March 29, 2018
Sylvia Plath’s typewriter, clothing, wallet, and other items sold at auction
by Taylor Sperry
For the Los Angeles Times, Michael Schaub reports that “scores” of intimate items that once belonged to Sylvia Plath—including a first edition of The Bell Jar, signed by Plath; Plath’s mint-colored Hermes 3000 typewriter; jewelry, clothing, and furniture; and “a wallet containing her driver’s license and a Boston library card”—were sold at auction by London’s Bonhams earlier this month.
While this isn’t unusual, really—we’ve written before about the sales (sometimes failed sales) of Truman Capote’s ashes, Saul Bellow’s desk, a letter in which Harper Lee bashed Trump’s Taj Mahal, and even a galley of Plath’s The Bell Jar—something here grates, possibly because of the posthumous mishandling of Plath’s literary output.
In her book Trainwreck (which, hello!), Sady Doyle writes about how Plath’s poem “Daddy” made her a feminist icon years after her death, and how her work has been reframed since. A pertinent excerpt:
And so, the groundswell of female anger underneath Sylvia, and the ways she resembled the American ideal, turned “Daddy” from a poem into an anthem.
And when the details became clear—that Plath’s husband was a poet named Ted Hughes; that he had cheated on her while she was nursing their infant son; that she had kicked him out; that, because she had died before the divorce was finalized, and left no will, he controlled the publication of her work and received the profits from it—well, that anger had a very convenient place to go.
“I accuse / Ted Hughes,” wrote Robin Morgan, in her poem “The Arraignment.” Specifically, she accused him of wife-beating and murder. As out-of-line as these accusations seem now, with five intervening decades of proof against them, Morgan also wrote a few things that were harder to deny. Namely, that Hughes was making “a mint / by becoming Plath’s posthumous editor.”
Hughes threatened to sue. All copies of the offending book, Monster, were eventually pulled from Great Britain. This, it turned out, was where the rage against Hughes really originated: He kept a choke hold on any public utterance about Plath. If a friend published a two-part memoir of Plath’s final days in the Observer, Hughes would make sure the second part got pulled. If a biographer wanted to quote her substantially, her estate—Hughes and his sister Olwyn, who disliked Plath in life and didn’t get any fonder of her after death—would dictate Hughes-friendly rewrites before giving permission. And the people forbidden by Hughes to publish material about Sylvia Plath included, crucially, Sylvia Plath herself. Ariel came out—but Hughes had changed the order of poems and omitted some “personally aggressive” ones. Her journals were released—but Hughes admitted to burning or losing the ones from the last months of her life, and the edited versions were full of [OMISSION] marks. The Bell Jar was published—but Plath’s second novel, about a woman facing the dissolution of her marriage, managed to get “lost” as well, one more glaring [OMISSION] in what had come to be a highly suspicious list.
Hughes was not evil. He grieved Plath, and suffered greatly: Assia Wevill, the woman for whom he left Plath, committed suicide herself a few years later, and killed their daughter as well. And, in all the censoring he did, he may have genuinely been trying to protect Sylvia’s reputation. When her unedited journals were published, in 1999, it turned out the most suspicious [OMISSION] marks weren’t hiding confessions of Hughes’s brutality, as many initially suspected; they were hiding Plath’s complaints about Ted’s personal hygiene. He hadn’t beaten her, he just didn’t want the world to know how rarely he showered.
If anything, Hughes is best seen in the context of another grieving husband: Where William Godwin’s response to Wollstonecraft’s unexpected death had been to publish everything, no matter how potentially scandalous it was, Hughes’s response was to withhold or destroy anything questionable, no matter how potentially scandalous it wasn’t. Two widowers took precisely opposite routes, and wound up in the same disgrace: In the age of women’s silence, unguarded speech was shameful. But in the age of women’s speech, male-imposed silence was intolerable.
The banning of “The Arraignment” was the last straw, the moment when Hughes’s controlling behavior came smack up against a political movement devoted to opposing male control. Feminists began to publish bootleg copies of “The Arraignment.” His readings were picketed, by women whose placards frequently bore lines from Morgan’s poem; sometimes women would stand up, during a lull in the reading, and begin to recite “The Arraignment” aloud. He began to cancel readings, for fear of disruption. By trying to make Morgan’s poem disappear, he’d turned it into a cause.
Meanwhile, Plath’s work kept coming. (And it was, to be clear, Hughes who let it come.) Her first novel, The Bell Jar was, if possible, an even more serendipitous work than Ariel. It was a blunt, witty, unsparing account of her first suicide attempt. It was also the tale of a girl who thought marriage would let a man “flatten [her] out under his feet,” who could get into Honors English but was still confounded by the sexual double standard, who was subjected to attempted rape when she did try to express herself sexually, and who would frankly rather kill herself than work at a ladies’ magazine and go without birth control. Everything second-wave feminists were ready to address, Plath had already talked about, simply by talking about herself. She had hung it out there, for God and all to see, and it wasn’t simply ranting and raving and pornography. It was the problem of an age, of thousands or millions of girls like her. When women spoke, it seemed, they really did start to say all the same things.
And so, Plath became a prophet, and a martyr, someone who had seen the problems before she had a feminist movement to help her fix them, and who had died in part because feminism arrived too late. Like Valerie [Solanas], she was a cautionary case, someone whose life story meant what the observer’s politics needed it to mean. But, unlike Valerie, she had neither a criminal record nor the ability to disagree with her interpreters. She was more useful to her allies than to her enemies. She became the prototype of the woman who, in the absence of feminist activity, took tranquilizers, went insane, and committed suicide. Hughes’s name began to disappear from Plath’s gravestone. Over and over, “Sylvia Plath Hughes” was chiseled away, until only “Sylvia Plath” remained. No one ever came forward to admit doing it; no one has ever given the reasons. It could have been an act of malice. It could have been a statement of her independent status as a writer: “Sylvia Hughes” didn’t write those books, after all. Or it could have been one last, cruelly sarcastic [OMISSION] mark. He destroyed her journal. They destroyed his name.
Taylor Sperry is a former Melville House editor.