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!

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 important was marrying a man. 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 secretarial college or no college. Exceeding expectations Aurelia got a bachelor's and master's and became a teacher and married a man with better degrees than hers, which makes him brilliant but her not and him a professor but her not. Widowed, 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 -- just like us! Otto, being male, looked seasoned, never old. The old battle-ax 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.

Saturday, March 30, 2024

Sylvia Plath's Black Relatives: More

The Nicholsons rented 116R North New Jersey Ave., Atlantic City, in 1915. The storefront and rear extension are additions; more typical houses c. 1910 sit to its right and left. [1]

Their marriage lasted 20 years -- from the wedding in Boston in 1906 to sometime after 1925, when the husband, a waiter, was last listed in the Atlantic City directory. In 1928 the wife was still using his surname, "Nicholson" -- in various papers rendered as "Nichols," "Nicholason," and "Nicholas." Husband Christopher J. Nicholson also gave his birth year as 1881, 1882, and 1883, making his later years yet harder to trace.

Something led Nicholson to leave his wife, nee Anna Greenwood, on her own in Atlantic City -- where their four children had died in 1918, of influenza, all four names carved on a single gravestone. Perhaps he sought a better job or a marital separation. Anna remained in Atlantic City, working as a domestic.

Anna was Sylvia Plath's blood relative, the Viennese great-aunt who had married a black American. I have learned that more than any other U.S. city, fin de siecle Boston saw unskilled white immigrant females like Anna marry African-American men employed in skilled occupations. For young women from Europe not yet seized by the very American horror at "miscegenation" (word coined in 1863) it was a step up.

Christopher Nicholson's 1942 draft registration card -- the next obtainable document -- shows him in New York City, working downtown and lodging in Harlem. Anna, under her maiden name, had remarried in New York in 1932, to a white British ironworker formerly employed in Atlantic City. They'd moved to England.

U.S. federal census takers missed Nicholson in both 1930 and 1940. Nicholson filed for Social Security benefits on 23 August 1948, giving what is probably his real birthday: 21 August 1883. [2] The 1950 federal census shows him retired, at the same address as in 1942; his marital status is "separated." I found no divorce in New York legal records, only a civil suit Nicholson filed in the Bronx, in 1953, against one Dominick DeLillo, the nature of which I don't know.

Nicholson's death record still eludes me. The Social Security Death Index does not have it. A "Christopher Nicholson" was buried in New Jersey in 1956, but no birth date was given and several people share that name. Nicholson's niece Aurelia Plath never mentioned any Nicholsons in letters or papers we have access to.

It weighed on me that I had told Anna's story and not Christopher's. Now I have told all I know.

[1] This is the only Nicholson family address still standing. The 1915 New Jersey census shows a racially integrated neighborhood.

[2] Nicholson's 1918 draft registration card gives his birthday as 4 July 1881. It was common for men to claim to the draft board that they were older. Otto Plath's brother did the same.

Thursday, February 29, 2024

Pushed Off the School Bus

School bus, 1918

Aurelia Plath's preface to Letters Home sets her "early childhood" in a "primarily Irish-Italian neighborhood in Winthrop, Massachusetts during World War I." She remembered those schoolmates jeering her for speaking only German, and during the war they called Aurelia "Spy-face" and once pushed her down the school bus steps and left her sprawling, while the bus driver looked the other way.

Yet Aurelia lived from birth in 1906 until she was 12 not by the sea in Winthrop but in the Boston neighborhood Jamaica Plain. There she first went to school and was promoted from first grade to third. The Schobers moved in 1918 to Shirley Street in Winthrop, their neighbors almost all Anglos. "Schober" was most non-Anglo name on the block. [1] Census records show that the Irish and Italian schoolmates Aurelia placed in Winthrop were in Jamaica Plain. If she was assaulted in Winthrop it was by Anglos.

Few with German names or heritage escaped pan-Germanic harassment during World War I -- scholar Otto Plath in California got grilled by the FBI -- and given Aurelia's tendency to sugarcoat, it was probably worse than Aurelia said. Sylvia wrote that Aurelia was stoned for speaking German. One of Sylvia's fictional mothers dreads a second war with Germany not because it's war but because she remembers the U.S. during World War I.

