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An Addict of Experience: Sylvia Plath’s Sexual Repression and Class Struggle

A journey into “what compelled Plath to peek over the edge and stare into the abyss of the human psyche.”

On February 11, 1963, Sylvia Plath — celebrated poet, little-known artist, lover of the world — took her own life, leaving behind her husband Ted Hughes and their two children. In the highly anticipated new biography Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted (public library; UK) — titled after the exquisite Plath poemAndrew Wilson explores the poorly understood period of Plath’s life before her relationship with Hughes. Diving into the darkest corners of her diaries and letters, as well as previously unavailable archives and direct interviews with those who knew Plath, Wilson sets out to “trace the sources of her mental instabilities and examine how a range of personal, economic, and societal factors — the real disquieting muses — conspired against her.”

He writes in the introduction:

In her journal in 1950 she wrote of how she was living on the ‘edge.’ She was not alone, she added, as all of us were standing on the edge of a precipice looking down into darkness, peering into an unnerving pit below.

This book will show what compelled Plath to peek over the edge and stare into the abyss of the human psyche.

Wilson notes Plath’s chronic dissonance between repression and an insatiable hunger for life:

Plath was an addict of experience, and she could not bear the fact that young women like her were denied something so life-enhancing. In the same letter she goes on to write of her deep envy of males, anger she describes as ‘insidious, malignant, latent.’

Sex — or rather the constraints and repressions surrounding it — played a central role in Plath’s creative and psychological development. She realized, as she wrote in her journal in the autumn of 1950, she was too well brought up to disregard tradition, yet she hated boys who could express themselves sexually while she had no choice but to ‘drag’ herself from one date to the next in ‘soggy desire.’ The system, she added, disgusted her.

But Wilson tends to jump to causality a little too eagerly. As Clay Shirky poignantly pointed out about the recent tragic loss of Aaron Swartz, “suicide is not only about proximate causes.” Wilson writes:

If too much has been made of the symptoms of Plath’s mental illness, so too little attention has been paid to its possible causes. Sylvia Plath was an angry young woman born in a country and at a time that only exacerbated and intensified her fury. Not only did she feel maddened that she could not express herself sexually, she also was furious that she had not been born into a family of greater means. Her letters and journals are full of references to feeling inferior and self-conscious because of her low status. As a scholarship girl at Smith College — one of America’s top universities for women — she was surrounded by the daughters of the country’s great and the good. She peeled potatoes, chopped vegetables, and waited on tables as a way of reducing her course fees. In order to try and take the burden off her mother — who worked at Boston University’s College of Practical Arts and Letters to pay the shortfall between her daughter’s fees and her scholarship — Sylvia volunteered for extra jobs at the college and, in whatever spare time she had, she wrote poems and stories for money. If she took boys home to her family’s two-bedroom house in Wellesley, Massachusetts — where she was forced to share a room with her mother — she worried that they would see the marks and rips in the wallpaper; on occasions like these, the lights would have to be kept low so as to try and disguise the blemishes. In her first semester at Smith, in the fall of 1950, she wrote in her journal of the arduous transition period between childhood and young adulthood. To help her make sense of this new, troubling reality, she made a list of certain aspects of life that she found difficult, an inventory of notes addressed to herself that she could use to boost her confidence when it was low. One of the sections focuses on her economic position in society. She noted how she knew she would have to compete with other girls who had been born into wealthier families. The Plaths, she realized, were not only of modest means but they didn’t come from a line of well-connected intellectuals. She observed how boys from richer families would often remark, in a casual fashion, of her ‘side of town,’ and although they didn’t mean to be cruel, she felt the comments keenly.

Though I have little else in common with Plath, I too found myself a “scholarship girl” amidst “the daughters of the country’s great and the good,” dirt-poor by the standards of the Ivy League institution into which I landed from Eastern Europe, and working up to four jobs at a time to support myself. Yet while the enormity of the mental and emotional burden inflicted by this constant sense of economic inferiority couldn’t be overstated, to call it a “possible cause” of suicide — rather than something more causally neutral, like a “trigger” or “contributing factor” — is questionable at best.

Still, semantic nitpicking aside, Mad Girl’s Love Song remains rigorously researched and absolutely fascinating, with its ample footnotes alone a treasure trove of insight into Plath’s previously unexplored life.

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9 Rules for Success by British Novelist Amelia E. Barr, 1901

“Genius is nothing more nor less than doing well what anyone can do badly.”

The secret of success — like its very definition — remains amorphous and forever elusive. For Thoreau, it was a matter of greeting each day with joy; for Jad Abumrad, it comes after some necessary “gut churn”; for Jackson Pollock’s dad, it was about being fully awake to the world; for entrepreneur Paul Graham, it’s about purpose rather than prestige; for designer Paula Scher, it means beginning every day with a capacity for growth. But perhaps, above all, success is about defining it yourself.

Still, those who have succeed — by their own definition, as well as history’s — might be able to glean some insight into the inner workings of accomplishment. From the 1901 volume How They Succeeded: Life Stories of Successful Men Told by Themselves (public library; public domain) comes a wonderful essay by British novelist Amelia E. Barr (1831–1919) who, despite the devastating loss of her husband and three of their six children to yellow fever in 1867, went on to become a dedicated and diligent writer, eventually reaching critical success at the age of fifty-two.

