27 October 2014

Gail Crowther & Elizabeth Sigmund on Sylvia Plath in Devon: A New Book

What better way to remember Sylvia Plath's birthday today than by announcing the forthcoming publication of an exciting new book?

Sylvia Plath's friend, and dedicatee of The Bell Jar, Elizabeth Sigmund and Plath scholar Gail Crowther have joined forces in the forthcoming book Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning to be published in early 2015 by Fonthill. As of right now, the scheduled publication date is 14 February 2015. The book will be available from Fonthill, as well as via Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.

From the Amazon blurb:
Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning is part memoir, part biography focusing on the fifteen months that Sylvia Plath lived in North Tawton, Devon from September 1961 to December 1962. This was an extraordinary time for Plath as she finished the proofs on her first novel The Bell Jar and in the autumn of 1962 produced most of her dazzling "Ariel" poems. Elizabeth Sigmund recalls the year of her friendship with Plath from their first meeting drinking tea to attending music concerts together. Gail Crowther considers the impact Plath's domestic life had on her creative work during this period drawing for the first time on unpublished letters, documents and previously unseen resources from a wide range of archives in the UK, US and Canada. What emerges is a unique and industrious picture of Plath as she settled into town life forging new friendships, giving birth to her second child, decorating her new home and producing some of the most memorable and powerful poetry of the 20th century.
The subtitle of the book is taken from Dylan Thomas' "Poem in October": "O may my heart’s truth / Still be sung / On this high hill in a year's turning", which Plath marked in her copy of Thomas' Collected Poems. (As a side note, in addition to it being Plath's birthday today, it is also Dylan Thomas', who was born 100 years ago.) Crowther & Sigmund's book features a fascinating amount of concise, soundly researched information about Plath's life and works during this period and many contextual photographs. Excellently written, Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning is certainly a must read for any scholar, fan, reader, or otherwise of Sylvia Plath. I would offer a "Satisfaction Guaranteed" guarantee but I am aware of certain people out there who are simply too hard to please.

Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning offers unique insight into the year that Sylvia Plath lived and worked in Devon. The book includes:

  • Previously unpublished memories by one of Sylvia Plath’s close friends.
  • Information from newly discovered letters and documents from the archives offering a unique portrayal of Sylvia Plath during her most productive year.
  • Previously unpublished images.
  • Offers a fuller and more in depth depiction of Plath during this final year of her life.

Congratulations to Gail and Elizabeth! Pre-order today!

All links accessed 16 October 2014.

17 October 2014

Articles about Sylvia Plath

It has been quite a while since this blog has had news of "academic" (used alternatingly seriously and sarcastically) articles on Sylvia Plath. So, let us play catch up with some recent(ish) writing that you might find interesting. Below each entry is an annotation or summary, that may or may not be helpful?

Currey, Mason. "Sylvia Plath." In Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013: 109.
          A brief page long entry on Plath's "near-constant struggle to find and stick to a productive writing schedule" (109). Currey cites a few instances in Plath's journals where she tries to dictate her self into routine. The entry mentions Plath's October 1962 routine of rising early and writing before her children woke up.

Garfield, Simon. "The Modern Master." In To the Letter: A Journey Through a Vanishing World. New York: Gotham Books, 2013: 360-384.
          Wonderful article primarily on the letter writing of Ted Hughes. On Hughes' art and dedication to this vanishing form of communication. Includes examples of letters to his his daughter Frieda Hughes, sister Olwyn, a teacher, friend Luke Myers, and Sylvia Plath. Includes a photograph of Sylvia Plath I believe was previously unpublished which is from the "Gerald Hughes collection" at Emory. The caption is weak: "Daffodils and smiles: Sylvia Plath with Frieda and Nick in the early 1960s" (378). Logically this can be only 1962. It is probably the same sitting as the "Perfect Light" photograph referred to by Hughes in Birthday Letters. The photograph in the book is from further away than the above linked image. Plath holds her baby Nicholas in her left arm with her right hand supporting his bum. She is smiling at the camera while Frieda stands off to Plath's right holding a small bouquet of daffodils.

Mack, Michael. "Vacating the Homogeneity of the Socio-Political: Sylvia Plath and the Disruption of 'Confessional Poetry'." In Ethics, Art, and the Representation of the Holocaust: Essays in Honor of Berel Lang. eds. Simone Gigliotti, Jacob Golomb, and Caroline Steinberg Gould. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2014: 199-213.
          Mack's essay contends that "Plath strenuously and unceasingly strengthens her selfhood [and her] poetry creates and also preserves the life of subjectivity that refuses to meet conventional moral standards" (199).

Merkin, Daphne. "A Matched Pair (Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath)." In The Fame Lunches: On Wounded Icons, Money, Sex, the Brontës, and the Importance of Handbags. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013: 359-363.
          Any chapter that begins "Them again. Just when you thought there was no more to be said, the ransacked remains of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath float to the surface once more" needs to be ignored (359). One has to question the motivation and sincerity of Merkin to write about Plath (and Hughes). Largely inspired by Diane Middlebrooks' Her Husband, Merkin must have simply needed a chapter. Nothing to see here, carry on.

Poch, John. "The Family Voice: The Confessional Pronouns' Greatest Hits." American Poetry Review. September/October 2014: 33-35.
          Poch's piece looks at "I" in Theodore Roethke's "In a Dark Time"; the "You" in Plath's "Daddy"; and the "Our" in Robert Lowell's "Skunk Hour"; the "She" in Elizabeth Bishop's "The Moose"; and the "He" in John Berryman's "Dream Song 77". For Plath, Poch writes, "While the confessional poet's poems are all about the 'I,' the second person sometimes take the cake due to all the finger-pointing. Perhaps nobody has a better index of this than Sylvia Plath" (33). Thanks to Dr. Amanda Golden for alerting me about this one.

Redmond, John. "The Influence of Sylvia Plath on Seamus Heaney." In Poetry and Privacy: Questioning Public Interpretations of Contemporary British and Irish Poetry. Bridgend (Wales): Seren, 2013, 111-129.
          Redmond pays "special attention to the influence of The Colossus and Ariel on Wintering Out and North" (111). Some of the influences the author notes are merely word choices (they both used the word "neighbourly", for example, and in Redmond's argument this constitutes evidence of influence), but he is more convincing when discussing themes and tonality that Heaney may have picked up from Plath. He compares Plath's "Nick and the Candlestick" and "Berck-Plage" to Heaney's "Exposure" and "Funeral Rites".

Treglown, Jeremy. "Howard's Way." TLS. August 30, 2013: 13.
          Treglown discusses the passing reference to painter Howard Rogovin in Ted Hughes' Birthday Letters poem "Portraits", the only poem in the collection on his time at Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, New York. A fascinating article that ends with Rogovin saying "'I'm not sure how good a poem ["Portraits"] is...but it's probably better than the painting.' And then, as if momentarily speaking in Plath's voice, 'I wonder, why would anyone be interested?'" This is modesty to the nth degree, but it would be a contemporary representation of Plath during her first pregnancy at a time she was writing the the majority of the poems that would start and fill and complete her first published volume of verse. Tons of people -- and not all just "peanut-crunchers" would be interested. The potrait remains missing so far as anyone knows. A wonderful article.

There are two reviews of books about Sylvia Plath to list here, as well:

Gill, Jo. Review of Representing Sylvia Plath edited by Sally Bayley and Tracy Brain. In Modern Philology 112:1, August 2014: 133-136.

