Tragic Destinies

Hemingway And Plath Letters


Jeffrey Meyers

Hemingway and Plath are very different but have some important characteristics in common. They were exceptionally good-looking and grew up in conventional middle-class homes with fathers who were professional men: a doctor and a college professor. Both fathers killed themselves: Clarence Hemingway actively with a gun, Otto Plath passively by refusing to treat his fatal diabetes. After previous attempts, Hemingway and Plath committed suicide: Hemingway instantly with a shotgun in 1961, Plath more slowly with gas in 1963. Both writers hated their mothers. Hemingway unfairly blamed Grace for his father’s suicide; Plath finally “got permission” from her analyst to hate Aurelia. Their families had a history of mental illness. Hemingway’s brother and sister and Plath’s son also killed themselves. Both writers had a sharp satiric wit, and many of their works were published posthumously: A Moveable Feast enhanced Hemingway’s literary career, Ariel established Plath’s reputation.

Hemingway’s letters reveal a great deal about his character, friendships and writing. Though he created an impressive public image, he did not want Scribner’s to publicize his private life, which he harshly called an “open sewer.” While still in his teens he had wildly exaggerated his World War I record, wounds and medals, and did not want his lies to be exposed. His adulterous liaison with the Catholic Pauline Pfeiffer and divorce from Hadley Richardson were scandalous. He shocked the respectable folk of his hometown, Oak Park, and his censorious mother said she would “rather see me dead and in my grave than writing as I am.”

But Hemingway, beneath his tough carapace, had many positive qualities. He was surprisingly respectful to older second-string writers: Owen Wister as well as David Garnett, Hugh Walpole, Louis Bromfield and Thornton Wilder. He encouraged and helped his friends and contemporaries: Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, Archibald MacLeish and his horse-racing pal Evan Shipman. A good judge of character, he shrewdly called Ezra Pound, well before his fascist broadcasts, a “bloody fool … who has written damned lovely poetry.”

He assumed financial responsibility for his mother and three younger siblings, and set up a trust fund for them after his father had lost most of his money and committed suicide. He sardonically remarked that his father, a marvelous shot at all manner of birds, “shot himself with equal success.” If his father had held on to his “worthless” properties in St. Petersburg and Clearwater, Florida, they would have become very valuable in the boom that followed the Depression. Hemingway even tried to place his mother’s mediocre paintings in the Paris Salon d’Automne. He freely inscribed books for fans, gave away his valuable early pamphlets, and lent or sent money to several writers. He donated all The Sun Also Rises royalties to Hadley and most of the Farewell to Arms royalties to his family, and maintained, “I have to work or thousands starve.” Judging himself severely, he remarked, “My only pride is of a certain artistic and financial integrity—in all other ways in life I have made an ass of myself.” Pauline’s rich uncle and benefactor, Gus Pfeiffer, took up the financial slack by helping Hemingway set up the trust fund, buying the grand house in Key West, underwriting the African safari and paying for the fishing boat, the Pilar.

Hemingway was amazingly patient with his mother, who was difficult even when he tried to help her. When she sanctimoniously dragged in God to justify her selfish and irrational behavior—“that’s why the Lord isn’t letting us sell [the house], because He knows”—he caustically responded, “It is beside the point to bring in … any discussion of our Lord or our Heavenly Father. I am glad you are on such excellent terms with Him.” He impaled her in “Soldier’s Home” by quoting his reaction to her overbearing maternal affection: “ ‘I am your mother,’ she said. ‘I held you next to my heart when you were a tiny baby.’ Krebs felt sick and vaguely nauseated.”

Both Hemingway and his younger sister complained to their mother about each other’s intolerable faults. He said that Sunny, who’d been helping in his Key West household, was “Dirty slovenly sullen completely self-centered and without any manners or any interest in anything except boy running and petting”—which did not reflect well on her mother’s values. Uneasy in his conflicting roles as paterfamilias and divorced adulterer, he also dragged in the Deity and gave moralistic advice to his youngest sister, Carol, about the cesspit of their town: “I hope to God you are not going to be corrupted by the … cheap, cheap, petting vacantness that has come to such perfect flowering in Oak Park.”

In an extraordinary letter, he naively attempted to play matchmaker to Pauline’s younger sister, Jinny Pfeiffer, without realizing that she was a lesbian and was completely dominated by her closest friend: “I have been lining up the finest [men] I can find for her to meet and I know sooner or later she would hit it off with someone but Clara would kill all that… . Marriage is one thing that Clara is determined shall never happen.”

