Authors: Carl Rollyson
Sylvia was treated well, more like a member of the family than in her previous home care experience. She had long conversations with Mrs. Cantor about Christian Science, which Sylvia enjoyed so much that she attended Sunday school, where she was proud, she wrote Aurelia, of knowing “all the right answers.” A skeptical Sylvia thought she was too much of a materialist to accept a doctrine that proclaimed the material world was a kind of illusion, a human-created evil that could be overcome by fealty to God's word. But she did not dismiss the faith out of hand because she did believe in the power of good thoughts, in mind over matter, to a certain extent. After all, it was part of her artist's credo that she could reshape the world. Christian Science, moreover, draws on the Platonic nature of Christianity that posits an irrefutable realm of what Sylvia called “absolute fact.” Individuals by their very nature could not have access to this ultimate source of truth. Sylvia sounds like Saint Paul, echoing his remark on the fallibility of human knowledge when she alludes to the individual's own “particular grotesque glass of distortion.” In a fascinating journal passage, she compares the individual's sensibility to a sounding board picking up various intimations of immortality. Wordsworth, Berkeleyâa host of thinkers and artistsâseem to suffuse Sylvia's synthesis of her own experience, leading to a remarkable statement about the “radio programsÂ â¦ all around us, clogging the air, needing only a certain sensitive mechanism to make them a reality, a fact.” Sylvia would later write for the radioâthe wireless as it was called in Britainârealizing how powerfully this spoken medium could penetrate the psyche, provoking the listener to create a simulacrum of the world. She thought of Hamlet's line, “Thinking makes it so.” She thought of what she had made of her father's death. Where Christian Science faltered was in its inability to distinguish between truth and the individual's “dream-world,” valid enough for that person, for Sylvia herself, but was it near to the truth that others imagined? She could not say. She could only observe that these Christian Scientists certainly treated their beliefs as realâjust as real as her “dream-bubble of reality,” a phrase that wonderfully captures the evanescence of perception. What was unchanging fact? Could it be found in a laboratory? These questions recall Dick's own certitudes, which Sylvia could not share. Sylvia seems more comfortable with Wordsworth's notion that we half-perceive and half-create our world; she was not willing to take the knower out of what is known. Perhaps the best one could do is master what she called the “counter positions,” the dialectic between competing versions of truth.
What had especially pleased Sylvia about “Sunday at the Mintons” is that although she had started out simply modeling Elizabeth on herself, she ended by creating a world that was not merely derived from her own. That development seemed like a breakthrough, creating a work of art that transcended her own concernsâcreating, in fact, a story that dramatized the very tensions between dream and reality that her journal passage probed.
On 2 August, Sylvia wrote to her mother about meeting Valerie Gendron, who wrote love stories for the pulps and ladies magazines. Sylvia wanted to spend the day talking to a writer who had been “through the mill.” A subsequent visit with Val resulted in Sylvia's decision to follow her mentor's advice: Write fifteen hundred words a day, no matter what. Think of it as singing scales and doing warm-up exercises, Val told her during a five-hour talkfest that Sylvia treasured as one of her best adventures as a writer. It was a wonderful workout that included Val's critique of a Plath story, a gesture Sylvia regarded as exceptionally generous. Sylvia poured over this experience in her journal, describing in detail the bookmobile Val ran to help support herself in a sort of disheveled independence that to Sylvia seem scrumptiousâas did the three hunks of cake she duly recorded eating. Suddenly Sylvia's journal brimmed with drafts of the kind of romantic stories that women's magazines preferred.
Pleasant dates with Dick may also have stimulated some of this boy-girl fiction. In the quiet, scheduled summer of 1952, Sylvia seems to have suspended her doubts about Dick. A day off from babysitting felt like the lid on her life was blown off. She needed the security of knowing that in a few weeks she would be back at Smith and immersed in the delirium of study. Mrs. Cantor treated her like Little Red Riding Hood when Dick called one night near 11 p.m. Where did Sylvia meet so many boys? Mrs. Canter wondered. Now the unregulated atmosphere of the Belmont, the midnight-to-dawn dances and beach parties Sylvia described to Enid Epstein, a Smith classmate, seemed preferable to the confining Cantors. The Belmont was like
college with the lid off.”
