Plath’s (Crystalline, Determined) Letters


Photograph by UncleBucko.

From The New Statesman:

When reading Sylvia Plath’s private writing – her letters, her diaries – one always wonders just what her life would have been like had she been born in 1942 rather than in 1932, if the arguments and conversations of second-wave feminism had been cresting when she was still in her early twenties. These what-ifs seem inevitable when writing about Plath, who killed herself in 1963, the same year that Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique was published.

The publication of these complete letters offers more pieces in the puzzle of Plath’s life. The earliest letters date from 1940 and include some of her previously unpublished childhood verses. Often her journals, where they exist, are undated: accounts given in letters of events described in the journals will enable accurate cross-referencing. And, as Steinberg and Kukil note, there are no journals from autumn 1953 to autumn 1955. The letters here fill in that gap, to a certain extent.

Not every letter – describing her dreadful sinus colds, the mending of clothes, the courting of boys – is fascinating. Why should they be? This is one young woman’s life, in all its quotidian variety. Many of them, however, have an extraordinary narrative flow: you can feel her practising, like a pianist doing her scales, for her poetry and prose. But what the reader comes away with is a renewed sense of Plath’s wonderfully powerful appetites, for literature, for love and, indeed, for food – though I’m not sure that everyone will share Plath’s excitement over “deluxe peanut-butter sandwiches spiced with onion, mayonaisse [sic], bacon”.

And how hard she worked! That’s no secret, but it is striking to see over the course of more than 1,000 pages. Rejection never dismayed her. She would sit back down at her desk and start again. She was published, she won prizes and she carefully accounted for the money that she earned writing, but still there was so much to achieve, and she knew it would only be achieved through industry as much as inspiration.

“The many selves of Sylvia Plath: the poet’s early letters show a writer in training”, Erica Wagner, The New Statesman