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Authors: Carl Rollyson

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Myron turned out to be great fun, Sylvia noted in another report to her mother. They had pizza at Joe's and discussed baseball and poetry. On the way back to Smith, Myron played a gangster and Sylvia a gun moll, with the campus as their mise-en-scène. Sylvia later drew a fedora that Myron wore, a gift from his mother, who worried that he would catch cold. He also had a black gangster coat. It amused her that he also sported a Phi-Beta-Kappa key: “Such a mixture of vanity (how much is cover up I don't know) and real sweetness.” She was touched that he had memorized one of her letters.

A letter from Eddie that arrived in mid-December pinpointed Sylvia's love of histrionics, which could be turned into a Henry James novel that fretted the action, worked it over, and projected it back into her sensibility. He noted, for example, how her attitude toward Dick had changed. Now she seemed keen to confect a melodrama out of ministering to the ailing hero. In fact, Dick told her that he was reading
A Farewell to Arms,
and it is tempting to see Sylvia imagining a role reversal in which it is not the dying Catherine, but rather Frederic Henry (Dick) who needs (Sylvia's) support. Eddie, never one to blink at the truth as he saw it, rendered a devastating verdict. Wasn't she creating a plot that satisfied her, rather than seeing the men in her life for what they really were? Wasn't it the idea of a love story that appealed to her, and not the actual men who courted her? At the risk of sounding “ungracious,” he suggested that Sylvia remained more interested in the drama of these affairs than in the affairs themselves. Sylvia understood exactly what Eddie was saying, because she had noted as much about herself in her journal.

As if to show Sylvia that he was in love with
her
and not some conception of his own, Eddie described what he liked about her: her voice, her tan, the way she settled languorously into a booth, her trick of licking the air with her tongue as though savoring the ideas that spilled out of her delectable brain. He mentioned her sensuous face, though not specifically her most erotic attribute: the full lips that perhaps accounted for Dick's observation that she had “negroid” features. Eddie promised to return her letters, but he did not do so. Perhaps he was still concerned about the figure he would cut in her prose.

In effect, Eddie diagnosed Sylvia as a Henry James narrator. She wanted to be near the action, while never fully committing herself to it. Just two weeks after Eddie's pronouncement, Dick chimed in, reporting what his friends said about Sylvia: “You were an
observer
of life and not a
participator,
in some ways … you seemed interested in the crude, raw parts of life, in a sensuous fashion—and yet content to read, view, see, observe, and not enter in.”

Sylvia could divert her depression, writing gamely to Aurelia about adventures in an airplane with Myron, flipping over Northampton and tilting right side up in ecstasy, but she was not sleeping at night. On 15 December, she announced to her mother she was going to see a psychiatrist about “my science.” Whatever the outcome of that meeting, it did not result in a plan for long-term treatment, and Sylvia went away deluding herself that she had done enough to dispel her gloom.

On 28 December, while visiting Dick at Saranac, Sylvia broke her leg on the advanced ski slope. In
Letters Home,
Aurelia implies that Sylvia, eschewing professional instruction, had recklessly hurtled downhill. Sylvia's telegram announced a “fabulous fractured fibula,” as though she had accomplished some sort of Hemingwayesque feat. To Myron, she described herself in typically Baroque fashion gaily plummeting straight down without having learned how to steer, and then encountering a moment similar to their plane ride: “a sudden brief eternity of actually leaving the ground, cartwheeling … and plowing face first into a drift. I got up, grinned, and started to walk away. No good. Bang.” She signed the telegram to Aurelia, “Your fractious, fugacious, frangible Sivvy.” It was a light-hearted way of saying she had snapped. In times of stress, she would run herself off the road, so to speak—as she would actually do later while driving after Ted Hughes had left her. Sylvia sought to assure her mother, though, that the accident had actually been salutary, shocking her into a realization that she had been foolish to succumb to self-made “mental obstacles.” The accident, in other words, had broken through a self-demeaning pattern of behavior.

