Book Review: Readings
Reviewed by Stacy Bush, Fri., Jan. 19, 2001
The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plathedited by Karen V. Kukil
Anchor Books, 732 pp., $18 (paper)
"I am made, crudely, for success," modern literature's most famous suicide wrote in 1958. Unfortunately, Sylvia Plath never got to enjoy her phenomenal literary fortune. Her second book of poetry, Ariel, became the bestselling book of poetry of the 20th century. The Bell Jar, her only novel, has become a classic chronicle of disaffected youth. It's still hard to believe that a writer of such determination and promise would choose to end her life when she was barely 30 years old. It's also hard to believe that nearly everything Plath ever wrote, from novel fragments, poetic juvenilia, letters, rejected poems, and personal journals would eventually make it to the public realm.
The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath is not the first collection of her journals to make it into print. In 1982, Plath's widower Ted Hughes and Frances McCollough edited an abbreviated version of the journals that drew much hostility from fans and critics alike. Apparently, Hughes excised too much from the journals (his harshest critics sense this was done to protect his own reputation). He has also confessed to destroying a crucial volume of Plath's journal that covered the remaining few weeks of her life. Now Karen V. Kukil, the supervisor of the Plath collection at Smith College, has presented a selection of journals featuring more than 400 previously unpublished pages. While the book includes many interesting passages, there is also a great deal of superfluous detail that could only excite the most dedicated Plath fan. The manuscripts are printed practically verbatim and the organization of the book is difficult to follow. The editor seems to assume that anyone reading these journals will have a thorough knowledge of the life of Sylvia Plath -- unfortunately, there is no chronology in the book.
The contents of these journals range from the touching to the exasperating. We encounter the self-dramatizing, exuberant college girl of 1950, excitedly describing her latest batch of clothing and the prospect of a blind date from Yale. The most fascinating thing about these early letters is Plath's vibrant sexuality; many of the cuts in the previously published journal concern Plath's rather frank discussions of Fifties sexual mores and her curious experimentation. It's enlightening to read her many frankly feminist comments concerning the ghastly double standard that plagued men and women: "You sound ridiculous. You are playing a part. You want him yet you remember: 'Once a woman has intercourse she isn't satisfied.' 'You need time and security for full pleasure.' 'You'll be finished at Smith.'"
The ambitious Plath was able to snag scholarship after scholarship, build an impressive list of poetry and fiction publications, as well as win her famous summer guest editorship (really more of an internship) at Mademoiselle magazine (the summer that forms the basis of her celebrated novel The Bell Jar). But then suddenly her excitement turns to self-beratement and recrimination. After a rejection from Frank O'Connor's prestigious fiction writing workshop at Harvard, Plath's psyche takes a nosedive into a destructive, clinical depression, which culminated in her first suicide attempt. Ironically, there is little here that alerts the reader that her self-loathing is anything but momentary and passing.
Most critics have assumed that Ted Hughes supervised a sizable number of omissions to protect his own maligned reputation. But those looking for juicy insights about the Plath/Hughes marriage will be disappointed. Most of Plath's serious complaints about Hughes have already appeared in print and what is found here are gripes about Hughes' "dirty hair and ragged nails," "his suit jacket wrinkled as if being pulled from behind." The biggest bombshell delivered by these journals are the previously unreleased passages that detail Plath's rage and hatred for her mother. Several years after their return to the States, Plath and Hughes settled in Boston, where Plath resumed analysis with Dr. Ruth Tiffany-Barnhouse, her shrink from her previous breakdown. Plath spares her mother none of her rage: "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. ... What a luxury it would be to kill her, to strangle her skinny veined throat." Some might find this a surprise, given Plath's well-publicized fury towards her father, yet one must surely realize such rage is rarely reserved for only one parent. While her therapy surely tapped an undercurrent of vitriol, one is left with the sense that Plath's analysis was cut short and left unresolved.
But the person Plath warred with the most was not her husband, her father, or her mother. Throughout these 700 pages, Plath assumed many different personas -- overachieving coed, tortured victim in an uncaring, superficial world, bohemian graduate student, American expatriate, perfect wife, and earth mother. She was fascinated by these conflicting selves and sought to unearth the origins of each one in the hopes that she might find the "authentic" one. But Plath was never more productive, never less troubled, and never happier when she assumed her identity as a writer. A fearless critic of her own work ("CAN A SELFISH EGOCENTRIC JEALOUS AND UNIMAGINATIVE FEMALE WRITE A DAMN THING WORTHWHILE?"), she was ceaselessly dedicated to creating the best work she could. "What a poet I will flay myself into," she triumphantly wrote her mother. This journal offers no tidy answers, just hundreds of glimpses into a complicated young woman who not only knew what she wanted to accomplish but also how difficult it would be to achieve.