Reviving the Journals of Sylvia Plath

Reviving the Journals of Sylvia Plath

The unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath span the entirety of the poet's adult life. Karen Kukil, who edited the journals, reflects on what we can learn from them about Plath's life and work.

Nearly 40 years after her death, Sylvia Plath finally speaks for herself, in her own voice. The unabridged edition of her journals, which I edited for the Hughes family in 2000, is as faithful as possible to the original manuscripts at Smith College. As an editor, I did not tidy up Plath’s words or make her behave. She is a real human being, as feisty and fresh and alive to the reader in the published Journals as she is when one has the luxury to read her original manuscripts.

Sylvia Plath's journal, 26 February 1956

Sylvia Plath's journal, 26 February 1956

Typewritten journal entry, written the morning after the party where Plath and Ted Hughes met for the first time.

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Usage terms Mortimer Rare Book Room, Smith College Libraries, © Estate of Sylvia Plath. No copying, republication or modification is allowed for material © The Plath Estate. For further use of this material please seek formal permission from the copyright holder.

By giving the world direct access to her exact words, a reassessment of Plath will undoubtedly take place. We all know about her zest for death. She committed suicide at the age of 30 on 11 February 1963, and there are many poignant allusions to death in her poetry and prose, particularly in Ariel and The Bell Jar. But I believe the unabridged Journals, more than the selected Journals published in 1982, also reveal her zest for life. She savoured it all: ‘children, sonnets, love and [even] dirty dishes’ (p. 225).[1]

The dark silhouettes

I am often asked, ‘What new information do the unabridged Journals reveal?’ The familiar ghouls from the selected Journals come to mind first: images of a head packed so hard with mucous when Plath was in the infirmary at Smith, causing her to groan, ‘[sinusitis] plunges me in manic depression’ (p. 533). This was followed by Plath’s fantasy before her first suicide attempt in 1953, of hurling herself under the wheels of a car because ‘under the dark blind death of the wheels I will be safe’ (p. 184). I thought of her brutal descriptions of her own appearance: ‘Nose podgy as a leaking sausage’ (p. 457). I recalled her incredible anger, which seems to seethe just below the surface of her journals. On one occasion, Plath confronts a spirited student stealing rhododendrons from a park, and she says, ‘had a flash of bloody stars in my head as I stared that sassy girl down, and a blood-longing to fly at her & tear her to bloody beating bits’ (p. 395). New passages in the unabridged Journals also contribute to this dark silhouette of Plath. Her uncharitable assessments of people now include a fellow Cambridge University poet whose reliance on accessible facilities of speech, according to Plath, ‘show up like a sagging hemline on a really good dress’ (p. 208). She thinks Ted Hughes’s friends are half-drowned compared to him, ‘their demons formless and pale like grubs under turned stones’ (p. 330). Her female colleagues at Smith, when she came back to teach in 1957, are ‘pleasant as razor-blades’ (p. 356) or ‘cold as dry-ice’ (p. 385). But Plath’s self-absorption and lack of compassion for those around her is perhaps best illustrated by the following description of Percy Key’s death on 27 June 1962, in North Tawton, England: ‘His eyes showed through partly open lids like dissolved soaps or a clotted pus. I was very sick at this and had a bad migraine over my left eye for the rest of the day’ (p. 672). This and other candid descriptions of her Devonshire neighbours, written in 1962 near the end of her life, illustrate the goal of her journal writing: ‘to be honest [even if] what is revealed is often rather hideously unflattering’ (p. 165).

'Rose & Percy Key' by Sylvia Plath

'Rose & Percy Key' by Sylvia Plath

In these series of journal entries Plath describes the illness and eventual death of her neighbour Percy Key, an event that also inspired one of her poems.

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Usage terms © Estate of Sylvia Plath. No copying, republication or modification is allowed for material © The Plath Estate. For further use of this material please seek formal permission from the copyright holder.

