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Authors: Carl Rollyson

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BOOK: American Isis
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This idyll—coming so soon after a summer of baby-minding and Sylvia's provisional romance with Dick—she transformed into lines that placed her in the pastoral world of Renaissance poetry, picturing the sculpture of a bronze boy “kneedeep in centuries,” bedecked with leaves heralding the passage of time. From longing to frequent barrooms to frolicking on landed estates, Sylvia Plath could hardly contain herself. Returning to the Smith campus, however, she confessed to Aurelia that the course work frightened her, and she could not keep up. She saw her future as only work and more work.

Eddie was talking of coming east again, and this time Sylvia wanted to show him a better time, alerting her mother that she would like to invite him to their home. He remained a kind of reality check on Sylvia's tendency to romanticize events. When she described Constantine, one of the Buckley party cavaliers who had invited her for a Princeton weekend, Eddie (sounding like Nelson Algren) observed: “He reminds me, in a vague way, of someone I know. I dunno some romantic type critter I run into now & again who discusses love & literature & atomic power with equal glibness & appears and disappears with the suddenness of Mephistopheles.” Sylvia quoted Eddie's verdict to Aurelia, concluding succinctly, “Not bad for a thumbnail sketch!”

Sylvia, for all her worries, survived the fall semester of 1951 and, as usual, did well in her studies. In January 1952, she spent a weekend at Yale with Dick, who took her on his rounds as a medical student. She witnessed a birth, which she seemed to take in stride. She was not prepared, though, for the shocking revelation that Dick, who had led her to think otherwise, was not a virgin. She was angry about his deception and sudden confession. She was generally mad at men, who could play around in ways that women could not. Her reference to him now as a “blond god” was surely sarcastic. Sylvia was no prude, but Dick was different. She had built him up into a pristine idol. Now he seemed just like other men, some of whom she might have bedded if she had loved them or was not so worried about emotional involvements and pregnancy. She was still holding out for a taller, more romantic figure than Dick, so that she could wear heels and do the romantically impractical thing. Even at her most passionate, sooner or later Sylvia took the measure of her men. She yearned for the recklessness of romance, but she also read the newspapers and worried about world events, still pouring out her anxieties about nuclear war in letters she had resumed writing to Hans.

Only Eddie, though, saw what really troubled Sylvia about Dick. Did it ever occur to her, Eddie asked, that she was not so much a woman deceived as “an engineer whose latest airplane design didn't quite come up to specifications in performance?” Eddie had no interest in defending Dick, but he thought the larger issue was Sylvia's fear of what sex would do to her in a committed relationship. Her quest for a “Golden God” seemed a symptom of her desire to force some kind of resolution of her anxieties. He noticed that in her latest letter she had used the word “rape” at least five times.

Keerful, gal, your dynamics might be slipping,” he cautioned her. Had she noticed that every sinus attack, as well as other illnesses, had come just after a breakup or some other contretemps with a male? Eddie was no expert on psychosomatic sickness, but he was beginning to wonder.

Dick, on the other hand, continued to sound in his letters very much like Samuel Richardson's unreal gentleman, Sir Charles Grandison. “I am aware of the joy, the honor of being near you and under your spell,” Dick wrote on 28 January 1952. That kind of banality could be briefly soothing, but his formulaic letters explain why Sylvia said she sought someone “more intuitive.” Dick wrote in phrases that could have been copied out of a conduct primer. Sylvia wanted the praise, of course, but it had to be delivered with panache. If Eddie had been able to confect a style that brought Sylvia both to the drawing room and the barroom, he might have succeeded in winning her.