Smith, Caroline J. Review of Sylvia Plath's Fiction: A Critical Study by Luke Ferretter. In Studies in the Novel 45:2. Summer 2013: 306-307.

All links accessed 8 October 2014.

08 October 2014

Sylvia Plath Collections: ICA Archives

In a letter to her mother dated 24 June 1960 and excerpted in Letters Home, Sylvia Plath wrote about attending a cocktail party for W.H. Auden "last night" at Faber and Faber's (then located at 24 Russell Square (map). On this occasion, Plath witnessed Hughes being photographed with T.S. Eliot, Stephen Spender, Louis MacNeice, and W. H. Auden. After the party, she said: "Then we went to the Institute of Contemporary Arts and read our poems to an audience of about 25-30 young people with another poet (or, rather, non-poet; very dull)" (386).

I was curious about this poetry reading, about who the "dull" "non-poet" was, and so searched to see if the Institute of Contemporary Arts had an archive anywhere. I started at the ICA website and then learned that the records for the period covering Plath's lifetime are held in the Tate Museum archives.

The ICA London is among the Tate's list of all archival collections (TGA 955) and it seemed to me that TGA 955/1/5/3, "Correspondence about the organisation of poetry events", 1960-1964 was the likely place to start. So I emailed to see if they had any letters to or from Plath and other information about the reading.

Allison Foster at the Tate archives wrote back and could not have been more helpful and accommodating to the request. I should dispense of this information right off the bat and come clean: there are no letters from Plath. Or, none were found. However, there is a letter to Plath dated 29 March 1960. In this letter, Dorothy Morland (obit), Director of the ICA, asks if she would like to give a reading with two other poets at 8:15 p.m. on 23 June 1960. Anyone with an inkling of Plath's biography knows that the date of Morland's letter is just a few days before her first child, Frieda Rebecca Hughes, was born. The other two invited poets, who also were sent letters on 29 March 1960, were Ted Hughes and Alan Brownjohn. Brownjohn wrote back on 3 April 1960 accepting and asking a number of questions. The correspondence rounds out with a reply from Morland to Brownjohn on 12 April 1960.

So close! But again no letter from Plath or Hughes. Obviously they accepted the invitation since Plath wrote to her mother about the reading. A note on Brownjohn's letter, presumably in Morland's hand, reads "PRI 9132" which was the telephone number for the poetic couple at their 3 Chalcot Square flat. So, we can deduce that their acceptance was likely done over the telephone.

In Morland's 12 April 1960 reply to Brownjohn, she wrote: "The poets usually read in two periods of roughly ten minutes each, there is an interval after which we have questions and possibly one or two poems read again." She closed saying the duration was usually about 90 minutes and mentioned that Karl Miller (who recently passed away) would act as chair.

How I would love to know which poems were read! To that point in 1960 according to Collected Poems, Plath had written just one poem, "You're" in January or February 1960. It is possible that Plath read this poem. Based on her submissions lists held by Smith College, it might be possible to guess at other poems Plath selected to read based on manuscripts she sent out to various magazines between January and May.  Those poems include: "The Beggars", "Blue Moles", "The Manor Garden", "Medallion", "Poem for a Birthday" (or any of its component parts), "The Burnt-out Spa", "A Winter Ship", "I Want, I Want", "The Colossus", "Maudlin", and "The Eye-Mote".

All links accessed 24 July and 1 October 2014.

01 October 2014

I know your estate so well: Sylvia Plath at Yaddo

The Grand Manor, Yaddo
On Sunday 21 September 2014, Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, New York, opened its doors to visitors for a day of tours. At $50 a ticket, it seemed a reasonable price to pay for infrequent public access into this retreat for artists. Naturally you will surmise I was interested in seeing the site as Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes were a guests for eleven weeks from 9 September to 19 November 1959. The tour consisted of 15 stops which included the first two floors of "The Grand Manor" as well as the ground floor of West House, and a swing by Pine Garde and the new Greenhouse Studios, built on the site of a couple of other previous greenhouses.

Sadly, there was not one mention of Plath on my tour! My particular tour, consisting of 25 people, started at the Greenhouse Studios, then proceeded to Pine Garde. Then on to West House before ending in the mansion itself. I could not have been happier at this as it got out of the way the things with which I was not as concerned. While it started off slightly late, we made up time temporarily and then by the point we were doing the mansion, there was such a backup that we ran over by more than 45 minutes. I felt terrible for the tour groups going after ours. I spent some parts of the downtime in-between stops re-reading Plath's journal entries and poems about the property on my phone.

The house and property were simply amazing. Artworks and fascinating objects were everywhere, and the materials that went into the houses construction, design, and decor appeared to be the of the finest quality.

              West House, Yaddo
On the way to West House, we passed the Garage, which Plath talked about she and Hughes moving into in her journals, but I am unclear at the moment if they did move or not. In West House I got a great vibe from the decor and layout, which must all be the same as it was back in 1959. As we entered the door, the tour guide pointed out the statue, which was formerly in the Rose Garden but moved to its present location after it was vandalized. You can see in the photograph below the hand has sustained damage. This recalled Plath's journal entry: "The white statues are all encased in little wooden huts, like outhouses, against the ravages of winter and vandals" (525). In the house, I looked for books by Roethke. Jung, Katherine Anne Porter, and Iris Murdoch, among others that she read while there, but could not suss out how they were organized on the many shelves and in various nooks. My wife did spy a copy of Dylan Thomas' Selected Poems.

Vandalized statue, West House
The upstairs, as with the third floor where Plath's study was, was not part of the tour. In West House we entered from a porch into the music room, then were shuttled into a sitting/living room, down the hallway (where Plath's bedroom was, but it was not pointed out), and into a darkish room on the eastern part of the house filled with a card catalog of stereopticon photographs, which recalled to me Plath's wonderful 1960 poem "Candles". In the hallway, there are a set of stairs that lead up to the second floor. On a landing, there is a stunning Tiffany window which was formerly in a chapel window in the main house.
Tiffany window, West House
Living room, West House
Sofa, Music Room, West House
The back of West House
The main house was were the tour got really mind-blowing. As the tours were quite log-jammed with people there was ample time to stand around and observe. The entry way into the house leads you to the big indoor fountain. This is in the west part of the house and faces east. A massive hall opens up from this. To the right is a small receiving room. The next room we were shown on the right is the main dining room. Opposite the dining room is the music room, which is set up with pews. Above the fireplace in the music room there is a frieze, with little columns and other miniature ruins of Romanesque columns and the like, which reminded me the line "You are pithy and historical as the Roman Forum" of Plath's Yaddo poem "The Colossus".