Because Aurelia's narrative of her childhood is unreliable -- so many forces were at work on her as she was writing it -- and there is no other source, I wondered if I ought to try to believe the school bus incident happened in Winthrop, if Winthrop even had a school bus in 1918.

It turns out Winthrop had a Shirley Street school bus as early as 1910.

Caption says "About 1910. 'School Bus' of those days on Shirley Street . . . Girl in gingham dress inside right rear 'bus' is Evelyn Floyd Clark."

Evelyn Floyd is listed with Winthrop High graduating class of 1913, with 165 graduates, mostly with Anglo surnames such as Floyd and Clark. There are some Irish and Jewish surnames. Only one graduate has an Italian surname (Monafo). That was Winthrop before the Schobers moved in.

Aurelia Schober graduated from Winthrop High School in 1924. There were 146 graduates. They had Anglo, Irish, Jewish, and a sprinkling of Germanic surnames. Only one graduate had an Italian surname (Carro). That was Aurelia's Winthrop, with a school bus more like the enclosed one at the top of this post.

Aurelia's letters to her many correspondents do not give more details about her childhood. Nor do the archives she assembled that she made publicly available. By contrast Aurelia saved everything about her daughter Sylvia Plath's childhood. In the Letters Home preface Aurelia moved on from a brief discussion of her childhood to describe what she liked to read. I'm reminded of what Sylvia wrote her mother from summer camp in 1949: "Tell me something personal in your postcards. I don't care about book reviews as much as you and the family."

[1] 1920 United States Federal Census, Massachusetts, Suffolk, Winthrop, District 0676, p. 49.

Tuesday, February 6, 2024

Lovely Light-Skinned Plath Friend, Nat LaMar

Sylvia Plath met her only African-American friend at Cambridge in autumn 1955, when both were new students on scholarships there. Nathaniel "Nat" LaMar (1933-2022) while still at Harvard had published a short story in The Atlantic. He'd been at Phillips Exeter prep school with Sylvia's brother Warren. Plath wrote her mother Aurelia, "I begged some boys at pembroke [College] to introduce me to him . . . he is a lovely, light-skinned negro" [29 Oct. 1955].

The ambitious young writers became friends. On 7 November Plath wrote her mother, "I saw a good bit of that outgoing, creative negro boy, Nathaniel LaMar (from Exeter and Harvard) and went to coffee with him Monday."

Plath's association with the wonderfully colored and credentialed LaMar is today sometimes cited as proof that Plath was personally not a racist, although her creative works and private writings include racial and ethnic slurs and "othering."

In letters to her mother, Plath laid it on thick that her feelings for Nat were fraternal. LaMar and his school friend would guard her from the perils of Paris when Plath made her first trip there at Christmas break 1955:

"most happy to have made a very warm, good friend in Nat Lamar, the negro writer from Harvard, who is a wonderful sort of psychic brother. . . . [Nat is] already flying to Paris to stay with his very attractive, intelligent, Clem-Moorish type friend at the Sorbonne, they will look around and get me a cheap, good place to stay. . . Then we plan to see Paris together  . . I like the idea of having two "brothers" to go around with, both as guides and sort of champion protectors" [21 Nov. 1955].

Besides denying any attraction, Plath was heavy-hinting that Nat was gay. What a gal.

What LaMar's family in Atlanta thought about his friend Sylvia, we can only wonder. Plath assured her mother that a meeting in her dorm room included a chaperone:

"I had dear, lovable Nat LaMar over for tea with Mallory and the three of us had a most pleasant time. . ." [10 December 1955]

To other correspondents, while touting LaMar's virtues or feeling that she must because he was African-American, Plath stressed that the relationship was platonic:

"Nat LaMar. . . has already gone over [to Paris] to visit his friend Steve at the Sorbonne (by the way, Nat is a really lovely person). . . " [to Warren Plath, 11 Dec. 1955]

