Nearly twenty years ago, Joyce Carol Oates wrote in her New York Times review of Sylvia Plaths Unabridged Journals that the book was Plaths presumed final posthumous publication. Given that Plath died more than 30 years before its debut, this was a fair guess. It was also in keeping with the Gray Ladys stylethe paper once published a letter to the editor from one Horace Hone, of Palm Coast, Florida, entitled, No More Plath, Please, which begins, Do we need this plethora of Plath?
Alliteration aside, 2017 and 18 proved the venerable JCO wrong (and, if he is still with us, probably displeased Horace). Sylvia Plath is having yet another moment, thanks to the back-to-back publications of her Letters in two massive volumes, which ran the gauntlet from childhood letters on heart-shaped paper, written to her father from summer camp, to explosive letters to her therapist about the physical abuse she endured from Ted Hughes. This year kicks off no differently, with the publication of a new Plath story, Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom.
January 22 marked the first American publication of Mary Ventura, which emerged when the original typescript was sold at the March 2016 Bonhams auction of Plaths possessions and was published by Faber in the UK earlier this month (a different draft of the story has long been part of the Plath holdings at the Lilly Library of Indiana University).
Written in 1952 while she was studying at Smith College, the story is a heavy departure from what we know of Plath (pun intendedit takes place on a train). As a prose writer, she worked to break into the Ladies Home Journal and the Saturday Evening Post, magazines she referred to in her own journal as The Slicks, and whose pages she never cracked. Most of her short fiction is in the realist mode. Her prize-winning Sunday at the Mintons, written the same year, is like a Norman Rockwell painting gone horribly wrong: a dull, didactic brother (who heavily precedes the “Buddy Willard” character from The Bell Jar) and elderly sister live together in stifling disharmony. This was the story she felt was most successful, and which, in turn, received the most external praisein addition to winning the Mademoiselle fiction prize, Harold Strauss, then editor-in-chief at Knopf, wrote to Plath telling her that he had read the story in proof, and he hoped she would write a novel and send it to him. She was 19 years old at the time.
By contrast, “Mary Ventura” is a stark allegory. It begins as the title character reluctantly boards a train at her parents insistence. Their insistence, like much of what Mary will encounter, has the quality of smiling through gritted teeth. On board, her seatmatea sonsy, middle-aged womangreets Mary kindly and knits a pretty dress of green wool, which is suspiciously, For a girl just about your size, too. The train is luxurious, but innocent babies are swaddled in dirty blankets; adorable brothers across the aisle rapidly devolve into physical violence, with the bigger one smashing the others head with a tin soldier, drawing blood which …ooze[s] from a purpling bruise. I hate you… I hate you, the younger brother tells the elder; their coiffed mother ignores them entirely. As she boards, Mary hears a newsboy hawking the latest headlines: Extra, extra ten thousand sentenced ten thousand more people.
This latest publication can help us to reimagine Plath as a writer equally concerned with external suffering and her own inner dramaor rather, as someone who saw the inexorable link between the two.
It would be easyand inaccurateto write the story off as an undergraduate exercise in post-war American fiction. The markers are there in the quick nod to mass executions and show trials. But a more subtle picture emerges in her careful inclusion of American affluence. Marys father, like the three businessmen who sway down the aisles with drinks in their hands, is elegantly dressed in grey felt. The train is lined in red plush. The distinction between the middle-class passengers and the working-class train attendees is intentional and clear: it is a black waiter (Plath twice notes his race) who brings Mary her sparkling ginger ale. Bert, the snack cart vendor, speaks in an exaggerated American vernacular (get your candy, pop-corn, cash-you nuts) and cracks wise to Marys seatmate. Plath evokes how little international disasters appear to affect American material comforts, only to upend that presumption in the end. In this way, the story rounds out ongoing critical conversations begun long ago about how and why Plath wrote about the horrors of the second World War.
Plaths use of the imagery of human suffering in poems like Daddy, Marys Song, and Lady Lazarus (to name just a few) has traditionally been (mis)understood as using the historical to describe her great personal suffering. Critics have long taken her to task for appropriating Holocaust imagery for this purpose: George Steiner famously claimed that Plath, was a child, plump and golden in America, when the trains actually went, who therefore had no right to draw on the reserves of animate horror in the ash and the childrens shoes. Leon Wieseltier wrote in the New York Review of Books in 1976, Whatever her father did to her, it could not have been what the Germans did to the Jews.
