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Authors: Carl Rollyson

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BOOK: American Isis
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Plath imagines Marilyn Monroe as a healer and source of inspiration at a time when most women and men regarded the actress as little more than a sex symbol, the embodiment of a male fantasy. “What a doll!” the apartment superintendent keeps declaring in
The Seven Year Itch.
And yet, in the same film Monroe functions as a soothing and supportive figure for the clumsy Tom Ewell, telling him he is “just elegant.” And she does so in exactly the kind of maternal, fairy godmother way that makes Plath's dream not strange but familiar. Marilyn Monroe “chats” with Sylvia Plath. The sex goddess girl-talks Sylvia. This concatenation of high and low segues into a reference to T. S. Eliot, whom Plath and Hughes were going to meet shortly. Plath was anticipating an encounter with a great poet who might also be someone she could chat up. The “audience” becomes, in Plath's dream, a very American talk.

Who in 1959 thought of the marriage of Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller as a model to emulate? Only Sylvia Plath. Evidence discovered by Plath scholar Peter K. Steinberg shows that Plath had Monroe on her mind for quite some time. In the spring of 1959,
New Yorker
rejected a poem, “A Winter's Tale,” but the editor suggested that Plath resubmit her work after changing a line in the third stanza, “hair blonde as Marilyn's,” referencing angels' haloes in a Christmas scene. This fusing of the sacred and profane, so to speak, was replaced by the more sedate “Haloes lustrous as Sirius,” the brightest star in the sky, and the poem was published on 9 October, shortly after Sylvia had her Monroe dream.

Plath, like Monroe, was starstruck. Plath regarded Hughes as her hero, in the same way that Monroe looked up to Miller. The Plath-Hughes and Monroe-Miller marriages both occurred in June of 1956. Like Miller, Hughes wanted his work to be critically praised and also broadly accepted. Both men glommed onto wives who would extend their ranges by expanding their audiences. And just as Miller wrote for Monroe's movies, Hughes dreamed of selling his children's fables to Walt Disney. He saw his wife Sylvia as a symbol of America and a conduit to success—even though he understood next to nothing about her native land or her motivations. Their marriage broke down, in part, because Hughes, like Miller, failed to comprehend his wife's ambition. Indeed, both men shrank from their wives' devouring aspirations.

That Monroe could give Plath an “expert manicure” seems strange only to someone who does not understand that Monroe's gift was to appear available and anodyne. Plath, always meticulous about personal hygiene, conceived of a domesticated Monroe, now ensconced in a happy union with a great writer—the same fate Plath imagined for herself, avoiding the “horrid cut” her culture imposed even on women of achievement. Marilyn Monroe was all promise for Sylvia Plath. In an early story, Plath asserts her own sense of superiority by portraying a young woman telling an eligible man, “So you don't know how to treat Ava Gardner when she also has the brains of Marie Curie. So I am here to tell you I am your fairy godmother in person, complete with chocolate cake.” Ted Hughes could be of no help to Sylvia Plath, whose promise included chocolate cake and brains. His desire for a private world went against the very grain of the persona Plath was in the process of building. He let her down in ways far more disturbing than his infidelity.

Her Husband,
Diane Middlebrook has written persuasively about how Hughes perceived Plath as an incarnation of Robert Graves's white goddess. But Plath saw herself quite differently. She resembles, it seems to me, an American Isis. She wanted to be an ideal mother and wife—but with her power, her magic, intact. Isis, especially in her earliest Egyptian incarnation (before the imposition of the Osiris myth), seems a perfect metaphor for Plath, since the mythology includes the goddess's association with all levels of society, rich and poor. Because Plath went to the best colleges and was dressed well, Hughes mistakenly thought her wealthy when he first met her. In fact, these privileges were hard won by Plath and her mother, who worked long hours to ensure her daughter's place in society. Hughes was a naïf compared to Plath, who worked a hard eight hours per day as a field hand the summer before she entered Smith so that she would have enough money for the clothes and books her scholarship did not afford.