A second encounter with Eddie before Sylvia began her junior year at Smith caused trouble. He judged her cold letters afterward as an indication that she did not think she had measured up to his expectations. If so, Eddie insisted she was quite mistaken. He had come away all the more impressed with her, although, according to Paul Alexander, Eddie became disturbed at Sylvia's tendency to pose, to pretend pleasureâlike she did while listening to bad jazz in a Boston club. She was too studied, lacked spontaneity, and seemed “
In her journal, Sylvia would later liken herself to Nina Leeds, a character in Eugene O'Neill's
a play that experiments with the use of masks to dramatize the disparity between what people say and what they think as they withhold themselves from others.
On 23 September, Dick drove Sylvia, in a state of high tension, to Smith to begin the fall term. Now withdrawn and withholding, he upset her. Was she at fault? Did he sense, as she put it in her journal, that she was jealous of him? She turned to his more outgoing brother, Perry, always a favorite of hers, who reciprocated her warm confidence in him. He admitted he was anxious about Dick, who was “tough to take when he is âthat way.'” Perry wondered if Dick's emotional problems had to do with his conflicted views of his parents and the moral standards they set for him. Was Dick capable of love, Perry wondered, adding, “He certainly needs someone to believe in him.” But Sylvia should not blame herself: “Sylâyou are wonderful. You always are helping me, giving, never taking, never asking. What would I do without you. Love, love, Perry.” He remained an openhearted admirer, and years later he assisted biographer Edward Butscher, who could not secure Dick Norton's cooperation.
For all her reservations about Dick, Sylvia felt bereft because of his coolness, and she depended even more on her affectionate correspondence with her mother, who sent news in early October that a story, “Initiation,” had won a $100 prize from
where it would be published in January 1953. “Initiation” deals with a high school girl's ambivalent feelings about the hazing ritual of the sorority she is pledging, feelings that are reinforced when the sorority spurns her best friend for not wearing the right clothes and not conforming to the group's sense of propriety. Sylvia herself had gone through her own “initiation,” telling her mother that she had been required to ask everyone on a bus what each had for breakfast. One playful passenger replied, “Heather birds' eyebrows on toast,” explaining that these creatures lived on “mythological moors.” Put that in a story, Aurelia said.
contains a note explaining the circumstances of “Initiation”'s origin, yet another effort on Aurelia's part to counteract the merciless portrait of her that would later appear in
The Bell Jar.
In this case, Olive Higgins Prouty seconded Aurelia's suggestion. “Think of the material you have!” Prouty exhorted Plath. As Paul Alexander suggests, this was a pivotal moment in Sylvia's vocation as a writer, training her focus on the world in front of her.
In early November, Dick Norton told Sylvia he had been diagnosed with tuberculosis and would be staying in a sanitarium in Saranac, Massachusetts. Tests soon showed she had not contracted the disease, but their enforced separation depressed her. On 3 November, she wrote in her journal that this was the first time she had ever really considered committing suicide. She envied Dick's enforced leisure. His meals, the time he had to relax, and his freedom to read what he wanted riled her. Smith had become a cage. Thoughts of suicide, however, were just that: thoughts to be dismissed as the desire to annihilate the world by annihilating oneself. “The deluded height of desperate egoism,” she opined, despising herself for blubbering in her “mother's skirts.” Suddenly she understood how masses of people could succumb to Hitler, thereby alleviating themselves of the awful responsibility of thinking and doing for themselves. She was beginning to understand that for someone like herself, and like the women she admiredâSara Teasdale and Virginia Woolfâthe idea of living happily ever after was the “fallacy of existence.” In a telling journal passage, she admitted that because she did not know how high she should set her ambition, she was feeling especially low. More than ever, she missed Ann Davidow. Marcia had moved off campus to live with her mother, and Sylvia felt no rapport with her new roommate, Mary, a high-achieving science student.
Dick wrote on 8 November, virtually confirming Perry's analysis: “I have become aware of a few of my shortcomings, especially a false superior smugness, an inflexibility, a childish search for sensuous pleasure, a certain degree of bewildered prudery, and an unwillingness to face facts honestly.” The words sound a little like the “making amends” confessions and apologies of those undergoing treatment in Alcoholic Anonymous. Dick's letter did little immediately to ease Sylvia's distress.
