Camille DiBenedetto: My first question is regarding how you first got into Sylvia Plath. I first discovered her when I was a junior in high school. I was like, “This is me. These are my words. I have written some of them in my own journal and some of them I’ve never written. Some of them I didn’t even know I felt.” I wrote about her in my college essay and my other work. You have written multiple essays about her, and so I’m just wondering how you discovered her work.
Emily Van Duyne: The very first time I ever read anything by Plath, I was a freshman in high school.
There was this legendary English and creative writing teacher who famously taught freshman English named Peter Murphy. I had been looking forward to being in his class for years and then because of these radical curriculum changes, I was not in his class. So I went to see him at the end of September just kind of like, “Help. What’s going on?” And he was like, “Yeah, Emily, your teachers told me about you and I was really sad not to have you, but you can take creative writing with me next year.” I was like, “Oh okay, great.”
He’s like, “Well, in the meantime, why don’t you take a book?” Gail Crowther, who is this British Plath scholar, she’s a sociologist who writes about the relationship that readers have with Plath. She writes in her book, The Haunted Reader, about her experience seeing Plath for the first time and she says that it’s frozen in time in her mind. I couldn’t believe when I read that because that was exactly how I felt. I remember seeing the paperback copy of The Bell Jar on the shelf and just being like, “What is that strange-looking book? What a weird title and what an unusual last name.” But it almost felt like I had heard it at some point. I don’t know.
I grabbed it and then I read The Bell Jar. I wasn’t blown away. I was really young to read it, I think. I just sort of felt estranged from it. I was like, “well, this is such a bleak book.” I didn’t get any of the humor at the time. I think I took it entirely seriously. Now I think it’s just an absolutely hilarious novel. Then I remember the poems at the end and the drawings. That was the very first time I read Plath and I kind of filed it away.
Then, I took Peter’s class, his creative writing class, sophomore year and that’s when I read “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus” and “Tulips.” I read Ariel in its entirety. Of course, this is 1995, so the revised edition of Ariel did not come out for another nine years. So I wasn’t yet aware that that existed. He was like, “You should read her biographies.” I was like, “Okay.” So he said, “Well, listen, read this one first.” He gave me Anne Stevenson’s Bitter Fame. Have you read that?
CD: I have not read that one.
EVD: It’s good in a lot of ways. Stevenson is a marvelous writer and she was Plath’s contemporary, but she spent her adult life in England, which of course Plath did spend most most of her adult life in England as well.
Stevenson is the only person who ever wrote an authorized biography of Plath. She was given permission to write the biography by the estate. Hughes was still living at the time, but as Stevenson famously chronicles in Janet Malcolm’s book, The Silent Woman, she never actually had contact with him. They wrote a few letters back and forth, but they never met. I read that and I was like, Plath does not come off well in that book. I thought to myself, “Oof, that was ugly.” Then Peter said, “Well, now read this one,” and he gave me Linda Wagner-Martin’s, A Literary Life, which was an unauthorized biography in which it’s very favorable to Plath. Without intending to, he kicked me off on this meta study. I’m always interested in Plath’s primary texts, but I’m also deeply interested in the ways that she’s represented in culture and why people glom onto her so thoroughly.
Then my senior year of high school I had what is tantamount to an emotional crisis. I wouldn’t use the word nervous breakdown. I think a lot of young women go through similar things at that age. But I felt depressed really for the first time in my life, and so I picked up The Bell Jar again. At that point, I felt as you felt. I felt like this was a person who was inside of my head reading my thoughts. I could not believe how much the book had changed for me in that short time. And then I just became obsessed with Plath from that point on.
I think the best way to illustrate it, for me, I remember rereading Bitter Fame when I was in graduate school. I was working on a long critical paper about Plath. I finished it and I got to the part where she committed suicide and I was just so upset. I felt foolish. I was like, “I’m 27 years old. Why am I feeling this?” I called my best friend and said, “I feel ridiculous, but I’m having this complicated emotional reaction to the end of this book which I’ve read a million times.”
She said, “Well, you have a relationship with her,” meaning Sylvia.
And then I thought, that is so interesting. I guess I’d never thought about it that way. But yeah, we all have this relationship with her. I think it’s as simple as that. We have a relationship with her.