Small wonder Plath has become such a revered figure. This was a domestic goddess who loved to cook and clean. She appreciated the joys of everyday life. Ted Hughes did not know how to balance a checkbook; Sylvia Plath did. He never washed his clothes; Sylvia Plath did. He did not know how to compete in a quickly changing literary world; Sylvia Plath did. He drew back from her satire of friends and family in
The Bell Jar,
completely misconceiving her work, which deliberately transgressed the separation of art and autobiography. The marriage may have lasted as long as it did because he liked to cook and thought highly of her poetry. But Sylvia shot down his notion that they shared “one mind,” as he told interviewer Peter Orr. She told Orr she was “more practical.”

Plath is a genre breaker and a cross-cultural heroine. She bridges cultures like the Isis who eventually became a beloved object of worship throughout the Greco-Roman world. Plath has become the object of a cult-like following, her grave a pilgrimage site like the sanctuaries erected in honor of Isis. The repeated defacing of Plath's grave marker—so that “Sylvia Plath Hughes” reads “Sylvia Plath”—is more than simply retribution against Ted Hughes. The erasure is an assertion that his very name is an affront to the mythology of Sylvia Plath.

The Isis-like Plath encompasses characteristics that would seem to be at odds. Plath's suicide—and her poems that flirt with death—have become part of the Eros and Thanatos of her biography. And it is precisely this sort of tension between conflicting elements that transforms Plath into a modern icon, one that will continue to enchant and bedevil biographers. “Another biography of Sylvia Plath?” a reader will ask. Yes, the time to define the Plath myth for a new cohort of readers and writers is now.





27 October 1932:
Sylvia Plath born in Boston while her family lives in Winthrop, Massachusetts;
Otto Plath publishes
Bumblebees and Their Ways,
a landmark study in entomology;
27 April 1935:
Warren is born;
21 September 1938:
The great New England hurricane;
5 November 1940:
Otto Plath dies of an embolism after an amputation;
10 August 1941:
Sylvia's first poem is published in the
Boston Herald;
7 December,
The United States enters World War II;
Aurelia Plath moves her family to Wellesley and begins teaching at Boston University;
Sylvia begins keeping a journal and writes for her junior high school literary magazine, the
20 January 1945:
Sylvia and her mother attend a performance of
The Tempest
in Boston;
6, 9 August:
Atomic bombs dropped on Japan;
Sylvia coedits the school newspaper, the
during her last year of high school;
Sylvia is accepted as a scholarship student at Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, and lives on campus in Haven House. She publishes a story in
and a poem in
The Christian Science Monitor.

Some writers are born to be perpetual exiles and think of themselves as sea creatures. Sylvia Plath liked to tell the story of her mother setting her infant Sivvy on the beach to see what she would do. The baby scrabbled seaward like an old salt, saved from being submerged in an oncoming wave by a vigilant mother who held onto her daughter's heels. Held on or held back? Sylvia was always of two minds about her mother. Aurelia would later write scholar Judith Kroll that in fact it was Warren who had crawled into the waves—but such facts did not matter to a poet creating her own mythology.

As the poet wrote in an essay broadcast on the BBC near the end of her life, she spent her childhood where the land ended. She described the swells of the Atlantic as “running hills.” Peering at the kaleidoscopic interior of a blue mussel shell, she imagined the intake of air the earth's first creatures experienced. Living in a house by the sea, she was rocked by the sounds of the tides. Never again would life feel so buoyant.

Sylvia had eight years of this coastal cradlehood. Then her father died, and the family moved upcountry, sealing Sivvy off from the enchantments of childhood like—to use her expression—“a ship in a bottle.” That vision of a seaworld vanished as abruptly as her father, and both seemed to her a “white flying myth,” fleeting and pure and unreachable and moribund for a child growing up in a world elsewhere. As angry as Coriolanus, a bereft Sylvia Plath went into exile. She would accomplish many great things, but never with the assurance of someone who has arrived. She was always looking back, full of regret and uncertain of the future, even though she met so many moments of her life with high expectations. Her life—beginning with her adoration of Superman—became a crusade.