Hemingway’s letters are often amusing and startling. His comments range from puns, wordplay, absurd comparisons and fanciful exaggerations to salutary severity, scenes of violence, far-fetched imaginings and sexual insults. In a Montana hospital, he punned on portable toilet and searching for gold by stating he was “bed panning in the Far West.” After Gertrude Stein compared the two writers to the hare and the tortoise, and Fitzgerald chose the triumphant role, Hemingway turned the noun into a verb and conceded, “All right. Tortoise all you want.” Claiming that Hancock, his mother’s family name, was originally Jewish, he alluded to forbidden pork and circumcised foreskins by calling it “Hamcockskinoff.” Conflating trilogy and Trinity, he assured Dos Passos, author of the three-volume U.S.A., that “Trilogies are undoubtedly the thing.—Look at the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.”

The Dutch steamship Volendam was “very steady and dull—like voyaging on Queen Wilhelmina’s ample bosom.” Literary fame brought some surprising responses from readers who confused him with his war-wounded hero Jake Barnes: “When The Sun Also Rises came out there were only letters from a few old ladies who wanted to make a home for me and said my disability would be no drawback.” After reading an enthusiastic review of A Farewell to Arms, he “wanted to go right out and buy [the book].” His cruel response condemned the unfortunately named Lawrence Lack: “After reading your letter I would be shirking my duty if I did not do whatever is possible to discourage you from as you put it ‘eventually entering the field of authors.’ You write abominably.”

Drunk on absinthe, he threw a knife into a piano and justified it by explaining, “the woodworms are so bad and eat hell out of all furniture that you can always claim the woodworms did it.” He predicted that his three sons were destined for the bullring as “a matador, a banderillero and a sword handler—or [for prison] one for Devil’s Island—one for Wormwood Scrubs and the balance for Sing Sing.” Attributing sexual incapacity to Max Eastman, he called his bête noir “the fondler of the arts and unable to fornicate with them.”

But he was extremely sensitive to any attacks on his own manhood. He was enraged by Eastman’s assertion that he had false hair on his chest, Stein’s charge that he was “yellow” and Robert McAlmon’s accusations that he beat Hadley when she was pregnant, that he was a homosexual and Pauline a lesbian. (After her divorce from Hemingway, Pauline did have affairs with Elizabeth Bishop and other women.) Hemingway was furious when newspapers reported that he’d insulted Morley Callaghan who “challenged me and knocked me cold!” In a notorious incident Fitzgerald, supposed to keep time in their boxing match, let a two-minute round go for nearly four minutes while Callaghan hit Hemingway, cut his mouth and messed up his face. He suspected that Fitzgerald took vicarious pleasure in watching Callaghan beat him up. But he finally accepted his friend’s explanation that he became absorbed in the fight, forgot about the timing and let the round go on by accident. After impugning Fitzgerald’s honor, he nobly apologized for the unfortunate misunderstanding.

Since there was nothing for him to do in Key West but fish, swim, play tennis, drink and talk, Hemingway constantly urged friends to join him for bird-shooting and deep-sea fishing and even offered to pay their expenses. But friends were reluctant to spend their vacation driven by his unremitting energy and exhausting activities. Gerald Brenan told me that when Hemingway was in the room there didn’t seem to be enough air for anyone else.

Hemingway’s telegraphic description of fighting a huge shark could have inspired a great story: “after an hour 10 minutes he showed—a damn mackerel shark—I fought him one hr. more (by clock) and we landed him—Didn’t have your gaff and he broke the harpoon line. I’d get him up to boat—they’d strike him and out he’d go again—I was pooped—Finally gaffed him and I shot him a magazinefull of 22 hollow points—weighed only 205 lbs. but was 8 ft. long and slim and a hell of a fighter.” As Edmund Wilson observed, “almost the only thing we learn about the animals is that Hemingway wants to kill them.”