CD: I think that there is a large relationship that each person that relates to her seems to have. But like you were saying with the media and the view of her, there’s been the movie, Sylvia, with Gwyneth Paltrow, and Plath’s been referenced in romantic comedies like 10 Things I Hate About You. She’s always kind of looked down upon for being a thing of teen girls.
EVD: Yeah, she’s infantilized. She’s this incredibly mature writer, but for some reason, when she is talked about in popular culture, they often rest her entire reputation on The Bell Jar, which is so silly. For someone who died barely 30 years old, she has this enormous bibliography. I think to pin everything on that is strange.
My sense with Plath is that Hughes did not die until 1998 and Carol Hughes is still living, his widow, and she has an old school iron grip on his archives and giving permissions. She famously said when the Beuscher letters were serialized in The Guardian, “This is ridiculous. These claims are ridiculous. They’re absurd about this claim that Hughes had been physically abusive with Plath.” Of course, there’s corroborating evidence in various archives that Hughes told people that he was abusive to Plath. He told Fran McCullough who was his American editor and who was the person who was responsible for publishing The Bell Jar in the United States in 1975 when she was in England staying with him and helping him get Letters Home published.
He told her Sylvia used to go into these violent rages. She would get so angry and he wouldn’t know how to calm her down, so he used to slap her out of her rages. One time she leaned into the slap and got herself a black eye. I think with that kind of primary source material from these people who are, frankly, pro-Hughes — McCullough is a huge fan of Hughes and was his personal friend — for Carol Hughes to say, “That’s ridiculous,” is extremely problematic.
The reason I bring it up in reference to your question is that I think it points to the ways we still discount Sylvia’s word. We’ve been trained for so many years culturally to disbelieve her within the larger framework of a culture that disbelieves women generally.
CD: You wrote about that in your article for Literary Hub, which was the article that I first started reading your writing. I loved it. But I was actually just recently reading all the comments and it was just so interesting to me that —
EVD: I’ve read some of them. The rule with publishing is never read the comments.
CD: Yes. It’s like the YouTube comments.
EVD: Yeah. I did read a few though.
CD: It was just interesting to me how obviously your whole article is about how Plath has been silenced by Hughes and questioning why we’re unable to believe her. Yet, in all the comments, people are just talking about all the things that Plath did wrong. Nobody is talking about when he strangled her on their honeymoon where there’s evidence to corroborate this. People are still just so shocked and unwilling to believe it.
EVD: Yeah, I think the thing that was interesting for me is once I started to do real scholarship about her in graduate school, I got beyond primary texts and I started reading heavy criticism. By that point, it was the mid-2000s and so there were new editions of a lot of critical texts and they included contextualizing biographical information about the experience of trying to work with Olwyn [Hughes’s sister] and Ted Hughes because they were a team. Olwyn acted as his literary agent, and so in many ways that meant while he was executor of the Plath estate that she also acted as Plath’s literary agent, which is poignantly ironic because they really did not —
CD: Because they had such a “great” relationship.
EVD: Yeah. Olwyn is very frank about that. Malcolm’s book takes you step by step through some of those processes and Olwyn says to Malcolm at one point, “There’s no girl-to-girl between us.”
The one example that I give in the LitHub article is Judith Kroll who wrote Chapters in a Mythology. Chapters in a Mythology is really the first major critical study of Plath and Kroll was, she was a literary heavyweight. She wasn’t an established scholar at that time, but what I mean by she was a literary heavyweight is that she had gone to Yale. She did her dissertation on Plath at Yale. Ariel had only been out for probably five years. She had to convince her dissertation advisor that Plath was a major poet because she was relatively unknown at the time, and she did.
When she finished her dissertation, he said to her, “Wow, you’ve convinced me.” She in some ways is, I think, part of getting Plath established in the literary canon. Chapters in a Mythology is an excellent book. What a lot of people didn’t know is that, this is what she writes about in her foreword to the 2000, Hughes liked her work a lot and so he invited her to come over and edit what he was working on, Plath’s collected poems. The thing about Hughes is he studied literature for two years at Cambridge, but then he ended up switching his degree to anthropology.
