she would no longer be her parents' only child. But finding the baboon sculpture on the beach that day was a sign that she was special.

The fact is that Sylvia did not find this sculpture. Her neighbor and playmate David Freeman found it, he said, between the ages of 8 and 14 (before 1946). It had drifted in covered with tar. David's father "figured it belonged to some sailor" and cleaned it. [1] The photograph is courtesy of David's sister Ruth Freeman, via Dr. Richard Larschan.

The ancient Egyptians honored Hamadryas baboons as one of the incarnations of their god of wisdom.  They portrayed these sacred baboons in art and made mummies of them. This particular sculpture was more recent, a remnant of a then-new Western fascination with hominid intelligence and behavior. In the 1920s, U.S. psychobiologist Robert Yerkes adopted chimpanzees, published a book about them titled Almost Human, and founded the first primatology laboratory, at Yale (it's now at Emory). Popular interest, plus the influence of Egyptian art on modern sculpture, culminated in the Baboon Fountain featured at the 1939 New York World's Fair. The photo below shows two of the fountain's five godlike baboon figures, with the fair's iconic Pylon in the background.

[1] Harriet Rosenstein's notes from her interview with David Freeman on 17 July 1974, Emory.

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Sylvia Plath's Poem "Daddy" in 2022

Here are four things to know when the topic of your essay or lesson plan in 2022 will be Plath’s poem “Daddy”: 


My Friend, My Friend

(for M.W.K., who hesitates each time she sees a young girl wearing The Cross)

Who will forgive me for the things I do?
With no special legend of God to refer to,
With my calm white pedigree, my yankee kin,
I think it would be better to be a Jew.

I forgive you for what you did not do,
I am impossibly guilty. Unlike you,
My friend, I can not blame my origin
With no special legend or God to refer to.

They wear The Crucifix as they are meant to do.
Why do their little crosses trouble you?
The effigies that I have made are genuine
(I think it would be better to be a Jew).

Watching my mother slowly die I knew
My first release. I wish some ancient bugaboo
Followed me. But my sin is always my sin.
With no special legend or God to refer to.

Who will forgive me for the things I do?
To have your reasonable hurt to belong to
Might ease my trouble like liquor or aspirin.
I think it would be better to be a Jew.

And if I lie, I lie because I love you,
Because I am bothered by the things I do,
Because your hurt invades my calm white skin:
With no special legend or God to refer to,
I think it would be better to be a Jew.

-Anne Sexton wrote this poem, first published in Antioch Review in 1959. Sylvia Plath probably saw one of its earlier drafts in the poetry-writing seminar Plath and Sexton attended in 1959, or maybe Plath read it in the Antioch Review, in which Plath published a poem in 1961. Sexton did not include this poem in any of her books, so it is not in Sexton’s The Complete Poems volume (1981), but is in Selected Poems of Anne Sexton (1988). “M.W.K.” is Sexton’s poet friend Maxine Kumin, who was Jewish.


“In Russia I was often asked why Plath had taken her own life, and I outlined all I knew—the adultery, the two children, the freezing cold, her history of depression—and was met with incredulity. Against these Russians’ desperate history of slaughtered millions, her misery seemed almost childish, and they had no belief in Freudian theory. They were missing, as perhaps Plath intended that they should, the pain that went to the very center of her fragmented self.”


-Elaine Feinstein (1930-2019), British poet, novelist, translator and biographer of the Russian poet Marina Tsvetayeva. The above is the concluding paragraph of “A Close Reading of ‘Daddy’,” an essay available in full here on the British Library website.



Plaths friend Clarissa Roche wrote in a memoir, Sylvia Plath: Vignettes from England, published in Sylvia Plath: The Woman and the Work (1977) that on a visit to Sylvia in November 1962, Sylvia read her a new poem, Daddy,” and both women laughed and laughed.


Consider how a neo-Nazi might respond to Daddy, neo-Nazis being fairly common now, as they were not when the poem was written 60 years ago.


Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Was Aurelia A Virgin Bride?

When Aurelia Schober married Otto Plath, January 4, 1932, she was 25 and he 46. Because Aurelia said nothing about whether she was a virgin at marriage, I will marshal what evidence I have to show why I think its answer is no.