Eddie Cohen never lost sight of Sylvia the writer. But Dick did, as he mused about the life of a doctor's wife, making Sylvia doubt he had any idea of the space and time required to write. Her work was not a sideline, and she believed she would lose respect for herself if she simply became absorbed in her husband's career—especially since Dick had become more assertive on their well-planned dates. Was this the result of a “mother complex”? Like Aurelia, Dick's mother was a “sweet, subtle matriarch,” but she was also the manipulative mom that Sylvia had been reading about in Philip Wylie's influential
Generation of Vipers.
Momism, Wylie argued, was emasculating men and pacifying women into a conformism that would become one of the dominant themes in books about the American family in the 1950s. Mrs. Norton handled the family's finances and ruled the home, reducing her husband, at times, to a supplicant, the weak father that was also a feature of 1950s situation comedies. Perhaps Dick's seduction of the Vassar girl he told Sylvia about was his own version of rebelling against Momism, Sylvia speculated. And would he now seek to impose a submissive pattern of behavior on Sylvia, so as to forestall her domination of him? A medical career might well represent the best way to fend off a demanding wife and mother. His not entirely successful bid to achieve supremacy over Sylvia perhaps accounted for their contradictory denial and acceptance of one another. In sum, she believed they were both scared of what they might do to one another—as she would later reveal in her story, “The Fifty-Ninth Bear.”

Sylvia confessed in her journal that she was not capable of love—at least not then—because she was so entirely dedicated to her art. She wanted the freedom to try on other lives the way she tried on dresses. Nagging at her, though, was the middle-class yearning for security, for settling into the comfortable. Forsaking Dick could mean a lost opportunity. Or, as she put it while summing up her sophomore year, she was now more aware of her limitations. She believed she had a more sober sense of her ambitions to publish and to go abroad as a Fulbrighter, which would entail not merely hard work but campaigning for herself. She would need to get elected to honor board and become involved in Smith's journalism program, as well as work on the
Smith Review.
In effect, she acknowledged the politics of excellence, which the more introverted Sylvia of her freshman year had not been prepared to pursue.

Eddie thought Sylvia was overcomplicating her love life. He bluntly stated that her troubles with Dick and other males had more to do with her superiority than anything else. Usually Eddie found her rather haughty words about her dates off-putting. (Both the number of unworthy suitors and Sylvia's superior tone are reminiscent of Scarlett O'Hara.) He could see that Sylvia had already destroyed whatever love she had for Dick, and if their relationship continued, that only meant she was not yet ready to relinquish the dependability Dick offered. Of course, Eddie was not a disinterested party. By the spring of 1952, he was openly declaring his love for Sylvia. He admitted his jealousy and his desire for her, especially after Sylvia said that she still felt a strong physical attraction to Dick.

Throughout Sylvia's sophomore year she continued to work on her fiction, staying up late at night in the Haven House kitchen typing away. Much of her work met with rejection slips that hardly seemed to dent her determination, which was rewarded in early June when she won
's $500 fiction prize for “Sunday at the Mintons.” Plath put her hostile feelings about Dick into the story, transforming him into Elizabeth Minton's fussy brother, Henry, who chides his sister for daydreaming and for an impractical nature that has left her directionless—barely able, in his view, to perform her duties as a town librarian. She is an aging spinster who has come to live with her brother in his retirement. This, of course, is the fate that Sylvia was determined to avoid: getting stuck with a male companion whose intellectual arteries would harden and in turn ossify her own existence.

She wondered in a letter to her mother if Dick would recognize himself in the story. It only becomes clear in the conclusion that Elizabeth has daydreamed Henry's drowning during a gallant effort to retrieve their mother's brooch, which Elizabeth has dropped on a rock about to be washed by the waves of an approaching storm. In a neat reversal that made the story palatable for a juvenile audience, Elizabeth's revenge fantasy actually stimulates her sympathy for her brother, who would no longer have anyone to look after him in the slimy, murky depths of the sea. But the story's saving grace is surely its ironic commentary on the expired, smug male reflected in Elizabeth's question to herself: “Who would listen to him talk about the way the moon controlled the tides or about the density of atmospheric pressure?”

Sylvia was working a summer job scrubbing tables at the Belmont Hotel when she received the good news about the
prize in a telegram from Aurelia. Sylvia screamed with delight and hugged the startled head waitress. Plath had just begun her job, but she was already disgruntled, again discovering she was ill prepared to deal with the menial side of life. Even more disappointing, she had been assigned to the side hall because of her inexperience. That assignment meant she would not be getting big tips in the main dining room. More than money was at stake, though, since Sylvia always wanted to be seen and admired. Even waitressing, to her, had rankings, and she realized she did not rate.