He had a degree in anthropology, not literature. He does not have a graduate degree. He doesn’t work in archives. He doesn’t understand the sensitivity or sensitive nature of working with those kinds of materials. Well, Kroll does because she’s got a PhD in English literature from Yale. Of course, she’s worked in the Beinecke which has some of the most important rare manuscripts in the world.
She goes over to England at the behest of Olwyn and Ted Hughes to go work on the manuscripts for The Collected Poems and she’s horrified by what she sees. What she sees essentially is that they are not taking care of the manuscripts, that they’re in total disarray, that they’re not following standard practice for how you work with handwritten manuscripts. They’re editing Plath’s work. They’re saying like, “Well, I think that if we change this word here, move this stanza here, it sounds better like that. Don’t you think?” She’s like, “It doesn’t matter what I think. It doesn’t matter what you think. This is the collected work of a dead person, so you need to follow what’s on the page.”
CD: And you can’t ask them.
EVD: Of course, she doesn’t release any of this information until Ted Hughes has been dead for almost ten years. But even with all that, Kroll goes on to have this long, fruitful career as a critic and a professor at University of Texas, Austin in their English department. This book becomes this watershed moment for Plath studies and it’s still used today. Even with all that, Hughes from beyond the grave is still slandering her.
Jonathan Bate, who is a very famous critic and scholar and professor, I think he’s the provost of Worcester College at Oxford. He wrote this huge biography of Ted Hughes in 2014. Did you read it?
CD: I believe, I’ve seen it. I’ve seen how big it is.
EVD: He gets to the moment when Kroll goes over to England to help and eventually she can’t work with Hughes because they’re so disorganized and it’s unsafe in some ways. Bate says in his book, and Kroll is still living, that Ted Hughes realized that Judith Kroll just was not very good with editing and so she was the wrong person to do Plath’s book. I’m like, oh my God, I cannot believe this.
And this is after Kroll publishes. I think that all of that is really interconnected and points to the ways that there is this male literary establishment. It’s distinct in the UK and America, but they’re often collaborating.
They’re not just silencing Plath, they’re also silencing people who have done very legitimate scholarship about Plath’s life and work. It compounds itself. Like I said in my Lit Hub piece, there’s layers of irony because you have Hughes gaslighting Plath throughout their marriage, which we know to be true. And then after she dies, he keeps it up. But he’s doing it to people who try to advocate for her.
CD: I think it’s really hard to believe, but it’s all just in front of you. It’s so dichotomized. It’s either you’re on Plath’s side or you’re on Hughes’s side. Sometimes people can’t talk about it. Plath’s both happy and sad but people only see her for being depressed and for her suicide. Nobody understands her because of that. But you can’t understand her if you dichotomize her.
EVD: That also points to the reality that people aren’t especially interested in understanding her, so she becomes a cultural figure that’s really easy to exploit and manipulate. Part of that is her suicide is exploited because particularly at the cultural moment that she becomes famous, that coincides with the rise of second wave feminism and is the beginning of the intersectional feminist movement, Black Power movement, there’s all this radical stuff happening.
Her image and her life are able to be molded around her death. Jonathan Bate is problematic in a lot of ways, but he’s also a terrific scholar. One thing he said in his review of volume two of the letters was that we tend to read her life backwards. I think that that’s very true. I think that’s part of what ends up happening in the late 1960s and 1970s. People are reading her life backwards. They’re reading her fame and her suicide as having a logical relationship, as in it is her suicide that causes her to be famous.
People are, quite literally, at that point writing about her work as though she wrote it after she had already died. I know that that sounds completely insane, but in fact, Al Alvarez who was her very close friend and they had a romantic affair the fall before she died, in many cases, he was her first reader. He wrote in a 1965 review of Ariel that her poems read as though they were written posthumously. People start to contribute to this myth that she had magical powers or that her work is superhuman or it was written under a magical spell or that she is somehow connected to the occult. Really, really, powerful people in the literary world prop this myth up.
George Steiner, who’s a very famous critic, he’s another person that props this myth up with his reviews of Ariel. Robert Lowell writes an introduction to the 1966 American version of Ariel that is extremely strange and that, again, props up all of these strange myths about her having magical powers or being witch-like.
What is even stranger to me is that most of these people didn’t only know Sylvia Plath, they knew her pretty well. She was in Robert Lowell’s poetry workshop at Boston University when she was living in Boston in 1958 with Ted Hughes when they were freelance writing for the year. But she knew Lowell before that and she knew him after that too.