Since Hemingway constantly engaged in violent and dangerous activities, took great risks, was clumsy and seemed disastrously unlucky, he suffered many serious accidents and injuries. Within two-and-a-half years he became as scarred as a boxer or bullfighter. In addition to persistent eye problems, he smashed and cut the index finger of his right hand and needed six stitches. When hunting bears, his “horse got crazy and bolted through timber,” which gave him a six-inch gash in his jaw and “new punctuation on face.” Trout fishing without waders in a cold stream and cold rain, he “caught cold in the kidneys, got congestion of same and damn near passed out.” Forced off a narrow road, his car turned over in a deep ditch and he severely fractured his right arm: “the ends of the bone were broken off and the arm bent back on itself, the nerve was stretched so that it put it on the bum.” The ghastly wound looked like “the meat of an elk that you have to throw away where the bullet smashes the bone.”

He relished the morbid details, could endure great pain, was very strong and had great powers of recuperation. He even adopted Friedrich Nietzsche’s idea that disease inspires art: “syphilis always speeds up production with a writer who also likes his bed sports… . The spiros stimulate the brain so much that it makes the writer stop his sporting life and that gives him so damned much energy in spite of the old disease that he turns [the books] out with all the over-energy.”

These letters definitively prove that Max Perkins, whom he mocked as “Maxie Dead Pan,” was not a great editor of Hemingway’s works. He mainly wanted, against Hemingway’s strong protestations, to delete obscene words, and also tried to change the correct order of his stories. He often wrote to Perkins about business matters: contracts, rights, reviews, sales, reprints, translations and earnings, and repeatedly denied rumors that he planned to leave Scribner’s. Remembering his disastrous lost suitcase filled with the only copies of his early work, he assured Perkins that he was carefully protecting all his typescripts by placing carbon copies in a bank vault.

A Farewell to Arms was published, unluckily, in September 1929, only one month before the stock market crash. Hemingway had stiff competition from excellent war books: R. C. Sherriff ’s play Journey’s End (1928) as well as works that appeared the following year: Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That and Richard Aldington’s Death of a Hero.

As always, Hemingway was perceptive about writing. Paradoxically, he needed to be alone when working, but then felt lonely; he didn’t feel like writing when he was in perfect shape, but couldn’t write when he was seriously sick or injured. He experienced extreme oscillations of mood: “either working and not speaking to anyone and afraid each day you will [lose] it and living like a damned monk for it—then a fine time after it’s done, then hellish depression until you get into it again.” If a writer is blocked, “it’s better to write [something] than constipate trying to write masterpieces.” When conditions are most hopeless, he had to press ahead “with a novel and go straight on through to the end of the damn thing.” His best work, he believed, came not from rational thought, but from his subconscious. He not only had to feel the terrific kick of a story in himself, but also had to give that feeling to the reader. He made his fiction the same way his gunsmith made his rifle: “I don’t care about the job being too ultra, would prefer fit and sturdiness and absolute dependability of action.”

He thought an author should not talk about his work for fear of losing it and should let the reader interpret the meaning. He criticized Stein’s careless method and felt she “could have written damned good stuff but instead she … wrote every day, without corrections,” which made her feel good and earned the praise of her followers. He agreed with Dos Passos’ idea, a variant of his iceberg theory, that “a writer should judge the excellence of a book for himself by the quality of the stuff he is able to remove without losing anything.” Finally, though extremely competitive, he declared that authors should compete only with the dead.

The two pedestrian introductions to the Letters summarize the contents, but don’t analyze the major themes. Ignoring the radical faults of the previous volumes, the egoistic footnote editors continue their inexorable trudge to pedantry and boredom. They claim that this edition will be “at once satisfying to the scholar and inviting to the general reader.” In fact, no scholar or reader would want to plow through the hundreds of superfluous footnotes, mechanically decanted straight from the internet in tiny hard-to-read print, or learn the maiden names with birth and death dates of the wives of Hemingway’s acquaintances. The footnotes, especially those on fishing, boxing, horse racing and bullfighting, bury the letters in mind-numbing trivia. The Spanish painter Juan Gris, for example, is absurdly identified as “José Victoriano Carmelo Carlos González Pérez.” Eight short words on page 34 provoke a 101-word note. An effective change of editorial policy and far fewer footnotes would make the next fifteen or more volumes shorter, cheaper and more readable.

Despite the cadre of advisory editors, there are some errors in the book. Examples: Somerset Maugham did not parody himself in Cakes and Ale (402). André Masson’s The Forest was not a triptych but one of a series (74). The editors also miss some important allusions. Gustavus Adolphus Pfeiffer was named after the warrior-king of Sweden (48); “the Word was God” alludes to John 1:1 (73), “chariot of fire” to 2 Kings 2:11 and Blake’s “Jerusalem” (416), “sow the wind and reap the whirlwind” to Hosea 8:7 (462). Edmund Wilson—who was not a Communist—considered “The Hamlet of A. MacLeish” “a prime piece of bathos.”