The day before learning of her prize, Sylvia wrote in a note not included in
Letters Home
that carrying trays one-handed terrified her. She knew nothing about her job, she confessed. She consoled herself by saying she would be harvesting a good deal of the summer for her writing. Indeed, in her journal, she catalogued no fewer than twenty-two characters, each labeled with an appropriate epithet: “Oscar, the birdlike, picayune, humorous band leader … stoic-faced Harvard law student and straight-backed busboy Clark Williams … Mrs. Johnson, the tall, sharp Irish chef's wife with the acid brogue and the fiery temper,” and so on.

Even so, it was difficult for Sylvia to overcome the Belmont Hotel experience by turning it into fiction. She felt humiliated by her physical clumsiness and envious of waitresses expertly handling special dishes. She had believed she could somehow fit in. Intelligence and imagination seemed to count for little in occupations and organizations that depended on fast footwork and excellent coordination. Not being a quick study in a summer job is humbling indeed for a writer with a superiority complex. Sylvia Plath wanted not just the praise of the elites, but also the respect of the rank and file. Otherwise, Sylvia could not have written, less than a week after Aurelia's telegram, that her life seemed awful and the prize “unreal.” The work terrified and unnerved her, although she refused to slink back home to mother—always a temptation when she felt overwhelmed.

Another troubling concern absent from
Letters Home
is Sylvia's disappointment that the other girls did not take to her. Why is not hard to understand. Sylvia assured her mother that she was self-contained and independent enough not to need the girls' affection. And yet that was probably just the problem: They did not warm to Sylvia because she seemed so self-involved. The other irritation was Dick. He had retreated from his know-it-all stance. Had he read “Summer at the Mintons”? At any rate, Sylvia wished he would “stop being
and leave me alone.”

On the one hand, Plath was receiving letters from New York editors expressing interest in her future work and wanting to know what books she planned. On the other hand, she slept through restless dreams that had her waitressing all the time. Ideas for stories continued to occur to her, and she decided to stick it out at for another month—until early August—so she would have a full month to work on her fiction before returning to Smith. But a sinus infection so depleted her that after three weeks at the Belmont she had to quit. A doctor advised her to return home to recuperate.

When the hotel called to say she could have her job back, Sylvia asked her mother to say it was not certain when her daughter could return. Reflecting on her three weeks at the Belmont, Sylvia realized that she had been caught up in a sort of squirrel cage that she detested. And yet she felt compelled to perform there. Looking at those days now she compared her view of them to lifting a bell jar off a “clockwork functioning community.” Routine ruled, and no matter how trying the repetitive nature of the work, that rigid structure gave purpose to the lives of those within that world. In an 8 July letter to Marcia Brown, Sylvia was already casting a retrospective glow on the Belmont episode, referring to the “blissful routine” of working hard for six hours, the weekends she managed to see Dick, and the girls who she had begun to enjoy and who were sending her nice notes. Now Sylvia had to regenerate her own sense of purpose. She apparently could not remain at home and write. Home, in fact, would never again be a refuge, one that she had forsaken as soon as she entered Smith. She could sense her own depressions reverberating in Aurelia. In effect, Sylvia confided to Marcia, Aurelia empathized too much and prolonged her daughter's down periods. Returning to the Cape brought her back to the beach and closer to where Dick was working that summer.

It seemed imperative now to have “a Job,” she confided to her journal. Searching the want ads, she considered the possibilities: painting parchment lampshades, filing, typing, or assisting a real estate agent. She actually spent a day with a realtor, fascinated by the woman's manipulative methods, but concluding that serving as her Girl Friday was not likely to pay very well. Even waitressing remained an option, but then Sylvia saw an ad for a housekeeper/babysitting position with well-to-do Christian Scientists, the Cantors. In spite of her vow of “NEVER AGAIN” when it came to such jobs, Sylvia liked the sound of Mrs. Cantor's voice over the phone and enjoyed her interview, she wrote Marcia Brown. This time Sylvia would be in charge of two small children, but would also have the company of the Cantor's teenage daughter. Sylvia could not resist the comfortable surroundings of this charming family in Chatham, Massachusetts, near the sea—always a draw for her—and a two-hour drive southeast from Wellesley.

BOOK: American Isis
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