The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, Edited by Karen V. Kukil
by Joyce Carol Oates
Originally published under the title “Raising Lady Lazarus” in the New York Times Book Review, November 5, 2000. Reprinted in Uncensored: Views & (Re)views.
Who in February 1963 could have predicted, when a thirty-year-old American poet named Sylvia Plath committed suicide in London, distraught over the breakup of her marriage to the Yorkshire poet Ted Hughes, that Plath would quickly emerge as one of the most celebrated and controversial of postwar poets writing in English; and this in a golden era of poetry distinguished by such figures as Theodore Roethke, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Richard Wilbur, Allen Ginsberg, Anne Sexton, John Berryman, May Swenson, Adrienne Rich, as well as W. H. Auden and T. S. Eliot? At the time of Plath’s premature death she had published a single volume of poems that had received only moderate attention, The Colossus (1960), and a first novel, the Salingeresque The Bell Jar (which appeared a month before her death in England, under the pseudonym “Victoria Lucas”), in addition to a number of strikingly bold poems in British and American magazines; her second, stronger volume of poems, Ariel, would not appear until 1965, by which time Plath’s posthumous fame assured the book widespread attention, superlative reviews, and sales that would eventually make it one of the best-selling volumes of poetry to be published in England and America in the twentieth century. Plath’s Collected Poems (1982), assembled and edited by Ted Hughes, would win a Pulitzer Prize.
“I am made, crudely, for success,” Plath stated matter-of-factly in her journal in April 1958. Yet Plath could not have foreseen that her success would be almost entirely posthumous, and ironic: for, by killing herself impulsively and dying intestate, she delivered her precious fund of work, as well as her two young children Frieda and Nicholas, into the hands of her estranged husband, Hughes, and his proprietary sister Olywn, whom Plath had perceived as her enemies during the final, despairing weeks of her life. As her literary executor, Hughes had the power to publish what he wished of her work, or to publish it in radically “edited” (that is, expurgated) versions, like The Journals of Sylvia Plath (1982); or, if he wished, he might “lose” or even destroy it, as Hughes bluntly acknowledged he had done with two of the journal notebooks written during the last three years of Plath’s life. As the surviving, perennially estranged husband, Hughes excised from Plath’s journals what he called “nasty bits” and “intimacies,” as he had eliminated from Ariel “some of the more personally aggressive poems,” with the excuse that he wanted to spare their children further distress. This new, unabridged and unexpurgated edition of the journals assembled by Karen V. Kukil, assistant curator of rare books at Smith College, is “an exact and complete transcript of the twenty-three original manuscripts in the Sylvia Plath Collection,” that suggests that the person Ted Hughes most wanted to spare from distress and exposure was himself.
The Unabridged Journals document, in obsessive and exhausting detail, Plath’s undergraduate years at Smith College and her term as a Fulbright fellow at Newnham College, Cambridge; her marriage to Ted Hughes; and two years of teaching and writing in Northampton, Massachusetts, and in Boston. With the exception of appendices and fragments from 1960 to 1962, the most vivid of which describes the birth of Plath’s second child, Nicholas, in January 1962, the Journals break off abruptly in November 1959 as Plath and Hughes, their marriage undercut by Plath’s suspicions of Hughes’s infidelity, prepare to return to England to live. The last entry of the 1959 journal is enigmatic as a typical Plath poem: “A bad day. A bad time. State of mind most important for work. A blithe, itchy eager state where the poem itself, the story itself is supreme.”
The most memorable of Sylvia Plath’s incantatory poems, many of them written during the final, turbulent weeks of her life, read as if they’ve been chiseled, with a fine surgical instrument, out of Arctic ice. Her language is taut and original; her strategy elliptical; such poems as “Lesbos,” “The Munich Mannequins,” “Paralytic,” “Daddy” (Plath’s most notorious poem), and “Edge” (Plath’s last poem, written in February 1963), and the prescient “Death & Co.” linger long in the memory, with the power of malevolent nursery rhymes. For Plath, “The blood jet is poetry,” and readers who might know little of the poet’s private life can nonetheless feel the authenticity of Plath’s recurring emotions: hurt, bewilderment, rage, stoic calm, bitter resignation. Like the greatest of her predecessors, Emily Dickinson, Plath understood that poetic truth is best told slantwise, in as few words as possible.
By contrast, the journals are a tumult of words, and present a very mixed aesthetic experience for even the sympathetic reader. As a corrective to Hughes’s “editing,” a wholly unedited version of Plath’s material would seem justified, in theory at least. Uncritical admirers of Plath will find much here that is fascinating. Other readers may find much that is fascinating and repellent in equal measure. Nor is the book easy to read, for its organization is eccentric: following journal entries for 1959, for instance, we revert jarringly back to a fragment for 1951, listed by the editor as Appendix 1. It would have been more practical for scattered fragments to have been integrated chronologically with the journals. The Unabridged Journals is impossible to read without a reliable biography in tandem, for it lacks a simple chronology of Plath’s life and the editor’s head notes are scattered and minimal.