Hemingway’s best letters were written to or about Fitzgerald, who struggled unsuccessfully with Tender Is the Night during Hemingway’s triumphant ascent with A Farewell to Arms. He encouraged Fitzgerald by telling him “how much I admire your work” and that there was “no such thing [as competition] between serious writers.” He thought Fitzgerald was “absolutely the soul of honor when sober and when drunk is no more responsible than an insane man.” Though his friend could be extremely trying, he was “damned fond of Scott and would do anything for him .”

Though Hemingway patronized Fitzgerald, he took the famous conclusion of A Farewell to Arms from the style and mood of a sentence in The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald wrote of Nick Carraway leaving Gatsby and Daisy, “Then I went out of the room and down the marble steps into the rain, leaving them there together.” Hemingway followed this closely with: “After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain” (my emphasis). Gatsby’s romantic pessimism and portrayal of adultery and murder among the rich sporting set also had a powerful and hitherto unnoticed influence on the characters, plot and theme of “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” (1936).

Hemingway’s memories of his war wounds and close encounter with death, revived during the composition of A Farewell to Arms, provoked morbid thoughts and a fatalistic attitude to extinction. He sometimes joked about it by stating, “men are dying this year who have never died before,” but he was usually more serious. “We all lose in the end,” he lamented. “You’ll be dead and I will be dead and that is all we can be completely sure of … . As for immortality, that’s something we have to die to find out about … and the worms have a hell of a time to tell you.” Even in A Moveable Feast, his portrayal of the idyllic postwar years in Paris, he listed among other casualties Ernest Walsh’s fatal tuberculosis and Jules Pascin’s suicide by hanging.

His pathological obsession attracted him to the dance of death in the bullring where, as in war, men voluntarily risk their lives. When preparing to write Death in the Afternoon (1932), still the best book on bullfighting, he offloaded his two young sons with French nursemaids during the summer season. He then improved his knowledge of Spain and Spanish (he also knew Italian, French and German), became familiar with the mood of different cities and arenas, had extensive first-hand experience with hundreds of corridas, talked endlessly to experts, especially to the American matador Sidney Franklin, who was seriously gored in March 1930. Until 1928 protective padding was not used on the picadors’ horses. When they were gored by the bulls their guts spilled out and spectators needed a strong stomach to endure the smell. Death in the Afternoon marked a crucial turning point in his career. When he portrayed himself as a character in this book and in Green Hills of Africa (1935) the public personality began to eclipse the private writer. As he constructed and exploited his persona, Edmund Wilson wrote, he became “his own worst invented character.”

Hemingway went dutifully to Catholic Mass and Pauline reluctantly joined him at the bullfights. But fed up with the unremitting slaughter, she went shopping for antique silverware and for expensive fall-season clothes when (she claimed) she was “stript bare as a leaf.” When Pauline became pregnant in 1931 Hemingway wanted a girl, and after his third son, Gregory, was born he joked with Perkins, “If you let me know the secret of having daughters [Perkins had five], I’ll tell you how to have sons.” Pauline had to endure seven hours of agonizing labor–“She really had a very terrible time,” he said, “there are pains and pains you know”—and finally needed a caesarean delivery. Hemingway had compared his broken arm wound to rotten elk meat and now reported that “Pauline opened up like a picador’s horse.” The three-year-old Patrick, resenting his new rival, “filled the mosquito sprayer yesterday with mosquito dope … and sprayed his little brother thoroughly—he woke up and cried loud enough to attract attention before it killed him—Patrick spraying manfully, the harder he cried the more spray he received. ‘Did you want to hurt your little brother?’ ‘Y e s,’ said Patrick, very scared.” Gregory’s dread of being an unwanted son tormented him throughout his life and finally provoked a sex change.

