Read American Isis Online

Authors: Carl Rollyson

American Isis (5 page)

BOOK: American Isis
8.72Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

On 3 August 1950, Sylvia Plath received her first fan letter. Twenty-one-year-old Eddie Cohen had read her short story “And Summer Will Not Come Again,” her first appearance in
after the magazine had rejected more than forty earlier submissions. In this story of a doomed romance between a young girl and her tennis instructor, Cohen detected a temperament that transcended the crude sentiment of popular magazine fiction. The story's title was taken from a Sara Teasdale poem, “An End”:

I have no heart for any other joy,

The drenched September day turns to depart,

And I have said goodbye to what I love;

With my own will I vanquished my own heart.

On the long wind I hear the winter coming,

The window panes are cold and blind with rain;

With my own will I turned the summer from me

And summer will not come to me again.

“What I wouldn't give to be able to write like this,” fourteen-year-old Sylvia had written in her journal. “Like this” meant not only commanding the simplicity and grace that were Teasdale's signature traits, but also the ability to exquisitely evoke her own sensibility, to describe why the poet wrote out of a melancholy sense of self-injury. Such concerns constitute a leitmotif in Plath's journals.

Critic Steven Gould Axelrod has shown how much of Teasdale's sensibility suffused Sylvia Plath's work. Teasdale developed what he calls the “rhetoric of anguish.” Celia, the heroine of “And Summer Will Not Come Again,” quotes a part of “An End” that evokes a powerful sense of loss, of getting caught in a self-defeating dynamic. Eddie Cohen, still wondering what to do with his life, identified with Sylvia's heroine when he perused his sister's copy of
He thought he might have talent as a writer, and like Sylvia, he was checking out the market. He was expecting, however, just to pick up a few pointers. He was taken aback when the story actually moved him. His first letter to Sylvia is rather condescending—in effect a message from an older boy telling a younger girl that maybe she has something there. He wanted to find out.

Over the course of their correspondence Eddie would prove, again and again, that he knew how to read Sylvia, the person and the writer. He detected tensions in her that no one—not even Aurelia—identified. Cohen found in Plath a “trapped voice,” to use Axelrod's term for Teasdale's “bereaved speakers.” And like Teasdale, Plath wrote poems and stories with inconsolable narrators. Indeed, Plath's affinity for Teasdale, as well as the similarities of their suicides—both triggered by the departure of a powerful man—brought them together, early and late, in Plath's career.

Despair is an underlying theme in much of what these two poets wrote, as both struggled to balance their vocations as writers and their lives as women. Recurring metaphors of nature, especially of the sea, function as calming influences on the exquisitely fragile sensibilities of poets who sought to anchor their work in classical forms, even as they embraced modernity. Somehow Eddie Cohen divined that more was at stake in “And Summer Will Not Come Again” than in the formulaic fiction
ordinarily published.

On 6 August, Sylvia replied to Eddie, telling him she had his number. If he would drop the superior tone and level with her, she would enjoy corresponding with a critic. She had no illusions about her story, saying it resembled the usual
“drivel.” So why the “subtle flattery”? she wondered. Did he have a wager with Hemingway about “would-be female writers”? The question shows she already resented the segregation of women in the literary canon. Eddie had aroused her competitive instincts, and she wanted him to know that she was as tough as any male, not some “sweet and trusting”
hopeful he could manipulate.

Two days later, Eddie did open up, calling himself a “cynical idealist,” a good handle for a sensibility as earnest as Sylvia's but chastened by a few more years of failed expectations. Sylvia admitted that her own brand of sarcasm masked her fear of getting hurt. Like Eddie, she liked to remain a little aloof and even caustic in her judgments. When Sylvia admitted that she tried not to let her “vulnerable core” show, Eddie eagerly replied that his roommates remembered him saying exactly the same thing about himself.

When Aurelia objected many years later to Sylvia's cruel characterizations of her and others in
The Bell Jar
and in letters, journals, and stories, she did not fully take in her daughter's need to put people in their places, lest she lose her own sense of singularity, the exceptional identity her father had fostered and exemplified. Sylvia shared the power to pinpoint flaws with Virginia Woolf, who shaped her diaries as both literary and identity-strengthening exercises. And like Sara Teasdale, Plath maintained her fragile equilibrium by encasing it in the equipoise of the poetic line.

