Sylvia Plath may have died at the age of 30, but in her short life she produced an enormous body of writing. She wrote a radio play, a children’s book, dozens of short stories, and numerous incidental pieces of journalism and memoir. She started two novels and published a third, “The Bell Jar,” now regarded as a coming-of-age classic. She wrote more than 200 poems. Gathered into her “Collected Poems,” which posthumously won a 1982 Pulitzer Prize , they showcased her as a master of the “confessional” style.
She also kept an extensive journal and carried on voluminous correspondence with a range of family members, friends and business contacts. It has fallen to Plath experts Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil to gather Plath’s correspondence into “The Letters of Sylvia Plath,” a collection so mammoth it will be published in two volumes. Volume 1, covering 1940 to 1956, is being released now. Volume 2, covering 1957 to 1963, will appear next October.
Often using vivid and compelling language, Plath addresses many topics in her letters — from politics and literature to her education and love life to her own unbridled literary ambitions and her plans to achieve them. The sheer quantity of the letters — Volume 1 runs to more than 1,300 pages — is as impressive as their quality. “I am in awe of her output,” Frieda Hughes, her daughter, writes in a foreword, “and the way in which she recorded so much of her life so that it was not lost to us.”
The letters begin in 1940, when Plath was 8, with notes to her parents, Otto and Aurelia. They go on to document her youth in Wellesley, a quaint town outside Boston where she grew up in a “cozy little ‘matchbox.’ ” Tellingly, Plath almost never mentions the death in 1940 of her father, a highly regarded biologist and Boston University professor who misdiagnosed himself with cancer, refused treatment, and died from what turned out to be a treatable form of diabetes. “My father is dead now,” Plath wrote as a teenager in a rare reference to him to a German pen pal, “so my mother teaches instead.”
A vast number of the letters document her education at Smith College, where Plath excelled on a scholarship funded by Olive Higgins Prouty, the novelist who would serve as a sponsor and mentor for the rest of Plath’s life. The litany of successes at Smith — studying with figures such as W.H. Auden, acceptances from publications such as the Nation and the Christian Science Monitor, a guest editorship at Mademoiselle — were eclipsed by what happened in the summer of 1953 when she was not accepted into Frank O’Connor’s fiction class at Harvard University.
“I began to frequent the offices and couches of the local psychiatrists,” Plath wrote to her friend Edward Cohen. “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.” She stole a bottle of 50 sleeping pills from her mother’s safe, hid in the crawl space under the front porch of the family home and swallowed many of them. “I . . . blissfully succumbed to the whirling blackness that I honestly believed was eternal oblivion [but] I had stupidly taken too many pills, vomited them, and came to consciousness in the dark hell. . . . My brother finally heard my weak yells.”
A stint at McLean Hospital was followed by her return to Smith to complete her degree. A Fulbright scholarship allowed her to study at Cambridge University. There, she met the man who would alter the direction of her life. Through her high school and college years, Plath had enjoyed romances with a variety of young men, but this time it was different.
In March 1956, Plath mentioned her new love interest to her mother for the first time: “Met, by the way, a brilliant ex-Cambridge poet at the wild St. Botolph’s Review party last week; will probably never see him again (he works for J. Arthur Rank in London) but wrote my best poem about him afterwards: the only man I’ve met yet here who’d be strong enough to be equal with.” In another letter she named him: “His name is Ted Hughes: he is tall, hulking, with rough brown hair, a large-cut face, hands like derricks, a voice more thundering and rich than Dylan Thomas.”
Four months after meeting, Plath and Hughes were married in a secret ceremony in London — Plath feared losing her Fulbright — attended only by Plath’s mother. Volume 1 ends with a decision by Plath to reveal her marriage so that Hughes could join her at Cambridge. Readers will have to wait a year for the letters that chronicle their marriage — one of the most discussed in literary history — the dissolution of which contributed to Plath’s suicide in 1963.
Engaging and revealing, “The Letters of Sylvia Plath” offers a captivating look into the life and inner thinking of one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. “Through the publication of her poems, prose, diaries, and now her collected letters,” Frieda Hughes writes, “my mother continues to exist.”
Paul Alexander is the author of, among other books, “Rough Magic,” a biography of Sylvia Plath, and “Salinger,” a biography of J.D. Salinger.
By Sylvia Plath
Edited by Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil
Harper. 1,424 pp. $