Book Review

“I am more myself in letters”: Sylvia Plath’s Correspondence

The Letters of Sylvia Plath begins with two short letters from 1940, one to her father, Otto Plath, the other to her mother, Aurelia Schober Plath, and closes 1,424 pages and sixteen years later with a letter Plath wrote on October 23, four days before her twenty-fourth birthday, to her friend Peter Davison, Associate Editor of the Atlantic Monthly Press.[1] The book’s stopping point at first feels abrupt. Given the editors’ separation of letters by year, and the collection’s subtitle, “Volume I: 1940–1956,” their choice to close with a late October letter to Davison seems odd, especially because the previous seventy pages encompass a remarkable series, family owned and therefore as yet unavailable in archives, of letters Plath wrote to Ted Hughes, whom she had married four months earlier. Fearing that she would lose her Fulbright scholarship, Plath and Hughes kept their marriage secret to all but their families, and the couple lived apart, Hughes with his parents in Yorkshire and Plath at Cambridge’s Newnham College. The letters to Hughes, therefore, offer an extraordinary portrait of their intense, mutually supportive relationship, as Plath packs her paragraphs with expressions of longing, reflections on her reading and writing, cogent critiques of Hughes’s work, and ambitious plans for both of them to conquer the literary world. By early November, Plath made her case before the Fulbright Commission and was thrilled when they sanc­tioned the marriage. She and Hughes found a flat at Granchester Meadows, Cambridge, and moved in together shortly thereafter. So, one wonders: are there no more letters left to publish in this series addressed to Hughes? Or, more practically, why not close this first volume of the complete correspondence with the last letter of 1956? Certainly, the prolific Plath would have written additional letters, if not to Hughes, then to her mother (her most frequent addressee) and others in November and December. Indeed, 1956, spanning 260 of the book’s pages, already stands as the year of her most copious correspondence so far.

There is, however, a wonderful logic to ending the book with the Davison letter, one that underscores the overall purpose of publishing full texts of Plath’s existing correspondence. Beginning the volume with the letter to her father, who died when Plath was eight, and ending with one to Ted Hughes would have braced her between these two figures in ways that would echo the standard interpretation of her life: that the looming psychological presence of these two men determined it and fueled her poetry. Likewise, beginning the volume with Plath’s “letters home” to her family and ending with letters to Hughes would also evoke the two competing sides whose editing has significantly slanted the world’s perception of Sylvia Plath as a poet and a person: Aurelia Plath and Ted Hughes. Instead, ending the book with the Davison letter shows Plath coming into her own as a professional writer and reflects the clear-eyed goal of the editors, Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil. Thanks to their monumental efforts in bringing these letters to press, readers may at last make their own judgments about Plath, unmediated by the perspectives—and agendas—of family editors or literary critics and biographers. As Steinberg and Kukil note in their introduction: “this complete and unabridged edition of Sylvia Plath’s letters, prepared in two volumes, finally allows the author to fully narrate her own autobiography through correspondence with a combination of family, friends and professional contacts.” In this collection of letters, Sylvia Plath creates herself, narratively, stylistically, and imaginatively. The reward of reading through this long book is watching the process unfold, as Plath gains agency, self-confidence, and adeptness in her lifelong project of self-fashioning. Due to the autobiographical nature of her poetry and fiction, her letters should therefore be seen not as auxiliary to her creative work, but as part of it. Yet combing any particular letter for “the truth” about Plath presents challenges, for The Letters of Sylvia Plath makes clear that she crafted different versions of herself for different correspondents, variously including and occluding details about her experiences and shifting her tone and style, depending on whom she addressed. What truth we can find about her, therefore, arises from reading the whole volume and witnessing how Plath’s development as a person deeply intertwines with her increasing power, range, and stylistic control as a writer.

