Dear Mother, . . .

I hope I shan’t be so proud as to forget myself. Yet there is a secret pleasure one has to hear one’s self praised. You must know, then, that my Lady Davers, who, I need not tell you, is my master’s sister, has been a month at our house, and has taken great notice of me, and given me good advice to keep myself to myself. She told me I was a very pretty wench, and that every body gave me a very good character, and loved me; and bid me take care to keep the fellows at a distance; and said, that I might do, and be more valued for it, even by themselves. . . .

Your honest as well as dutiful DAUGHTER

The words are Pamela’s in Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740). But they might as well be Sylvia Plaths’s in this first volume of what amounts to a magnificent epistolary novel. She wrote more to her mother than to anyone else, although probably close to a thousand letters to other recipients may no longer exist. Aurelia Plath preserved every scrap of her daughter’s correspondence, affirming not only her undying love for her daughter but also the conviction that Sylvia Plath would matter well beyond the confines of their two lives.

Sylvia Plath prevails not because she died young and full of promise, not because she is a feminist martyr, not even because she is a great poet and perhaps might have been a great novelist, but because she reflects and extends the modern sense of identity that Richardson wrote into the literature of romance, melodrama, and with his second novel, Clarissa (1748), tragedy. Volume I of Plath’s letters and Volume II (scheduled for fall 2018 publication) are Pamela and Clarissa redux.

During many periods of her life, Plath wrote to her mother several times a week and sometimes even daily. She wrote long and short letters, postcards and telegrams, varying the pace of her writing depending on her moods, her situations, and how much space she might have on an aerogram. She included drawings and poems, beginning in her preteens as she reveled in telling her mother about summer camp. She ate enormous quantities of food, and she relished her meals as epic accomplishments. She counted what she ate, so we learn exactly how many helpings of the main course, the side dishes, and the desserts she devoured.

Plath’s letters reveal that she was always on stage, always performing.

No matter how much Plath excelled at swimming or acting in camp or at Cambridge, where she studied as a Fulbright fellow, she never forgot herself, which means she never neglected her mother, a single mother who was willing to work herself to death, as Plath told her brother Warren, if that was necessary so that her children would thrive. Plath did not come from wealth, and she took babysitting and housekeeping summer jobs and was virtually adopted by her employers who praised her diligence and intelligence and took “great notice” of her. Plath’s letters reveal that she was always on stage, so to speak, always performing with an exuberance and élan that attracted boys and girls and men and women to her.

Plath continues to fascinate because she is like no other writer of her generation. One has to emulate Plutarch’s parallel lives to make the point. Unlike another precocious contemporary, Susan Sontag, Plath did not feel alienated, nor did she scorn her own family or reject her philistine contemporaries—all attributes, in Sontag’s mind, of the solitary artist who by definition is a dissenter. Sontag abhorred physical education classes; Plath adored all kinds of physical activity almost like a jock. Sontag dreamed of appearing in Partisan Review. Plath never mentions the journal in her letters, and though she aimed to be published in journals like Poetry, she also wanted to write for Ladies’ Home Journal and got her start with stories and poems in Seventeen and Mademoiselle. Even as many in the Sontag generation scorned The New Yorker as middlebrow, the Plath in these letters says she will die trying to get into the magazine. She interviewed a pulp author and wanted to write for the slicks. And her letters are strewn with comparisons of herself to Scarlett O’Hara. She read Gone With the Wind three times and measured males against the ideal of Rhett Butler. At Smith College, Plath was as comfortable talking with the maid in Lawrence House, where the budding writer/undergraduate lived, as she was with housemates and with critics like the dour Alfred Kazin, who soon realized that this seeming tyro was already a professional writer he believed necessary to encourage and promote. To faculty and students alike she was already a star.

