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5 Times Sylvia Plath Was Awesome
I meant to send this out last night to honor Lady Lazarus, AKA My Own Personal Jesus, but, like Sylvia, I am a big fan of leg of lamb and stayed too late at my mother’s Easter dinner to get it done. So here we are.
In racing toward the finish of LOVING SYLVIA PLATH, I have been scouring Plath’s journals, reminding me how misread that book is by the general public. The back cover blurb of Plath’s Unabridged Journals (unchanged since its publication in 2000) tells us that the book “reveal[s] more fully the intensity of the poet’s…struggles.” I mean… I guess, but what I mostly take from the book is how fucking radical Sylvia was. She’s so funny. She’s so weird. She’s honest with herself to a fault. She never lets anyone off the hook, because she never lets herself off the hook. Sometimes I imagine myself as a character in them, someone she met at a faculty party: Met fifth-rate essayist called Emily something, very Dutch and stumpy. Laughs too loud, too much. Kept skulking off for cigarettes with ACR, whose work she must covet. Gave Ted a series of filthy looks. Took the last lamb chop. Appalled.
In keeping with this, I thought I would make a list of some of Plath’s finest moments. (I had a wildly inappropriate Ted Hughes joke here, but propriety got the best of me and I deleted it.) Enjoy!
5. That time in Alfred Fisher’s office at Smith…
You’ve surely heard of M.F.K. Fisher: storied American food writer, founder of the Napa Valley Wine Library, author of 27 books and the woman of whom W.H. Auden once said, “I do not know of anyone in the United States who writes better prose.” Yes, of course you have. Then you must also know of her first husband, Alfred Fisher, professor of English at Smith College.
Of course you don’t! Fisher was one of Plath’s professors when she was a student at Smith and later, when she was an instructor there in the 1957-58 academic year, seemed to take pleasure in mentoring her with a combination of elbow-patched sexism and mild gaslighting. Plath described one such meeting in her journal from spring 1958: “It’s all in your mind,” he told her when she confessed to feeling unsure about teaching. “I have it from various sources.” Fisher tells her she’s shirking her duty by teaching just a single year at her alma mater—despite having only signed a one-year contract (Yes! Sylvia Plath was contingent faculty!). He says she owes Smith two years, at least. By that time, Plath and Hughes have had it with petty academia and want to hedge their bets and write full-time.
Plath writes that Fisher, a notorious womanizer, is “living deserted by his 3rd Smith wife… His vanity is as palpable as his neat white moustache.” Fisher, who published a single poem in his lifetime, used to refer to his famous ex-wife as “the one who writes the cookbooks.” As he mansplains a writing career to the woman who will go on to become the great poet of her generation, Plath’s eyes stray up to “his 7 volume novel in black thesis books with white lettering that I know must be so ghastly.” Well, actually, Al…
4.That Time She Ate All The Foie Gras In France
Ok, not literally. But according to Dido Merwin—ex-wife of W.S. Merwin, one-time good friend of Sylvia and Ted, and a woman constitutionally incapable of writing an English sentence without the word “Strindbergian”— she ate a bunch. In her memoir about the time the Hugheses visited the Merwins in their French farmhouse in 1961, “Vessel of Wrath: A Memoir of Sylvia Plath,” Dido, who hated Sylvia’s guts (just in case you couldn’t already tell), writes about Plath’s habit of having what Dido planned to serve for dinner for “luncheon” and eating “a fine foie gras like it was Aunt Dot’s meatloaf.”
Fuck the haters, Sivvy. Eat up. I hope you put that shit between two slices of marble rye with ketchup.
3. The Time She Did Not Sit Around & Cry Over A Man In Paris
One of the big criticisms of the first, heavily abridged edition of Plath’s journals, which came out in 1982 and were edited by Frances McCullough, Hughes’s American editor, was just how very heavily abridged and poorly edited they were. Critics noted that the cuts were haphazard and hard to follow; more pointed critiques said that they were edited to make Plath’s life read like a vale of tears. One example of this was the moment when Plath describes going to Paris on her spring break to see her on-again-off-again lover, Richard Sassoon— she meant to surprise him, but when she arrived at his hotel, he had left the city with no forwarding address. Plath’s letters to him sat unopened.
In the abridged version, Plath sits down in the lobby and sobs, writing him a frantic letter, in despair. The journal cuts immediately after, and the next thing we know, it’s five days later. In the unabridged, Plath writes that she dried her tears, patted a poodle, and decided she had as much right as anyone to go out and enjoy the city. She orders a coffee, but it’s “black and sour.” So she orders another with some cream— it’s “much better.” She reads Antigone. She sketches the city near Notre Dame. She goes back to her hotel and gets dolled up for dinner with a hot Italian Communist journalist named Giovanni (who had earlier lent her his typewriter) and his friends, where she has a fine time and eats sardines (don’t read Plath if you’re hungry— actually, no, do read Plath if you’re hungry and then eat like, everything you want, because that’s what she would do).
Plath’s image as a grim Goth-girl was reinforced by this kind of piss-poor editing, an image that stays with her today, despite all the work people like Karen Kukil and Peter Steinberg have done to counter it. Amazingly, Janet Malcolm defended this specific instance of bad editing in her book on Plath and Hughes, The Silent Woman, saying that it wasn’t intended to paint Plath in a particular way and was just made for the sake of brevity, so the book would be “readable.”
Malcolm makes editing seem like it’s just holding down the delete button until you get the desired length. Janet, this is a Wendy’s restaurant. GTFOH.
2. The Time She Dumped Peter Davison Because He Was Boring & He Spent the Next 40 Years Telling Rooms Full of People He Slept With Sylvia Plath
Peter Davison— who you also may never have heard of— was poetry editor at the Atlantic for many years. He was also one of Plath’s flings in the summer of 1955, shortly before she left Massachusetts for a two-year stint at Cambridge University, studying on a Fulbright scholarship. I already knew he had slept with Sylvia when I went to see him read at a Boston bookstore in 2001— that was the only reason I went to see him read at a Boston bookstore in 2001— and by the end of the reading, so did everyone else in the room, because he told them. Later, I asked a friend who was interning at the Atlantic if they knew him, and they said, “Oh yeah, the dude who boned Sylvia Plath, I’ve been meaning to tell you about him.”
Plath, for her part, had a couple of hot nights with her hot dude (photos of Davison from 1955 prove he was quite fetching, if you’re into that Harvard thing), introduced him to her mother, and then sent him packing before she left for her adventures abroad. He seems to have never forgiven her, not because he had any great feelings for her, but because he thought… well, I don’t know what he thought, but I will wager that, like a lot of men of that era (and many eras), he thought she owed him something beyond the pleasure of her company. Plath legitimately believed he blackballed her from publishing in the Atlantic at various points. While this isn’t exactly fair, given that her work appeared there at various points between 1955 and her death in 1963, the Harriet Rosenstein papers, newly acquired by Emory University, show Davison working hard to get a biography of Plath in print that is none too flattering to its subject. When Anne Stevenson’s Bitter Fame was published, he got his wish.
1. The Time She Asked Her Diaries if Ted Was Going To Dedicate His Next Book To His Penis
Speaks for itself, Reader.
Until next week, I remain,