Publication of a complete edition of Plath’s letters has been long overdue. Until now, apart from fleeting quotations in biographies and critical studies of Plath, the only letters available to readers outside of archives appear in Letters Home: Correspondence 1950–1963 (1975). Edited by Plath’s mother as a corrective to the negative portrayal of the mother-daughter relationship in The Bell Jar (U.S. publication 1971), Letters Home is terribly flawed. Consisting primarily of letters from Plath to her mother, the book offers fascinating glimpses of Plath’s daily life but a cartoonish view of her as a person. Ellipses pepper every page, and, as comparison to the originals in The Letters of Sylvia Plath shows, Aurelia Plath made extreme cuts throughout, rarely reprinting full versions of anything but postcards (and she often severely redacted those, too). The book perplexed readers, for neither the letters, in which Plath strives to maintain a pose of peppy optimism, nor Aurelia Plath’s often defensive editorial commentary, reflected the Plath readers thought they knew from the poetry and fiction. Gone were the barbed emotions, the volatile wit, the interior darkness. Instead, Plath appears as the ambitious Smith “all-around” girl, rewarded for her hard work with prizes, publications, and a dream-come-true marriage—with only a few negative blips along the way to mar her fighting spirit and positive attitude, even after her marriage crumbles.

Accurately foreseeing the book’s mixed reviews, Ted Hughes wrote to Aurelia after reading the manuscript and urged her to rethink her approach, not for the sake of protecting him, he claimed, but because “all these letters exist within a single relationship, and this entails, eventually, beyond a certain critical mass of text, a feeling of monotony and narrowness,” which he attributed to Plath’s “constant and growing and very understandable need to reassure you that the life she had chosen was not a mistake, that writing was succeeding financially etc.” He also suggested cutting “the repetitiousness of mood and response” in Plath’s depiction of life at Smith, and the overabundance of enthusiasm throughout the letters that, he warned, while characteristic of Plath, so suffuses them that “the book begins to produce the opposite effect to what I’m sure you must have hoped. So even much of this evidence of her good spirits must be cut” (16 July 1974, Selected Letters of Ted Hughes).

It’s hard to know how much of this advice Mrs. Plath took. But the points Hughes makes about Letters Home also ring true for large swathes of The Letters of Sylvia Plath. Reading through the letters to her mother, which Plath wrote at great length and with great frequency, is a slog, due to the monotony of cheerful affect and the obsessive recount­ing of what she did when, where, and how. Frank O’Hara’s wry appraisal of his poetry—“I do this, I do that”—applies equally well here—except that O’Hara’s poems are inherently interesting because they happen in New York City, whereas Plath’s letters, until she moves to Cambridge, England, reflect her teen and collegiate life in suburban America. But the difference in reading Letters Home and The Letters of Sylvia Plath, whose first half is dominated by letters to mom, is that the unabridged versions reveal not only how Aurelia’s editing flattens Plath into a caricature of the “all-American girl,” but also how Plath herself carefully curated her experiences to pose as such a girl in order to please her mother.

Some readers may question Steinberg and Kukil’s decision to publish all extant letters. Although Plath kept journals from age eleven onward, The Unabridged Journals (also edited by Kukil) begins the summer before Plath matriculated at Smith. And, whereas Letters Home starts with Plath’s first letter from college, The Letters of Sylvia Plath takes 172 pages to get there. The pre-high school letters, many sent from Girl Scout camp, are especially tedious. Yet they reveal aspects of Plath’s character and style that carry over into adulthood: her healthy appetite (and sensuous interest in food and cooking), her love of nature (and skill in describing it), and her hyper-organization (evident early on in letters about her stamp collection, and remarkably present throughout the volume in the editors’ footnotes referencing her calendar to corroborate activities she mentions). Plath begins enclosing poems in letters at age ten, and by thirteen is already coolly ranking them, a habit she would continue into adulthood when compiling book manuscripts. In November 1945, she confides to a friend, “speaking of poetry I just began a notebook of my poems and already have about 5 real ones, and have about 5 medium and 5 jingles.” She also sketched throughout her life and liberally illustrated her letters with drawings. The editors reproduce a few illustrated letters as plates and take care in the text to describe any drawings Plath added to letters or envelopes. The book opens with gaily decorated letters to her parents and concludes, in the penultimate letter, with news she sends to Aurelia that the Christian Science Monitor has published her article, with four pen-and-ink sketches, about Benidorm, Spain, where she honeymooned with Hughes.