Before she met Otto Plath, Aurelia, barely 20, started a two-year relationship with an Austrian engineer and MIT professor in his 40s. [1] Dashing, divorced Dr. Karl Terzaghi, pursued by Boston society ladies married and single, had one-nighters when out of town on business. His diary—kept meticulously all his life—mentions in August 1926 hiring “Miss A. Schober” as his secretary and German-to-English translator. A college junior with Austrian parents, the intelligent and warm-hearted girl (his words) eased Karl’s loneliness, and he hers. They went to museums, saw plays, conversed about art and poetry. By November they were kissing in the park, in the dark. This was Aurelia’s first romance, and she fell crazy in love, as did Karl.

Aurelia’s parents met Karl, and between Christmas and New Year’s her mother told her to quit seeing him. Karl (born in 1883), said her mother, was too old for her to marry, a mere three years younger than Aurelia’s father, so we know the issue of marriage had come up.


Heartsick and stuck at home during winter break, Aurelia on December 29, 1926, bought poet Sara Teasdale’s most recent book, Dark of the Moon, and retreated into its wistful love lyrics. She checkmarked and bracketed lines that moved her, and—in Gregg shorthand, which she had learned in college and her family couldn’t read—processed her feelings:


I wonder if this is true about Karl. (page 45)


This I have said in my heart when with Karl, “At least we two have had today.” (67)


This is something that I must not do. Yet I am afraid that I may. What is better—to do what one’s heart dictates or what one’s conscience tells you is right? I only hope this day will not come to me eventually. (79)


If I said good-bye to Karl I would be afraid to feel this too. Therefore I will not say “good-bye.” (79) [2]


Karl by then was calling Aurelia “Lilly,” the German nickname for a dream girl, and his diary refers to her also as “L.” (This confused Karl’s biographer, who thought “L.” was someone else.) [3] Aurelia turned 21 in April 1927 and apparently that made Karl okay. He stayed overnight at the family home in Winthrop after Aurelia’s junior prom. In May a colleague invited Karl and Aurelia on a camping trip. The colleague’s wife made Karl phone and reassure Aurelia’s mother. He also heard his girl war-whooping in the background. Sylvia Plath in her bathing suit is famous, but Karl’s diary gives Aurelia her own “bathing-beauty” moment: “Enjoyed seeing Lilly in bathing suit, well built and very pretty.”


Aurelia worked at a YWCA camp in Maine during summer 1927. Karl was a guest there for a week in July, and the couple spent evenings rowing on the lake, swimming in coves, and were for the first time “alone-alone” with a blanket. Karl wrote:


Before midnight . . .  on a lonesome clearing at the lake shore, experiencing again the delight of perfect and unrestricted communion with my girl, listening to the sounds of the woods and the low, tender, musical voice.


That’s as explicit as Karl’s diary gets. He returned to Boston so much in love he wondered what to do. At Christmas 1927, he gave Aurelia mementos of the idyll at Camp Maqua: an eight-by-ten photo of himself in a gauzy shirt and another of Aurelia in a meadow in her middy dress.


But by April his diary said he’d decided against marriage, citing her family. He was traveling more often to muddy and godforsaken sites to design hydroelectric dams. If they married, what would Aurelia do with herself but write him letters? He left on a four-month business trip only days before her June graduation. An anguished Aurelia hoped it wasn’t over, but it was. On their final date in December she huffed to Karl that she did not want to be an “episode,” but for him, she was. “Almost a wife,” his biography calls her. But Karl married someone else.


In the 1970s Aurelia wrote to her granddaughter Frieda about her lost love, never naming him, saying her heartache persisted until Sylvia was born. [4] In other words, Otto Plath was not a substitute for Karl, whose photo she kept all her life. When Otto came calling, this time Aurelia’s mother didn’t object to a suitor twenty years older; in 1932 the median age for women at marriage was 21, and Aurelia was 25 going on 26, approaching the spinster zone.

Steady or engaged couples in the Depression era tended to delay marriage and children, yet about one-third had sex before marriage, and the older they were, the higher the percentage. The 1920s had normalized premarital sex and contraception. Recalling his first wife’s distaste for sex, Otto probably asked Aurelia about her past, or for a road test, so maybe Otto, if not Karl, was her first. Aurelia said or did something, such as let slip a word about her ex, because after their honeymoon Otto the so-called pacifist shocked her with jealous rages, and we can gauge what they were like by comparing them with Sylvia’s marital rages.


Aurelia wrote on a draft of her Letters Home preface that regarding sex she “felt that my daughter should be better informed than I had been.” [5] So we know she had personal regrets, and she also gave Sylvia an article titled “The Case for Chastity,” to cajole Sylvia into remaining a virgin until marriage. Aurelia’s paragraphs describing the sex education she gave her children were deleted from the preface, and the published version turns the tables and shows Sylvia educating herself by reading and underlining passages in a book.