By the end of September, Sylvia had begun her freshman year at Smith, sending her mother upbeat reports in daily postcards and in letters that provided copious details. It was almost as if Sivvy, the loving and anxious child, were taking her own temperature for her apprehensive and adoring parent, whom she called “my favorite person.” Sylvia's room in Haven House was “homey,” everyone was friendly, and the food was “fabulous.” She had already met Ann Davidow, who would become a lifelong friend. Ann had Jewish parents, as Sylvia told her mother, but was “a free thinker,” and loved to discuss God and religion and men. Nearly as tall as Sylvia, Ann sparkled. Sylvia was already being advised that she should enjoy herself, which meant socializing and becoming an “all around” person.

Eddie seemed amused at Sylvia's first gushing letters from Smith, calling them “breathless.” He was also pleased that she asked him to keep writing. Not to worry, he assured her; Sylvia had gotten “under my skin.” She had found his weak spots. She flattered him “nicely.” What male could resist that? But she did not hesitate to contradict him, and he found her independence attractive.

Sylvia never displayed her devastating irony in letters home. They expressed her generosity and genuine desire to include Aurelia in her enthusiasms. Aurelia was a ready-made audience. She understood that for Sylvia decorating her room was as important as meeting a boy who turned out to be a poet. Sylvia blazoned her new identity in capital letters, the equivalent of billboarding herself: “I'M A SMITH GIRL NOW.” Her letters did not, however, reflect pressures that were building internally as she sought to equalize her commitments to herself, to her writing, and to the world, now centered on college. Writing in a letter dated 26 September (which Aurelia did not include in
Letters Home),
Sylvia confessed that she loved journalism because it made her less self-conscious and eager to understand others.

Of course, Sylvia could not forget herself for long, especially after a physical exam, a requirement for all freshman instituted in 1924 that ended only in 1969. Daryl Hafter, who graduated a year after Sylvia, remembered, with a shiver in her voice, walking naked into a very large gym to be looked at by a phys ed teacher. Posture photographs were taken to identify conditions such as scoliosis that might result in orthopedic problems. Good posture was considered essential to good health, not just at Smith but also at colleges and schools throughout the country. Only much later were such exams viewed as intruding on student rights and enforcing a standard of conduct deemed coercive.

Sylvia reported to her mother she was now 5' 9", 137 pounds, and so terribly conscious of maintaining a good posture that in aligning her ears and heels she neglected to “tilt up straight.” This last comment prompted the teacher's comment, “You have good alignment, but you are in constant danger of falling on your face.” Even as Plath worried about her deportment, a copy of Mabel Elsworth Todd's
The Thinking Body
lay on Marilyn Monroe's bedside table. In this era, women—whether in finishing schools, Ivy League colleges, or businesses—did not slouch.

Eddie Cohen, industriously “digging between the lines,” as he put it, detected Sylvia's unease in a bewildering new world that was “indifferent” to her and that eluded her full understanding. He had dropped out of the high-powered University of Chicago and only recently begun attending classes at Roosevelt University. Eddie detected “something close to terror” in Sylvia's account of one of her dates. She was so impressed with Eddie's analysis that, surprisingly, she let her mother in on it. Writing on 8 October in another important letter Aurelia did not include in
Letters Home,
Sylvia admitted that she had been frantically seeking refuge, and that Eddie, with his customary perceptiveness,

hit the nail on the head.”

Sylvia was already beginning to experience colds, sinus infections, and related ailments that sometimes put her in the infirmary. She worried about grades, telling her mother she did not expect to get a single A, and that she feared failing history, a subject notoriously difficult even for sophomores and juniors. Reading forty pages of history every night persuaded Sylvia she had “no background.” It was like beating your head “against the knowledge of centuries,” she confided to her journal. For someone Sylvia's age, her understanding of the past and of contemporary affairs was impressive. But now she realized the difference between the scholar and the merely well informed. Too often her worries over her studies have been portrayed merely as a psychological problem, as though she were too hard on herself. And in a sense, she was. But what made Sylvia Plath great—not just as a poet, but as an imaginative mind—was her profound humility, her submission to history as a subject that had to be mastered. Surrendering to the authority of a discipline is part of what ultimately made her a writer of genius. Before she could be bold enough to exert the mastery exhibited in her mature poetry, she had to be mastered by what she studied.