Fountain, Yaddo
Dining room, Yaddo
Dining room table, Yaddo
At the east end of the main hall on the first floor, directly opposite the fountain, is a sitting area, with the two massive portraits of Katrina and Spencer Trask. When walking back towards the fountain and the entry way, on the right is the stunning mosaic phoenix fireplace Plath wrote about in her poem "Yaddo: The Grand Manor": "Indoors, Tiffany's phoenix rises / Above the fireplace; / Two carved sleighs / Rest on orange plush near the newel post" (Collected Poems 123-124, link to image of sleighs). Then the grand staircase leading up to the second floor. On the landing of the stairs, Plath writes in her journals about the"large stained glass window of woman in blue gown, float in white draperies & fillet of pearls binding auburn hair holding hands to a sky of stone-shaped clouds - green lawn, blue & white sky" (503).
Phoenix fireplace, Yaddo
Grand stair case, Yaddo
Stained glass, Yaddo
As you go up the grand staircase, to the left is Spencer Trask's bedroom and a former chapel. On the landing, you turn right, go up another flight up stairs to the second floor. To the right is the bronze "Bust of Homere" to quote Plath (502). Beyond the bust is a "Glassed-in reading porch with three great-arched windows looking into thick green pinetrees" (503). Like the first floor, the entire space is an open hallway with rooms off to the side here and there.
Bust of "Homere", Yaddo
Reading Porch, Yaddo
At the far end of this floor, facing east, is the "Yaddo: Library: Second Floor" as Plath describes it in her journal (pages 502). This was the most important room for me to see as it matched up so well with what Plath captured in her journals both in text and in illustrations. In this room is the
The glass atlas
"Glass atlas of stars & constellations painted with birds, men horses in yellow & blue & green - equinoxes marked in red on wrought iron pedestal -

Centaurus, Lupus Scorpio, Cancer, Taurus Capricornus, Sagittarius Pegasus, Andromeda, Lynx, Leo" (503).

Also in this room are the engravings above the fireplace of which Plath transcribed the titles; and lots of books and things. I noticed a book on lichens and mosses, liking to think Plath looked at it (Full Text). The word lichen features in "Old Ladies' Home", written around this time, as well as in her her Yaddo poem "The Stones" and the later "Three Women". And moss features in "Dark Wood, Dark Water". The "view east" was different in Plath's time as all the present tall trees were not there, affording stunning views of the mountains in the far distance, but also to a view of "A superhighway" which "seals me off", as she wrote of the Northway (Route 87) in "Private Ground" (Collected Poems 130). Also in this room there are two small chairs on either side of the fireplace, one of which Plath partially drew in her journal, see page 506).

Engravings, Yaddo
Inlaid chair, Yaddo
Plath notes the "Wainscotted Stair coming down from above. On the newel, another elaborate lamp in form of a grecian vase with bas relief of naked nymphs" (503). In her journals, Plath also drew a sideboard, describing it as "Ornate sideboard - enclosing Bayreuth beersteins - gilded bow-legs, gilded wood set with innumerable round, oval & leaf-shaped mirrors" (503). Plath also drew the "Ornate gilt wall lamp fixture with petals of streaked pink & white glass for the bowl of it - exotic magnolia petals. All scrolls & filigree leaves" (502).
Wainscoted Stair, newel, and vase, Yaddo
Ornate Sideboard
Gilt wall lamp fixture, Yaddo
I was not successful in noticing all of the objects and furniture Plath drew as I reached the saturation, freak-out, and fatigue point. I tried to keep my composure and feel lucky I did not fall to the floor shaking, drooling, and soiling myself. Out in the gardens, in the fresh air, where a colossal "blue sky out of the Oresteia / Arches above us", in the "Private Ground", "the grasses / Unload their griefs on my shoes" and it was here, too, I noticed the gate mentioned in Plath's "Medallion": "By the gate with star and moon. / Worked into the peeled orange wood" (Collected Poems 129, 130, 124).
The grasses unload their griefs on my shoes...
"By the gate with star and moon" - "Medallion"

All links accessed 22-25 September 2014

20 September 2014

Sylvia Plath's Arrival in England, 20 September 1955

The first poem in Ted Hughes' 1998 collection Birthday Letters is "Fulbright Scholars" which begins:
Where was it, in the Strand? A display
Of news items, in photographs.
For some reason I noticed it.
A picture of that year’s intake
Of Fulbright Scholars. Just arriving -
Or arrived. Or some of them.
Were you among them? I studied it.

No doubt I scanned particularly
The girls. Maybe I noticed you…
Yet I remember
The picture: the Fulbright Scholars. (Faber, 3)
Sylvia Plath sailed from New York City on 14 September 1955, arriving in Southampton, England, 6 days later on the 20th. She was one of many on board the Queen Elizabeth travelling to universities spread across the United Kingdom to a destination in England, Wales, Ireland, and Scotland, and maybe beyond.

The Queen Elizabeth made a brief stop in Cherbourg, France, before arriving early in the morning of the 20th. Plath's pocket diary, held by the Lilly Library at Indiana University, notes that she had breakfast at 7, and between disembarking from the ship and going through customs, Plath notes down that once in port her picture was taken by a photographer from the Evening Standard. Was she in a group? Alone? Plath boarded a train bound for London, and then took up temporary residence first at Bedford College (now Regent's University London) in Regent's Park, and then at the YWCA 57 Great Russell Street, London (map), across the street from the British Museum, before heading to Cambridge on 1 October. Between 20 September and 1 October, Plath took advantage of London, seeing movies (Shadow of a Doubt and Rififi); plays (Waiting for Godot, The Count of Clérambard, Separate Tables, The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker, and The King & I); going on dates; meeting people; and as you may imagine, sending letters home.

At first glance, it looks like this post might be about the discovery of a new, long-lost photograph of Sylvia Plath. One that lends credence and the potential of biographical authenticity to a reading of Ted Hughes' poem "Fulbright Scholars". Would that it were. Certainly Plath's notation does this, in the absence of the photograph. Hughes cannot (or does not) in the poem remember the name of the newspaper, but we have every reason to believe some of what he does write is true: sizing up the ladies, for example, as many might do.

Unlike my post from August, this post, as of now, does not have a happy ending. I have not found the picture. I searched two microfilm versions of Evening Standard for this time, September and -- to be thorough -- October 1955. Once at the British Library in March 2013 and once via interlibrary loan in May 2014. Here is what I did learn, though!

The microfilmed version of the Evening Standard was the "Final Night Extra" edition. This leads me to conclude that there were other, earlier editions throughout the day. I have been unable to confirm how many editions were printed daily, but if they are anything like the Boston daily papers from this time period, there could be three to five or more editions per day. In the research I did looking for newspaper articles on Sylvia Plath's disappearance during her first suicide attempt in August 1953, this was certainly the case (read my paper "'They Had to Call and Call': The Search for Sylvia Plath"). In the articles on Plath's disappearance and discovery, her news story sometimes appeared on the same page for each edition, but sometimes her story was bumped or moved to another page, for space or due to other hot and urgent news items.

In the 20 September 1955 issue of the Evening Standard there are two provocative news stories regarding the docking of the Queen Elizabeth in port at Southampton. In the first story, passenger Archibald Campbell was found dead in his cabin on the night before docking at Southampton. The second story involved the arrest of a man from London on board the Queen Elizabeth at the time the ship docked. The man was arrested in his bed in his cabin under suspicion of having received £196 under false pretenses. There were no reported stories of female passengers biting male passengers on the face.

The strongest indication to me that the Evening Standard might have covered the arrival of Fulbright scholars at Southampton is a nearly full page story on the arrival, in Liverpool, of 13 Beaverbrook scholarship winners including teachers and scholars from Canada aboard the Empress of France. If this ship arrived later in the morning or day than the Queen Elizabeth, it is conceivable to me that the Fulbright scholars story simply was usurped, after possibly running in one or a few previous editions. This story about the Canadians includes a photograph of three females on the gangway. It does not take too much imagination to think of a similar situation in Southampton, Plath among them.