Sylvia wasn't joking, however, when she wrote Eddie, dropping her bravado and conceding the merits of his analysis. And she was not as sanguine as she appeared to Aurelia. Indeed, Eddie was so disturbed by what she wrote he advised her to see a psychiatrist. He noted a recurring pattern: the appearance of a “handsome stranger” with whom she established an “immediate and miraculous rapport,” only to have him fade from her purview. Eddie did not want to say what this scenario meant, although it must have been tempting to do so, since in one instance the stranger had been a scholar familiar with Otto's Plath's work who seemed a sort of father-substitute, as well as a prospective lover. Perhaps reality was breaking through her illusions, Eddie speculated, showing her that prolonging the relationship with Dick only brought out her vicious, competitive side. But that “reality” could be as debilitating and even more dangerous than her illusions, which is why he urged her to get professional help.

In her journal, Sylvia rejected Eddie's advice, saying that all she needed was more sleep, “a constructive attitude, and a little good luck.” She was determined to be more outgoing and get to know her fellow Smith students and the faculty better. In her junior year, Sylvia moved house from Haven to Lawrence, a dorm for scholarship students. Even casual friends say she seemed to take an interest in them. “Attitude is everything,” she announced in her journal, sounding like a self-help pop psychologist—and also the mythologist of herself, declaring that her winter solstice was over, and the “dying god of life and fertility is reborn.”

Nancy Hunter Steiner, who became Sylvia's roommate, explains in a memoir why Lawrence House was a more congenial milieu for Sylvia. As scholarship students, she notes, “we brought to even the most trivial activity an almost savage industriousness—a clenched-teeth determination to succeed that emanated from us like cheap perfume.” No one expected Sylvia to stay up at night playing bridge. Lawrence House students did not make marriage to a wealthy man their first priority, recalls Ellen Ouelette. Judy Denison, a physics major inspired by the work of Marie Curie, vowed to emulate the Nobel Prize winner by marrying a physicist—who, unfortunately, later told her she should be happy ironing his shirts. “If you wanted to make me happy, you'd buy shirts that did not need ironing,” Judy retorted. The marriage ended in divorce.

Ellen Ouelette remembered how different Lawrence House was from other dorms. At Christmas, the Lawrence House students were in the habit of writing poems to one another so that they did not have to buy presents, something not all of them could afford. They would each draw a name out of a hat and then write a poem to the person selected. Eileen drew Sylvia's name and was petrified. Eileen had received a D in freshman English, and she was well aware of Sylvia's status as a star on campus. What to do? She went to Sylvia's roommate, Nancy Hunter, and explained her dilemma. She learned from Nancy that Sylvia liked Modigliani's paintings. So Eileen wrote a poem that began, “To Sylvia Plath with her Modigliani eyes, / My Christmas gift will be a surprise.” Sylvia made no comment on the poem but received it graciously.

Sylvia could sometimes appear nervous and high strung, but in the main she exuded considerable confidence. She had resolved her feelings about Dick, realizing her ambivalent attitude toward him had its origins in childhood. Even then, she said, she had been competing with him, panting after him on her bicycle. He was her childhood pacesetter. He was a projection of her “naive idealism”—and she had to admit, she did not want to kiss a man she feared was full of germs.

Meanwhile, Myron (Sylvia called him her Hercules) had no trouble carrying her around, leg cast and all. And as if on cue—Eddie would surely have smiled—another myrmidon arrived: Gordon Lameyer, an Amherst College senior, with whom Sylvia struck up an “instant rapport.” He was a James Joyce devotee, and Sylvia had chosen Joyce as the subject of her senior thesis. Gordon looked “
most promising,”
she wrote to her mother on 5 February, as though sizing up another candidate for her praetorian guard. She spoke of “the new Gordon,” making him sound like the latest model car. He was also “utterly lush.” She loved talking religion with this self-described “renegade Unitarian.” They had similar mothers. Indeed, Gordon's mother, a Wellesley resident, had told him about Sylvia, who had addressed the local Smith club. Mrs. Lameyer encouraged his desire to date this brilliant student, now first in her class and a winner of several college literary awards. Gordon also offered Sylvia something new. He was in the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps and already had the manner, as Edward Butscher puts it, of an “officer and a gentleman in the grand old tradition.” Myron, with his “bad skin” and “barbarian parents,” now seemed second string, Sylvia declared in her journal.

