The Letters of Sylvia Plath: Volume I, 1940–1956 by Peter K Steinberg & Karen V Kukil (edd) - review by Elaine Showalter

Elaine Showalter

Sunny Sylvia

The Letters of Sylvia Plath: Volume I, 1940–1956


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Although Sylvia Plath is admired by many literary scholars and even adored by some passionate readers, critics have not been unanimous in their assessment of her art. Irving Howe declared in 1972 that she was merely a flash in the feminist pan who would soon be ‘regarded as an interesting minor poet’, lucky to be remembered for a few poems buried in anthologies. That cooling off certainly hasn’t happened. Indeed, some fifty-four years after her suicide at the age of thirty, Plath’s literary reputation has become increasingly secure as the entirety of her poetry, fiction and journals has been published and discussed, and new generations of readers have embraced her. Now Karen V Kukil, the curator of the vast Plath archive at Smith College, where Plath was an undergraduate and later an instructor, and Peter Steinberg, an archivist and editor, have produced, with assistance from Smith students, a gargantuan edition of her letters. The first volume, which covers the years from 1940 to 1956, includes 880 letters and weighs four pounds. 

For some remaining critical dissenters, it will be an affront to see Plath getting this hefty canonical treatment, especially since the letters come from her childhood, adolescence and student years, ending just before her twenty-fourth birthday, when she was newly, ecstatically and secretly married to Ted Hughes. This volume is a portrait of the artist as a young woman, a genre with very few examples. Although the letters are long, detailed, vivid, varied, imaginative, wide-ranging, funny and informative, they include topics you won’t find in Keats or Frost. As a student, Plath was on a scholarship and had to be extremely careful with money, but she loved the rituals of shopping and the masquerade of fashion. She describes, on 28 April 1953, assembling a sophisticated wardrobe for her stint on the Mademoiselle College Board in New York: ‘I feel I have grown up no end, no more dirndls or baby puffs for me … All very sleek and suave and stylish.’ That sort of remark will seem damningly trivial to some reviewers, though even George Eliot writes about clothes and shopping in her letters. Plath’s sensuality also emerges in her delight in eating, cooking, going to restaurants, trying new exotic dishes and concocting three-course dinners on a hot plate. Clothing and food are subjects of feminine play and pleasure, as well as modes of self-fashioning.

Moreover, Plath was writing to project an image of the perfect daughter, the popular college girl, the prizewinning student and the precocious poet. Her letters to friends, relatives, teachers, editors and boyfriends are performances; she is always choosing which face to present, which voice to adopt. She saved her self-doubt, bitchiness, anger and sexuality for her journals. But the letters are important in understanding Plath’s evolution as an artist and the revolutionary era of women’s poetry to which she belonged. Indeed, the editors see the collected letters as Plath’s autobiography; Plath’s daughter, Frieda Hughes, notes in a foreword that her mother’s ‘passion for literature and life’ is best captured through her own words. Far from being forgotten, in the posthumous publication of her diaries, poems, prose ‘and now her collected letters’, Hughes suggests, ‘my mother continues to exist’.

The persona of this volume is sunny Sylvia rather than Lady Lazarus. In one letter to her mother, written in December 1950, Plath confides that she is worried about a suicidal classmate who has been ‘saving sleeping pills and razor blades’. But the letters betray few hints of the depression and breakdown she herself would suffer in 1953. The photograph on the cover of the British edition shows her smiling on a beach in a two-piece white bathing suit, with platinum-blonde hair, an image that has outraged some feminists (the cover of the American edition portrays her more soberly as a brunette in a black winter coat). Yet that happy, extroverted personality was one she was deliberately trying out in her formative years. In the letters to her mother that dominate the book, Plath stresses her studious, disciplined, respectable side. Over the course of this volume, the roster of correspondents expands as the many young men she was dating start to appear. Through her letters to them we can trace the evolution of her early romantic relationships, from friendship to flirtation and, in a few cases, especially Gordon Lameyer and Richard Sassoon, hyped-up protestations of love. To Lameyer in June 1954, she writes theatrically, ‘I love you more than the alphabet and Roget’s thesaurus combined.’

Plath retold the events of her life to many correspondents with variations depending on the recipient. She never merely sent copies of the same text; ‘like writing a poem or short story for a specific market, she was able to craft a letter concentrating solely on her relationship to the addressee’, the editors remark. On 26 January 1955, for example, she wrote four long letters: to her mother, a woman friend called Enid Mark, and two boyfriends, describing and analysing a packed weekend in New York of film, theatre, museums and French restaurants. In three out of the four letters, she concealed that she had been spending her nights with Richard Sassoon, whom she thought she might love (she did tell Mark).

But these letters seem like emotional rehearsals. In her journals, she is more honest. ‘Let’s face it,’ she writes in May 1953, ‘I am in danger of wanting my personal absolute to be a demigod of a man, and as there aren’t many around, I often unconsciously manufacture my own, and then, I retreat and revel in poetry and literature where the reward value is tangible and accepted … I want a romantic nonexistent hero.’ Where such a man did not exist, she would invent one through the force of her will. After meeting Ted Hughes on 25 February 1956 at a legendary literary party in Cambridge, her letters explode with a passion and urgency missing in the more academic missives of her college years. To her mother she writes, ‘I feel that all my life, all my pain and work, has been for this one thing. All the blood spilt, the words written, the people loved, have been a work to fit me for loving Ted.’ He is not just her romantic hero, but also her ‘male counterpart’. Finding him means the fulfilment of her poetic destiny. To her brother she explains, ‘I am now coming into the full of my power: I am writing poetry as I never have before … because I am in love with the only man in the world who is my match.’

This volume ends with sixteen previously unpublished letters to Hughes written during the period when she was at Cambridge and he was in London, keeping their marriage secret in the fear that it would lead to her losing her Fulbright scholarship. These letters are in a much looser style, erotic but never explicit – it was the 1950s, after all – and overflowing with exuberant confidence about the anticipated success of their lives together, with seven children, fame and wealth. Although he wore the same clothes for the first months of their romance, a ‘thick black sweater & wine-stained khaki pants’, in her eyes he is clad in ‘purple and gold cloth’, a Hercules, a genius. On 6 October 1956, she imagines what their future biographers will make of their correspondence: ‘Darling, be scrupulous and date your letters. When we are old and spent, they will come asking for letters and we will have them dove-tail-able.’

These letters can’t be Plath’s full correspondence from this period. From internal evidence, the editors calculate that
she wrote at least seven hundred further letters that could not be found. A number, written to her boyfriends Eddie Cohen, Richard Norton and Richard Sassoon, have been ‘destroyed, lost or not retained’, but some of them might yet show up. Only last March, a Massachusetts bookseller announced the sale of a major collection of Plath’s correspondence, documents and interview tapes, including letters to her psychotherapist Dr Ruth Barnhouse Beuscher. Although they were quickly withdrawn from the market as a result of a legal challenge by Smith College, these letters will eventually appear, and they are rumoured to contain some accusations regarding Hughes’s behaviour at the terrible end of their marriage.

But in these early letters we see the beginning of Plath’s powerful belief in Hughes’s poetic greatness and her determination to make the world see him as a colossus. After her death, Hughes would help create her legend as well, overseeing the release of her work. Plath and Hughes are the restless Cathy and Heathcliff of 20th-century literature. In Frieda Hughes’s words, they are ‘as married in death as they once were in life’.

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