"most of my good friends are men. There's the American Negro from Harvard, Nat LaMar (whose story 'Creole Love Song' I may have pointed out in the Atlantic, who is simply a dear: friendly, open, & wonderfully frank. We have periodic bull sessions like brother & sister (he went to exeter & knew Warren" [to Gordon Lameyer, 12 Dec. 1955]

"I have been very lucky, however, in making some special friends: There is Nathaniel LaMar, a warm, friendly Negro boy from Harvard . . ." [to Olive Higgins Prouty, 13 Dec. 1955]

"I am getting to know some magnificent people: there's friendly, vital Nathaniel LaMar (whose story 'Creole Love Song' was in the Atlantic), the negro writer who knew Warren at Harvard & Exeter. . . [Nat] is good for simple, frank 'American talk.' " [to Marcia Stern, 14 Dec. 1955]

To a close female friend, Plath wrote a bit differently:

"am flying to paris to hang tinsel on eiffel tower under escort of negro writer from harvard, nat lamar ('creole love song' in atlantic)" . . . [to Elinor Friedman, 12 Dec. 1955].

Plath wrote her grandparents on 20 January 1956 about "the warm, friendly negro writer from Harvard, and a few other more casual acquaintances. . ."

Further letters to her family warbled:

"My dearest friend in Cambridge is Nat LaMar. I had a wonderful coffee-session with him Sunday" [25 Jan. 1956]

"Nat LaMar, who is a blessing. I had a good talk with him" [29 Jan.]

"Dear Nat LaMar is such a pleasure; I see him for coffee about once a week." [6 Feb.]

"I am gifted with the dearest, most wonderful friends: Nat LaMar, Gordon, Elly Friedman . . ." [10 Feb.]

Elinor Friedman said Plath told her she and Nat had "a brief affair" in Paris. [1] In her journal, Plath wrote that she used her love for Richard Sassoon, who was in Paris, to excuse herself from deeper involvement with Nat, having used that excuse to dial it down with other men:

"Richard," I say, and tell Nat, and tell Win, and tell Chris, as I have told Mallory, and Iko, and Brian, and Martin, and David: There Is This Boy In France." [Journals, 19 Feb. 1956] 

Plath was devastated when Sassoon dumped her after Christmas. She met and fell for Ted Hughes in late February, and in agony over whether Hughes too had abandoned her, she asked herself what to do next:

"Let me know where and to whom to give: to Nat, to Gary, to Chris even, to Iko, to dear Gordon in his way: to give the small moments and the casual talk that very special infusion of devotion and love which make our epiphanies." [Journals, Mar. 6, 1956]

It seems Plath hoped to minimize previous romantic or sexual contacts to clear the decks for serious involvement with Sassoon or with Hughes, if one of the two would have her.

Nathaniel Reid LaMar lived 88 years and never wrote a Sylvia Plath tell-all. He said only that they had been friends. Both were creative writers; both wrote senior theses on "doubles." [2] Yet what sounds like a meeting of true minds was finished when she met Ted Hughes. LaMar completed his post-graduate year and in 1957 was writing a novel with a grant from The Atlantic. When the money ran out he joined the army. This proved fatal to his creative writing. He worked for publisher McGraw-Hill from 1960 to 1980.

Nat LaMar lived most of his life in Brooklyn, New York.

Never married, with a gay partner who predeceased him [3], LaMar amassed $8 million in real-estate holdings, and LaMar after his death made news because a court-appointed guardian had failed to report his passing, kept taking payouts, and sold his house. This delayed the distribution of "millions of dollars LaMar had bequeathed to the Brooklyn Queens Land Trust, the Brooklyn Children's Museum, Cambridge University, Howard University College of Medicine where LaMar's father went to medical school, and Phillips Exeter Academy."

[1] Clark, H. Red Comet, 387.

[2] LaMar, N., "The Duality of Macbeth: A Breach in Nature," Harvard University thesis, 1955.

[3] See Lichtblau, J., "The Value of an English Garden in Brooklyn," The Common, 15 Dec. 2020

Plath's letters are quoted from Kukil, K. and Steinberg, The Letters of Sylvia Plath, vol. 1, 2017.

Summa cum laude, Harvard, 1955. Before Phillips Exeter, LaMar attended a segregated high school.