Sylvia was ducking dates with Dick. She had not dumped him yet. “In the Mountains,” published in the
Smith Review
(1954), suggests why. When Isobel feels Austin's “warm and possessive” arm across her shoulders, she experiences the “old hurting fear, just remembering the way it had been.” As in “Sunday at the Mintons,” the male is extravagantly confident of his prerogatives. Like Dick, Austin is in a sanitarium and is uncharacteristically reading a novel (it is obviously
A Farewell to Arms),
“worrying about the imaginary man and the dying girl” because their story reminds him of himself and Isobel. Earlier in their relationship, Austin had lectured Isobel about “how silly she was to feel sorry for people in books.” He now wants to prove he has changed, as he openly declares his need for her. But to Isobel this change in him is a sign of weakness, and though she cannot bring herself to tell him she does not love him, she implies as much: “It is different now.”

Unhappy that their last visit together had not relieved his anxieties, Dick was getting testy, writing Sylvia on 23 February, “Your enthusiastic, career-oriented individualism sometimes chills the onlooker and presents marriage in the light of a hurdle or an undesirable estate for the less-fortunate and plodding humans.” If for no other reason than his prose style, Sylvia Plath could never have married anyone like Dick. Well aware that he was losing Sylvia, Dick tried a more conciliatory approach, on 10 March adding, “One of TB's associated diseases is an unsureness of one's essential value with ones friends.” He also wrote to her mother, trying to get a read on what was going through Sylvia's mind. A tactful Aurelia consulted with her daughter and sent Dick a carefully worded letter saying she was touched by his concern, adding that at the moment Sylvia was not “matrimonially minded.” She tried to let him down easy: “I have always found Sivvy to be very honest. Should she hedge now, I am sure it would be because she was afraid of hurting you at a time when it might do you physical harm.…” But after more dilatory responses from Sylvia, a cranky Dick replied to Aurelia: “One should not worry about ‘hurting' me, a concern better reserved for the five-year-old one is about to rob of a toy. My interest is ever with the ‘facts of the case,' even if they are disturbing on first acquaintance. What is hidden from view generally is more dangerous to everybody than the transient discomfort of its discovery.” Once again the stiffness in Dick's style surely put off Sylvia, just then composing an O'Neill-type drama of her life involving “the great God Gordon,” as she referred to him in a letter to her mother on 11 April.

If Sylvia had known more about baseball, she would have made Myron Klotz part of her “deep bench,” which included another new acquisition, Ray Wunderlich, a Columbia Medical School student she had met during her brief employment at the Belmont Hotel. He escorted her to plays in New York (Arthur Miller's
The Crucible
and Tennessee Williams's
Camino Real).
The trip to the city revved her up for the
Mademoiselle
competition for aspiring young writers who would be selected to spend June in Manhattan as guest editors at the magazine. At the same time, she was thrilled at sighting W. H. Auden, the reigning poet of the period, arriving for a stay at Smith, telling her brother, Warren, that someday she would like to touch the “Hem of his Garment,” and present him with a poem, “I found my God in Auden.”

Sylvia was writing poetry again, always a difficult project while studying at Smith. She adored meter and verse formats like the villanelle, an elaborately rhymed and structured nineteen-line poem. She seemed encouraged when she received more than a form letter rejection from
The New Yorker
for “Doomsday,” a work Harper's accepted a few months later that is included in the juvenilia section of
The Collected Poems.
It is a deftly composed and witty commentary on the vanity of human aspirations, including, no doubt, her own: “Our painted stages fall apart by scenes.” The images of breaking, shattering, fracturing, blasting, and toppling are reminiscent of her careening ride down a ski slope, ending in another fall when Sylvia tried to arise from her accident. The actors in “Doomsday” that halt in “mortal shock” are emanations of a sensibility that had experienced just such a crash. And the renegade Unitarian emerges in the line, “Our lucky relics have been put in hock.”

“Doomsday,” despite its grim theme, has a jauntily mordant tone that reflects the exuberant Plath of this period. In letters to her mother she enclosed poems like “Verbal Calisthenics,” which begins: “My love for you is more / Athletic than a verb…” She exulted in her election as editor of the
Smith Review
for the next year, her last at Smith. She seemed, in fact, to be winding herself up into a manic state, as the legend of Sylvia Plath spread on campus, transforming her in an apotheosis of herself. “Laurels for Recent Poem / Sylvia Plath Again Wins,” the 16 April issue of the school newspaper announced, as if she were a racehorse and not the author of another story in
Seventeen.

BOOK: American Isis
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