Evident also from early on are Plath’s all-out efforts to please mom. Describing piano practice, she writes with pride to Aurelia, “I kept saying to myself, ‘This is what mother would want me to do’” (January 1943). Hyperbole abounds—“Today in my opinion is the most beautiful day I spent at camp” (8 July 1945); in subsequent letters, summer after summer, year after year, new “most wonderful” days replace the old. The happiness reverberates through high school and crescendos during Plath’s first three undergraduate years. Thus, a summer job at the shore as a mother’s helper (doing nonstop cooking, laundry, housecleaning and watching three children) sounds like summer camp: “Yesterday was just about the most wonderful yet. . . . Nauset is the most beautiful place on the Cape. . . . I don’t know when I’ve had such a wonderful time in all my life. . . . I left her [fiction writer Val Gendron] at 12:30 after 5 of the most wonderful hours I have ever spent” (19–21 August 1952). Three days later, the wonder never ceases: “I don’t know when I’ve had so much work and fun combined! Really, I feel so much richer, older, and wiser after this summer. Never have I gotten along so well with such an amazing diversity of people!” (24 August 1952). Such exuberant over-insistence is hard to tolerate in either edition of Plath’s letters. The problem with Letters Home, however, is that it proposes—or, really, insists—that this saccharine version reflects the “real” Sylvia Plath.

The Letters of Sylvia Plath, in contrast, complicates Plath through showing how meticulously she designed letters—and different versions of herself—for a diversity of recipients. The correspondence with Aurelia so weights the book’s first half that letters to others arise as welcome relief: sudden flarings of a different Plath, more thoughtful and often more caustic, than the happy “Sivvy” of the letters home. In letters to women friends, Plath unleashes her snark about social double standards and the tedium of playing nice girl. For example, after enduring a bad date, she quips, “[he] was supposedly the best-looking boy in his dorm—& he was attractive in a weak-dark hair-tonic sort of way. He was one of those fool Americans who thinks of girls as a clotheshorse with convenient openings and curved structures for their own naïve pleasure” (3 February 1951). She also casts a cold eye on her era’s reverence for female propriety: “After Class Day it was a two hour tea at the headmaster’s house, and I got so damn sick of making small talk with mothers of boys and fiancées and young wives that I thought my sweet girlish smile had frozen to my face. I felt like drowning myself in the iced tea bowl, in a flurry of mint leaves” (12 June 1951). Along with mockery of social conventions, the letters to friends also record her left-leaning, humanistic politics. Her exchanges, beginning in high school with a German pen pal, register Plath’s pacifism, her curiosity about postwar life in Germany, and consciousness of how their generation bears the existential burden of growing up in the atomic age. Occasionally, in letters to Aurelia, Plath breaks good-girl character and gets sarcastic or political—sometimes simultaneously, “No news may be good news from Warren [Plath’s brother], but that doesn’t mean that no news means I’m on my deathbed. If I were, I’d at least have time to drop you a postcard.” Busy with midterms, Plath had last written to mom only two days earlier. She concludes, “It is lovely weather and I am as yet fine. If I live till after March 12 I can face the atombomb with complete equanimity” (3 March 1951). Aurelia did not reprint this postcard in Letters Home, nor did she reprint the passionate, articulate paragraphs from Fall 1952 letters in which Plath opposes McCarthyism, advocates for Civil Rights, and longs to be old enough to vote for Adlai Stevenson (Aurelia supported Eisenhower). In its inclusion of letters to friends, as well as to family, and in restoring all of the passages Aurelia suppressed in Letters Home, The Letters of Sylvia Plath resuscitates Plath’s political consciousness and her snark, including her capacity for self-satire.

The Letters of Sylvia Plath also definitively exposes how the stereotype of successful, all-American girl was what Plath believed her mother wanted, and vicariously needed, to see as compensation for working herself to ulcerous exhaustion teaching secretarial skills to provide for her children. Plath admits the pretense in a letter to Ann Davidow-Goodman: “My mother’s purpose in life is to see me & my brother ‘happy and fulfilled.’ And I can’t cry on her shoulder any more when things go wrong. I’ve got to pretend to her that I am all right & doing what I’ve always wanted . . . and she’ll feel her slaving at work has been worthwhile.” (7 January 1951) Likewise, in a letter to Warren, Plath argues that they both need to maintain the façade:

She can’t take big problems or excitements without staying awake all night, and so our main responsibility is to give her the illusion (only now it hardly seems like an illusion) that we’re happy and successful and independent. After extracting her life blood and care for 20 years, together we should start bringing in big dividends of joy for her, and I hope that together we can maybe plan to take a week down the cape at the end of this summer. (13 May 1953)