On 14 November, after a tension-relieving night at Joe's Pizza in Northampton, Sylvia went to visit Marcia, who “touched the soft spot,” permitting Sylvia to “let go” and drop her “tight mask.” She cried and talked herself into working on her character. She had to stop playing the “spoiled child.” The next day she received a letter from Dick. At Saranac, Dick had begun reading Virginia Woolf, Hemingway, Conrad, and other Plath favorites. He relinquished a good deal of his confident demeanor: “I am now unreservedly grateful, and acknowledging the blindnesses on my part in former frictions between us, I can say âI love you' with no qualms and without flinching.” He was not living in the “luxurious erotic Garden of Eden” Sylvia had invented for him.
A few days later, Dick attempted an even more direct approach: “How I would like to caress your warm, smooth, long back, slip apart the dutiful bra, press you away, and find those lovely large soft glandular breasts that cling to your chest wall and fall away slightly to be rounded and pointed with brown nipplesÂ â¦ the curling soft hairâ¦”
His erotic efforts seem rather forced and even clinical, and Sylvia's depression did not lift. On 18 November, she confided to her journal: “You are crucified by your own limitations.”
On 19 November, an overwrought Sylvia wrote her mother, vilifying the science course that had undone her. In
Aurelia observes that her daughter's tirade against studying “barren dry formulas” that were driving her to distractionâeven to suicidal thoughts that made her wonder if she should see a psychiatristârepresented the first sign of her daughter's tendency to magnify a “situation out of all proportion.” The recent suicide of one of Warren's classmates at Exeter set Sylvia off, Aurelia suggested, and was the subtext of her daughter's extreme state of mind. But Sylvia had not shared with her mother the drama with Dick. Sylvia's dread of becoming mired in what she called the nauseating, artificial absurdities of science might have been a displacement of her ambivalence about Dick. She still worried that she would have to settle down, like other Smith graduates, to a life supporting a husband whose interests were not her own. According to Aurelia, Sylvia returned to Smith after the Thanksgiving break, well rested and caught up in her studies. Evidently she made her peace with science, although her reprieve would be short-lived.
Sylvia wrote Eddie Cohen in late November suggesting they publish a version of their correspondence under the title “Dialogue of the Damned.” He did not relish becoming one half of a Sylvia Plath enterprise, “material” for her imagination, and her notion that they could portray themselves as representatives of a generation struck him as absurd. They were two “hyper IQed eggheads,” nothing like the masses. Unlike Aurelia, unlike Dick, unlike everyone else in her life, Eddie never indulged her. He never supposed he was anything like the brilliant writer he recognized in Sylvia Plath, but he also never acted as though he was any less intelligent than sheâall of which meant he could often spot those times when she deluded herself with the egotism she herself had identified in her journals. Sometimes Eddie sounded like a voice inside of her, one that she desperately needed when she subsumed herself in negativity or in delusions of grandeur. He was not going to return the letters she had asked for until he was certain that she saw him as a “real person,” not a “byproduct of your life.” The clairvoyant Eddie already had a fix on the novelist who would, in
The Bell Jar,
do exactly what he suspected she would do: turn real people into byproducts of her imagination.
On 1 December, Sylvia wrote a cheerful letter to Warren about her struggles with joules, amperes, and other euphonious scientific terms. She was enthused about Myron Klotz, a brilliant Yale student and a pitcher for a Detroit Tigers minor league team. An impressed Sylvia wrote her mother that Myron had earned $10,000 in a single season. Perry Norton had introduced the “tall, handsome guy” to Sylvia. Myron was a product of Austrian Hungarian mineworkers who barely spoke English. She just loved this sort of combination, which was reminiscent of Ilo, the Estonian farmworker and artist. She knew nothing about baseball, but Myron sure was a “beautiful lug.” Sylvia liked to think of herself as fitting into a world of immigrants and guys and dolls, as well as consorting with ladies and gentlemen. She wanted to speak the language of literary bluebloods and of pulp fictioneers. She reminded Warren of their childhood treat, skalshalala meat (their term for “a morsel of meat that remains in your mouth no matter how long you chew it. Gristle, in other words”), even as she told him, “I love you baby, as Mickey Spillane would say.” A few days later, Aurelia received a similar letter (which she did not include in
which mentions Sylvia's thrilling meeting with Myron and also her disappointment in the poems and stories Dick sent her, none of which had much “