• When Judith Jones Brought Sylvia Plath and Julia Child to American Bookshelves

    Sara B. Franklin on the Legendary Editor’s Mentorship of Two Iconic Authors

    In November 1960, almost a year to date after William Koshland, longtime staffer at Knopf, delivered the manuscript of the book that would become Mastering the Art of French Cooking to editor Judith Jones, he stopped by her desk with another book in hand. This one was slim—a collection of poetry, Koshland said. Judith’s love of verse was almost as well-known around the office as her interest in food. Koshland said the volume was the poet’s debut. It had just been published in the UK by Heinemann; it wanted to know if Knopf would be interested in purchasing the American rights and publishing the book in the States. Koshland asked Judith if she’d give it a look.

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    Judith set aside the work she’d been doing, opened to the first poem, and read: Perhaps you consider yourself an oracle / Mouthpiece of the dead, or of some god or other. / Thirty years now I have labored / To dredge the silt from your throat. / I am none the wiser. The collection was called The Colossus and Other Poems. Its author was Sylvia Plath.

    Judith was able to work with Plath and Child as she saw fit, with very little oversight from Knopf ’s higher-ups.

    Knopf had had their eye on Plath since 1953, when she’d done a stint as a guest editor at Mademoiselle during her summer break from Smith College (whence Julia Child had graduated two decades before). Plath, who’d been placing her stories and poems in national publications since she was a teen, had won her place at the magazine “for smart young women” by submitting a work of short fiction the year before. That piece, which Plath had entered in Mademoiselle’s annual Guest Editor contest and which won first prize and was published therein, had caught the attention of Harold Strauss, at the time, Knopf ’s editor in chief.

    He’d written to Plath, asking her to keep him abreast of her future work. He said he hoped that one day she would pen a novel Knopf could publish. Plath was flattered but said that, as a student on scholarship, she worked summers to help pay her way, and was “not in the position to concentrate on any sustained writing project as yet.” She thanked Strauss for his confidence in her writing and assured him that, if and when the time came, she would happily submit her novel to Knopf. “I hope within the next few years,” Plath wrote.

    Mademoiselle’s annual college issue of August 1953 contained three pieces by twenty-year-old Sylvia Plath: an article about notable poets teaching on college campuses; an interview she’d conducted with Knopf author, Elizabeth Bowen; and an original poem titled “Mad Girl’s Love Song”: I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead; / I lift my lids and all is born again. / (I think I made you up inside my head.).

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    Plath had suffered from depression and wrestled with mental illness all her life. In her journals and letters, she described that summer of 1953 as one of “pain, parties, and work.” Plath was thrilled to be in the thick of things; she was also overwhelmed. In August, she attempted to take her own life, swallowing a large dose of her mother’s sleeping pills. “I blissfully succumbed to the whirling blackness that I honestly believed was eternal oblivion,” she later wrote. But having taken too many pills, she “vomited them, and came to consciousness in the dark hell.”

    After her attempted suicide, Plath underwent “therapeutic” treatments of the talk, electroconvulsive, and insulin-shock kinds. Then she returned to Smith for spring term of 1954. She put on a good face, writing an honors thesis on Dostoyevsky and graduating summa cum laude in June 1955. Before graduating, she learned she’d been awarded a Fulbright to study literature at Cambridge starting that fall. There, at a launch party for a student magazine in which she’d published some of her poems, Plath met Ted Hughes. Plath described their first encounter as “cataclysmic.” The couple married in June 1956, less than four months after meeting.

    Plath and Hughes were both ambitious poets, but in their marriage, Hughes’s work as an artist was prioritized. In addition to writing, Plath also kept house: “chicken & squash ready in the oven for her husband’s return from the library, back achey,” she noted in her journal. Plath enjoyed cooking but resented the scarce time it left her with to write. “Whoa, I said to myself. You will escape into domesticity & stifle yourself by falling headfirst into a bowl of cookie batter,” Plath wrote soon after she and Hughes wed. But in spite of her “disease of doldrums,” and the couple’s geographic upheaval—they moved to the States in 1957 and returned to the UK two years later—Plath kept the plates spinning and muscled on, determined to write.