There’s one more clue to the answer to the question I have no right to ask unless it grants Aurelia the heart and humanity printed pages have denied her. Plath scholar Tracy Brain noticed a significant deletion from an earlier draft of The Bell Jar. Its narrator Esther, wanting to lose her virginity and seeking the right man for the job, shares, “Then, since my mother had hinted of the thralldom a woman undergoes in the hands of her first lover, to be on the safe side, I wanted somebody I didn’t know.” Plath deleted the italicized clause that reveals Esther’s mother as both her sex educator and the voice of experience. [6]



[1] See “Aurelia Plath’s First Love,” blog post May 9, 2019.

[2] Rankovic, “Aurelia Plath Shorthand Transcriptions,https://epublications.marquette.edu/aureliaplath/4/

[3] Goodman, Karl Terzaghi: The Engineer as Artist, p. 111.

[4] Andrew Wilson’s Plath biography quotes a letter dated April 21, 1978, from the Cruickshank Archive, not available to the public.

[5] “IX. Aurelia Plath,” Box 30, folder 57, Sylvia Plath collection, Smith College. See also “Aurelia Plath and the Case for Chastity,” blog post December 21, 2021. 

[6] The Other Sylvia Plath, p. 154.

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Aurelia Plath and "The Case for Chastity"

Aurelia Plath gave Sylvia Plath a Reader’s Digest article titled “The Case for Chastity,” written by a married mother of four, cautioning young women against premarital sex. Sylvia bristled, and later trounced this article in her journal and in The Bell Jar, where it’s renamed “In Defense of Chastity.” 

But for that article, Sylvia might have wished to model herself after its author, Margaret Culkin Banning [pictured]. Banning’s New York Times obituary says she published 40 books, and 400 stories in the slick high-paying magazines Sylvia ached to write for. [1] Yet this bestselling novelist—Vassar graduate, a lawyer, pro-women’s rights—might have been forgotten without Plath’s reference to the chastity article, Exhibit A among Sylvia’s reasons Sylvia (and we) should hate her mother.


Reader’s Digest published “The Case for Chastity” in August 1937. It was so popular that in September, Harper (Margaret Banning’s publisher) printed it as a pamphlet. Tightly argued and exhaustive, it explains to would-be female sexual rebels and those putting off marriage the many ways unchastity can ruin their lives: diseases, babies, abortions, regrets, and, a new twist, psychological breakdowns. The article quotes statistics and experts. Read it for yourself, here.


Pamphlets were rife in the 1930s when folks were too poor to buy books. Aurelia Plath was into pamphlets. Her shorthand annotation on Sylvia’s letter of December 19, 1961, notes the Chicago address for a free pamphlet titled Adventures in Conversation. She hoped to forward this to Sylvia for little Frieda’s edification. Frieda was then 20 months old.


Exactly where Aurelia got “The Case for Chastity” and when she gave it to Sylvia is not known. [2] In autumn 1937, Sylvia was age four going on five, so not then. The pamphlet in its time was truly and insanely topical. In December 1936 the most reliable known birth control device, the pessary or diaphragm, became legal in the U.S.—if prescribed by a medical doctor for health reasons. This landmark case is called United States vs. One Package of Japanese Pessaries, and Margaret Sanger engineered it all. [3] Sylvia Plath in her “platinum summer” of 1954 had an illegal diaphragm; Massachusetts did not legalize birth control for singles until 1972. Yet diaphragms could be obtained from sympathetic doctors, or by stealth, or from overseas, or if you borrowed a wedding ring. In January 1954 Mary McCarthy published in Partisan Review a story opening with the shocking words “Get yourself a pessary,” later Chapter 3 in her novel The Group (1963). 