The ordinary

Only one-third of the manuscript journals at Smith College were published in the selected Journals edited by Frances McCullough in 1982. Since most of the important events in Plath’s life were included, little space was left for the more ordinary journal entries, the ones in which Plath is gentle and funny or lusty and vigorous. For example, the unabridged Journals include a tender description of Wellesley, Massachusetts, neighbours Peter and Libby Aldrich arranging petunias in Plath’s hair (p. 18). There are many new descriptions of her early experiences with men before she married Ted Hughes, such as tying a red silk scarf over her hair in 1952 and driving Bob Cochran’s car, his ‘good little red shiny MG’ (p. 126).

Practising her craft

It is perhaps ironic that the selected Journals included most of Plath’s thoughts about her creative writing, but discarded some of her best writing. The journals, after all, are notebooks in which Plath practised her craft. Many of her entries are sheer poetry, such as a description she wrote at Yaddo of two woodpeckers in the tall pines, ‘tapping crisp as thimbles on a window pane’ (p. 526). Plath and Hughes lived at the artist’s colony in Saratoga Springs for nearly three months before moving back to England in December 1959. Plath’s subsequent description of giving birth to her son in 1962 is some of her most powerful prose. She delivered both children at home in England with midwives in attendance, but during Nicholas’s birth she received no treatment for pain, which is probably why she was able to remember the process so vividly. Plath writes: in ‘three great bursts, the black thing hurtled itself out of me. ... The afterbirth flew out into a pyrex bowl, which crimsoned with blood. It was whole. We had a son’ (p. 647).

Three Women, a radio play by Sylvia Plath

Three Women, a radio play by Sylvia Plath

Plath wrote the radio play Three Women, set in a maternity ward, months after the birth of her son Nicholas.

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Usage terms © Estate of Sylvia Plath. No copying, republication or modification is allowed for material © The Plath Estate. For further use of this material please seek formal permission from the copyright holder.

The unabridged Journals are absolutely packed with vibrant, sensual passages. They illustrate, for example, Plath’s love of clothes. Getting ready for class one morning, she says: ‘I dressed, conscious of color and the loveliness of being thin and feeling slink, swank and luxurious in good fits and rich materials’ (p. 379). On her honeymoon with Ted Hughes in 1956, she trips through the hot, dusty streets of southern Spain in what she calls ‘wicked black heeled toeless shoes’ (p. 254). Two years later she still delights in sex: ‘Good lovemaking today, morning & afternoon, all hot and hard and lovely’ (p. 363). She particularly relishes all kinds of food: ‘We came home ravenous, to devour seared steak, quenching chef salad, wine, luxurious lucent green figs in thick chilled cream’ (p. 338). In 1959, she records her enjoyment of women friends and domestic crafts, such as cooking and making a braided rug (p. 483). She wears a ‘touch-of-genius red lipstick’ (p. 314), ‘tigress perfume’ (p. 329) and cools her lemon meringue pies on the ‘cold bathroom windowsill, stirring in black night & stars’ (p. 310). She is also athletic and enjoys hiking and fishing for Flounder with her husband in Gloucester Harbour: the gulls ‘hanging, voracious, tugging at the fish-guts he tossed’ (p. 493).

Sylvia Plath's journal, 23 April 1959

Sylvia Plath's journal, 23 April 1959

‘I think: a Wuthering Heights article for red-shoe money’: typewritten journal entry detailing Plath’s writing plans, as well as revealing a glimpse of her love of clothes.

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Usage terms Mortimer Rare Book Room, Smith College Libraries, © Estate of Sylvia Plath. No copying, republication or modification is allowed for material © The Plath Estate. For further use of this material please seek formal permission from the copyright holder.

Notebooks of Ted Hughes, c. 1959–64

Notebooks of Ted Hughes, c. 1959–64

Undated diary entry written by Ted Hughes, in which he describes a fishing trip he and Plath took in America.

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Usage terms © The Ted Hughes Estate. No copying, republication or modification is allowed for material © The Ted Hughes Estate. For further use of this material please seek formal permission from the copyright holder.