As Hemingway hastened from forced attendance at Mass to the bicycle races at the Vélodrome d’Hiver, he became increasingly angry about Pauline’s dogmatic refusal to use contraceptives, which had led to her (perhaps unwanted) pregnancy and excruciating birth pains. This grim experience decisively turned Hemingway against the Catholic Church. In a definitive statement, he bitterly exclaimed, “If the Church insists that I must put Pauline through what I have just seen her through, am afraid I must consider myself an outlyer from now on… . If a sovereign Pontiff bore children when not built for it he might write a bull of exceptions… . If [the Church] insists on production of more Catholics by all Catholics it ought to make some provision … for members who have to risk death to conform to Papal encyclicals.” This bitter religious crisis foreshadowed his future divorce from Pauline. He would also quarrel with many of his close writer-friends of the late 1920s: Stein, Dos Passos, MacLeish and Scott Fitzgerald.

Plath once read Hemingway for seven hours straight, and admired the terse simplicity and understated, cryptic quality of his style. Yet she did not share his afición for the corrida in Spain. Her response to the bullfight was typical of many appalled tourists and based on mistaken assumptions: the bull was not peaceful and was destined to be killed. But she savagely rejoiced in the probable death of the bullfighter:

I’d imagined that the matador danced around with the dangerous bull, then killed him neatly. Not so. The bull is utterly innocent, peaceful, taunted to run about by the many cape-wavers. Then a horrid picador on a horse with a straw-mat guard about it stabs a huge hole in the bull’s neck with a pike, from which gushed blood, and men run to stick little colored picks in it. The killing isn’t even neat, and with all the chances against it, we felt disgusted and sickened by such brutality. The most satisfying moment for us was when one of the six beautiful doomed bulls managed to gore a fat cruel picador, lift him off the horse, and, I hope, make him eventually bleed to death; he was carried out spurting blood from his thigh.

Plath’s Letters, almost 1,400 pages long, weighs four pounds and is nearly three inches thick. Awkward to grasp and to sink into your lap, it is too tightly bound and the print from the opposite pages come together and obliterate the margins. More like a reference volume than a trade book, it resembles those heavy works chained to the desks of the Vatican Library. It would have been much better to have had four hefty volumes of 700 pages, but Faber insisted on including Plath’s hothouse letters to Ted Hughes in the first volume. The second massive tome is scheduled to appear to stupefied readers next fall.

The young Plath is jejeune and conventional, enthusiastic and energetic, competitive and intense, precocious and perfectionist, eager for culture and keen to be admired, always preparing her face to meet the faces that she meets. Why is it so difficult to like such a beautiful, intelligent and talented young woman? Her unrelenting egoism, overbearing emotion, naked ambition and aggressive quest for superiority are extremely off-putting. The late poet and editor Peter Davison, her sometime lover, told me that she was sexually demanding and became very angry and critical if she did not achieve orgasm. — Plath unwittingly defined the negative aspects of her own character when criticizing another young woman: “[she] typifies vividly all I dislike most in extrovert, surface, blithering America: sorority president, silly conventional patter all the time, enthusiastic about everything, continually without the slightest vestige of reserve or discrimination.” She also gave a neat account of her own duplicity: “I find, alarmingly, that I am just the kind of person who can lie successfully: I have a direct honest look; I am plausive as the devil with my reasons; my actress-side is sensitive to mood and situation and, without calculation on my part, responds as the occasion demands.”

She wrote more than 700 letters, more than half of them to her mother. The future guardian of the flame was a lonely widow, especially when her son Warren won a scholarship and went off to boarding school at Exeter. Aurelia, who had made financial sacrifices to send Plath to summer camp and Smith College, wanted—even demanded—this cataract of letters. They allowed Plath to record all her activities for future reference (no detail was too trivial to mention), express devotion, solicit sympathy for her disappointments, convey the perfect self-image that her mother expected, boast of her triumphs, awards and prizes, and prove she had fulfilled her mother’s high expectations.

The fatherless scholarship girl and brainy academic, with an overbearing mother and history of mental illness, identified with Jews as outsiders and a dozen of Plath’s correspondents were Jewish. She rapturously described an exotic Cambridge boyfriend, Mallory Wober, quite different from the blond beasts of New England, as “tall, raven-haired, scarlet-cheeked, husky, Jewish, strong as the ‘giants in the earth’ in the days of the Old Testament prophets.” Another beau, Richard Sassoon, was born in Paris and played the French card—wine and Rimbaud–for all it was worth and it was worth a lot to Plath. He conned her with phony and pretentious statements–“as Sassoon says so rightly: ‘the important thing is to love this world; if a man has loved so much as a grapefruit, and found it beautiful, god will save him.’ ” He abandoned her in Paris and was the first man who ever dumped her.