Aurelia Plath’s original preface to Letters Home (1975) included five paragraphs about how she provided her children with a liberal sex education. When they were school age she gave them a book called Growing Up. Aurelia wrote that she read and discussed frankly with Sylvia numerous edgy books and plays. Here is part of the preface that Aurelia’s editor cut:


. . .  In The Bell Jar an article from the Reader’s Digest, titled “The Case for Chastity,” is handed the heroine as a manual to be followed. Our shared reading, however, went far afield of this and went on intermittently throughout high school years and the first three years of college . . . We discussed the work and writings of Margaret Sanger, the unfairness of the double standard . . . I did tell my children that I hoped they would wait until they had completed their undergraduate education before involving themselves in what I considered a serious commitment with another life . . . The decision, however, had to be theirs. (47-48) [4]


“The Case for Chastity” as represented in The Bell Jar was a thorn in Aurelia’s side, belittling her years of conscientious mothering; and the cuts to her Letters Home preface erased her noble efforts utterly. However, the Rosenstein papers, opened in 2020, record that in 1953 Aurelia told Dr. Ruth Beuscher that Sylvia knew the facts of intercourse by age 15. Later additional mother-daughter discussions made Sylvia “extremely avid for the most minute detail about sex, and this caused [her] mother some embarrassment. But she answered all questions.” [5]


Also in the cut paragraphs, Aurelia tried to establish that she was not a prude. In New York in 1929 she saw a play banned in Boston, and in 1933 she delivered to the Boston University faculty wives’ book club a report about Brave New World—so full of drugs and sex the book is banned in some places today.


Aurelia’s status when at age 25 she married Otto Plath, 46, who was married the whole time they dated, is nobody’s business and no one should care. Yet the answer to “Was Aurelia a virgin?” could illuminate Aurelia’s character, the battleground Sylvia Plath tragically died on, dreading a life like her mother’s and seeing in her more bad than good. Whether yes or no, the culture is rigged so Aurelia cannot win. Had she been a man this would not be an issue.

[1] New York Times, January 6, 1982.

[2] Probably the pamphlet was mailed to Sylvia at college in 1954 when Aurelia was most worried about Sylvia’s chastity. Aurelia wrote biographer Linda Wagner-Martin in 1987 that along with the chastity article she gave Sylvia an article with an opposing viewpoint. (ASP to Wagner-Martin, October 29, 1987, p. 2.) I believe that is false.

[3] United States v. One Package of Japanese Pessaries, 86 F.2d 737. Read the decision here at Justia.com.

[4] Plath mss. II, Box 9, folder 3, Lilly Library.

[5] “McLean Hospital Record,” Collection 1489, Box 3, Folder 10, Rose Library – Emory University Archives.

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Could Aurelia's Letters to Sylvia Still Exist?

Somebody wiped Aurelia Plath's letters to Sylvia Plath off the face of the earth. Who was it?

When biographers have guessed -- no one has proof -- that Sylvia Plath in 1962 made a bonfire of "all of her mother's letters," allegedly burning "upwards of a thousand," they make an odd assumption. [1] When Sylvia moved to England with Ted Hughes in 1959, she left at her mother's house in Wellesley her schoolbooks, manuscripts, childhood diaries, scrapbooks, letters from former boyfriends and Ted, her artworks, and all the letters Sylvia had written to Aurelia up to then. The bonfire story asks us to believe that Sylvia packed up her mother's letters, ten years' worth (c. 1950-1959), hauled them across the Atlantic to store in the couple's small London apartment, then three years later at her country house, Court Green, burned them all at once. We don't know why, so biographers have guessed "to symbolize her liberation from maternal influence."

Sylvia moved overseas in part to get away from her mother. Aurelia might have mailed to Sylvia from Wellesley a box of mother-letters, or brought them when visiting, but that sounds unwieldy and costly. Whatever happened, the voidance of Aurelia's side of the mother-daughter correspondence is so near perfect as to suggest it was methodical, and only one person in the Plath story was that methodical and had the opportunity to wipe the whole shebang: Aurelia.

Ten letters from Aurelia to Sylvia are all that exist in Plath archives. [2] Those archives hold dozens of letters Aurelia wrote to everyone else in her life, letters both sent and unsent, originals and carbon copies. Sylvia moved house six times between 1955 and the end of 1959, and was not the "pack rat" her mother was, or as sentimental. The bonfire story asks us to believe Sylvia sentimentally maintained and carried with her to England an accumulation of her mother's letters. I don't believe it.

Even the burning of "all" Aurelia's letters at Court Green in July 1962 would leave six months of letters Aurelia mailed to Sylvia after that time. Let's say Sylvia did burn all her mother's letters in the yard at Court Green, not in July but before she moved to London the first week of December. Sylvia had yet to receive letters Aurelia sent in late December and in January 1963. Sylvia received those, because she wrote replies. But they are missing too.

