Back in the good old days before cellphone texts and 140-character tweets, writers often learned technique through written correspondence in voices formal, frank, intimate and irritable. From an early age, poet Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) was a prolific letter writer, dashing off various missives and postcards each day to the people whose lives brushed against hers.
Volume I of her collected letters arrives like a doorstop, tapping well-known archives and unearthing fresh specimens. The result is a comprehensive if repetitive portrait of the artist as a young woman, ardently — unnervingly — committed to literature and relationships. Arranged in chronological sequence, the book traces Plath’s blue-collar childhood and adolescence in suburban Boston, her academic accolades at Smith College, the failed suicide attempt later re-created in “The Bell Jar” and her sparkling recovery that culminated with a two-year stint as a Fulbright Scholar at Cambridge University. Her primary correspondent here is her mother, the widowed Aurelia Plath, with Sylvia’s steady stream of prizes and publications rolled out in excruciating detail for an avid audience of one.
Readers may feel suffocated by Plath’s smarmy tone; what more can be said about a biography pored over for decades? But two ghosts haunt Volume I: Aurelia’s sanitized “Letters Home” (originally published in 1975), which purged allusions to her daughter’s fierce eroticism and emotional volatility, and Ted Hughes’ destruction of Plath’s late journals and ruthless editing of her work. Hence everything and the kitchen sink: The record must show all.
And yet a nuanced imagination emerges from ad nauseam ramblings about term papers and tutorials, a rotating cast of boyfriends, as Plath riffs in the caustic vein that would make her famous. She confesses secrets and gossip to friends and pen pals and to Aurelia, always Aurelia.
Outside of her mother, Plath was more comfortable with men, especially her adored younger brother Warren, than with female peers, whom she frequently viewed as competition. Since the posthumous publication of her masterpiece, “Ariel,” Plath has been claimed by generations of feminists as an archetype of a female artist assailing patriarchy, but her feminism is a sticky wicket. About her Smith roommate, Marcia Brown, she notes: “Both of us hate women en masse. But individually they are nice.”
Volume 1 mimics the arc of Plath’s “Unabridged Journals” (still one of the more trenchant accounts of a writer’s beginnings). Both books underscore Plath’s jaw-dropping output, her rapid growth from merely talented to singular voice. As with her poems, her correspondence gradually sheds its stiff poses, tinkering with sound and punctuation and syntax, with hints of genius to come. The collection concludes with Plath’s fateful meeting of British poet Ted Hughes (1930-1998) at a liquor-sodden party, their marriage four months later, and their vows to each other and to the literature they’d forge. Volume I brings the curtain down on an idyllic moment. As Plath gushed to her mother: “I am walking on air; I love him more than the world and would do anything for him … every day, one has to earn the name of ‘writer’ over again, with much wrestling.”
The next volume will unveil more urgent wrestling, personal and professional, as Plath’s “walking on air” would eventually lead her to “eat men like air.”
Hamilton Cain is the author of “This Boy’s Faith: Notes From a Southern Baptist Upbringing,” and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Brooklyn.
The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Vol. 1: 1940-1956
Edited by: Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil.
Publisher: Harper, 1,388 pages, $45.