This is in line with our understanding of Plaths writing as a sustained cri de coeur. But in a 1962 interview, as she had just finished writing the very poems Steiner and others criticize, she told Peter Orr, I cannot sympathise with these cries from the heart that are informed by nothing except a needle or a knife I believe [personal experience] should be relevant to the bigger things such as Hiroshima and Dachau and so on. In the same interview, she tells Orr that she is rather a political person.
Moreover, however plump and golden she may have been during World War II, Plath was also the child and grandchild of German and Austrian immigrants; her mother, Aurelia, was bullied and beaten up for speaking German in her Massachusetts public school during the First World War. Documents unsealed in 2012 revealed that her father Otto, who came to America from what was then East Prussia when he was 19, was investigated as a traitor by the FBI during the First World War. What the investigation appears to have turned up, instead, was that, as a German-speaking pacifist who refused to buy Liberty Bonds, he was repeatedly discriminated against by various American universities (he was a professor of entomology).
Ever her fathers daughter, Plaths journals from her first two years at Smith brim with sharp critiques of Eisenhower America jingoism; Mary Ventura brims with rich Americans going along for the literal and metaphorical ride, never questioning their lush comfort on a train headed straight to hell. Mary Ventura is valuable for many reasons, not least in the way it foreshadows Plaths understanding and insistence that she write as part of her historical moment: in it, as opposed to an objective commentator on it. Mary is on the train, living this history, in much the same way that Lady Lazarus would tackle questions of the public nature of feminine bodies and feminine pain by centering its speaker in 20th century terror. Maybe this latest publication can help us to reimagine Plath as a writer equally concerned with external suffering and her own inner dramaor rather, as someone who saw the inexorable link between the two.
Plath sent Mary Ventura to Mademoiselle for publicationthey rejected it, with a flattering personal note telling her they looked forward to anything else she wanted to send their way (the rejection letter was included with the original typescript at auction). The brief foreword to the HarperCollins edition ends on the note that All original spellings have been retained. Fair enough, I thought. Unfortunately, small errors in punctuation seem to be included under that banner, and pepper the publication like half-dead fruit flies in a good glass of wine. After my first read through, I typed up a frantic email to the publicity rep who had sent me the story, hoping they could fix the typos before it was releasedthen I realized they were there intentionally.
When will we catch up with Sylvia Plath? Even at 20 years old, she trusted her readers not to be pandered to, to be comfortable with the unknown.
But what that intention is, I cant tell you. This is not a personal journal, or a letter, or an archival manuscriptits a story Plath meant for publication, which means she wanted any errors remedied by a keen eye (read Volume Two of her Lettersshe was exacting about these things with her editors). Reading it, I was brought to mind of many similar moments in the history of Plath publishing. In 1982s heavily abridged Journals, Francis McCullough, the legendary Harper editor and close associate of Hughes, explained to readers in her Editors Note that she had made many cuts to [diminish] Plaths eroticism, which was quite strong, as though Plaths readers were a group of Victorian bluestockings in need of smelling salts. In 2000, the pendulum swung the other way when every possible error in spelling and grammar were included in the Unabridged Journals (Poor Sylvia! bemoaned Oates, in genuine empathy, in her aforementioned review.)
These decisions point to a continued all-or-nothing approach to Plath, as a writereditors either leave Sylvia unscrubbed and messy, or engage in editor-splaining. Her largest volume of collected imaginative prose, Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, compiled and edited by Hughes in the 1970s, is still out with both Faber and Harper. The covers are updated, but the text remains divided into demeaning, didactic headings, like The more successful short stories and prose pieces, as though Ted is simultaneously apologizing for and publishing her work. No new edition yet exists. It is sorely needed.
When will we catch up with Sylvia Plath? Even at 20 years old, she trusted her readers not to be pandered to, to be comfortable with the unknownwe never learn why Mary boards that nightmare train, or what happened to her fellow passengers. Her mysterious seatmate is never identified by name or relation to Mary. Far from taking away from it, these ambiguities instead make it the excellent tale it is. Heres hoping this latest story will open up new avenues of understanding her complex workand introduce her to a new generation. More Plath, Please. Always.