Aurelia had the right to take from London or Court Green in 1963, or on subsequent visits to England, any of her own letters to Sylvia that she could find, and destroy them if she liked. But Aurelia kept thousands of other Sylvia-related papers, even scraps, now in Plath archives. Aurelia thought highly of her own writing skills and evidence indicates she planned to include some of her own letters to Sylvia in her edit of Letters Home (1975), to show a loving mother-daughter relationship. Either the Hugheses or her own editor shot that idea down.

But that would mean that Aurelia had kept at least some of her own letters well into the 1970s.

Sylvia's poem "Burning the Letters" is dated August 13, 1962, so Sylvia did burn letters, once, and the poem makes them sound like Ted's. But all accounts of "bonfires" (and Sylvia dancing around them like a witch, etc.) in that turbulent period are suspect. Aurelia told The Listener in 1976 that at Court Green in July 1962 she watched Sylvia burn in the yard an armful of papers and Sylvia's new ("second" and "happy") novel in manuscript titled The Hill of Leopards, dedicated to Ted. [3] No trace of that "happy" novel has ever been found. Aurelia in 1976 said it had hurt her to watch, but she had to hold the children. She did not say Sylvia burned her letters.

If Sylvia destroyed a thousand of Aurelia's letters, in front of her or not, Aurelia would likely have told someone about her hurt or anger, or what a tragic loss it was, over her next 30 years of intimate letter-writing and friendships. Richard Larschan said Aurelia told him she was sad they had been burned, but I think a large, perhaps selective, portion still exists and could tell us much.

Did no biographer or critic ask Aurelia while she lived, "Where are your letters to Sylvia?"

[1] Rough Magic (1991, p. 286) says "upwards of a thousand" and that Aurelia watched Sylvia burn them; it cites no sources, but the book's second edition (1999) says the author spent a lot of time with Aurelia. Aurelia wrote others that the biographer's presence over three days had annoyed her; she might have lied to him. Clarissa Roche said Sylvia told her she made a bonfire of Ted's papers a few days before Roche arrived for a visit in November 1962; but also that Sylvia told the story jokingly.

[2] The ten known surviving Aurelia-to-Sylvia mailings are cataloged on page 3 in Bridget Anna Lowe's essay "Burning Free" in Plath Profiles, 2012.

[3] Unpublished anecdote from a draft of Aurelia's Letters Home introduction, Sylvia Plath collection, "Aurelia Plath," Box 30, Folder 66a/b, Smith College, written c. 1975. The anecdote says Aurelia verified the event and date, July 10, 1962, by consulting her travel diary, but this too is suspect.

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Aurelia's Basement Tapes

Screen grab from Voices & Visions, 1988

Aurelia Plath in 1986 spoke on audiotape about Sylvia while rehearsing for an interview with Voices and Visions, a TV series about poets (PBS, 1988). PBS really wanted Aurelia on videotape, but first she said no, then maybe. Her friend since 1982 and U.Mass. professor of English, Dr. Richard Larschan, suggested they practice audiotaping some conversations about Sylvia’s life and poems. Aurelia was more forthcoming on tape than on paper, he says; and at age 80 she didn’t give a fig anymore for what the neighbors thought, and that’s a bonus for us. Here they discuss Sylvia’s first published poem from 1941, when Sylvia was 8 years old:


“Every Sunday she looked for the children’s page in the Boston Herald, which I had shown her in the newspaper. And she thought she’d send her [poem] in.”

“So, in other words, it was self-initiated?”

“It was self-initiated.”

“And this is at the age of…?”

“Oh, about 8.”

“That’s very interesting because she’s taking initiative and trying to get public recognition, it seems to me, at the age of 8.”


“Why else would you print something?”

[Several-second pause.] “She wanted the dollar.”


In 1983 Aurelia had announced she would no longer speak publicly about her daughter. Yet three years later Voices and Visions got Aurelia on video: a coup for its producers and for us an encounter with a primary source.


Short clips from the six hours of Larschan’s “practice,“amateur” audio and videotapes went into two half-hour educational videos about Sylvia’s poetry, produced in 2000 by U.Mass. and televised for remote college credit. One discusses Sylvia’s “mother poems,” the other her “father poems.” Writer and narrator Larschan assumes the viewer can accept that Plath’s father and mother poems have elements of myth. Thats how Plath transformed literal truth into emotional truth. In “The Myth of the Monstrous Mother” video, Aurelia throws both light and shade on poems such as “Medusa” (“The ‘stooges’ were Sylvia’s friends!”) and recites ecstatically from “Three Women.”


The two Larschan videos were on VHS only, and rare. They are now viewable through this site, the posting of June 7, 2022.