The Letters of Sylvia Plath Volume 1: 1940-1956

by Sylvia Plath
edited by Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil
reviewed by Heather Clark
January 30, 2018

Before the landmark publication of The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 1: 1940–1956, meticulously edited by Peter Steinberg and Karen Kukil, the only published collection of Sylvia Plath’s correspondence was Letters Home (1976), written to—and selected by—Aurelia Plath. Aurelia wanted to show the world that her daughter was not Esther Greenwood, heroine of The Bell Jar. But her efforts backfired when critics discovered she had excised many of Plath’s expressions of anger and complaints of illness, as well as merged and misdated letters. Reviewers accused her of silencing Plath’s mercurial voice in death as she had in life, while her editorial errors cried out for correction.

Now that Steinberg and Kukil’s edition has been published, one no longer has to travel to an archive to read what Aurelia Plath excised in Letters Home, or what Plath wrote to friends and boyfriends. Not surprisingly, these letters, which date from Plath’s childhood to her mid-twenties, are wittier, edgier, and more humorous than those she wrote to her mother. But even with friends, Plath held back. Few of the letters in Volume 1 are as emotionally raw or revealing as the dramatic outpourings of her journals. Still, Plath’s letters to Eddie Cohen, Hans-Joachim Neupert, Gordon Lameyer, Elinor Friedman Klein, Marcia Brown Stern, Mel Woody, Richard Sassoon, Ted Hughes, and others—published here for the first time—offer an illuminating chronological account of her intellectual, literary, and political development throughout the 1950s. We also learn more about her breakdown, suicide attempt, and recovery (if that’s what it was) at McLean Hospital. In a searing December 1953 letter to her pen pal Eddie Cohen, Plath describes her reasons for suicide:

I underwent a rather brief and traumatic experience of badly-given shock treatments on an outpatient basis. Pretty soon, the only doubt in my mind was the precise time and method of committing suicide. The only alternative I could see was an eternity of hell for the rest of my life in a mental hospital, and I was going to make use of my last ounce of free choice and choose a quick, clean ending. (The Letters of Sylvia Plath, 655–656).

In The Bell Jar, shock treatment seems to cure Esther Greenwood. But Plath’s letters from McLean suggest her shock treatment may have done more harm than good. In the same letter to Eddie, she longs for someone to “be with me at night when I wake up in shuddering horror and fear of the cement tunnels leading down to the shock room … ” (657). That December, she wrote her mother from McLean that she was about to have a sixth shock treatment, adding “I hope I won’t have to have many more … ” (651). These letters add to the growing body of evidence that Plath’s psychiatric care was mismanaged, and that her “badly-given” shock treatment’s lingering “traumatic” effects may have played a role in her 1963 suicide.

By the time Plath arrived at Cambridge University in October 1955, she had begun to despair of finding a husband worthy of her intellect and literary ambitions, someone who, as she wrote in her journal, would not “swallow up my desires to express myself in a smug, sensuous haze.” [1] After her disastrous relationship with the medical student Dick Norton (Buddy Willard in The Bell Jar), Plath was careful to date literary men whose love of Dylan Thomas, James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, W. B. Yeats, and D. H. Lawrence matched her own. Her letters to college boyfriends Gordon Lameyer, Richard Sassoon, and others reveal a mind mesmerized and emboldened by modern literature. She quotes Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood and Tennessee Williams’s Camino Real at length; makes Joycean puns in the style of Finnegans Wake; rhapsodizes about recordings by Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot, and Marianne Moore; calls herself a “bibliomaniac” and a “high priestess of the intellect” (727). Yet Plath suspected that her American boyfriends expected her to abandon her literary aspirations when she married. Lameyer, after all, had told her shortly before her 1953 suicide attempt that all the great writers of history had been men, and that “Men creat [sic] art; women create people.” [2]

Her doubts vanished when she met Ted Hughes. The highlight of this volume is the series of love letters Plath wrote to Hughes in October 1956, while she was living in Cambridge and he in Yorkshire. Plath regarded herself and Hughes as an unstoppable force that would change the course of Anglo-American poetry. At times her tone resembles that of a young revolutionary plotting a coup. They would soon crack The New Yorker and London Magazine, she assured him. “They’ll be begging for us yet” (1256). She prodded Hughes to enter contests and told him not to tear up his television plays or “go black” if his poems didn’t find a home. “THEY WILL” (1279). She fantasized about fans and TV producers “flocking to the dock in hundreds” when they sailed into New York harbor, and suggested they find literary agents to handle “movie rights, TV rights” (1279). More surprising, perhaps, is Plath’s confident, professorial tone as she criticizes Hughes’s work: “I don’t think ‘horrible void’ is the best you can do; I’m eternally suspicious of editorializing with horribles, terribles, awfuls and hideouses; make the void horrible; let your reader have the sweet joy of exclaiming, ‘ah! Horrible!’” (1281).

Plath’s letters also show her broaching, obliquely, the subject of mental illness with her husband. When Plath wrote to Hughes of “schizophrenia” in “manic-depressive geniuses” like Beethoven, Dickens, and Tolstoy (1288), he responded that Keats, Chaucer, and Shakespeare were all “delicately mad,” and that “going nuts” meant “your thoughts have an autonomous life.” [3] His unconventional view of mental illness probably reassured Plath, who had written in 1954 to fellow McLean patient Jane Anderson (Joan Gilling in The Bell Jar) about the “lasting scar” that her stay at the psychiatric hospital would leave upon her “future associations” (696). These October 1956 letters suggest that what was truly revolutionary about Plath and Hughes’s early relationship was its foundation of mutual respect at a time when women poets at Cambridge were not taken seriously. If the end of the marriage was dark, its beginning was blindingly bright. “I can’t believe any body ever loved like this; nobody will again,” Plath wrote Hughes (1298). “We will burn love to death all our long lives … ”

[1] Karen Kukil, ed., The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950–1962 (London: Faber & Faber, 2000), 18; 20–21. Return to Text
[2] Gordon Lameyer to Sylvia Plath, 22 November 1953. Lameyer MSS, Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington. Return to Text
[3] Ted Hughes to Sylvia Plath, 22 October 1956. Plath MSS II, Box 6, Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington. Return to Text