It’s one thing to read the work of a stranger and think, “Oh my goodness. This is so powerful, it’s almost as though it was written by somebody who’s not human.” It’s another thing to read the work of somebody who is your friend and who you knew quite well and to perpetuate those myths. I think that’s extremely strange.
The reality is that Sylvia Plath wrote the poems she did because she was obviously a very brilliant person, but also an extraordinarily disciplined and hardworking writer and reader, above all things. As somebody who is a working professor and mom and writer, I can barely get two reviews done in a year. To read a book and review it is a very arduous process. If you look at Plath’s day calendar, if you read her letters, if you read her journals, she’s churning out reviews, she’s editing anthologies. She’s doing all these things that, frankly, we don’t really know about, which they’re given really short shrift in most biographies.
I don’t want to give short shrift to the reality that many poets do feel like there’s some sort of otherworldly force that they’re able to harness when they write poems. I’m one of those people. But I think with literary criticism, the goal should be to look specifically at the text, which does not often happen with Sylvia Plath.
CD: And she had published her own poems all throughout her time at Smith. She had done this up until she met Hughes as well and she was the one who sent out his book to publishers, as well. She had been working, hardworking, but like you said, that’s not really the story that’s interesting.
EVD: Yeah, and I think it’s not just that she was doing all this work on her own, although she was doing all this work on her own, writing, but she also knew the literary and publishing landscape like the back of her hand. I’m reviewing the second volume of the letters right now for Harvard Review. One of the things that emerges, and this comes out a little bit in the first volume, but not like it does in this one because at this point she’s left school and she’s trying to make a career as a writer.
She has a working relationship, a first name basis working relationship with every major editor at every major magazine in Britain and the United States. There’s personal letters back and forth with The Observer, Encounter, The New Yorker, Sewanee Review, The Nation, you name it.
I think that’s the other thing about Plath that is so rarely discussed in-depth is that her work spans all of these different styles. Sometimes she’s highly literary and obtuse and difficult to dig into. Sometimes she’s really breezy and newsy and funny and sometimes she’s writing for women’s magazines. Sometimes she’s writing experimental poems and sometimes she’s writing satirical novels.
Sometimes she has outrageous success and sometimes she has pretty good success. The reason that she has those things is because she’s gone out of her way to study those genres so thoroughly. She’s such a voracious reader and student. But again, that is so rarely talked about. Instead, what is obsessed over is The Bell Jar and whether it’s true? It’s like, well, okay yeah, some elements of it are borrowed from her life, but also who cares? What does that really tell us in the end?
CD: If you actually look at all of her work it’s impossible to put her in a box, but yet that’s what everyone does.
EVD: That’s what everyone is obsessed with doing. The book that I’m working on now is a combination of personal memoir and criticism of the editing process that Hughes applied to her work. And if you really dig into that kind of archival material, it’s really strange and disturbing. He ruled with an iron fist. He had a ton of power and people were afraid of him and he bullied them. There’s a lot of evidence of that.
Here’s somebody like me, who before I was able to get into archives, before I had relationships with other Plath scholars, I was just reading what was available to the general public. There are people like Carl Shapiro, who is this very important critic and he wrote a lot of really negative critical stuff about Plath in the late ’60s and ’70s. Now that I’ve read her letters, she was a good friend of his and Hughes. She describes on at least a dozen occasions going out to dinner with him and having him over to their apartment.
It’s really weird to be like, wait, why is he writing with this critical distance. There’s any number of people you can tap to write about Sylvia Plath. Everybody wants to talk about this. They choose somebody who knew her really well, who still knows her husband really well, and then he takes a hatchet to her work. He’s writing as though she’s a stranger, like he’s never met her before.
It seems to me, based on what I’ve seen in archives, that Hughes had a lot of influence in this area, that he was deliberately influencing people to write these pieces about her and prop up this image of her as this really bleak, depressed, miserable, impossible person who was on a fast track to suicide.
