‘Letters of Sylvia Plath’ peek into poet’s youth

  • ‘The Letters of Sylvia Plath’ includes her correspondence from her years at Smith, her summer editorial internship in New York City, her time at Cambridge, her experiences touring Europe, and the early days of her marriage to Ted Hughes in 1956. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

The Seattle Times
Friday, January 05, 2018

“The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 1: 1940-1956” by Sylvia Plath; Harper (1,424 pages, $45)

I love to read other people’s mail. Not in real life, of course — your emails and handwritten correspondence (should you be lucky enough to have any) are safe from my prying eyes, though you might want to shut down your computer before walking away if you’ve got a juicy exchange going on. But in print, I find dipping in and out of a beloved writer’s letters to be a fascinating experience; a trip inside someone’s head, on a long-gone day.

“Collected Letters,” is of course becoming one of those quaint old-school phrases. (When today’s top young novelists are gone, will somebody digitally publish their collected emails and texts? Somehow I doubt it; nor, I suspect, would anyone want to read most of them.) But published letters written by someone who was, or who would become, a brilliant writer — back when writing and mailing a letter to a friend or loved one was the only way to directly communicate with them when separated — become part of their legacy; part of how we know them, or feel like we do.

And reading them feels different from how you might read a novel. You dip in and out, tasting and pondering; you check the index for names and events; you flip and skip and flutter the pages. You think about the work done to catalog these letters; those people who stared at fading ink on soft paper to decipher words, puzzle out dates and find order in the chaos with which most of us, then and now, live our lives. And you leave the volume feeling changed, just a little; as if the mystery of a time and a place and a person was suddenly unveiled, just for a moment.

The latest entry in this genre, “The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 1: 1940-1956” (edited by Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil; Harper, $45), is by any definition a doorstop — and, at 1,330 pages before the index, only takes her up to age 24. Plath, the American poet whose struggle with mental illness famously led to her suicide at age 30, didn’t achieve great fame in her lifetime — “Ariel,” a searing collection published posthumously, largely created her reputation.

Here, we meet her as a child making up poetry (an early effort involves “kitties and mousies”), as “Sivvy” the happy Smith College student who writes affectionate and often whimsically illustrated letters home to her friends and family — and, in an eloquent two-week silence, as a young woman who, facing severe depression, tried to kill herself in her mother’s basement, lying there semiconscious for two days until she was found. “I swallowed quantities and blissfully succumbed to the whirling blackness that I honestly believed was eternal oblivion,” she wrote to a friend; to another, of that same time, she explains briefly that “I was ill and had to be in the hospital for a few months.” Like so many writers, she later transferred the experience to fiction, drawing upon it for her novel “The Bell Jar.”

This incident, her fateful first meeting with Ted Hughes (“met, by the way, a brilliant ex-Cambridge poet at the Wild St. Botolph’s Review party last week; will probably never see him again ... but wrote my best poem about him afterward” she wrote to her mother), and her 1956 marriage to him are the key moments in the collection. As with anyone’s life, much of the volume is mundane: studying, odd jobs, gossip with friends, minor illnesses, boyfriends, dances, descriptions — sometimes with drawings — of “divine” and “heavenly” new clothes. Some of the letters feel like a performance, particularly many of the happy missives to her mother; some feel like the opening of a wound. It’s intriguing to think, while dipping in and out of the volume, of a life in which so much time was spent in writing letters; some of which were surely lost to time. At almost 400 pages and many hundreds of letters into the book, Plath writes to a friend, “I am now nineteen, and suddenly I am struck by the fact that I have been living for almost twenty years. Does that not sound like a venerable old age?” Teenagers, before the digital age, clearly had time on their hands.

But even in her youth, touches of the poet peek through: her description, after having a cast removed, of “the hairy yellow withered corpse of my leg lying there”; a letter beginning with “Gray Monday with clay gray sidewalks and sky pinkening faintly over mountains the color of smoke.”

Though Plath’s collection has its fascinations, the gold standard for collected letters for me remains Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), whose prolific output filled six volumes (published in the 1970s and ‘80s). Woolf, the brilliant modernist whose novels include “To the Lighthouse” and “Mrs. Dalloway,” was an obsession for me a while back. As a grad student in English lit, I collected all the volumes of her letters and diaries from used-book stores and dip into them still, for the arch perfection of her tossed-off prose. (True confessions: I used to read them on the treadmill — which is, I suspect, the very definition of a book nerd.)

Consider this, a passage I just found at random in Volume 3, from a letter written to a friend in 1923:

“ ... Moreover, I’m breaking myself of the habit of profuse and indiscriminate letter writing. I can only write, letters that is, if I don’t read them: once think and I destroy. Several sent off lately on this system (the unthinking one) have had semi-fatal results: poor Mrs. Eliot had a relapse; Margaret Davies wired at once; someone else has cooled and hardened; others have fired and irrupted. Letter writing as a game is not safe.”

Luckily for us, she didn’t break the habit. I just may need to go read all of Volume 3 again, to live inside her head once more.