Poetic justice after years mired in controversy, Sylvia Plath's unedited journals aim to settle the score

from: Denver Rocky Mountain News - November 19, 2000

by Duane Davis

The novelist Mary McCarthy once remarked that literature is closer to gossip than to art, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the long, sad and, at times, harrowing story of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes.

Plath, a young woman of modest means, fierce intelligence and vaulting ambition, in England on a Fullbright scholarship after a brilliant stay at Smith, met and married Ted Hughes, an Englishman, in 1956. She was 24; he was 26. Both were in the earliest stages of establishing themselves as writers, particularly as poets.

They had the world before them. In six years, though, Sylvia Plath would be dead, having, on Feb. 11, 1963, put her head in an oven and turned on the gas - after putting out milk and cookies for her two small children and stopping up the crack under the door to the room where they lay sleeping. Less than six months earlier, she and Hughes had fought, not for the first time, and separated, Hughes moving in with the woman he was having an affair with while Plath, alone with their two children in a country not her own, tried to start her life anew.

At the time of her death, Plath had already published a book of poems, The Colossus, and in January 1963, barely a month before her suicide, a novel, The Bell Jar (which was issued under a pseudonym as the book was so close to the bone, so close to her own life, that it was believed that some of the material would harm family and friends).

While it's obvious that the separation from her husband under these difficult circumstances contributed to her death, what wasn't so obvious at first was how the breakup had fueled a remarkable conflagration of her poetic sensibilities. Virtually on fire with rage, sorrow and resentment, Plath, in a sense, burned her life to the ground in the first few weeks after Hughes left, writing in a fever a series of poems remarkable not just for the harrowing depths of hurt they put on display but for the extraordinary control, as well, of technique, of words and rhythm as a means of describing the indescribable: a life evaporating into nothingness, a stillness of which these words, these poems, are a last, lasting, echo.

Because Plath was still married to Hughes when she killed herself, the work she had so recently written, as well as all her unpublished writing, fiction, poetry, letters and journals, all fell under the control of her estranged husband. I can only hint here at the bitter, tangled controversies that have raged from 1963 to this day about Hughes' handling of Plath's literary legacy. At best, he has been accused, often loudly, of editing (mutilating, some would say) her work to protect himself, of deleting or even destroying material that depicted him in an unfavorable light. At worst, he has been accused of driving his wife to kill herself, guilty, according to some (feminist Robin Morgan most famously), of outright murder.

The history and treatment of Plath's personal journals is in fact an excellent introduction to this mire of innuendo and invective.

In 1981, Smith College, Plath's alma mater, received all the Plath manuscripts then under Hughes' control (though Smith had physical possession of the papers, however, permission to quote from them was still required from Hughes - permission that was seldom granted to any who did not promote the Hughes family's interpretation of Plath's life).

At the same time, Hughes sealed two of the journals, specifically two dealing with entries from August 1957 and November 1959, thus making them unavailable not just to the public but to scholars until Feb. 11, 2013. Shortly before his death in 1998, Hughes had come to believe that he and Plath's children, now adults, should have control of Plath's writings, and it is to them that we owe the decision to publish the journals in their entirety, including the two that had formerly been sealed.

The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath includes all the material from what Karen V. Kukil, the book's editor, calls Plath's "adult" years, from when she was just 18 and had recently graduated from high school until the summer of 1962. In effect, however, the journals stop proceeding linearly in November 1958. This material takes up 520 pages.

In addition to this, there are "journal fragments," dating from 1951 to 1962, that are included as appendices and take up 140 more pages, bringing the book to a total of 660 pages. What's interesting about this right off is that Hughes himself authorized an official version of The Journals of Sylvia Plath in 1982. That version is 354 pages long.

This disparity in length, of course, is of great importance: What did Hughes leave out? Did he, as has often been speculated, cut so deeply to prevent us from finding out what a cad and a monster he had been?

The answer to this, based on what we have now before us, is "no," a qualified "no" perhaps, but "no" nonetheless. No smoking guns are revealed in these pages. Hughes may have been insensitive, self-absorbed and caught up in stereotypical '50s notions of male dominance in marriage, but nothing in the journals proves him anything other than a jerk - and such "proof" as there is, of course, flows in acrid ink from a woman some might be inclined to call dangerously overwrought, perhaps even unbalanced.

The central exhibit entered into evidence against Hughes has usually been Plath's journal entry of May 19, 1958, where she pours out at white heat a great surge of anger at what she sees as Hughes' dalliance with another woman: "In almost two years, (Hughes) has turned me from a crazy perfectionist and promiscuous human-being-lover, to a misanthrope. ... I feel the vulgar heat of my wrong enough to gag, to spit the venom I've swallowed... He is a liar, a vain smiler, a twister."

Many had long thought that an unedited version of this incident might reveal more damning, more salacious content, when, in fact, it has not. Hughes did omit a certain amount of name-calling (in the above, he deleted "liar, a vain smiler" but left in "a twister") and nasty, personal description, but the incident, as presented in both versions of the journal, is in essence the same.

It's unlikely, however, that the release of the unabridged journals will bring a curtain down on this long-running literary soap opera. For one thing, Hughes acknowledged in his introduction to the 1982 Journals book that he had destroyed one journal, which contained entries written just days before Plath's death, in order to protect the children of their marriage from ever seeing what was written there, and that another had "disappeared." Shortly before he died, Hughes published a book of poems titled Birthday Letters that constitute his last words on Plath and their relationship. The poems there are dark, brutal, agonized, a boil of words at once accusatory and affectionate.

If the score, then, has not been settled, what, a reader might justifiably ask, is the value of this version of the journals, weighing in as it does at more than twice the number of pages as its 1982 edition?

In the main, what was left out in the Hughes version is a great deal of Plath's apprenticeship in writing. What we have in the full journal is an extraordinary record of a mind and sensibility trying desperately to push itself beyond the merely competent toward a goal, ephemeral and difficult to judge, of true writerly stature.

Plath sets herself many exercises here. Time and again, dates with boys are turned into mini-stories replete with scene setting, character description, plot turns and even Joycean "epiphanies" as the payoff. This is evidence of a writer learning to write, and it's fascinating and well worth reading. Elsewhere she makes notes during her short employment at a mental hospital, notes we know will grow, over time, into her mordant and powerful short story Johnny Panic and the Bible Of Dreams. There is also a good deal of self-exhortation, some of it heartbreaking to come across: "Home, coffee-drunk. Exhilarated. (Can't stop thinking I am just beginning. In 10 years I will be 30 and not ancient and maybe good. Hope. Prospects. Work.)"

The journals are not literature and they are only fitfully well- written. With so much that's awkward and naked, one can't help thinking there's a great deal here that Sylvia Plath would be horrified to find we are reading. On these pages she was learning to be a writer, learning her craft and art by making all the mistakes a writer must make in order to discover what it is that makes words and sentences come alive. And so, with many apologies to her poor, bare, battered ghost, I can't help but recommend this book to anyone who has ever been in love with words and half in love with the hands that set them to a page.

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