So close! If you, valued reader, have any knowledge of the number of editions of the Evening Standard in September 1955, please do let us know. Also, if anyone knows of the existence in particular of other editions (other than the "Final Night Extra") of the paper from 20 September 1955, please do also let us know.

Thanks to Petter Naess, Executive Director U.S.-Norway Fulbright Foundation, and Andrew Wilson, author of Mad Girl's Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted, for their help with this post.

All links access 9 May 2014 and 26 August 2014.

03 September 2014

Sylvia Plath, Bell Jars and Bowen

The following is a special guest post by Dr. Gail Crowther. Thank you, Dr. Crowther.

Recently, I have taken to reading Elizabeth Bowen.

I don't know why I have never read her before now, but anyway, about two years ago I bought an old penguin copy of The Death of the Heart from a second hand book store. It lay on my 'to-read' pile since then, until a couple of months ago during a sleepless night I started to read it. Now I am currently enjoying a Bowen-fest, working my way chronologically through her novels and stories. Needless to say, I am smitten.

I knew, of course, that there was a Plath connection. A young Sylvia Plath while working for Mademoiselle had interviewed Elizabeth Bowen in the home of May Sarton at 14 Wright Street, Cambridge, Mass on 26th May 1953. It was famously captured in a series of photographs by a Mademoiselle photographer. They show a smiling and slightly adoring looking Plath interviewing and engaged in discussion with the older writer. Bowen's advice was that a young writer should "move about the world and keep in contact with people" and keep away from jobs that waste creative energy ("We Hitch Our Wagons" 282). Aspiring writers need, according to Bowen, "both criticism and encouragement" (282). For her own part, Bowen claimed she turned to writing short stories when she failed as a poet, and even then, still preferred the format of a short story to a novel. Her own work sprang out of visual impressions and did not see print without much re-working.

Bowen's library cards from Smith College.
Used by permission of the Mortimer Rare Book Room.
To what extent might Plath have read Bowen to prepare for this interview? Library cards at Smith show that Plath signed out a number of Bowen novels and stories with a return due date of 28th May 1953. She appeared to read the following books: Early Stories, Seven Winters, and Ivy Gripped the Steps. Her calendar indicates that she read The Death of the Heart also on 25 May. Clearly she researched her interview subject well. After the interview, Bowen and Plath exchanged letters. Although there is no known copy of the letter Plath wrote to Bowen, the reply, held at Lilly Library, Indiana University, was sent from Bowen's Court in Ireland on 9th June 1953. It showed warm appreciation in which Bowen stated how lovely it had been to meet Plath and that she hoped to be reading some of Plath's own books in the future.

Might, however, there be a major Bowen influence in Plath's work that has previously been overlooked? While reading Bowen's first novel The Hotel (1927), I encountered some startling imagery that led me directly back to Plath. In this novel, set on the Italian Riviera, the plot follows the guests and their relationships through a hot and lazy summer. Friendships are forged and broken, love affairs take place and characters are beautifully and subtly drawn by Bowen in poetic and evocative language. One scene, however, between two major protagonists, Sydney and Milton, takes place on a sunny hillside and involves a proposal. The imagery used is as follows:

In the expanse of the free air she had laughed and felt that neither of them were realer than the scenery. Now, at some tone in his voice she was surprised by a feeling that some new mood, not of her own, was coming down over them like a bell-glass. The bright reality of the view, the consciousness of the unimportant, safe little figures were shut away from her; they were always there but could no longer help. She felt the bell-glass finally descend as he, after a glance around at the other benches and over the edge of the plateau, said quickly, 'The thing is, Sydney, aren't I ever to know you?' (p.95)
'Very well,' said Milton and the bell-glass lifted, though it hung above them. She felt as though this image must have presented itself to him also, for he drew as though released from constriction another deep breath of air. (p. 96)
Compare this to the imagery Plath chose to use in The Bell Jar (1963):
...because wherever I sat – on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok – I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air. (p. 196)
All the heat and fear had purged itself. I felt surprisingly at peace. The bell jar hung, suspended, a few feet above my head. I was open to the circulating air. (p. 227)
But I wasn't sure. I wasn't sure at all. How did I know that someday – at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere – the bell jar with its stifling distortions, wouldn't descend again? (p. 254)
The coincidence and similarity is startling and raises the obvious question: did Plath ever read The Hotel? In one of those mysterious and ambiguous moments that history often throws at us, the answer is, it is impossible to know. Smith College holds a 1928 edition of The Hotel which would have been on the shelves during Plath's time there and certainly during the spring of 1953. However, Karen Kukil informed me that in recent years the book has been rebound and the original check out card is missing.

In her letters and journal the previous year, Plath had already drawn upon the image of suffocating under a bell jar. A journal entry on Friday 11th July 1952 describes her fear of giving up her summer job at The Belmont Hotel on Cape Cod and returning home to long, unstructured 12 hour days for 10 weeks: "It is like lifting a bell jar off a securely clockwork-like functioning community and seeing all the little busy people stop, gasp, blow up and float in the inrush (or rather outrush) of the rarified scheduled atmosphere..." (2000: 118). In a letter to Marcia Brown written between 23-24 July 1952 and held at Smith College, Plath describes the "rarified atmosphere" of her life so far as though living under a bell jar.

So there are a number of possibilities. One, that Bowen and Plath independently created this imagery in a startling co-incidence. Two, that Plath having already used the metaphor of the bell jar, read a similar account in The Hotel and then drew on Bowen's notion of the ascending -descending bell-glass. Three, that Plath read The Hotel and unconsciously drew on Bowen's imagery when writing her own novel in London eight years later. Whatever, it is certainly an exciting and playful way to read Plath and Bowen, two of my favourite authors, and makes me look at their photograph together in a whole new light. I like the idea of some sort of creative osmosis between these two amazing women. I also like the maddening mystery of never quite knowing...

Works Cited

Bowen, Elizabeth. The Hotel. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012.

Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. London: Heinemann, 1963.

---. The Journals of Sylvia Plath. London: Faber & Faber, 2000.

---. Letter to Marcia Brown, 23-24 July 1952. Smith College.

"We Hitch Our Wagons." Mademoiselle. August 1953: 282.

Additional Boweniana

Listen to Elizabeth Bowen's 3 October 1956 "Truth and Fiction", on the importance of creating strong characters in fiction, from the BBC archive.

Elizabeth Bowen Collection, University of Texas at Austin

All links accessed 18 August 2014.

24 August 2014

The Search for Sylvia Plath Continues...

In the past, this blog has featured posts on Sylvia Plath's first suicide attempt: her disappearance, the search and recovery, and the articles that appeared in the newspapers about the event. It was also the subject of a long paper titled "'They Had to Call and Call': The Search for Sylvia Plath" published in 2010, the focus of which was a bibliography of articles found. However, like most bibliographies it was out of date almost immediately. Sadly, too, for obvious reasons it (the bibliography) will never be either 100% accurate or 100% complete.  Such is the nature of that discipline. Well, this post continues those as recently I found another source presenting digital access to historic newspapers.