If you actually talk to people who knew her who are now not afraid to speak, they’re like, think, “No, oh my God. That’s nothing to do with the person that I knew.” There’s a moment in Bate’s biography of Hughes that I think is especially telling. I think he’s talking to Ruth Fainlight, who was a friend of both of theirs. It’s right after Sylvia has committed suicide. He’s obviously beside himself, but he says, ”Everybody hated her.“ She looks at him and she says, ”I didn’t hate her. My husband didn’t hate her. She was our close friend.“ He’s already developing this idea that she was this sort of toss-away person and everyone hated her.
CD: I’m not sure if you have an answer to this, but why do you think it is that today, in 2018 in this progressive era, we still kind of see her as this “crazy” girl and as being so widely hated, as the myth that Hughes perpetrated?
EVD: I think that part of what Hughes does is he plays with literary tropes. A really well-known literary trope that he is playing with is the woman as the unreliable narrator, think Charlotte Perkins Gilman and The Yellow Wallpaper. This person who is “crazy” and who can only see the world through her own “crazy” lens, so everything she says is being filtered through this insane perspective that she has and that we should take it with a grain of salt. We can value it as literature for sure, but we should always value it with literature to a view in mind that we should doubt the veracity of it.
I think that that’s a big part of what Hughes is doing and there’s a lot of stuff on the record where he writes about her in these ways that I think really support that idea. He starts to really write publicly about her for the first time. He’s instrumental in getting her work out there and getting other people to talk about her work, like Robert Lowell, for instance.
But then, that changes in 1981, The Collected Poems come out and shortly thereafter, a heavily abridged version of her journals is released to the public. When The Collected Poems comes out, he writes this introduction and in the introduction he says that he spent every day with her for six and a half years and that she had a true self and that the only person she ever showed this true self to was him. That tells the reader, and of course she has this huge international audience, that the only person who really knew Sylvia Plath was Ted Hughes. Anybody else who disputes his version of events or disputes his version of who she was is incorrect and that the only way that you’re really going to access her is through him.
He somehow manages to make himself the central figure of her life, in life and in death. Then he also becomes the central figure of her literary life. That is very powerful. Hughes was apparently wildly charismatic and extremely charming and sometimes threatening and frightening.
He’s telling us, “this person is an unreliable narrator, but she’s still a valuable narrator, but don’t believe what she says. If you really want to understand her, you have to go through me.” A lot of people tried to fight that and were silenced. People that did write unauthorized biographies, like Edward Butscher or Linda Wagner-Martin, were maligned if not libeled in public by Hughes in newspapers and magazines in the 1980s and ’90s. And then Janet Malcolm puts The New Yorker stamp of approval on all that with her book, The Silent Woman, which comes out in 1991.
I think we tend to think of literature as this radical hotbed of feminism, but it’s not. As a feminist, you have to still really fight hard for people to take what you say seriously, even when you have all the evidence laid out, ducks in a row. To me, it’s not terribly surprising. But I do think that we’re on the verge of being able to potentially change that, generally and also specifically, about Plath. I like to say that Plath studies are in their infancy. There’s so much material that still hasn’t been released.
The letters will change everything, the publication of the letters.
CD: In my English class last year, we were given a Norton anthology of poetry. We all got to pick poems, so naturally I chose Plath. We were talking about them and my professor, was well-intentioned, but he said, “Why does she reference the Holocaust here?” I felt the question should be more so, why would Ted Hughes make her feel like she was going through the Holocaust?
EVD: Yeah, I think that her Holocaust stuff is troubling in some ways. I think that’s a valid question and it’s one that people have been tackling for a long time. There’s a lot of work out there about that and whether or not she’s appropriating racial and cultural identities that she should not be appropriating. I think the real problem is that the way that Hughes limited scholarship was so dramatic that because of that, we still don’t have a nuanced take on Plath and race and Plath and ethnicity and we really need one.
We really need one quite badly.
I delivered a paper on Plath and whiteness last spring at a conference in London and when I was doing the research for the paper, I had a preliminary idea in my head about her use of the N-word in Ariel and how troubled I’d always been by that. Well, once I started to do research, I was like, oh gosh, she says some deeply, deeply racist things in her journals, her letters, and in her work. That’s not exactly the same as her writing about the Holocaust, which I agree with you, is an attempt to give voice to a dramatic or violent emotional state. I’m not as troubled by that work as I am by her appropriation of Black American identities.
