Lessons From a Newly-Discovered Sylvia Plath Story
It Would Be Easy to Write It Off—But We Shouldn't.
Nearly twenty years ago, Joyce Carol Oates wrote in her New York Times review of Sylvia Plath’s Unabridged Journals that the book was Plath’s “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 Lady’s style—the 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 Plath’s 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 intended—it 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 praise—in 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 seatmate—a sonsy, middle-aged woman—greets 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 other’s 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 drama—or rather, as someone who saw the inexorable link between the two.
It would be easy—and inaccurate—to 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. Mary’s 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 Mary’s 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.
Plath’s use of the imagery of human suffering in poems like “Daddy,” “Mary’s 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 children’s 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 Plath’s 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 father’s daughter, Plath’s 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 Plath’s 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 drama—or rather, as someone who saw the inexorable link between the two.
Plath sent “Mary Ventura” to Mademoiselle for publication—they 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 released—then I realized they were there intentionally.
But what that intention is, I can’t tell you. This is not a personal journal, or a letter, or an archival manuscript—it’s a story Plath meant for publication, which means she wanted any errors remedied by a keen eye (read Volume Two of her Letters—she 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 1982’s heavily abridged Journals, Francis McCullough, the legendary Harper editor and close associate of Hughes, “explained” to readers in her “Editor’s Note” that she had made many cuts to “[diminish] Plath’s eroticism, which was quite strong,” as though Plath’s 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 writer—editors 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 unknown—we 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. Here’s hoping this latest story will open up new avenues of understanding her complex work—and introduce her to a new generation. More Plath, Please. Always.