The Fulton History of Fulton County (New York) offers searching of more than 26 million historic newspaper pages. And, yes, I searched again for Sylvia Plath. The articles that were new to me were:

"Missing Wellesley Student is Found, Put in Hospital." Niagara Falls Gazette. August 26, 1953: 1.
"Smith College Senior Missing." The Times Record (Troy, N.Y.). August 26, 1953: 21.
"Girl Found Moaning in Cellar." Buffalo Courier Express. August 27, 1953: 1.
"Coed Recovering from Overdose." The Leader-Republican (Gloversville and Johnstown, N.Y.). August 27, 1953: 21.
"Missing Co-ed Found Alive Under Porch." Schenectady Gazette. August 27, 1953: 13.
"Home All Along." The Morning Herald (Gloversville and Johnstown, N.Y.). August 28, 1953: 1.
"Co-ed Recovers from Overdose." Utica Daily Press. August 28, 1953: 1.

I first found this site in March 2014; and re-searched the site in May. On the second visit, there were 276 articles where the exact phrase "Sylvia Plath" was found. These articles include book reviews, name-drops, etc. as well as articles from August 1953.

Strangely, a rogue result was mixed in, too, from Pennsylvania (which the last time I checked was not part of New York though it shares a long state border!) which was also new to me:

"Hunted by Posse, Girl Lies in Coma." Philadelphia Inquirer. August 27, 1953: 6.

This lead me to request via Interlibrary Loan the microfilm for this newspaper. A search of this did not find any additional newspaper articles other than the one that appeared on 27 August, but it was worth the effort to confirm.

While I was working on this post in June, I found quite by accident another article on Plath's disappearance from August 1953. Somewhat quietly in the summer of 2012, Olwyn Hughes donated to Pembroke College, Cambridge, a collection of items related to Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. Several items from this collection were displayed in February 2013. Largely composed of clippings of news paper articles and reviews, among them are some clippings that had to have belonged to Sylvia Plath as several date from before Plath and Hughes met. In Series 2, Life, Subseries 2.3 Sylvia Plath, there were four articles related to Plath's first suicide attempt. In reviewing the articles, I noticed one that was not familiar to me, based on the research I did for my paper "'They Had to Call and Call': The Search for Sylvia Plath". I include the link, but please accept my apologies if it one day does not work... the journal in which it appeared annoyingly keeps changing its url).

The three that were familiar to me were: "Top-ranking Student at Smith Missing from Wellesley Home" from the Boston Herald; "Beautiful Smith Girl Missing at Wellesley" from Boston Globe; and "Day-Long Search Fails to Find Smith Student" also from the Boston Globe.

The article that was not familiar to me has three headline-ish titles: The first presumably appears above the masthead of the front page next to the word "EXTRA! Wellesley Student Found Alive". If it follows the other articles from that day, the first page featured "Search Ends / Find Girl in Cellar". Above the conclusion of the article on page 17, it reads: "100 Hunt Wellesley Girl Missing 2 Days". The article appeared in the lurid Boston Traveler on August 26, 1953: 1, 17. I believe the "Extra!" is the name of the edition of the newspaper. The most brilliant thing about this clipping was the inclusion of a previously unseen (by me) photograph on page 17. The photograph shows a search party in a natural scene somewhere in Wellesley with the caption: "PART OF WELLESLEY SEARCH PARTY—Wellesley police officers are shown with a woman volunteer, Elaine Pipes, as they searched today for missing 20-year-old Sylvia Plath, Smith College student who disappeared Monday. Left to right, Victor H. Maccini, Donald H. Murphy, Jerry Monaghan, Leroy Weaver, Francis Kiduff, Richard Parker, Tom Furdon and John Tracey." The photograph was taken by a famous Boston news photographer, Anthony Cabral, two time winner of the Edwin T. Ramsdell Memorial Trophy.

This is truly fascinating. Plath's Esther Greenwood describes three clippings and four photographs in The Bell Jar. The first two are spot on in their descriptions of actual photographs that ran of Plath that summer. In the article "Beautiful Smith Girl Missing at Wellesley" from Boston Globe, there is a photograph of Plath "showed a big, blown-up picture of a girl with black-shadowed eyes and black lips spread in a grin" (1963, 210). And in "Day-Long Search Fails to Find Smith Student", also from the Boston Globe, the photograph accompanying the article "showed a picture of my mother and brother and me grouped together in our backyard amd smiling" (1963, 210). The third photograph was of "A dark, midnight picture of about a dozen moon-faced people in a wood. I thought the people at the end of the row looked queer and unusually short until I realized they were not people, but dogs"; and the fourth "The last picture showed policemen lifting a long, limp blanket roll with a featureless cabbage head into the back of an ambulance" (1963, 211).

This photograph of the search party does not include bloodhounds and is not taken at night as Esther Greenwood describes in the novel, but it gives me some kind of Plathetic hope that perhaps there were at the time. It is evident there were more newspaper articles that ran than we will likely ever fully know, so it is not totally unreasonable to think that the other clippings Esther described actually were printed.

The other interesting aspect to these clippings is the fact that they are original, and that Olwyn Hughes had them. How did she acquire them? One possibility is that she obtained them from among Plath's papers that she left behind in England after her death. If this were the case, then it means that Plath had them on hand at the time she wrote The Bell Jar.

This brings the total number of articles on Sylvia Plath's first suicide attempt to 192. The large majority of these are AP news stories cut up from their original Boston appearances and sent out over the wire. I still find it fascinating to see how far and wide this story traveled. If you live in a city with access to microfilm from 24-31 August 1953, please consider going to look at it to see if any articles ran. If so, I (we, I dare to speak for this blogs' readers!!!) would love copies/scans of them to further extend the search for Sylvia Plath.

My thanks and deepest gratitude to Patricia Aske, Librarian, Pembroke College, University of Cambridge.

All links accessed 14 May 2014, 20 June 2014, and 15 August 2014.

10 August 2014

Sylvia Plath & The Mystery of the Ad in the Paper

3 Chalcot Square, London
In August 1961, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes were preparing to move from their tiny 3 Chalcot Square flat in London to the spacious Court Green in North Tawton, Devonshire. When they took the flat in February 1960, they had signed a three-year lease which included the option to sublet should the need arise. The flat was so small that for much of the time one or the other would go elsewhere to write. Ted Hughes first used the flat of W.S. and Dido Merwin nearby at 11 St. George's Terrace; Plath used this space too when she was not writing in their living room. In addition, Hughes also used the small attic flat above theirs rented by "Mrs. Morton" (Mary K. Morton), a character in her own right who became the subject of Plath's September 1960 poem "Leaving Early".

On 13 August 1961, Plath wrote to her mother: "We put an ad in the paper for our flat (with a $280 fee for 'fixtures and fittings' to cover the cost of our decorating, lino, shelves, and solicitor's fees, and to deter an avalanche of people---the custom here) and had eight responses and two couples who arrived and decided they wanted it at the same time" (Letters Home 423).

As you know, I enjoy a good mystery. Particularly when it involves the use and reuse of archives; searching in boxes and folders not regularly cited, explored, or examined; as well as some good old-fashioned searching through microfilm; hoping that simply casting the line into a pond of blind faith will return a respectable catch. In my mind I liked to call this clue from Plath "The Mystery of the Ad in the Paper". This was one such instance where all these challenges combined and led to a glorious outcome.

The advertisement Plath mentions is something I have wanted to find for a long time. I visited the Microtext Department at the Boston Public Library and used their holdings for both The Times and the Manchester Guardian. But, to no avail. I knew that Plath's use of $280 for the fixtures and fittings would not appear in the advert as it was in an English newspaper, and based on other letters she wrote during this period, she generally said that £1 was equal to $2.80. Even I can do this math: $280 = £100.