At the end of her essay, under a section titled “Words of Counsel,” Barr offers nine tips for success, echoing some familiar themes — Tchaikovsky’s insistence on work ethic over inspiration, Ray Bradbury’s case for perseverance in the face of rejection, the importance of having a good routine and working with joy, and the necessary reminder that success requires a deliberate investment of effort and good writing takes time.

  1. Men and women succeed because they take pains to succeed. Industry and patience are almost genius; and successful people are often more distinguished for resolution and perseverance than for unusual gifts. They make determination and unity of purpose supply the place of ability.
  2. Success is the reward of those who “spurn delights and live laborious days.” We learn to do things by doing them. One of the great secrets of success is “pegging away.” No disappointment must discourage, and a run back must often be allowed, in order to take a longer leap forward.
  3. No opposition must be taken to heart. Our enemies often help us more than our friends. Besides, a head-wind is better than no wind. Who ever got anywhere in a dead calm?
  4. A fatal mistake is to imagine that success is some stroke of luck. This world is run with far too tight a rein for luck to interfere. Fortune sells her wares; she never gives them. In some form or other, we pay for her favors; or we go empty away.
  5. We have been told, for centuries, to watch for opportunities, and to strike while the iron is hot. Very good; but I think better of Oliver Cromwell’s amendment — “make the iron hot by striking it.”
  6. Everything good needs time. Don’t do work in a hurry. Go into details; it pays in every way. Time means power for your work. Mediocrity is always in a rush; but whatever is worth doing at all is worth doing with consideration. For genius is nothing more nor less than doing well what anyone can do badly.
  7. Be orderly. Slatternly work is never good work. It is either affectation, or there is some radical defect in the intellect. I would distrust even the spiritual life of one whose methods and work were dirty, untidy, and without clearness and order.
  8. Never be above your profession. I have had many letters from people who wanted all the emoluments and honors of literature, and who yet said, “Literature is the accident of my life; I am a lawyer, or a doctor, or a lady, or a gentleman.” Literature is no accident. She is a mistress who demands the whole heart, the whole intellect, and the whole time of a devotee.
  9. Don’t fail through defects of temper and over-sensitiveness at moments of trial. One of the great helps to success is to be cheerful; to go to work with a full sense of life; to be determined to put hindrances out of the way; to prevail over them and to get the mastery. Above all things else, be cheerful; there is no beatitude for the despairing.

    Apparent success may be reached by sheer impudence, in defiance of offensive demerit. But men who get what they are manifestly unfit for, are made to feel what people think of them. Charlatanry may flourish; but when its bay tree is greenest, it is held far lower than genuine effort. The world is just; it may, it does, patronize quacks; but it never puts them on a level with true men.

    It is better to have the opportunity of victory, than to be spared the struggle; for success comes but as the result of arduous experience. The foundations of my success were laid before I can well remember; it was after at least forty-five years of conscious labor that I reached the object of my hope. Many a time my head failed me, my hands failed me, my feet failed me, but, thank God, my heart never failed me.

For more of history’s timeless wisdom on writing, see H. P. Lovecraft’s advice to aspiring writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter to his daughter, Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing, Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 keys to the power of the written word, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, Neil Gaiman’s 8 rules, Margaret Atwood’s 10 practical tips, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

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My Brother’s Book: Maurice Sendak’s Posthumous Love Letter to the World

“Because love is so enormous, the only thing you can think of doing is swallowing the person that you love entirely.”

For those of us who loved legendary children’s book author Maurice Sendak — famed creator of wild things, little-known illustrator of velveteen rabbits, infinitely warm heart, infinitely witty mind — his death in 2012 was one of the year’s greatest heartaches. Now, half a century after his iconic Where The Wild Things Are, comes My Brother’s Book (public library; UK) — a bittersweet posthumous farewell to the world, illustrated in vibrant, dreamsome watercolors and written in verse inspired by some of Sendak’s lifelong influences: Shakespeare, Blake, Keats, and the music of Mozart. In fact, a foreword by Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt reveals the book is based on the Bard’s “A Winter’s Tale.”

It tells the story of two brothers, Jack and Guy, torn asunder when a falling star crashes onto Earth. Though on the surface about the beloved author’s own brother Jack, who died 18 years ago, the story is also about the love of Sendak’s life and his partner of fifty years, psychoanalyst Eugene Glynn, whose prolonged illness and eventual loss in 2007 devastated Sendak — the character of Guy reads like a poetic fusion of Sendak and Glynn. And while the story might be a universal “love letter to those who have gone before,” as NPR’s Renee Montagne suggests in Morning Edition, it is in equal measure a private love letter to Glynn. (Sendak passed away the day before President Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage, but Sendak fans were quick to honor both historic moments with a bittersweet homage.)

Indeed, the theme of all-consuming love manifests viscerally in Sendak’s books. Playwright Tony Kushner, a longtime close friend of Sendak’s and one of his most heartfelt mourners, tells NPR:

There’s a lot of consuming and devouring and eating in Maurice’s books. And I think that when people play with kids, there’s a lot of fake ferocity and threats of, you know, devouring — because love is so enormous, the only thing you can think of doing is swallowing the person that you love entirely.

My Brother’s Book ends on a soul-stirring note, tender and poignant in its posthumous light:

And Jack slept safe
Enfolded in his brother’s arms
And Guy whispered ‘Good night
And you will dream of me.’

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