The strange new world that Eddie Cohen described included this daunting desire for mastery. Other than Wilbury Crockett, before college Plath had not had a teacher who could have challenged and unsettled her the way reading history at Smith did. Eddie Cohen, who had had his problems with the demanding University of Chicago curriculum, knew exactly what Plath confronted: an intellectual anxiety that goes far beyond clichés about adjustment to freshman year.

Other aspects of collegiate existence also rattled Sylvia. She wanted to enjoy the social life, but she did not see how she could spend all night playing bridge the way other freshmen did. After three blind dates, she wrote in her journal of feeling undesirable, an astounding admission that left her wondering at herself. She had been so popular before leaving for Smith, full of confidence in her ability to attract males. Now she complained about the dating system, about wandering with boys from one fraternity to another, or visiting them at nearby colleges and then returning with reports on who one saw and what one did. This hardly seemed the way to find a congenial male.

Downhearted, Sylvia leaned heavily on Eddie, telling him he was her “dream,” although she hoped never to meet him because as matters stood, their relationship played into “my writing, my desire to be many lives.” She was beginning to shrug off his desire to meet her. For all his perspicacity—or perhaps because of it—she dreaded the idea of his coming so close. After all, it was her writing, not herself per se, that first attracted him to her. Eddie, though, thought of himself as more than her alter ego and served notice that he saw no reason why they should not meet. He was looking for the one “Golden Woman” capable of sharing “all facets” of his existence. Sylvia was seeking essentially the same thing: a tall, handsome, sensuous, but also intellectually serious young man—in essence, Ashley Wilkes. She had already told Eddie that, judging by the photograph he sent, he was good looking, and he was starting to hope that maybe he and Sylvia were suitable—although he recognized that they shared only a “paper world,” one that she had called “unreal,” much to Eddie's dismay. He admitted that he was pleased when her dates did not work out and jealous when they did.

Sylvia's mood swings at Smith are apparent in a postcard dated 28 October that Aurelia chose not to include in
Letters Home.
At the library a professor sat next to her, and she discovered he knew her name. Smith suddenly seemed much less impersonal: “
there any colleges other than Smith?” she asked. Like her contemporary, Susan Sontag, then attending the University of Chicago, Plath was an enthusiast. But while the inevitable disappointments made Sontag bitter, wary, and cynical, Plath felt hurt and betrayed any time a person or place she built up proved unworthy. The letdown would be devastating, and it could occur at a moment's notice. Sontag was more broody and introverted. Not learning to play bridge would never bother her. She saw no value in conforming, but not playing the game troubled Plath, who wanted to fit in. She was as self-absorbed as Sontag, but Sylvia was also incredibly alive to her culture, allowing it to impinge on her in ways that Sontag, with her strongly defended sense of self, could reject at will. Both women were insecure and could hide their vulnerability in haughtiness, but only Sontag made that haughtiness into the armature of her identity. The walls of Plath's fortress would be breached again and again, so that she felt overrun. In an 11 November letter to her mother, she casually mentions suicide, saying she advised her close friend Ann Davidow against it because “something unexpected always happens.”

In the midst of her hectic fall, Sylvia was thrilled to learn she had received a scholarship from Olive Higgins Prouty, the author of the novel
Stella Dallas,
a tearjerker made into a radio soap opera, as well as two films. Prouty wanted Sylvia to write about her future plans. The scholarship bolstered Sylvia. To Aurelia, she declared that Smith was stretching her, pulling her to “heights and depths of thought I never dreamed possible.” She believed she was storing up experiences—and even pain—that would produce art.

BOOK: American Isis
8.72Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Miss Grief and Other Stories by Constance Fenimore Woolson
The Stranglers Honeymoon by Hakan Nesser
The Reaping by Annie Oldham
Non-Stop Till Tokyo by KJ Charles
Pictures at an Exhibition by Sara Houghteling
Nano by Melody Mounier
The Heat of the Sun by Rain, David
Hollywood Gothic by Thomas Gifford