The Letters of Sylvia Plath: Volume I: 1940 to 1956 eds. Peter K Steinberg and Karen V Kuhl

Reviewed by Rod McLary

Arguably, Sylvia Plath is better known for the manner of her death than for her poetry and her only published novel The Bell Jar.  However, the novel and her posthumously published collection of poems Ariel eventually ensured that her poetic reputation achieved the ascendancy.

This beautifully bound first volume of letters includes all extant letters from Plath to her family, friends and colleagues.  In all, more than 1390 letters to over 140 recipients are included beginning with a letter to her father dated 19 February 1940 when Plath was seven.  The final letter in this volume, written to Peter Davidson of the Atlantic Monthly Press, is dated 23 October 1956 – a few short months after her marriage to the poet Ted Hughes.

Plath was born in Boston on 27 October 1932 and died by suicide on 11 February 1963 aged just over 30 years.  She was the daughter of a German immigrant college professor – Otto Plath – and one of his students Aurelia Schober.  The family with her young brother Warren [born in 1935] lived in Boston near the sea but in November 1940 her father died suddenly of complications caused by the amputation of his gangrenous leg.  His death dramatically altered the family’s circumstances and for financial reasons the family moved to Wellesley where Aurelia Plath taught at the Boston University.

Plath was a prolific letter writer and her style is described in the Preface as –

… vivid, powerful, and complex as her poetry, prose and journal writing.  … her letters often dig out the caves behind each character and situation in her life.  [xix]

It is also said that ‘Plath kept the interests of her addressees in mind as she crafted her letters’.  This is perhaps a polite way of saying that her letters were written to present a particular view of herself to the addressee.  This view can be supported by a perusal of letters to her mother which tend to be rather ‘gushing’ and those to her friends which are often intelligent and insightful.

A potential constraint on the level of general interest in the publication of all Plath’s letters is that many of them [in this volume] were written when she was a child.  While a few include juvenile attempts at poetry, many simply speak of her daily activities and are essentially of little interest to the average reader.  By contrast, the letters which were written towards the end of her high school years and during her first year at Smith and beyond are of more interest.  It is in those letters – at least in this volume – where her personality and intelligence are becoming apparent.  An added interest in the later letters is that they offer a sociological view of the social and emotional experience of school and college from the perspective of a young woman in the 1950s and 1960s.

However, there is a darkness to some of the letters from 1953 on.  For example, in a letter to her brother dated 21 June 1953, Plath describes herself as ‘a soot-stained, grubby, weary, wise, ex-managing director’ [she had won a Guest Editor competition at Mademoiselle magazine] and says she will let him know ‘what train my coffin will come in on’.  Perhaps this is an indication of the degree of exhaustion Plath experienced in July of that year which led to ‘poorly administered outpatient electro-convulsive shock treatments’ – the psychiatric treatment of choice in the 1950s and 1960s.  Plath writes in a letter dated 28 December 1953 that she ‘underwent a rather brief and traumatic experience of badly-given shock treatments.  Pretty soon, the only doubt in my mind was the precise time and method of committing suicide’.  [655].  The letter goes on to describe in detail how she attempted suicide in the basement of her home and was not found for three days.  Her brief disappearance was reported in over 200 newspapers across the United States.

Her experiences of psychiatric treatment later became the basis for her novel The Bell Jar.

The interest rises further when Plath’s letter to her mother of 3 March 1956 is read.  She has recently met Ted Hughes for the first time and describes the occasion:

Met, by the way, a brilliant ex-Cambridge poet at the wild St Botolph’s Review party last week; will probably never see him again … but wrote my best poem about him afterwards: the only man I’ve met yet here who’d be strong enough to be equal with … [1120]

In a later letter to her mother dated 17 April 1956, Plath reports:

I have fallen terribly in love, which can only lead to great hurt.  …  Such a torment and pain to love him. [1161].

Volume I concludes on an optimistic note expressed in her letter to a former boyfriend dated 23 October 1956 – ‘I look most forward to coming back home [from Cambridge] next June’ [1330].

Perhaps, the purpose of the publication of these letters is best expressed in the Foreword written by Plath’s daughter Frieda:

Through publication of her poems, prose, diaries, and now her collected letters, my mother continues to exist.  She is best explained in her own words.  [xvii].

A thorough reading of the letters will certainly explain the nature of Plath.  Her emotional struggles as well as her intelligence and insight are amply displayed in the adult letters – and there is [with the benefit of hindsight] a foreshadowing of the trials ahead for her.

Included in this volume is an extensive index with numerous cross references as well as a considerable number of footnotes.  The use of the volume as a basis for further study of Plath’s early life and a gaining of a sense of the era in which she lived is well served by the quality of the publication.

 

The Letters of Sylvia Plath: Volume I: 1940 to 1956

Edited by Peter K Steinberg and Karen V Kuhl

[2017]

Faber & Faber Ltd

ISBN 978 0 571 32899 4

1388pp; $US38.37

 

 

 

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