A Bildungsroman in memorist fragments, Plath’s journals contain marvels of discovery. As an eighteen-year-old Smith College student in November 1950, Plath records insights that seem, in their succinctness, to predict her entire life, and the dilemma of that life. “‘Character is Fate.’ If I had to hazard three words to sum up my philosophy of life, I’d choose those.” And, in December 1956, “Perhaps when we find ourselves wanting everything it is because we are dangerously near to wanting nothing.” Plath’s self-scrutiny is ceaseless, pitiless, exhausting; a classic over-achiever, Plath drove herself to a nervous collapse after her junior year at Smith, and no amount of precocious success was ever quite enough to sustain her. Manic flights of words lead to a calm resolution to kill herself by an overdose of barbiturates in August 1953: “You saw visions of yourself in a straight (sic) jacket, and a drain on the family, murdering your mother in actuality, killing the edifice of love and respect … Fear, big & ugly & sniveling … Fear of failing to live up to the fast & furious prize-winning pace of these last years—and any kind of creative life.” By a fluke, Plath is rescued, only to relive numerous times this demonic self-induced drama. Clearly, the fantasy of self-destruction was Plath’s supreme self-definition; a decade later, though the mother of two children and a poet of high, acknowledged promise, Plath gloats in “Lady Lazarus,” one of the final poems of her life: “Dying / is an art, like everything else. / I do it exceptionally well.”
Plath’s meticulously documented example suggests how precocity is not maturity, and may in fact impede maturity. Psychological “insight” is merely intellectual, bringing with it no apparent practical application: as a girl Plath laments, ” … I am a victim of introspection”; as a mature woman:
It is as if my life were magically run by two electric currents: joyous positive and despairing negative—which ever is running at the moment dominates my life, floods it. I am now flooded with despair, almost hysteria, as if I were smothering. As if a great muscular owl were sitting on my chest, its talons clenching & constricting my heart.
Amid so much that is despairing, there are moments of ecstatic discovery. In Cambridge, Plath reads D. H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf with intense excitement; both will influence her prose style, and thereafter the journal’s language is enriched. ” … I pick up the blessed diary of Virginia Woolf … Bless her. I feel my life linked to her, somehow. I love her—” And, “What is my voice? Woolfish, alas, but tough.” It wasn’t easy for the fanatically competitive Plath to be generous about her contemporary rivals, but she found good things to say about May Swenson, Anne Sexton, Stanley Kunitz, Adrienne Rich (“little, round and stumpy with … great sparkling black eyes”). She records a brilliant thumbnail sketch of Auden, whom she’d heard read his poetry at Smith, in April 1953: “Auden tossing his big head back with a twist of wide ugly grinning lips … the naughty mischievous boy genius.”
Ted Hughes, of course, is the great love/hate of Plath’s life; the “demigod” she’d fantasized in adolescence, made flesh at a drunken party in Cambridge in April 1956: “… That big, dark, hunky boy, the only one there huge enough for me …” “The one man in the room who was as big as his poems, huge, with hulk and dynamic chunks of words; his poems are strong and blasting high wind in steel girders. And I screamed in myself, thinking: oh, to give myself crashing, fighting, to you.” Seemingly within minutes of their meeting, Plath and Hughes are enacting an erotic scene of the sort Plath had frequently composed in her adolescent journal:
… I was stamping and he was stamping on the floor, and then he kissed me bang smash on the mouth and ripped my hair band off … and my favorite silver earrings: hah, I shall keep, he barked. And when he kissed my neck I bit him long and hard on the cheek, and when we came out of the room, blood was running down his face … Such violence, and I can see how women lie down for artists.
As Plath famously declared in “Daddy”: “Every woman adores a Fascist, / The boot in the face, the brute / Brute heart of a brute like you.”
Less spectacularly, Plath records the petty deteriorations of a marriage entered into precipitately on both sides: Hughes is difficult, moody, reluctant to work for a living; disinclined to bathe, and with a most unromantic penchant for nosepicking. Even in her physical repugnance for Hughes, Plath never doubts his gifts as a poet, but his glamor is fatally lessened: “Ted looked slovenly: his suit jacket wrinkled as if being pulled from behind, his pants hanging, unbelted, in great folds, his hair black & greasy … He was ashamed of something.” Suspected by Plath of having been unfaithful to her, Hughes is soon exposed as a “liar, a vain smiler, a twister … Who knows who Ted’s next book will be dedicated to? His navel. His penis.” And: “… in almost two years he has turned me from a crazy perfectionist and promiscuous human-being-lover to a misanthropist, and … a nasty, catty and malicious misanthropist.” (No reader of Plath’s journals would ever have characterized her as a “human-being-lover,” but this image of herself seems to have been central to her conception of herself, along with that of innocent martyr-victim.)