    In April 1959, Plath completed her first book of poems and began looking for a publisher, “A much more difficult job for a poetrywriter than a novelist or a children’s book writer,” she wrote in a letter to a friend. That June, she submitted it to Knopf, making good on her word to editor Harold Strauss. Strauss knew little about poetry, and the manuscript was promptly given to Judith. Judith passed on Plath’s collection but was “impressed enough,” Judith later wrote, “to write her, although I did not think she was ready for a collection—at least one that we could do.”

    That summer, Plath and Hughes moved back to the UK and settled in London’s Chalcot Square. From overseas, following Knopf ’s rejection, Plath submitted her collection to the Viking Press and Farrar, Straus and Cudahy in October 1959. Neither house bit. Plath switched tack to focus on finding a British publisher for her book, while preparing for the arrival of her first child. The writer was twenty-seven when Frieda Rebecca Hughes was born in April 1960.

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    On Halloween of that year, with Frieda just seven months old, Heinemann published Plath’s Colossus. When the house sent a copy of the British edition to Knopf for consideration, Koshland promptly handed the collection off to Judith, who he knew had seen the poet’s earlier submission, to assess.

    Judith spent a month with Plath’s poems, letting the verse sink in. She took it home and shared portions of it with her husband, the writer Richard Evan Jones, who went by Dick. Poetry, like food, was a shared passion of theirs. Often, after dinner, the two would read poems aloud. In December 1960, Judith wrote a report to her colleagues at Knopf about Plath’s book: “This girl is a poet, there is no question about it,” she said. “I think one of the most exciting ones that has emerged in a long time.”

    Judith was inclined to endorse Knopf ’s acquisition of The Colossus, but thought they ought to try to get hold of some of Plath’s recent short stories, too. “It would be a sounder investment to launch her if we felt we were getting a potential fiction writer as well.” Publishing poetry was always a risky investment; the form had literary clout, but rarely sold well.

    Judith did have one reservation about The Colossus. She felt that “Poem for a Birthday” hewed dangerously close to her former teacher—and lover—Theodore Roethke’s “The Lost Son.”  “The birthday poem” seemed “so deliberately stolen,” Judith wrote, “that I would almost fear the charge of plagiarism.” The editor, still gaining confidence at Knopf, suggested that “a pro,” in the field of poetry, “someone like Stanley Kunitz,” be asked to weigh in. Kunitz, who’d won a Pulitzer for his Selected Poems, 1928–1958 the previous year, knew his friend Roethke’s body of work intimately. Judith wanted to know if Kunitz saw the “imitativeness” in Plath’s poem that she did.

    In January 1961, Judith sent The Colossus to Kunitz along with a note: “‘Poem for a Birthday’ at the end of the book is the one I am so uneasy about.” It took Kunitz two months to reply, but when he did, he agreed with Judith both about the collection’s promise and the trouble with the particular poem. With that, Judith felt she had what she needed, and got her superiors’ go-ahead to move on the book. In March 1961, she wrote to Plath. “I feel I have lied [sic] with these poems for a long time now,” she said. “I am convinced that they are remarkably fresh and exciting and vigorous. In fact, I cannot remember when I have been as impressed by any collection of a young poet.” She included her concern about “Poem for a Birthday,” too.

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    “The feeling,” Judith explained, “is that both in terms of imagery and rhyming structure it is so close to Theodore Roethke’s ‘Lost Son’ that people would be likely to pounce on you.” She would hate, Judith said, “to see your book reviewed and have almost all the critics use this as an opening wedge.” She urged Plath to consider cutting the poem for the American edition, and wondered whether she might want to “weed out some of the more uneven poems” while she was at it. “If so, I would be glad to discuss which ones we might sacrifice.” Judith signed off: “I shall be looking forward to hearing from you very anxiously indeed.”

