Book Review: The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 1

The details:

Title: The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 1: 1940-1956
Author: Sylvia Plath (Edited by Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil)
Genre: Nonfiction
Pages: 1,424
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble

I read this very slowly, beginning when it was first released in October. It took me over four months to finish. At over 1,000 pages, this is just the first volume of Plath’s letters, with the second slated for release later this year.

The letters begin during Plath’s adolescence, primarily letters written to her mother during summer camps, moving on to her Smith College years, and finally during her Fulbright scholarship at Cambridge. If I am being completely honest, the earlier letters were sometimes tedious, interesting only from a biographical standpoint, but they helped to trace Plath’s growth as a writer. When she is finally at Cambridge and describing her new surroundings to her mother, her writing starts to gain the gripping nature of a novel.

The editorial contribution to this volume is bare and understated. In a footnote, the editors note that the person Plath is referring to, in one of her letters, is one Edward James Hughes, better known as Ted, Plath’s future husband. But, at the time of their meeting, Plath was still obsessed with her ex-boyfriend, Richard Sassoon. Although her letters to Sassoon are currently lost, Plath saved excerpts, which are included in this collection, of wonderfully experimental and poetic letters to him in her journals.

As I read, I tried to compare the letters to what I knew from biographies. For instance, in early 1956, a few biographies I looked at said that Plath was very depressed. But in her letters to her mother, she tried to stay upbeat, covering up most of what she was feeling. She was very honest with her mother about her experiences, but not so much about her emotions. After their marriage, when she writes to her dearest Teddy-ponk while she was in student housing away from him, I was fascinated by the criticism and suggestions for his poems in her letters to him. Plath was eager for his opinion of her writings, respecting his opinion, and continuing to grow through revisions, while offering criticism of his poems and prose in return. There were some points where the writing process clearly came through, and one could note how hard Plath worked to promote his work along with her own, typing pages upon pages of manuscripts and sending them off hopefully for publication.

With a writer as confessional as Plath, her letters feel like a necessary part of her literary canon. I was surprised by just how much of The Bell Jar plot could be found in her letters. There’s even a note about a boy she dated, his name, the exact story, duplicated from letter to book. These letters provide a further window into the life of a brilliant writer who continues to captivate readers to this day. The work the editors did to transcribe and organize each letter must have been tremendous. I am extremely grateful for the time they spent to make more Plath writings available to the public and looking forward to volume 2 later this year.