This Day In Writing History
On October 27th, 1932, the legendary American poet and novelist Sylvia Plath was born. She was born in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. Her father, Otto Plath, was a German immigrant and professor of biology and German at Boston University. Her mother, Aurelia, was the daughter of Austrian immigrants. She was 21 years younger than Sylvia's father when she married him.
When Sylvia Plath was four years old, the family moved to Winthrop, Massachusetts, where she spent most of her childhood. Otto Plath died of complications from diabetes when she was eight years old. The loss devastated his daughter and would affect Sylvia the rest of her life. Her most famous poem, Daddy, reflects her grief over her father's death and her anger at him for leaving her. Plath's readers still visit her father's gravestone at Winthrop Cemetery.
The same year that she lost her father, the eight-year-old Sylvia Plath had her first poem published in the children's section of the Boston Herald. In addition to her writing talent, she also displayed artistic talent; when she was 15 years old, her paintings won an award from the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. She began keeping a diary at the age of eleven and kept journaling up until her death.
Sylvia Plath attended Smith College in Massachusetts. During her junior year, she was awarded a position as guest editor at Mademoiselle magazine. She spent a month in New York City working for the magazine. She hoped it would be a great experience, but instead, it marked the beginning of a downward spiral in her life and resulted in her first documented suicide attempt. She crawled under her house and took an overdose of sleeping pills. She was briefly committed to a mental institution where she received electroshock therapy. All of these experiences would be used as the basis for her only novel, The Bell Jar.
After recovering from her first bout with mental illness, Sylvia graduated with honors from Smith College. She won a Fulbright scholarship to Newnham College, Cambridge. There, she continued writing poetry, and her work was occasionally published in the student newspaper, Varsity. At a party at Cambridge, Sylvia met British poet and children's book writer Ted Hughes. After a brief courtship, they were married on June 16th, 1956. They spent the next couple of years living and working in the U.S., where Sylvia taught at her alma mater, Smith College.
When Sylvia found herself pregnant with their first child, Frieda, she and Ted returned to London. There, in 1960, her first poetry collection, The Colossus and Other Poems, was published. Some of the poems contained in it had been previously submitted to magazines and rejected because the editors found them to be too strange and disturbing. The year after her first poetry book was published, Sylvia, then pregnant with her second child, suffered a miscarriage. In 1962, she became pregnant again and gave birth to a son, Nicholas.
The birth of their second child did nothing to help Sylvia and Ted's already troubled marriage. News of her husband's affair devastated Sylvia, and Plath scholars believe that Ted was also physically abusive to her throughout their marriage, though Hughes' admirers dispute that. The couple separated in late 1962. In 1963, Sylvia's first and only novel, The Bell Jar, was published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. The semi-autobiographical novel, based in part on Sylvia Plath's first struggle with mental illness, is considered a masterpiece. I read it when I was a teenager and loved it. The novel was adapted as a feature film in 1979. A new adaptation is currently in development.
A month after The Bell Jar was published, Sylvia Plath committed suicide at the age of 30. She sealed herself in her kitchen, plunged her head into the oven, and turned on the gas. Family, friends, and scholars believe that Sylvia's suicide was the result of a combination of factors. She suffered from mental illness (most likely bipolar disorder), she was devastated by her father's death and her own miscarriage, and she suffered at the hands of an unfaithful and physically abusive husband whom she still loved. Six years after Sylvia's death, her husband's mistress, Assia Wevill, committed suicide herself - the same way that Sylvia did - after murdering her daughter. Sylvia's son Nicholas Hughes, a biologist, would commit suicide later at the age of 47 after suffering from depression. Her daughter Frieda Hughes would go on to become a poet, painter, and children's book writer.
As the result of Sylvia Plath's untimely suicide in 1963, her second poetry collection, Ariel, which featured her most famous poems, (Daddy, Lady Lazarus, and Tulips) was published posthumously in 1965. More poetry collections, prose works, and four children's books would also be published posthumously. In 1981, a complete collection of Sylvia Plath's poetry, The Collected Poems, would be published. It won her a Pulitzer Prize the following year. Sylvia became the first poet to win a Pulitzer Prize posthumously.
Sylvia's husband, Ted Hughes, spent the last years of his life preparing an unabridged version of her journals for publication. They were first published in an abridged version in 1980. Hughes faced criticism for the way he handled Sylvia's journals. He claimed to have destroyed her last journal "because I did not want her children to have read it." He was also accused of trying to cash in on his wife's death, though the proceeds from all of her posthumous publications were placed in a trust fund for her children.
In 2000, Anchor Books published The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, which writer Joyce Carol Oates called a "genuine literary event." To this day, Sylvia Plath remains a major influence on American poetical voice.
Quote Of The Day
"Everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt." - Sylvia Plath
Today's video is a two-part presentation featuring an interview with Sylvia Plath from October, 1962, conducted by Peter Orr of the British Council. Enjoy!