Home, family, school—those were encumbrances that Sontag shucked off as soon as possible. Plath let go of none of it. She brought all of what she had been along with her to every encounter that she then reported in letters home. Much has been made of Plath’s hostility to her mother, and her letters to others occasionally reveal that side of her as well, the side that sometimes even hated a mother who hovered, who wanted her daughter to be practical and sensible and learn shorthand while the daughter struggled to write great poetry. But the hate, if that is truly what it was, had to do with Plath’s recognition that, like Pamela, her identity was bound up with the hopes of her family. Plath did not just love her brother Warren, as she reiterates in these letters, she impressed upon him how both of them were part of a family enterprise that their mother had established. This eighteenth-century sense of fealty is quite astounding and not quite like anything else you can read in the lives of modern American writers.

Similarly, Plath identified with Smith College. She was an unabashed Smith girl. She wrote about the college in promotional pieces and letters and formed strong bonds with male and female faculty members who, in turn, regarded her as one of their creations, favoring her with scholarships and with a degree of understanding that soothed her often tense worries over how she could afford the expense of college and perform at the highest levels of excellence.

For someone who thrived on so much praise, Plath did not merely endure rejections, she regarded them as the writer’s badge of honor. Over and over again, she submitted work that The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly,and, yes, Ladies’ Home Journal rejected. Of course she was disappointed, but each rejection also rejuvenated her. She sent out revised versions of her writing that eventually, sporadically, earned acceptance.

Somehow, in addition to the classes, the fiction and poetry writing jags, and the work on college publications, Plath also enjoyed a full social life. By my rough estimate, until the day she met Ted Hughes, she dated at least forty-seven men, of all types and sizes, although she favored those who rose above her five-foot, nine-inch height. For the most part, she enjoyed herself, but, like Pamela, kept men at a distance—in the 1940s and 1950s parlance, she did not go “all the way.” She does not use the word “petting,” but that is what it seems to amount to until perhaps her senior year in college, when she became serious about two suitors, Gordon Lameyer and Richard Sassoon, who spoke to the two sides of an undergraduate who was completing a senior thesis on the double in Dostoevsky. Lameyer was, in her own words, a hunk—but one that was a James Joyce devotee. Her letters engage Lameyer in Joycean wordplay, and for a time she considered marrying him, but in the end he proved all too conventional. He was, she acknowledged, her Gordian knot. She wanted a man like him, and yet somehow he did not quite have the romantic aura that had her standing at the top of the stairs staring down at her Rhett Butler. The romance of the foreign pulled her away from Lameyer and into the arms of Richard Sassoon, distantly related to Siegfried, and also Frenchified with literary and gastronomical knowledge that appealed to her appetitive personality. But this romance foundered when Sassoon shied away from her marriage proposal, wishing to establish himself before committing to another.

And here is where Plath’s crisis and cri de cœur reads exactly like a novel, although not the one she expected, as she related to a close friend, Elinor Friedman Klein:

for the first time in my life I felt I actually could see giving my life to this one man; all the nagging conventional society doubts while there, didn’t matter a damn. but, coming like rhett butler from his slambang hedonist life through love that is holy, sassoon, not saying “I don’t give a damn” and leaving her on the stairs holding a piece of red dirt, but saying: “two years of army (it may kill him) and I must make a fortune and only then found a family, and always in the holy skies our love is and will be: someday; meanwhile, I must be noble and give you your freedom.”

So Sassoon had set her adrift from her literary and romantic moorings.

Before describing her next move, dear reader, I must keep you in suspense in order to compliment the editors of her letters, who do the same thing: maintain an air of expectancy by eschewing editorializing. Except for a succinct introduction, they have chosen to stay out of the story, by which I mean that, other than supplying missing dates for letters and identifying and also dating the lives of those Plath mentions and writes to, Peter Steinberg and Karen Kukil do not comment. I can see how other editors might have made a different decision, providing, for example, more details about Plath’s suicide attempt, or juxtaposing what she says in her journals with her letters. But to insert such notes would have interfered with Plath’s epistolary voice and our discovery of how she managed her life. The great joy of this book is that it offers Plath unfiltered, and that is a refreshing and powerfully illuminating experience after the work of various valuable, if still intruding, biographers. Here we can watch Plath just getting on with life, supplying it in copious, sometimes pleonastic detail. Even the repetitions, however, are Richardsonian, since they emphasize not only how important certain topics are to her but also how she introduces them to each of her correspondents.