The editors claim, unconvincingly, that Plath’s epistolary style from the age of seven to twenty-four “is as vivid, powerful and complex as her poetry.” Her hyped up mood held off depression and kept the black dog at bay, but the letters do not have the sardonic humor that later erupted in The Bell Jar. In a typical letter to “Dearest Grammy and Grampy,” she sounds just like Woody Allen’s Annie Hall: “I hope you are reading this on Christmas morning and remembering, as I am, the many wonderful Christmasses we have spent together: I tasted ‘home’ in the delicious silver-wrapped cookies you sent … my favorites.”

This massive volume mostly adds in over-abundant detail to what we already know about Plath: childhood in Wellesley, father’s death from untreated diabetes, Smith College, summer at Mademoiselle, suicide attempt, Fulbright to Cambridge University, secret marriage to Hughes, honeymoon in Spain. She was very adept at seeing what editors wanted and published acceptable poems in important magazines: the Atlantic, Harper’s and Nation. But there’s no strong evidence here of her future greatness. As the poems poured out of her, the main difficulty was to rev herself up to superior work instead of “writing to sell.” Like Saul Bellow with his four bruising broken marriages, she needed the emotional devastation of her marriage to Ted Hughes to create her greatest poems in Ariel.

Her best letter describes the motives and details of her suicide attempt in August 1953, after disastrous shock treatments had failed to minister to a mind diseased:

The only doubt in my mind was the precise time and method of committing suicide. The only alternative I could see was an eternity of hell for the rest of my life in a mental hospital, and I was going to make use of my last ounce of free choice and choose a quick clean ending… . I took out the bottle of 50 sleeping pills, and descended to the dark sheltered ledge in our basement… . I swallowed quantities and blissfully succumbed to the whirling blackness that I honestly believed was eternal oblivion… . [But] I had stupidly taken too many pills, vomited them, and came to consciousness in a dark hell banging my head repeatedly on the ragged rocks of the cellar in futile attempts to sit up and, instinctively, call for help.

The fascinating story of the college girl’s disappearance and recovery appeared in more than two hundred newspapers across America, and brought her first taste of (ill) fame. She also became a shocking celebrity when she limped back to Smith after this event.

In college the hero-worshipping Plath ecstatically praised almost every published author she ever read or met. The mediocre Stephen Vincent Bénet, she declared, is “one of our greatest American writers, and certainly, one of my favorites.” Comparing the critic and teacher Robert Gorham Davis to her revered high school instructor, she predicted he “will even come to surpass Mr. Crocker in my esteem.” John Ciardi was “most fun” and entranced her by his “warm humanity and friendliness.” The shabby and disheveled W. H. Auden, not everybody’s idea of a pin-up, was elevated to a giant precursor of Ted Hughes: “he is my conception of the perfect poet: tall, with a big leonine head and a sandy mane of hair, and a lyrically gigantic stride. Needless to say he has a wonderfully textured British accent, and I adore him.” She rolled with the punches when Auden accused her of “being too glib.” She even cosied up to Alfred Kazin despite his unattractive appearance and sour character.

A year later in Cambridge, when she began to publish her own work and had gained new self-confidence, she sharpened her critical faculty and trashed the competition. Now “wiseguy John Ciardi … [wrote] several terrible pseudo-poems”; James Thurber’s fables were the “work of senility”; her hated and more successful rival Adrienne Rich got “richer but duller.” Major poets who influenced her work also came under attack. Ted Roethke was “very lyric sentimental … and love o love”; Elizabeth Bishop, whom she formerly admired, cranked out a labored sestina.

Her eminent Cambridge teachers got a C-minus. She wittily dismissed the testy F. R. Leavis as a “tan, devastating leprechaun of a man.” The brilliant John Holloway (whom I knew) she condemned as “very disappointing; a tall, pale, quick-eyed dark-haired chap with horn-rimmed spectacles and a fluid meandering talk.” While in a swingeing mood, she sent a shot across the bow of the Almighty: “I find God hideously conceited; every time you want to argue with the apostles, the saints, about the origin of evil … they blind you with some hocus-pocus about God’s inscrutability.”

The footnotes in the Plath volume are moderate and helpful, much better than those in the Hemingway volume. There are only two errors: Dalí and Finnegans Wake (xxvi and 647, etc.). Several allusions are not corrected or identified: Hans and Joachim are cousins, not brothers, in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and “Kirghiz eyes” describes Clavdia Chauchat in that novel (162, 749); “All I ask is a tall ship” is from John Masefield, “Sea Fever” (668); “The Great Calm has descended” is from Thomas Hardy, “And there was a great calm,” (1301); and so on.