Mortimer Rare Book Room
Smith College
On a visit to Smith College late last year, I had the opportunity to look through the Financial Materials series, which is largely composed of checkbook stubs. These documents are fascinating; there is the chilling stub for the purchase of her gas stove in December 1962; and there are more mundane, everyday use things such as writing a check to self for cash, or paying for clothing and food among other necessities. When I was perusing the August 1961 stubs, I was excited to find that on 18 August, Plath paid by check the sum of £1.17.6 (if I am reading the stub right, there are many computations occurring on this particular stub) to the Evening Standard for the advert. The check number is 198089 and is contained in the book covering the dates 24 June 1961 – 1 September 1961. O.K., so part of the mystery was solved.

Armed with this knowledge, I had to set about trying to find a microfilm copy of this newspaper. I knew the British Library has it, but it is roughly 3,269 miles away from me. So… not that easy to get to in a flash. I put in a request through the Boston Public Library for an inter-library loan of the microfilm of newspaper from August 1961. Luckily, a copy was located here in the States, and about two months later -- in early 2014 -- the box of microfilm arrived from the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. I had prepared to spend my lunch hour going over every single day looking for an advert that included the only few details that I knew: fixtures and fittings, £100, and I also figured something about the location of the flat would be present: either NW1 or Chalcot Square or even Primrose Hill.

I started at 1 August even though I held little hope it would have appeared that early, mostly to familiarize myself with the layout of the newspaper, the general location therein of the classified ads, the language and abbreviations generally used, and the like. I felt too that this is something Plath and Hughes might have done -- both at this time from house-hunting but also from their earlier massive search for a flat in December 1959 and January 1960 which landed them 3 Chalcot Square in the first place -- as they constructed the language: something akin to what she did in studying the short fiction and poetry published in magazines in order to write something that stood a better chance of being accepted as it fit the right formula and was aimed at the right market. I also knew that the advert would likely not appear after the date of the letter (13 August) as Plath used the past tense "We put an ad in the paper … and had eight responses". So there was really just a short window of time in which I needed to look.

Working through each day, I grew a bit anxious. Would I find it? Recognize it? Skip over it by accident in the blur and smudge of questionable quality microfilm or in my own lunch hour restricted haste? Would I then have wasted a month of lunches searching in vain? Would I run out of time before the microfilm was due to return to its home in Washington, D.C.?

Nothing on the 1st of August. The 2nd of August turned into the 3rd, 4th, the 5th, the 6th, the 7th, the 8th, the 9th… Nothing!

Until the 10th. 10 August 1961*. The one and only day on which the ad ran!

The full page of the 10 August 1961
Evening Standard

So much hinges on that chance day: 10 August 1961. On that day, David and Assia Wevill probably sat in their flat located at 10 Addison Gardens** located in the Shepherd's Bush/Hammersmith (W14) neighborhood of London. Who spotted the advert? Who responded? Why were they looking to move? Was it David Wevill or Assia Wevill who picked up the phone to call? In A Lover of Unreason, Koren and Negev say it was Assia Wevill who called but it is not known whether it was Plath or Hughes who answered the phone to set up the appointment? Koren and Negev also publish that it was in the Evening Standard that the Wevill's saw the advert, so clearly either I should read some of these books more carefully or remember what I read a little better...

The column in which the ad appeared
The Evening Standard. 10 August 1961. On page 17. In the fifth of six columns, in the top third of the listings, there it is: "PRIMROSE HILL". The first thing that attracted me to the listing was not the bold font PRIMROSE HILL. No, it was something small and more recognizable to me: the telephone number: "PRI 9132".

The full ad:

And, transcribed, it reads:

PRIMROSE HILL Unfurn. 2 rms. k. & b
6 gns. p.w. F. & F £100. 17 mth lse.,
renewable. PRI 9132 after 6 p.m.

Plath and Hughes would have used abbreviation to cut down on cost. And, it is possible my transcription is inaccurate as regards punctuation; neither the film with which I worked nor the printout were the greatest. However, spelled out the ad says the flat consists of two unfurnished rooms with kitchen and bathroom at six guineas per week on a renewable 17 month lease, plus a fee for fixtures and fittings (improvements) at £100.

As silly as it might seem, I felt and still feel an immense relief at finding this advert. It puts a piece of the puzzle together. Fills in a gap that I had always felt existed during this period of Plath's biography.

* 10 August 1961 was also the 20th anniversary of Plath's first appearance in print when her short poem "Poem" was published in the Boston Herald. Hard to fathom: 20 years!

Former residence of the Wevill's
10 Addison Gardens, London W14
(now 10 Lower Addison Gardens)
**The Wevill's address is from Sylvia Plath's address book, held by Smith College. Plath and Hughes had dinner at this house, pictured left, a few days after they met the Wevill's, and it was also likely where Hughes went to collect a dining room table the Wevill's gave them to help fill out Court Green. At the present time there is no longer an address of 10 Addison Gardens. There is, however, a 10 Upper Addison Gardens and a 10 Lower Addison Gardens. According to this map of the neighborhood from 1940, it appears that the present-day Lower Addison Gardens formerly did not have the prefix "Lower" and in 1940 there was a clearly marked "Upper Addison Gardens".  Furthermore, with thanks to Gail Crowther we can confirm that through at least 1965, there was no "Lower Addison Gardens" according to the official Electoral Registers. So at some point after 1965, while the house numbers appear to be the same, the section of Addison Gardens between Holland Road and Holland Villas Road was renamed to Lower Addison Gardens.

All links accessed 5 August 2014.

27 July 2014

Sylvia Plath, 60 Years Ago Today

60 years ago today, on 27 July 1954, Sylvia Plath was featured in a photograph in the Boston Globe pointing at … wait for it … a globe! In the brief article "More Girls Than Ever at Harvard Summer School", Plath was photographed in the Widener Library with Everetta Rutherford of Columbia, South Carolina. It is difficult to determine at which country or continent Plath is pointing, but it might be India? That is neither here nor there... Also neither here nor there, it was just 11 months after the news broke that she had been found hiding in her family's basement in Boston and other U.S. newspapers after and all-out regional woman-hunt.

Sylvia Plath pointing at a globe in The Boston Globe, 27 July 1954.

According to Plath's calendar, held at Indiana University's Lilly Library, she was photographed for the Globe on 26 July 1954. This was a fairly innocuous event on what turned out to be a major day. She had German at 8 am and also at 11, and then English at 12 noon. From 1-2 she had lunch with someone called Lissy Snyder and at 3 pm she met with her psychiatrist, Dr. Ruth Beuscher. Another note in the corner for that day in the calendar has that she was going to the Library at 8:15. Plath also wrote "Edwin's", as in Edwin Akutowicz. Plath has drawn an arrow pointing from Edwin's name on the 26th into the next day --the 27th-- that was directed toward another name: Dr. Heels at Mt Auburn [Hospital].

117 Lakeview Avenue,
Cambridge, Mass.
A relatively obscure figure until recently, Akutowicz now is the subject of a recent article by Jeffrey Meyers in the London Magazine entitled "Plath's Rapist" (June-July 2014, pp. 127-144). This is not Meyers' first foray into exploring the disappeared men in Plath's life; he published "Sylvia Plath's Mysterious Lover" in the Yale Review in October 2010 (pp. 88-102) on Richard Sassoon. According to Plath's address list in her 1954-1955 pocket calendar, Akutowicz lived at the time at 117 Lakeview Avenue, Cambridge (map). The driving distance between Akutowicz's residence and Mount Auburn Hospital is .6 miles; from the hospital it is .9 miles driving distance to Plath's summer rented apartment at 1572 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge (map; image); and to round things out, from Plath's apartment to Akutowicz's house it is 1.3 miles.