Aurelia Plath includes this letter in Letters Home but cuts the first sentence of the paragraph above, thereby framing Plath as a concerned, conscientious daughter and removing the illusion factor. Illusions aside, Plath’s metaphors are oddly mercenary. “Extracting life blood” at first implies that she and her brother are parasites, but “dividends of joy” invokes finance, making joy, like the extraction, transactional. Selectively quoting from the letters, unsympathetic biographers have framed Plath as a spoiled Smith girl, driven by ambition to win writing prizes and lacking empathy for others, especially family. In contrast, The Letters of Sylvia Plath confirms that her determination to publish during college was fueled as much (or more) by financial insecurity as by ego. Whenever Plath writes home celebrating another prize won or publica­tion gained, she always notes the monetary value. Attending Smith on scholarship, which carried a social stigma, was never enough to cover expenses: Plath worked grinding summer jobs, lived junior and senior years in a co-op house for which she waitressed on weekdays, earned money reporting for the school newspaper, and, on top of her rigorous academic studies, continually wrote, revised, and submitted stories, poems, and nonfiction to paying markets. All this, plus a relentless weekend social life, made Plath’s pace unsustainable. Just reading the letters detailing what she calls the “constantly accelerating record turntable” of life during her junior year at Smith is exhausting—especially so with the foreknowledge that, following her month-long stint as a college editor of Mademoiselle, Plath would not whisk her mother off to the Cape in the summer of 1953 but instead succumb to depression and attempt suicide at home in late August.

The tone of The Letters of Sylvia Plath shifts following Plath’s suicide attempt and the months she recovered at McLean Hospital. Between her return to Smith in January 1954 and her arrival at Cambridge in October 1955, there are far fewer letters to her mother, and those she writes to friends tend to be introspective, gently self-mocking, and stylistically varied. Writing to a trusted boyfriend, Gordon Lameyer, she celebrates her independence with a complex conceit: “mother and I are getting along more constructively and creatively well than ever, as perhaps you noticed last week. an analogy which seems relevant: there was a time when the new american colonies needed very badly the close, protective surveillance and direction of mother england; but as they gained maturity, a tempestuous revolution was needed to break the umbilical cord binding them to the maternal security and protections; once the initial battle for a new, reciprocally independent, relationship was won, peace ensued, and harmony has been developing ever since” (7 August 1954). When she does write to Aurelia, the letters record a new level of self-assurance. She prides herself on feeling balanced and prioritizes studies over socializing. She also stands up for herself and proclaims writing as her primary goal in life:

Now with me, writing is the first delight in life. I want time and money to write, both very necessary. I will not sacrifice my time to learn shorthand because I do not want any of the jobs which shorthand would open up, although those jobs are no doubt very interesting for girls who want them. I do not want the rigid hours of a magazine or publishing job. I do not want to type other people’s letters and read their manuscripts. I want to type my own and write my own. So secretarial training is out for me. That I know. . . .

To me, anything which will not let me write and grow and learn by leaps and bounds in my own way, which is more and more versatile, is not only confining but stunting. . . . (10 February 1955)

These paragraphs (cut from Letters Home) not only declare indepen­dence, but also show Plath’s determination to avoid the pitfalls she faced as a woman writer. Although this was a major theme of The Bell Jar, in the letters the struggle feels more poignant than in the novel, due to Plath’s detailed accounts of obstacles she surmounted. For example, she wrote the above paragraphs in the aftermath of a withering interview at Harvard for a Woodrow Wilson Scholarship, in which a panel of “four skeptical men, all seasoned professors” made her “the raw target for fantastically loaded and merciless questions”: “every remark I made, they took up, twisted to their purposes, and shot back at me. Like darts” (26 January 1955). They informed her that getting a Fulbright to Cambridge was impos­sible and grilled her about whether she “would give up teaching for marriage without a fuss, what about babies, would [she] marry a teacher.” Shaken, and doubting whether she could afford graduate school, Plath explored alternative plans for her post-Smith life, such as teaching at a private school in Morocco, and tried to temper her anxiety by joking about a lifetime career of waitressing at Howard Johnson’s. Although the “plot” of Plath’s life is well known, and thus The Letters of Sylvia Plath lacks suspense (but is rich in dramatic irony), it’s hard not to cheer when, confronting such sexist opposition, Sylvia Plath prevails and earns the Fulbright to Cambridge after all.