But the other thing that I think about that is that because we’ve always been reduced as you say, to being either in Plath’s camp or in Hughes’s camp, that disallows for any nuanced conversation or nuanced research about her work. That disallows for us to have the ability to say, “I love the work of Sylvia Plath. I’ve been deeply influenced by the work of Sylvia Plath. I think it’s really valuable and I think Sylvia Plath was a racist and this is a problem.”
EVD: Or, “I think Sylvia Plath was in deep waters when she was writing about the Holocaust as though she was present for the Holocaust or when she compared her father to a Nazi or when she compared her husband to a Nazi.” We don’t ever do that because what you end up with, ultimately, is a second-wave feminist agenda in many ways that sees Plath as a martyr figure and sees that position as having value and having political capital. They want to keep that up. An intersectional perspective on Plath, I think, is really, really, really needed because you can’t discount the powerful effect that she has on readers.
I’m having an email exchange right now with a young woman who is a person of color and who loves Plath. She’s crazy about her. She’s like, “But I feel like I can’t love her because she uses these racist terms.” Those are the conversations that I think we need to be having, like what does it mean to love her AND understand her as a racist AND what ramifications does that have for the larger literary and cultural landscape that we inhabit?
CD: I just keep going back to what we were saying about having the two different sides on it and how that doesn’t allow for a rational conversation sometimes.
EVD: Yeah, and I think it’s funny. That’s still very present. I mean it’s like a joke at this point with scholars but I presented at the Plath “Letters, Words and Fragments” Conference in Belfast, which was an amazing experience. But I was the last paper of the first day. After I finished, we went down and there was a dinner on the first floor of the building where the conference was being held in Belfast. I was passing by one of the Hughes scholars and he kind of caught my eye and he was like, “Don’t yell at me.” I was like, “No, I was totally freaked out that you were in the room.” He’s like, “Oh no. It’s okay.” We all laughed.
It’s like give me a break. He’s just some nice English dude. I certainly do not fault anybody for being interested in Ted Hughes. I’m interested in Ted Hughes. The older I get, I more time I spend reading about Ted Hughes. He lived to be 68 years old and he spent the last 30 plus years of his life writing about Sylvia Plath, so I have to be interested in Ted Hughes if I’m a Sylvia Plath scholar. I don’t have a choice.
But also, that stuff sells books too. That’s the other thing. The literary establishment and the publishing industry is probably going to have a fine time keeping up this façade of a feud or whatever, because people like that and they make money off it.
CD: I know you talked about this a little bit, but what are you including in this book that you’re writing about Plath?
EVD: I’m writing a lot about the experience of being a young woman reading Sylvia Plath. In many ways it’s a memoir of a reading life and having that relationship with her and how so many of those myths that I now decry had a lot of influence on decisions that I made in my personal life. Some of those were ultimately disastrous. I had a very unfortunate, very negative love affair with a poet. I left a marriage to be with him. I saw him as sort of a Ted Hughes-like figure.
What’s interesting to me is I am always somebody who has identified at least from my early adult life on, late teens on, as a feminist and a feminist thinker and writer and approached Plath’s work from the perspective of feminism. Always. That was always the case in my critical work about Plath. I was always vocally critical of Hughes, even as an undergraduate. Why, with all of that, would I make this conscious choice to be with somebody, to leave a marriage to be with somebody who had so many odd resemblances to Hughes in that he was sort of violent and angry and very big and powerful? I don’t know.
Knowing what that led Plath to, not that it led to her suicide specifically, but knowing the way that her marriage broke down, all of the negative consequences and implications that that had for her, what about the world that we live in influences people like me to make choices like that?
It also points to the way that we misunderstand those terms. We misunderstand how domestic violence works. There are parallels between my life and Sylvia Plath’s and I think that there are so many young women who feel that way. Also, what does it mean to survive Plath? And how many times did I ask myself if I was going to meet the same fate as a young woman? Why do so many young women suffer from so-called melancholia or depression? How does Plath give a voice to that? How do we marginalize that voice? And why do we marginalize that voice? Yeah, so it’s probably about that.
CD: I’m interested and would love to read it when you’re finished.
EVD: Oh yes. You shall. I promise. I’ll send you a copy. •
All illustrations by Isabella Akhtarshenas.