Plath was a self-dramatizing woman of myriad, warring selves, a perpetual fascination to herself. This accounts for much of her fascination for others to whom the Romantic concept of the doomed, driven poet is sacrosanct. Yet Plath’s elevation in the 1970s as a feminist martyr and icon is comically incongruous with her hatred of the female sex (“Being born a woman is my awful tragedy. From the moment I was conceived I was doomed to sprout breasts and ovaries rather than penis and scrotum; to have my whole circle of action, thought and feeling rigidly circumscribed by my inescapable femininity (sic))”; her competition with women poets (“Read the six women poets in the ‘new poets of england and america.’ Dull, turgid. Except for May Swenson & Adrienne Rich, not one better or more-published than me. I have the quiet righteous malice of one with better poems than other women’s reputations have been made by”; and, most chilling, her astonishing declaration of her hatred for her mother, Aurelia, which runs on for pages in the journal for December 1958: “In a swarmy matriarchy of togetherness it is hard to get a sanction to hate one’s mother … So how do I express my hate for my mother? In my deepest emotions I think of her as an enemy: somebody who ‘killed’ my father, my first male ally in the world. She is a murderess of maleness. I … thought what a luxury it would be to kill her, to strangle her skinny veined throat … But I was too nice for murder.” One would never guess from this hysterical outburst that Plath’s father died of diabetes, her mother worked at two jobs to support Sylvia and her brother, Warren, and never remarried because “my brother and I made her sign a promise she’d never marry.”
Plath is an indefatigable graphomaniac who could write as fervently of colds, fevers, nausea, cramps and nosepicking as of an idyllic honeymoon in Benidorm, Spain; she is an inspired hater, and thrills to malicious descriptions of long-forgotten, nameless individuals whose bad luck it was to live near her, or to have met her socially. Yet Plath was always a severe critic of her “real” work, and considered the journal a place in which she could reveal herself without the strictures of art. She discarded much of what she wrote and took care, for instance, to categorize The Bell Jar as a “pot-boiler” to distinguish it from her serious work. (She worked for years on novel drafts, always dissatisfied with what she’d accomplished; near the end of her life, she burnt hundreds of pages of a work-in-progress.) Confronted with a manuscript so uneven in quality as these journals, Plath would certainly have discarded hundreds of pages in preparation for its publication: lengthy, breathless adolescent speculation about boys, dates, classes, career (“Can I write? Will I write if I practice enough? .. CAN A SELFISH EGOCENTRIC JEALOUS AND UNIMAGINATIVE FEMALE WRITE A DAMN THING WORTH WHILE?”); sketches and drafts of stories aimed for the lucrative women’s magazine market, awkward early poems (“Down the hall comes Mary, bearing sheets / Crisp squares of folded linen / And, dressed in green, she greets me / With a toothless morning grin”); countless reiterations of physical symptoms (“Woke as usual, feeling sick and half-dead, eyes stuck together, a taste of winding sheets on my tongue after a horrible dream …”); petty squabbles with Hughes, and the determination to be a good wife (“… must not nag) … (ergo: mention haircuts, washes, nail-filings, future money-making plans, children—anything Ted doesn’t like: this is nagging).” Plath’s ceaseless anxiety over submissions to Ladies’ Home Journal, The New Yorker, Harper’s, the Atlantic and other magazines runs through the journals like a demented mantra; the mailman is both the blessing and curse of Plath’s existence through the entire span of these journals. Surely such repetition might have been avoided.
Like piranhas devouring their prey, Plath’s thoughts rush, churn, thresh—sheer demonic energy exhausting to observe, and suggesting that Plath’s primary motive for suicide might have been the extinguishing of this piranha-voice. One can be sympathetic with Kukil’s project of correcting Hughes’s editing of Plath’s journals while retaining some doubt as to the wisdom—and the ethics—of exposing a major writer’s unrevised, inferior work. Even the grammatical errors and misspellings are faithfully preserved by the adulatory Kukil, as if Plath hadn’t been an ambitious, vulnerable young writer eager to present her strongest work to posterity, and not a mummified goddess.
Like all “unedited” journals, Plath’s may be best read piecemeal, and rapidly, as they were written. The reader is advised to seek out the stronger, more lyric and exhilarating passages, which exist in enough abundance through these many pages to assure that this final posthumous publication of Sylvia Plath’s is that rarity, a genuine literary event worthy of the poet’s aggressive mythopoetic claim in “Lady Lazarus”—”Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air.”