The great joy of this book is that it offers Plath unfiltered.

To resume: In that same letter to Elinor Friedman Klein about Sassoon, Plath exclaims:

I wish to hell I would meet some other man who could break richard’s image & free me, because I miss being of the world around me: a kind of schizophrenic, living in cambridge with her clocks and books and running naked on the bay of angels in her head with sassoon.

Here the editors might have broken off Volume I—just before Plath meets Hughes. It is the part where Pamela ends, before Richardson reverses course and portrays a doomed heroine raped by the rake Robert Lovelace in Clarissa. But what publisher could resist putting Ted Hughes into the first volume of the letters, a sure selling point? But wait! Methinks that including the first act of the Plath/Hughes drama might have been the right move after all, since it seemed that Plath, like Pamela, was to have her virtue rewarded. She writes to her mother:

I shall tell you now about something most miraculous and thundering and terrifying and wish you to think on it and share some of it. It is this man, this poet, this Ted Hughes. I have never known anything like it: for the first time in my life I can use all my knowing and laughing and force and writing to the hilt all the time, everything, and you should see him, hear him:

He is tall, hulking, with a large-cut face, shocks of dark brown hair and blazing green & blue flecked eyes; he wears the same old clothes all the time: a thick black sweater & wine-stained khaki pants. His voice is richer and rarer than Dylan Thomas, booming through walls and doors: he stalks into the room and yanks a book out of my cases: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Thomas, and begins to read. He reads his own poems which are better than Thomas and Hopkins many times, and better than all I know: fierce, disciplined with a straight honest saying. He tells me endless stories, in the Irish spinning way, dropping his voice to a hush and acting some out, and I am enchanted: such a yarn-spinner. He is twenty-five and from Yorkshire, and has done everything in the world: rose-grafting, plowing, reading for movie studios, hunting, fishing; he reads horoscopes, knows Joyce, so much much more than I, but all I love. He is a violent Adam, and his least gesture is like a derrick; unruly, yet creative as God speaking the world; he was a discus-thrower.

Plath’s language seems so extravagant that perforce I have to interfere and explain that to Hughes’s own friends, male and female, he seemed the same as he did to Plath. They adored him and it is hardly exaggerating to say they worshipped him. In short, this is not post-adolescent romanticism, or if it is, it was shared by Hughes’s English and American contemporaries in the Cambridge of his time and Plath’s and afterwards, as well—so much so that most of his friends never forgave Sylvia for taking their Ted away from them and trying to tame him.

That word “violent” in her description will recur in other letters. She tells her brother Warren but not her mother that “He [Hughes] has done nothing but write, rave, work and desert women for ten years.” She gets so carried away in proselytizing to Warren that she cannot see the warning signs embedded in her own prose:

I am the first one, I think, who is as strong in herself (by this I mean, the sense of self which is inviolable & creative in spite of all) as he is, who can see the lack of care in him, and be independent: this gives me a kind of balance of power. I could make him kind, I think, and a little more caring of people; but I know what I shall never again find his like in the world. Such times we have. I would give everything if you could meet him; never have two people, too strong for most in one dose, lived so powerfully & creatively!

Her “I think” lurks on the periphery of her enthusiasm. And it is here we must leave her, with a rousing first-volume finish, which includes several “family owned letters” from Plath to Hughes, printed for the first time, full of more apostrophes of greatness: “Darling,” Plath writes to Hughes, “be scrupulous and date your letters. When we are old and spent, they will come asking for our letters; and we will have them dove-tail-able.”

It will come to such grief in Volume II.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 6, on page 68
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