In Plath's Full Journals, A Lusty Embrace Of Life

from: The Boston Globe - November 5, 2000

by Diane Middlebrook

The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962 Edited by Karen V. Kukil

Sylvia Plath was a little-known writer when she committed suicide at age 30, in February 1963 - the same month that Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique" became a bestseller, breaking ground for a new feminist movement. Two of Plath's posthumously published books took root in that ground: "Ariel," a slim volume of savage, brilliant poems (marketed with a blurb by Robert Lowell), and "The Bell Jar," Plath's autobiographical novel about a young woman's descent into madness.

At the time of her death, Plath was separated but not divorced from the English poet Ted Hughes. He became the executor of her estate by default, and her editor by choice.Over the years he wrote commentaries that attempted to rescue Plath from what he called the "wilder fantasies" of feminism, and to reposition her in a lineage of literary geniuses. He also burned one of her journals, and mislaid another. By the time Hughes sold Plath's papers to Smith College in 1981, his interventions were as prominent in the legend of Sylvia Plath as was her suicide.

At the time of the sale, Hughes had Plath's journals prepared for editing by Fran McCullough. The book published in 1982 represented about only a third of the whole collection of notebooks held by Smith. It was typographically spectacular. Paragraphs were elbowed open with ellipses where whole pages and passages had disappeared - the sign of McCullough's editorial selectivity. But the pages were also full of bracketed holes teasingly labeled "omission," marking deletions of words and phrases. These were the spoor of Hughes, who was listed as the book's consulting editor, holding veto power. So "unabridged" is the eye-catcher in the title of the journals newly edited by Karen V. Kukil, a curator of the manuscripts at Smith. What's new? Mainly, a lot of writing exercises. Plath used her journal not, primarily, to inscribe her daily life (she did that in her letters) but to capture whatever she thought might find its way into fiction. "It's hopeless to `get life' if you don't keep notebooks," she tells herself. So she makes the page into auditioning space, where experience gets a chance to show whether it can sing and dance as writing. She practices on set-pieces and character sketches, or she fabricates plots; she produces marketing schemes. She vents her envy, taking potshots at other writers, or keeping score.

These aspects of Plath's journals were well represented in the abridged edition. Compare entries in the two editions, though, and you discover an interesting level of detail in what Hughes suppressed under typographical fig leaves in 1982.

A core sample can be drawn from the most famous passage in Plath's journal: the scene of the meeting of Plath and Hughes at a party thrown to launch a literary magazine, St. Botolph's Review, published by students at Cambridge University (where Plath was studying literature on a Fulbright Fellowship).

Plath wanted to be noticed by these snobbish fellows and get her work into their magazine. She was also lonely; she had recently been jilted by her (very literary) lover, Richard Sassoon. She arrived at the party staggeringly drunk and in boisterous good spirits, ready to be reckless. She was noticed. The following day Plath wrote a long entry about the party: 5,400 words, from which Hughes cut 182 words in 1982. He included her description of how they drank brandy and sparred and kissed. He included Plath's description of biting his cheek, leaving "blood running down his face." But he omitted the line that followed, in which Plath characterizes his poems as violent in a way she found sexually arousing: "His poem `I did it, I.' Such violence, and I can see how women lie down for artists." She called his poems "strong and blasting like a high wind in steel girders."

Why were these sentences kept out of print in 1982? I speculate that Hughes was wincing at the style. Plath is not-quite-falling in love; she is writing the story of her life as if she were a character in a novel. She riffs on the theme that sexy is violent, writing is sexy, writing is violent. In her morning-after notes, "bam," "bang," "blast" "crash," "smash," "wind," and "hunger" become interchangeable terms for lust and for writing. "Oh to give myself crashing, fighting to you. The one man since I've lived who could blast Richard." Her fantasy about seeing Hughes again - he left the party with another girl - is a "dream of banging and crashing in a high wind in London." When at last she beds Hughes, a couple of weeks later, her notes retain this emphasis: they make together a "wild destructive London night" from which she emerges with "a battered face, smeared with a purple bruise from Ted and my neck raw and wounded too."

To herself, Plath explains this kind of writing exercise as an effort to find "the diary I of the novel," who must represent "the vision I now have of life" - in a nutshell: "The modern woman: demands as much experience as the modern man." It serves the journal's purpose: Momentum from her description of the party accelerates her over a hurdle into what will eventually become the definitive scene in "The Bell Jar." "I shall write a detailed description of shock treatment," she decides, "tight, blasting short descriptions with not one smudge of coy sentimentality." "Blasting" makes the link: her arousal is both sexual and literary. And once she has settled on the formula - terse, violent - she wants to test herself against Hughes: "I would like to try just this once, my force against his." As is clear in context, by "force" she means, along with the force of her hunger, the force of her writing. More: she wants acceptance as a writer by the whole pack of men from whom she has singled him out. "I could never sleep with him anyway, with all his friends here and his close relations to them, laughing, talking, I should be the world's whore as well as Roget's strumpet."

Some of these phrases were printed in the 1982 journal, some weren't. But in choosing to make such tiny cosmetic surgical strikes on the features of the Plath persona, Hughes also made himself the journal's coauthor. The papers of Ted Hughes recently acquired by Emory University show, quite dramatically, that he recognized this in 1994, when he finally read the published journals for the first time himself. He was appalled.

Commissioning this unabridged edition was part of Hughes's own process of coming to terms with the insight that - to quote the feminist slogan - the personal is political. During the last years of his life, Hughes focused all his work on the politics of marriage, from "Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being" to "Birthday Letters," and on through his versions of "Phedre," "The Oresteia," "Alcestis." And in relinquishing his editorial control of the journals, he freed Ariel from her long confinement in his blue pencil, initiating a new phase of relationship. He died in 1998, newly coupled with Sylvia Plath in every literary mode from the homely frankness of the confessional poem to the grandeur of classical tragedy. And her journals will always be read with an eye on him. They are the 20th century's foremost literary pair, remarried, this time never to part.

Memo: Diane Middlebrook is the author of "Anne Sexton: A Biography" and "Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton." She is writing a book about Ted Hughes.

Caption: PHOTO Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes in their Boston apartment in 1958, when Plath worked part time as a secretary at Massachusetts General Hospital's adult psychiatric clinic.

Copyright (c) 2000, Globe Newspaper Company

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