Plath Hath Spoken: Writer's Voice Restored in 'Unabridged Journals'

from: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution - Sunday, October 29, 2000

by Stephen Enniss

The verdict: Plath had much to say. Soon after the 1982 publication of "The Journals of Sylvia Plath," Steven Gould Axelrod lashed out at Ted Hughes in the American Poetry Review. As Axelrod saw it, Plath's journals had been "heavily" and "misleadingly" edited for publication. "The editorial commentary is not altogether trustworthy," he charged, and "the text is a trace of omission marks and ellipses."

Specifically Axelrod charged that Hughes had insisted on cuts in Plath's journals to protect himself from a harsh, unflattering portrayal of their life together. Plath had, after all, taken her own life in the winter of 1963, six months after the breakup of their marriage. In Axelrod's mind, and others', the omission marks in the journals came to stand for Plath's own silenced rage.

These arguments have persisted and indeed been given a second life by a new generation of readers convinced that they are equipped to judge the shades of gray in Hughes and Plath's marriage.

The publication of "The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath" is, in large part, a response to this long-running debate. Editor Karen Kukil is associate curator at the Smith College Library, where Hughes placed Plath's journals in 1981. As Kukil makes clear in her preface, her aim was to let Sylvia Plath speak for herself. These journals have been transcribed from the original manuscripts with a minimum of editorial apparatus or commentary. They cover the years 1950 to 1962 --- from Plath's freshman year at Smith College to a year before her death --- and are more than twice as long as the 1982 edition.

What does Plath have to say? A great deal, it turns out. These journals document the intensity of her ambition and trace the cometlike trajectory of her creative life. Intertwined with that ambition to write, however, is the equally prominent theme of her search for a mate. These seemingly separate threads are curiously woven together in Plath's mind.

(In a particularly revealing entry, she blasts one early boyfriend for both his impotence and his inability to spell.) Indeed, at times, the journals present not so much a single life as multiple ones, such was the hunger for experience that she brought to all she did. "I would like a life of conflict," she writes, "of balancing children, sonnets, love and dirty dishes; and banging banging an affirmation of life out on pianos and ski slopes and in bed in bed in bed."

Forging a self from these multiple ambitions is the main plot of these journals. The intensity she brings to that task was no doubt encouraged by the very practice of keeping this journal. Whether the subject at hand is her desperate need for some measure of success, the blows to the self endured in the ordinary press of events, her search for a partner capable of giving support and sustenance, the vicissitudes of intimate relationships or the fundamental effort to form a coherent self, Plath's concerns are familiar and recognizable. The self that emerges from the journals would be worthy of our attention whether she ever wrote poems or not. She is, quite simply, the diarist of our time. The journals will be read, however, not only for the record they offer of a remarkable creative life, but also for evidence in the ongoing debate over Hughes and Plath's life together. To read them in such a way, however, is to only half read and to shut one's heart to the human story that they relate. It is also to ignore a simple point often overlooked by readers who cannot see past Plath's tragic end. That is, for six of their seven years together, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath loved and were committed to each other.

The journals offer abundant evidence of their intertwined hopes and dreams. Plath sought an ideal of "creative living and writing," and in Hughes she found one who was up to her own fierce ambition. "Living with him is like being told a perpetual story: his mind is the biggest, most imaginative, I have ever met. I could live in its growing countries forever," she confides to her journal soon after their marriage. That she had such a short time to live is the dark fact that hangs over any reading of these journals. There is much here that seems with our 20/20 hindsight to anticipate her own tragic suicide. From her description of herself as "a victim of introspection" to her attraction to suicides in literature, the warning signs abound. "I must stop identifying with the seasons," she writes in one prophetic entry, "because the English winter will be the death of me." Despite such signs of danger, however, more definitive answers to the puzzle of her death prove elusive. In one attempt at self-diagnosis, she confesses, "I have the choice of being constantly active and happy or introspectively passive and sad. Or I can go mad by ricocheting in between."

In the end Plath seems to have been consumed by the very passions for life that are so fully documented here. That these passions were also the life-blood of her own art remains the paradox of her short life and of her art.

Stephen Enniss is curator of literary collections at Emory University's Robert W. Woodruff Library, where Ted Hughes' papers are stored.

Caption photo - Family time: Sylvia Plath with her children, Frieda and Nicholas, in August 1962. / Anchor Books

Copyright 2000 Atlanta Newspapers Inc.

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