Siv was six years old when war came to Europe, old enough for a precocious child with a foreign father to realize the world was full of villains. “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men,” the insinuating radio voice of The Shadow asked every Sunday evening, answering, “The Shadow knows.” Siv heard Hitler's speeches, which Americans tuned into with the same kind of hearty compulsion they displayed when listening to the harangues of their own homegrown fascist, Father Coughlin. Later, images of the Führer and the Holocaust haunted Plath's poetry, amalgamated in her vision of a hellion husband.

Syl was not alone. She went to school with the children of immigrants who watched their parents—exhausted after a hard day's work—subside beside the radio, awaiting word about the home country. At school, she stood pledging allegiance not with hyphenated Americans, but with kids still called Irish Catholics, German Jews, Swedes, Negroes, Italians, and what the writer later described as “that rare, pure Mayflower dropping, somebody
Hands over their hearts, these children faced an American flag draped like an “aerial altar cloth over teacher's desk.” Not such a different article, really, from Superman's cape, part of a sartorial ensemble that protected “truth, justice, and the American way.”

They sang “America the Beautiful,” and Syl was weeping by the time they arrived at “from sea to shining sea,” a line that made a lot more sense to an elementary school student than “above the fruited plain.” Moist sea winds permeated the playground with positive ions, the proverbial breath of fresh air that exuded hope and made them exult—when they were not shooting marbles, jumping rope, or playing dodgeball—“Up in the sky, look! It's a bird, it's a plane, it's Superman!”

The comic book version of Superman had become a staple of Action Comics in the late 1930s, but Sylvia seems to have found the radio serial version especially entertaining. The program premiered on 12 February 1940, opening with an announcer addressing boys and girls, telling them about the Superman clubs being formed around the country. Superman was not only an action hero, he was also the newspaperman Clark Kent, who first got a job on the
Daily Planet
by promising to return to his editor with a good story. Kent got the stories, even as, in the guise of Superman, he rescued young women and others in distress, foiling crimes involving both corruption in American business and threats to national security. A strange dream during summer camp left Sylvia thinking it would not be surprising to hear Superman knocking at her door. By the time she was ten years old, the idea of a powerful man swooping in to save the day had become a constituent of Sylvia Plath's imagination. But so had the idea of the independent woman, embodied by Lois Lane, who treated Clark Kent with considerable suspicion and contempt, even as she idolized Superman. Getting the story, getting the man, in a world in which both individual and country were on the verge of destruction would remain crucial to Sylvia's idea of world order.

For a short while, Sylvia had her own Superman at home: her father Otto Plath. An erudite and imperious entomologist, Professor Plath was old school. He was German, and what he said was law. To his daughter, he was Prospero, a diviner of nature's secrets. He showed her how to catch bumblebees—nobody else's father could do that! But he was aloof and irascible. He did not know how to play with children. It was not easy to placate Otto the Choleric. His wife, Aurelia, Otto's former student, tried soothing words, but her emollients eventually evaporated, and he would erupt with thunderous exclamations, waking Sylvia's younger brother, Warren. The enraged sounds coming from another room in the Plath home would not have been so different from the sound of Hitler's rants.

Otto exhorted excellence, and he enjoyed endowing his daughter with high standards. She loved to watch him correct student assignments; it was like putting the world right. But she had to be quiet if she was to have the privilege of witnessing his improvements. Red pencil marks slashed through papers with improper wording. Otto's sadistic streak showed when he told his daughter that in class the next day there would be “a weeping and wailing and a gnashing of teeth.” To Sylvia, this assertion only proved the power of a father who lectured to hundreds about the way the world was put together. He seemed to the young girl a monarch, looking down from the lecture platform, calling his subjects to account. They approached to receive the awful judgment of his corrections. Quite aside from the image Sylvia constructed, one of Otto's colleagues, George Fulton, recalled for biographer Edward Butscher that Professor Plath was friendly and talkative, with a lusty appetite for huge roast pork sandwiches. Elizabeth Hinchliffe, another biographer, spoke with Otto's Harvard classmates, and they remembered his gift for languages and preference for literature over science. Aside from his interest in nature and his special subject, bees, he did not seem like a scientist at all. Indeed, Sylvia delighted her father with her early interest in poetry, and she quickly learned that she could earn his admiration by writing poems for him. Later, her most famous poem, “Daddy,” would be addressed to him.

BOOK: American Isis
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