The Story Behind Sylvia Plath's Letters,
by Peter K. Steinberg
22 October 2018
The conclusion of The Letters of Sylvia Plath project after the better part of a decade is bittersweet.
For so long, searching for letters, transcribing, proofing and annotating has been a significant part of my life. Upon the publication of the first volume of Plath’s letters last year, I wrote a short blog piece on the process of bringing Plath to life through her correspondence. This post seeks to complement that, concentrating on the recently published second volume covering the years 1956 to 1963.
Wait, there’s more . . .
Last October I wrote that we submitted a manuscript of 1,399 letters. That number changed as the search for letters continued. Six letters were located that will go into the paperback of Volume I (2019). Additionally, another letter will appear at auction in New York in December 2018. Let us hope we can obtain a copy.
We received, quite late in the project, fourteen letters from Sylvia Plath to Dr Ruth Beuscher, who served as Plath’s psychiatrist from 1953 onwards. They cover a period in which correspondence containing biographical details is generally scarcer. In publishing them, readers gain a better understanding of how Plath coped with the break-up of her marriage to Ted Hughes. This cache brings the letters collection between the two volumes to a total of 1,419 letters.
Plath Letters Volume II
The second volume contains 575 letters to 108 recipients from 28 October 1956 to 4 February 1963. They commence the day after Plath’s 24th birthday and cover the conclusion of Plath’s Fulbright scholarship at Newnham College; her teaching year in Northampton; her writing year in Boston; a journey across the US by car and the Atlantic by ship; settling in London and North Tawton; the birth of two children; and the publication of two books before Plath resettles in London in late 1962.
Plath’s most frequent correspondent is her mother who received 230 letters. Accustomed as we are to Plath’s letters to her mother, there are silences and gaps. For example, when Plath lived in Northampton and Boston, communication was frequently made via telephone. Later, during the summers of 1961 and 1962, Mrs Plath made two long visits to England.
However, the chorus of voices in these letters is varied as Plath interacts with her in-laws (49 letters) as well as with publishers, editors, and other professional contacts (more than 100 letters), and friends and strangers, among others. Volume I encompasses sixteen years of Plath’s life: from a young girl through her complicated college years to being a young, married woman. The letters in Volume II are all from Plath’s adulthood. They correspond to her best known writings: the poems that went into The Colossus and Ariel, as well as her novel, The Bell Jar. We see a much more mature Plath, one who seeks to be ‘a triple-threat woman: wife, writer & teacher (to be swapped later for motherhood, I hope)’. Writing on the cusp of the birth of her first child, Plath acknowledges the great change approaching, ‘Officially the baby is due in 10 days, but right now I feel to have been waiting so long I can’t imagine it ever coming. When I look at the pink crib (2’x4’) I keep wondering what it will be like to see a breathing infant in it. This seems an enormous milestone to pass: three of us instead of two’ (p. 437).
Reading between the lines
The two volumes of Plath’s letters offer readers direct access to Plath’s life in her own words. They can be enjoyed on their own, and also alongside her other major autobiographical writing, including her Journals (Faber, 2000). Reading these books in conjunction makes for an encounter with her texts that may corroborate experiences or even contradict them. The indices reference hundreds of works created by Plath in several genres including poetry, prose, journalism, reviews, radio broadcasts, and more. Occasionally Plath’s letters and poetry, for example, bleed from one into the other such as:
This kind of comparison can be done with both volumes. For example, in Volume I, Plath writes about her experience on a runaway horse in Cambridge in several December 1955 letters. She returned to this subject in a short story (‘Runaway’, for which only two typescript pages survive) and the poem ‘Whiteness I Remember’, first published in March 1959. One of the richest intertextual readings across Plath’s letters, journals, and poetry, to my mind, is Plath’s writings on becoming beekeeper in North Tawton.
This second volume of Plath’s Letters exhibits her adult voice which finds its match in the poetry, fiction, and journals she wrote contemporaneously. She expresses strong opinions on innumerable subjects ranging from politics to parenthood and from editing to her poetical preferences and peers. Much of what Plath wanted as a person and a writer came to fruition. In these letters we witness her experiences in real time before they became writings for all time.
About the Author
Peter K. Steinberg is the co-editor of Plath’s Letters. He is the author of Sylvia Plath (Chelsea House, 2004), the ‘Introduction’ to the 2010 British Library CD The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath, and several articles on Plath which have appeared in Fine Books & Collections, Notes & Queries, and Plath Profiles. He lives in the United States.