To boyfriends Plath was coy and seductive, and wrote provocatively to her numerous gentleman callers, “determined to make [them] have some sort of reaction to me.” She idealized men and fell easily in and out of love, according to who was available, with many different suitors. Unleashing the superlatives, she proudly boasted, “[I] spent an evening in Greenwich Village with the most brilliant wonderful man in the world” and “I AM GOING TO THE YALE JUNIOR PROM WITH THE MOST WONDERFUL BOY IN THE WHOLE COLLEGE.” Smith girls who were not invited to promenade were cast into the outer darkness, there to gnash their teeth. She gushed and flattered her boyfriends and mystically declared her love: “Oh, gordon, gordon, gordon … you are you forever and I am I.” She also sent Gordon detumescent letters about her new spring frocks and troublesome sinus infection.

A classic college girl of the 1950s, she wore sexless outfits: cute pixie collars, Bermuda shorts, knee socks and saddle shoes, or twin-set sweaters with fake pearls and pleated skirts. (Did she also wear a passion-stopping girdle?) She covered her rear by retreating to the Barbizon Hotel in New York, a fortress of virginity “for circumspect young women” that did not permit unseemly intimacies. To discourage ardent-bold boys who wanted to interfere with her person, she shifted into Johnsonian formality: “any departure from conduct and ‘ritual’ which has been agreed upon tacitly involves complexities in that it demands a reassessment of the situation, a consideration of former intentions in the light of an altered context.” She reported that she felt as if she’d suffered when ill an “immaculate miscarriage,” which suggests she was still virga intacta during her junior year in April 1954, just before meeting the vile seducer Sassoon.

Plath wanted her ideal Aryan husband to be tall, blond, from a good family, a graduate of Ivy League school, with professional qualifications, wealthy or soon to be, and a conventional country-club chap. After playing around with the small fry, she finally landed a shark. Ted Hughes, who had none of these qualities. She ecstatically described him as “tall, hulking, with rough brown hair, a large-cut face, hands like derricks… . The strongest man in the world, ex-Cambridge, brilliant poet whose work I loved before I met him, a large hulking healthy Adam, half French, half Irish, with a voice like the thunder of God.” Though smitten, she was well aware of the dangers: “he has never thought about anything or anyone except himself and his will … and has done a kind of uncaring rip through every woman he’s ever met.” She thought she could change and tame him, but was ripped up herself.

Her sixteen letters to Hughes, written in October 1956 when she was studying in Cambridge and he was staying with his family in Yorkshire, were characteristically overwhelming: “I honestly believe that by some mystic uniting we have become one flesh; I am simply sick, physically sick, without you. I cry; I lay my head on the floor; I choke… . I love [you] so immeasurably more than myself… . You are my own self for which I exist… . I love you and perish to be with you and lying in bed with you and kissing you all over and just go wild with thinking & wishing & remembering of your dear lovely mouth & incredibly lovely made flesh.” Plath gave herself completely to him, he only partly to her, and she loved not wisely but too well. She had secretly married against the college rules and was thrilled by clandestine meetings with her husband, who couldn’t possibly satisfy her extreme emotional demands. Her “Teddy” sometimes had to bolt for cover.

In a striking passage in her last letter, the self-confident and always competitive Plath rightly matched herself against some leading contenders: “I am convinced that there will be a market for a woman lyric poet who is not a man-imitating neo-platonist intellectual (e.g. Kathleen Raine ) nor a bitter-sweet coy feminine one, like the weaker Millay, sarcastic Dorothy Parker, or miserable [suicide Sara] Teasdale.” In a triumphant moment she fantasized about her future greatness: “They will be flocking to the dock in hundreds when we arrive: children, begging you to autograph fables, TV and movie producers; everybody.” She would eventually get all the fame she ever dreamed of but—her references to gas fires are very creepy—only after she died in the most tragic way. In a half-page, absurdly inappropriate Foreword, her daughter Frieda claims, “the reason my mother should be of interest to readers at all is due to my father”–not to Plath’s poetry, which he distorted and suppressed–and morbidly hopes that “my parents are as married in death as they once were in life.” If so, they could continue to torment each other like Paolo and Francesca on their infernal whirlwind.