Reading Meyers' article got under my skin somewhat as this blog post shows. The premise of the article stems from a comment Plath is reported to have said to her then roommate Nancy Hunter: "He raped me" and quoted in Hunter-Steiner's memoir, A Closer Look at Ariel (64). Meyers seems to accept this as gospel but does not seem to take into account that if Plath actually said these words, that she might have been "saving face", as it were, given that Nancy Hunter had previously rejected Akutowicz's advances and appeared somewhat of an innocent. While Plath may have seemed outwardly fine around this time, roughly a year after her after her first suicide attempt and subsequent recovery, it is possible that after her encounter with Akutowicz that she was confused, frightened, and in something like shock at the result of this intimacy. Meyers does not consider that Plath's hemorrhage might equally have happened during the normal course of things, as it were, as in consensual relations and not necessarily as a result of rape.

Plath's words might have been expressed as she did not want to be judged or to get any kind of reputation. The truth is we do not know and we will never know. Meyers unfairly accuses, or rather convicts, Akutowicz of being a rapist when Akutowicz cannot defend himself. As well, this is unjust for the presumed victim, Plath, as she cannot either explain herself or the words she apparently uttered in a moment of frightening distress. Furthermore, if Edwin is innocent of rape this claim devalues genuine rape victims. It is a very dangerous article, a disappointing one for sure for other reasons, and feels like couch-research: done using the internet and books-at-hand with very little effort otherwise. As well, it is fairly cowardly to write that someone is a "rapist" and a "sexual predator" who had a "violent and sadistic brand of sex" when the defendant is no longer alive (139, 143). Had Meyers traveled to Indiana University he might have seen Plath's calendars which record numerous "dates" with Edwin preceding the incident. As a result, Meyers account fails to give any understanding or context on the nature of the relationship between Plath and Edwin. Some perspective would have been relevant.

The true nature of their acquaintance and the substance of their meetings is unknowable. As such, we rely on Plath's calendars, what she wrote down, and what she did not cross out. These calendars capture both intended activities as well as serves in some cases as a record of actual lived experiences. Sometimes, it must be stated, it is difficult to interpret between the two.

Cover of Plath's
1954-1955 Calendar
Plath arrived in Cambridge for summer school on Monday 5 July. Among other things on the 6th, she explored Cambridge, shopped, registered for classes, and saw the film Counselor at Law (imdb) at the Brattle Theatre. Classes commenced on the Wednesday the 7th, and later on that day she spent time at the Oxford Grille (then located at 32 Church Street (map) now the Border Café) drinking beer with Nancy Hunter and Edwin. So, she met Edwin on 7 July or just before.

Plath's calendar records that she spent time with Edwin on the evening 13 July; the evening of 14 July; the evening of 19 July; and the afternoon of 22 July before the "events" of 26 and 27 July. Plath's documented activities were largely centered on studying at Edwin's, as well as their having long talks, and taking meals together. None of this is to suggest that rape did not or could not have happened; but rather that the nature of the relationship was deeper than Meyers is capable of concluding based off of his research and as is present in his article, which again, appears to have been done at home and using online and biographical resources such as Carl Rollyson's American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath and Andrew Wilson's Mad Girl's Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted. Fine sources in and of themselves, but far too secondhand in nature for what Meyers is attempting to do.

Back to the calendar… On Tuesday, 27 July, Plath's calendar shows that she again had German and English at 8, 11 and 12 noon; in the afternoon she was to study German from 2-5 and 7-11. But we cannot be sure if she did all these things given what appears to have happened between the night before. These plans were not crossed out which is often how cancelled plans often appear.

On Wednesday, 28 July, Plath's calendar again indicates she had classes at 8, 11, and 12 noon; also she had a big midterm exam that afternoon, and planned to be in Lamont Library at 3 pm. Plath also noted that she recuperated and cleaned the apartment. In the next couple of days, Plath spoke on the phone with Dr. Beuscher once and had two meetings with her at 3 pm both on Thursday 29 July and on Friday 30 July. On Friday 6 August Plath had a checkup with Dr. Heels and slept for 15 hours that night back home in Wellesley!

On Wednesday 11 August, just over two weeks later, Plath notes that "E" called and he fails to make another appearance in the calendar until Sunday 31 October, when he visited Smith College. On that occasion, he and Plath spent the afternoon talking and drinking beer at Rahar's. Plath mentioned Edwin's Northampton visit in a letter to her mother dated 2 November. Plath was very much over him by this point and was quite dismissive of him in this letter. There are likely many things to conclude from the long duration between Edwin's appearances in her calendar in addition to the possibility that something untoward might have taken place in addition to the fact that not every activity was captured by Plath. For example, Akutowicz might have been out of town during some of that time or deeply involved with his research and/or teaching. Judging from Plath's schedule, she was inundated with studies and other boys: from Gordon Lameyer to Ira Scott Jr.; and spent a lot of time away from Cambridge herself in the duration of the summer. Other Edwinian occurrences are the 11 February 1955 letter mentioned in Meyers article; a note that he called on 6 April 1955 and they spent time together the evening of 9 April 1955; Edwin visited Plath again at Smith on 17 April 1955 and they went to Look Park, Rahar's and Wiggin's for dinner; and lastly Plath visited Edwin in Cambridge on 11 June 1955 for supper just after she graduated from Smith College.

An accusation of rape notwithstanding, there is much that is wrong with Meyers' London Magazine piece and contributes to my assessment that his research was somewhat lazy. There are a number of inaccuracies which deserve correction and clarification.

For starters, there the vaguest of interest shown in what Akutowicz was doing at the time in terms of his profession. Meyers writes, "In the late forties or early fifties he taught math at the prestigious MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts." This nonchalance is embarrassing. I contacted the archives at M.I.T. to inquire about when he was there, and was informed that he was listed in staff directors published between October 1951 and December 1958. In October 1951, January 1952, and December, 1952, he is listed as working in the Division of Industrial Cooperation. From December 1953 to December 1955, he was in the Division of Defense Laboratories, with an office at Lincoln Laboratories (located in Lexington, Massachusetts) starting in fall 1954. From December 1956 to December 1958, he is listed as a staff member of the Lincoln Laboratories. December 1958 appears to be the last time he appeared in the directory (the one for Spring 1959 is absent).

Meyers claims that the day after the incident with Akutowicz, they went to Crane Beach in Ipswich, Massachusetts. One thing that is frustrating about this essay is there is very little citing of references and sources. There is no evidence for this in Plath's calendar (which I realize is not the end-all-be-all of accurate resources); the first mention of a visit to Crane Beach that summer is with Dr. Ira O. Scott, who first appears in SP's calendar on Wednesday 18 August. It is suggestive that Plath met him around this time as his appearance in the calendar is formal: "Dr. Ira Scott". Her first visit to Crane Beach with Scott appears to have been the following week on 25 August.

