Journals Bare Plath's Intense Sensibility

from: The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - November 5, 2000

by Sarai Walker, Special To The Journal Sentinel

The Unabriged Journals of Sylvia Plath. Edited by Karen V. Kukil. Anchor Books. 732 pages. $18.

Before he died in 1998, English poet laureate Ted Hughes unsealed two journals kept by his wife, Sylvia Plath, between 1957 and 1959. Under his orders, the journals were supposed to remain sealed in the Smith College archives, one of them until 2013, the other until the death of both Plath's mother and brother. But the much-maligned husband of the late feminist icon had a change of heart just weeks before his death from cancer. Now for the first time, Plath devotees can read an exact transcription (complete with misspellings and other mistakes) of all 23 of her existing adult journals.

They appear in their entirety. Two journals Plath kept during the three years before her death in 1963 at 30 are not included; according to editor Karen V. Kukil's preface, Hughes said he destroyed one of them and the other had "disappeared."

The book begins in 1950, before Plath's freshman year at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. These early journals read like a blueprint for her autobiographical novel, "The Bell Jar," and reveal an intense and self-reflective Plath. The most interesting parts by far are in the pages of the two recently unsealed journals.

It is the '50s. Plath and Hughes are living in Northampton and later Boston, trying to scrape together enough to support their fledgling writing careers. Plath's intense moods and extreme highs and lows show up clearly in powerful prose even this early.

Surprisingly, she seems to embrace the role of a doting wife who's desperate for a baby, dispelling a popular notion of her ambivalence toward such traditional ideas.

The most harrowing moments in the book come when she writes of her deep hatred for her widowed mother. Her resentment of Aurelia Plath is often shocking and the passages where she details her hostility are so vivid and disturbing, they're the most memorable part.

The minutiae of her daily life, from dates to dinner parties, can get tedious. There are gaps, years where Plath apparently kept no journal, often at key moments in her life.

And since the two journals she kept before her suicide now go missing, the reader is left to wonder what demons finally pushed the mother of two young children to the edge and she gassed herself. There are biographies that try to answer this question, but Sylvia Plath's own voice on the subject has been silenced forever.

Memo: Vermont resident Sarai Walker's work appears in Seventeen and other magazines.

Copyright 2000 Journal Sentinel Inc.

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