Art and politics

Plath’s taste is eclectic. She loves the Swedish films of Ingmar Bergman (p. 522), and learns about Sanskrit poetry and Indian fairytales when she works part-time for Professor Ingalls at Harvard in 1959. She appreciates modern art, such as ‘the hot reds & blues and yellows spurting from [the] fingertips’ of Nicholas de Stael (p. 317). She is an artist herself, and on a sketching holiday in France in 1956 learns the vistas of Paris, as she says, ‘through the fiber of my hand’ (p. 554). She admires contemporary literature, including the ‘tough’ phrases of Robert Lowell’s poetry ‘blazing with color & fury’ (p. 379).

Sylvia Plath's journal, 2 March 1958

Sylvia Plath's journal, 2 March 1958

Handwritten journal entry, in which Plath admires and reflects on the craft of British modernist writers Virginia Woolf and D H Lawrence.

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Usage terms Mortimer Rare Book Room, Smith College Libraries, © Estate of Sylvia Plath. No copying, republication or modification is allowed for material © The Plath Estate. For further use of this material please seek formal permission from the copyright holder.

The unabridged Journals also reveal a woman who is deeply concerned about social issues. She worries what would happen ‘if the planes came, and the bombs’ (p. 32), is anxious about the effects of nuclear fallout (p. 46), and becomes physically ill when the Rosenbergs are executed in 1953 (p. 541). She reads everything from newspaper articles about the radium-dial painters of the 1920s to mental health stories in Cosmopolitan, and resolves to write a novel ‘about a college girl suicide’ (p. 495).

Rebelling

Like many passages in her subsequent novel The Bell Jar, the unabridged Journals document Plath’s extreme loneliness and the pain of being an outsider. She does not fit the mould of a typical Smith graduate in the 1950s. As an undergraduate, Plath wonders if she should ‘whittle my square edges to fit a round hole’ (p. 102). By the end of her therapy with Ruth Beuscher in 1959, Plath realises that she must be true to what she calls her ‘own weirdnesses’ (p. 521). As many feminist scholars have noted, Plath rebels against the role of the good girl that her mother prescribes for her and is determined to have as much experience as her male counterparts. She rejects the life of a typical career woman, such as a telephone operator, which she imagines would be ‘shallow’ (p. 44). She wants the life of a Willa Cather, a Lillian Helman, a Virginia Woolf, a world of ‘color, rather than black-and-white’ (p. 44). She will not submit to having her life ‘fingered’ by her husband (p. 98), but eventually comes to accept the possibility of a new kind of creative marriage, particularly after she meets Ted Hughes. Although she is a master of masks, she knows that unless she can be herself, she will not stay with anyone for long (p. 53). She is genuinely amazed that Hughes can stand her when she lets down her façade (p. 517). She calls him ‘my male muse, my pole-star centering me steady & right’ (p. 365). Since they are both writers, the main challenge for Plath and Hughes is earning a living. Both bristle against poets who they feel have sold out. After spending a year as an English instructor at Smith, Plath realises that she cannot work professionally and write because she finds teaching kills the ‘juice, the sap’ (p. 346). She must sequester herself ‘to produce lyrics & poems of high pitch intensity’ (p. 371). Although the financial insecurity of a writer’s life scares her, she is determined to walk the world ‘with every pore open’ (p. 271) and to write with ‘unselfconscious brazenness’ (p. 518). In her class with Robert Lowell at Boston University in 1959, Plath realises that her ‘voice must change to be heard’; it must be ‘brash’ and ‘concrete’ (p. 320). Thus, Plath’s creativity emerges in the journals as her ultimate concern, her religion. She says that composing a good poem affects her ‘like a celestial love-affair’ (p. 346). According to Plath, there is no God, no life after death, just ‘mind living on paper and flesh living in offspring’ (p. 45).