While discussing events of the summer of 1954, Meyers states that Plath "lost her virginity the previous year during her unhappy affair with Richard Sassoon..." (138). However, "the previous year" is incorrect as Plath met Sassoon on 18 April 1954 (as in the same year she met Akutowicz; Sassoon is first mentioned in a letter to her mother the following day, 19 April 1954). Biographically these are incidents that might have relevance but it feels awfully awkward to discuss Plath's private life. There seems to be no consideration or sympathy for how the relatives and descendants of both Plath's and Akutowicz's families might feel. And it is not lost on me that this blog post might not be helping! However, there are private experiences and there are private experiences…

Sadly Meyers writes that "The entries for the summer of 1954 are missing from Plath's Letters Home (1975) and Unabridged Journals (2000)" (138). Meyers should know that Plath did not keep a journal at this time. So, if something never existed can it be considered "missing"? Also, there would be no letters home this summer as Plath was within phone distance of communicating with her mother (where the phone rates were more reasonable and therefore cheaper than from Northampton).

In The Bell Jar it was not Esther's "roommate" (138) who drove her to the hospital, but Joan Gilling, her schoolmate from college and fellow asylum-resident who had been released and was living with a hospital nurse. Meyers should know better.

1944 Ivy yearbook, edited/composited
Meyers describes a photograph of Akutowicz from Ivy, the yearbook of Trinity College (possibly the one pictured left) in Hartford. He writes of his "thick peasant features and a low Slavic forehead, with no glasses and a full head of dark hair". He really has it out for him! In the space of eight short pages, Meyers describes Akutowicz as being "physically unattractive"; having "peasant features"; of being a "rapist" and a "sexual predator"; and being a practitioner of a "violent and sadistic brand of sex". It is possible he aged a bit in the decade that passed between this 1944 photograph (you should know it is the same photograph that appears in the 1943 yearbook, too) and when Plath met him; but it is possible that Plath invented some unflattering characteristics to juxtapose Irwin in the novel against the all-American features of Buddy Willard and the Yalies that the magazine rounded up for some of the events during her guest editorship. Any corroboration with descriptions by Hunter in her memoir A Closer Look at Ariel might be coincidental or unconsciously done based on what Plath wrote in The Bell Jar.

Regarding Meyers' analysis of the poems that Plath sent to Akutowicz: The poem titles in Meyers' essay appear out of the blue! There is no mention that the poems were listed in a letter from Donald Hall to Fran McCullough dated 11 January 1975, in which Hall quotes a letter that he had received from Akutowicz. Probably because it was confusing to do so! According to Hall, who was quoting Akutowicz, the poems Plath sent to Akutowicz in her letter dated 11 February 1955 were: "Temper of Time", "Dirge", "Dance [sic] Macabre", "Winter Words", and "Prologue to Spring". Meyers assumes, wrongly, that "Dirge" is Plath's sonnet "Dirge for a Joker" and therefore over-reads and over reacts to the poem to make it fit his theory. A common thing for "academics" to do. However, Plath's calendar informs that it is just "Dirge", a poem she wrote on 5 February 1955 with a parenthetical reference to the poems first line: "The sting of bees took away my father". This poem, later renamed to "Lament", was a villanelle. It also fits in, time wise, to the other poems Plath sent to Akutowicz as "Danse macabre" was written on 30 January 1955 (though listed in her calendar under as "down among strict roots & rocks" which is the first line of the poem); "Temper of Time" and "Winter Words" were written on 1 February 1955; again "Dirge" on 5 February 1955; and "Prologue to Spring" on 9 February 1955. We do not necessarily know when Plath's "Dirge for a Joker" was written, and in reviewing the calendars I could not find it listed.

Meyers writes: "Plath's reckless accidents in skiing, diving and horseback riding on 'Ariel' proved that she 'enjoyed' … dangerous situations…" (143). Diving? Plath's "reckless" experience "horseback riding" was with "Sam" in December 1955, not "Ariel" in 1962 who was considered, lore has it, to be a docile, older horse. And it was not necessarily that case that Plath was the instigator of these "reckless accidents"; in the situation with the horse "Sam" it was the horse that got spooked and unexpectedly took off into a gallop. Likewise with the skiing accident in December 1952: Plath was inexperienced, received poor instruction, and fell. Word choice, man! Reckless? Maybe it is a question of semantics. Please explain the claim of a "reckless" diving accident. Declaring that Plath's behavior was "reckless" is, I feel, discourteous and too judgmental.

Lastly, Meyers missed a golden opportunity to draw a unique coincidence between Plath and Akutowicz. He is careful to note the date of the one letter we know Plath sent: 11 February 1955. However, even more coincidental (for lack of a better word), both Plath and Akutowicz passed away on 11 February. She obviously in 1963; he in 2007. If Meyers is writing now an article on Dr. Richard Norton, please do not fail to remark that Norton got married exactly one week before Plath did in June 1956. Jeffrey Meyers "Plath's Rapist" from the London Magazine is very disappointing and on the whole represents sloppy research.

All links accessed 15 June and 27 July 2014. Minor revisions to the text, 4 August 2014.

20 July 2014

Sylvia Plath's Writing Dates

This is a second post on the metadata of Sylvia Plath's letters, the first of which can be read here on "Sylvia Plath's Writing Days". At the same time as I was working on that post, I thought it might be interesting to plot all of Plath's letters on a generic calendar to see, over the course of the calendar year, on how many dates Plath never wrote a letter. And, also to see on which date Plath wrote the most letters. This is nerding out to the nth degree, but I see no reason to feel shamed by it.

My initial hope was that in going through all the letters it would be determined that Plath wrote a letter one every single day of the year. I cheated though and searched to see if she ever wrote a letter on a 29 February, or Leap Year day. She did not, so I knew there was at least one day on which Plath did not write anyone. Again, these results are only considering those letters we (I) know about and with which I have worked.

Based on all the available letters and current information, Sylvia Plath never wrote a letter on these 19 dates:

17 and 29 February;
30 March;
17 and 25 May;
2 and 4 June;
27 July;
14, 26, and 29 August;
6, 14, 17, 19, and 22 September;
27 November; and
22 and 31 December.

Ergo, Plath wrote and dated a letter for every day in January, April, and October. It is entirely possible Plath wrote letters -- and many of them -- on some or all of these 19 dates. After all, not every one of Plath's letters were saved by the recipients. As well, we have little or no correspondence for major figures such as Richard Norton, Richard Sassoon, Eddie Cohen, and many other boyfriends, friends, and girl friends, acquaintances, etc., and possibly letters to her family, as well.

Here is a breakdown by month:

January: 106;
February: 113;
March: 100;
April: 119;
May: 95;
June: 92;
July: 185;
August: 74;
September: 81;
October: 163;
November: 114; and
December: 110.

If you do the math and add all these up, you get 1,358. Elsewhere on this blog I have posted that we know of (i.e. have) 1,320 letters by Plath. Did we find 38 letters? No, unfortunately not. The difference is that Plath wrote letters, sometimes, over the course of two or more days and so in some instances one letter was counted two time as it was written over two dates.

In this extracurricular activity, I have endeavored to be as accurate as possible in my mathematics: in counting, adding, subtracting, etc. This includes trying to be consistent in how I captured these figures. I think I was, but as some of the letters are undated or circa dated, some of the figured might eventually changed.

And, based on the same criteria as above of reviewing the letters we know about, Sylvia Plath wrote the most letters (13) on 6 July. Busy, busy!

All links accessed 13 July 2014.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Publications & Acknowledgements