    Judith committed to doing everything in her power to help those books, those authors—and, thus, herself along with them—get ahead.

    Plath was surprised at Judith’s willingness to reconsider her work, and over the moon at the prestigious house of Knopf ’s offer on her book. To her mother, Aurelia, Plath wrote, “GOOD NEWS GOOD NEWS GOOD NEWS…ALFRED KNOPF will publish The Colossus in America! It is an immense joy to have what I consider THE publisher accept my book for America with such enthusiasm.” When she responded to Judith, Plath conceded, without a whiff of defensiveness, that Judith was right about “Poem for a Birthday.” It was, she admitted, “written under the undiluted influence of Roethke, and I now feel it is too obviously influenced. There are, however,” she added, “two sections of the poem I wonder if you would reconsider and perhaps be willing to publish on their own—‘Flute Notes from a Reedy Pond’ and ‘The Stones.’”

    Those poems, the poet wrote, had been “written separately and much later than the other five…and have been published as separate poems in America where the others have not.” As for cuts, Plath included a list of the poems she was inclined to cull; it would bring the collection down from the fifty poems in the British edition to forty for the American one, “a good and reasonable number,” she wrote. “I’m eager to hear what you think of these suggestions. As for the rest, I couldn’t be more in agreement with you. Sincerely yours, Sylvia Plath.”

    Judith concurred with most of Plath’s proposed cuts, although on two, she suggested alternatives instead. “Do think about it,” Judith wrote, “the final decision must, of course, be yours.” Judith wrote that she liked Plath’s idea of printing a trimmed version of “Poem for a Birthday,” too. “I am pleased that our opinions seem to coincide so closely,” Plath responded in May 1961. Their back-and-forth had helped her be more objective about her own work, Plath said, “and will result, I think, in a much stronger and shorter book in America.”

    So pleased was Plath with her “lady editor”—as she referred to Judith in a letter home, and her astute handling of her work—that she called the collection’s British edition “a trial run.” In August, when The Colossus’s contracts were, at last, fully executed, Judith wrote to Plath, “hastening…to let you know that we are scheduling the book for Spring, April 1962 and are ready to put it into production. I am delighted that we are finally underway.” Judith felt the satisfaction of things beginning to click into place. At last, her editorial instincts were coalescing into something real, a work she would be able to hold in her hands and rightfully claim as her own.

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    Judith was still working largely at the Knopfs’ behest, helping support authors given her by Blanche and Alfred and editing under their names. But, quietly and off to the side, Judith was nurturing her own ambitions as well; with Sylvia Plath and Julia Child, she had begun to build her list. The two writers were strategic choices on Judith’s part: low-profile authors whose work, in poetry and food, respectively, existed outside the literary mainstream.

    As such, Judith was able to work with Plath and Child as she saw fit, with very little oversight from Knopf ’s higher-ups. As long as she fulfilled her obligations to Blanche and Alfred, no one at the house questioned what Judith did with the rest of her time. “I was allowed to do [my] own thing,” Judith told me. Still, she was keenly aware that the reception of Plath’s Colossus and les trois gourmandes’ cookbook would largely determine her ability to pursue more authors independently.

    The future of her career at Knopf hinged on her books’ success. And so Judith committed to doing everything in her power to help those books, those authors—and, thus, herself along with them—get ahead.


    Excerpted from The Editor: How Publishing Legend Judith Jones Shaped Culture in America by Sara B. Franklin. Copyright © 2024 by Sara BFranklin. Reprinted by permission of Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, LLC.

    Sara B. Franklin
    Sara B. Franklin
    Sara B. Franklin is a writer, teacher, and oral historian. She received a 2020–2021 National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Public Scholars grant for her research on Judith Jones, and teaches courses on food, writing, embodied culture, and oral history at NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study. She is the author of The Editor, the editor of Edna Lewis, and coauthor of The Phoenicia Diner Cookbook. She holds a PhD in Food Studies from NYU and studied documentary storytelling at both the Duke Center for Documentary Studies and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. She lives with her children in Kingston, New York.

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