But while the letters lay bare the serious challenges Plath overcame in becoming a writer, their power to hook readers also depends on her increasing resourcefulness in telling her story. Although her narrative style changes as the volume progresses, she consistently portrays herself throughout as an archetypal heroine struggling to succeed against great odds. Her letters to Aurelia sometimes evoke the brisk pacing, adjectival ebullience, and fashion forwardness of women’s magazines, a fiction market Plath aimed to crack: “Picture me then, in my navy-blue bolero suit and versatile brown coat, snuggled in the back seat of an open car, whizzing for two sun-colored hours through the hilly Connecticut valley!” (8 October 1951). Plath styles herself in this long letter as Cinderella attending a ball, swept off her feet by a handsome Princetonian (“‘Milord . . .’ I replied, fancying myself a woman from a period novel, entering my castle”). Plath often used her journal as a writerly testing ground, and correlation with the letters shows her taking different approaches to narrating the same experience. Thus, a G-rated anecdote in an August 1952 letter to Aurelia about a joyride with a boy in an MG is retold in the journals from the third person perspective of a girl, jaded at age twenty, who endures her date’s immature behavior with a combination of maternal smugness and sexual ennui. After her suicide attempt, Plath took a break from journal writing until October 1955, and letters she wrote during this period became her main venue for stylistic exercises. She sometimes repeats descriptions or similes in letters to different correspondents, and, consciously or unconsciously, adds to the word hoard that she would later mine for poems; “I am squatting on my bed like a sleepy Buddha,” recycled in several letters, looks forward to a line from “The Manor Garden,” “The pears fatten like little buddhas.” Writing to intellectual friends, she laces her letters with allusions. In an existential argument she conducts with Melvin Woody, for example, her description of her suicide attempt takes convoluted Yeatsian turns: “I get so tempted to take you verbally by the scruff of the neck and shake you when I hear you talk about solitude, or exile, . . . because the cataclysmic downward gyre I plummeted to symbolic death in last summer, when the center did not hold because there was none, or rather (as you wrote), too many, has given me an understanding of the black and sustained hells a mind can go through . . . and the enormous insulated loneliness when you feel that no human hand or love could reach or move you” (5 July 1954). Whereas her literary allusions tend to accompany serious discussions, her stylistic experiments are often lighthearted: tongue-in-cheek imitations of authors such as D. H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce. Her letters to Gordon Lameyer brim with stylistic bravado. In one, after regaling him with multilingual puns (“dear ponce de lameyer (en route) je pense de la mer”), she portrays her life as a radio drama: “Narrator (in highly suggestive tones): Yesterday we left our heroine Absinthe Lutely Plathtered struggling valiantly through the yuccas and the thith (shuchks, fluffed again!) thistles to get to her destination hundreds of ohms away in Newport, the Celestial City. Armed only with stale toll house cookies (to annihilate venomous nematodes) and Rinso Flakes (to keep her Nylons lovely longer), Absinthe ponders to herself the happenings of the past ninety-eight hours” (3 July 1954). Whether she attends a swank ball, goes to hell and back, or makes a foray into Newport, Plath always imagines herself as the valiant heroine. Overall, the sheer number of extant letters, and the effort Plath devotes to shaping her life as an ongoing narrative, suggests that, for her, experi­ences were never quite real until she put them into words, a conclusion she hints at when confessing to a friend, “I’d really love to have you call me: it’s always so exciting, even though I am more myself in letters” (13 May 1954).

The second half of the volume is therefore much more engaging than the first half. Plath’s increasing power as a writer, the variety of her responses to different correspondents, and her enthusiastic accounts of living in England and traveling on the Continent contrast to the sameness of her pre-breakdown letters to mom. But even the letters to Aurelia that she writes from abroad show a new maturity, especially Plath’s willingness to share glimpses of her inner life and musings on her poetry that she previously kept hidden under her pose of all-American girl. And, although she inflates Hughes to godlike stature in letters to Aurelia, her letters to him reflect her renewed self-confidence grounded on their shared sense of purpose as writers. Reading the letters to Hughes is both exhilarating, due to Plath’s buoyant joy, and painful due to foreknowledge of the tragic turn their marriage will eventually take. But the volume ends on an appropriate high note, with Plath, on the cusp of maturity as a poet, advocating to Davison on behalf of both Hughes’s work and her own.
[1] THE LETTERS OF SYLVIA PLATH, Volume I: 1940–1956, ed. by Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil. Harper. $45.00.