Family

Plath’s complex relationship with her husband and family is the other central theme of the unabridged Journals. Restoring the omitted passages about Ted Hughes and Plath’s parents adds dimension to our outlines of them. When Plath met Hughes on 26 February 1956 they experienced an intense attraction to each other. We all know from the selected Journals that Plath bit Hughes on the cheek at their first meeting, causing blood to run down his face. According to Plath in the unabridged Journals, this act was precipitated by Hughes: ‘he kissed me bang smash on the mouth and ripped my hairband off, my lovely red hairband scarf’ (p. 212). On 16 April 1956, just two months before they were married, Plath writes: ‘you will never find a huge derrick-striding Ted with poems & richness – he makes you feel small, too-secure: he is not tender and has no love for you. ... glory in the temporary sun of his ruthless force’ (p. 570).

Sylvia Plath's journal, 26 February 1956

Sylvia Plath's journal, 26 February 1956

Typewritten journal entry, in which Plath provides her account of her first kiss with Hughes.

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Usage terms Mortimer Rare Book Room, Smith College Libraries, © Estate of Sylvia Plath. No copying, republication or modification is allowed for material © The Plath Estate. For further use of this material please seek formal permission from the copyright holder.

Whether it is true or not, Plath felt interference from her mother. Plath writes: ‘I want, as ever, to grab my life from out under her hot itchy hands. My life, my writing, my husband, my unconceived baby. She’s a killer. Watch out. She’s deadly as a cobra under that shiny greengold hood’ (p. 433). These passages from 1958 may explain why Plath did not consider returning to the family home when Hughes left her for Assia Wevill in 1962. Even Plath’s father, who died from complications of diabetes when she was eight, and whom she adored, did not escape some criticism: ‘He wouldn’t go to a doctor, wouldn’t believe in God and heiled Hitler in the privacy of his home’ (p. 430).

Other restored passages give us a taste of Plath’s over-enthusiasm which she constantly tried to subdue. Of Hughes she wrote in 1958: ‘All day I have run about, a hundred times, to kiss him in his niche or in his bath, to sniff his smell of bread & grapes and kiss his delectable places’ (p. 337). On 4 March 1958 when he gave a reading at the University of Massachusetts, she writes: ‘Ted shone. ... I married a real poet, and my life is redeemed’ (p. 346).

‘There was a force working’

Thus, reading Plath’s unabridged Journals after the selected Journals — once all the poetic descriptions and multifaceted personalities of the central characters are restored — is like reading a full-blown novel after a true confession story. The essence of Sylvia and Ted’s life together is more romantic and more tragic than the plot of any invented piece of fiction.

Many passages in the unabridged Journals echo sentiments in novels by Virginia Woolf and others writers whom Plath admired. ‘There was a force working’, for example, is a quotation from Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse (1927) that inspired Plath to write: ‘All I want to say is: I made the best of a mediocre job. It was a good fight while it lasted’ (p. 149). When Plath read A Writer’s Diary (1953) in 1956, she was attracted to the human Virginia Woolf, the woman who cooked ‘haddock & sausage’ and cleaned out her kitchen to work off a depression over rejections from Harper’s (p. 269). I believe we, too, are drawn to the human Plath in the unabridged Journals. The woman dressed in hot blacks who slowly follows the high, spider-wheeled cart carrying Percy Key’s corpse up the hill to the cemetery in North Tawton on 29 June 1962. The woman who leaves the open grave to walk home with Ted Hughes to Court Green over the back hill and stops to gather ‘immense stalks of fuschia foxgloves’ in the heat (p. 673).

This essay is from a talk given in 2000 by Karen Kukil at the International Writers’ Day program of English PEN in London.

Footnotes

[1] Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950–1962, ed. by Karen V Kukil (London: Faber & Faber, 2000). All following page references are from the same.

 

Banner illustration by Harriet Lee-Merrion 

  • Karen Kukil
  • Karen V. Kukil curates the Sylvia Plath Collection at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. She is the editor of the Journals of Sylvia Plath (2000) and co-editor of the Letters of Sylvia Plath (2017). Her exhibitions include ‘No Other Appetite’: Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, and the Blood Jet of Poetry (Grolier Club, 2005) and One Life: Sylvia Plath (National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C., 2017).

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.