Good enough to get vandalized

A guest post on Sylvia Plath, her husband, and who gets to write a legacy

Today’s Written Out is written by Bailey Laake! Bailey and I have known each other since high school. She’s a writer, an accountant, and runs a weekly newsletter called Stuff & Gruff, which you can subscribe to here!

Sylvia Plath committed suicide in 1963. She was buried in a cemetery West Yorkshire, England. I wish I’d been alive then to mourn her death, [but also to] vandalize her gravestone along with the other “unknown women” who etched away the surname “Hughes.” Three different times Plath’s husband, Ted Hughes, repaired the gravestone. Then the stone disappeared altogether. 

This newsletter shares stories of women writers who’ve been left out of the literary canon for reasons unknown or unwarranted. But Sylvia Plath is not one of those women. She’s well known in literary circles, primarily for her novel The Bell Jar and her volume of poetry The Collected Poems that won the first posthumously-awarded Pulitzer Prize in 1982. 

I bring her up today to try to understand why she survived the patriarchal editing out of historical authors when so many other women didn’t. And because we all need to know about these gravestone vandals.

I started reading Plath when I was in high school but found her work a little dark and depressing. After college, when I found life a little dark and depressing, I picked her back up.

The Bell Jar is a semi-autobiographical novel about a woman struggling with mental illness. I read this book for the first time in the throws of my own struggle with depression. There were audible “Yes!”s and grunts of agreement as I read it as if I were a Southern Baptist. She gave a voice to the sucking speechlessness of a mental illness and I couldn’t help but respond in hallelujah. 

Allow me to quickly convert you. 

Here’s a quote from her poem “Tulips” (1961) 

The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me.

Even through the gift paper I could hear them breathe   

Lightly, through their white swaddlings, like an awful baby.   

Their redness talks to my wound, it corresponds.

They are subtle : they seem to float, though they weigh me down,   

Upsetting me with their sudden tongues and their color,   

A dozen red lead sinkers round my neck.

From The Bell Jar (1963):

I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn't quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn't make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet. 

Amen?

I got a fig tree tattooed on my arm when I was 23 because I loved everything about this too much. Her story ended tragically, but the words Plath put to the power and persona of mental illness was a self-sacrificing contribution to our culture that is hard to overstate. We all love shock, don’t we? Maybe the mystery and disturbia surrounding her suicide won her the right of inclusion.

But the inclusion is incomplete. We remember her suicide, her despair, and the novel that took apart that despair and gave it a name. But the rest of her work - also poignant and beautiful and piercingly honest - was written out from her mainstream narrative.

Plath’s husband, Ted Hughes, was also a poet. He served as the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom for many years and had a very successful career as a writer. Hughes found his place on The Times list of "The 50 Greatest British Writers Since 1945" and continues to live on through the Ted Hughes Award for poetry and the Ted Hughes Society for online publications.

After Plath died, Hughes took ownership of her journals, letters, and existing work and tried to control what was released to the public. This is probably because Ted Hughes is the actual worst and because Plath wrote about their relationship in honest detail. 

In letters released prior to her death, Plath accused Hughes of things like neglect, verbal abuse, and beating her two days before she miscarried. It’s no surprise then that Hughes destroyed one of Plath’s journals and “lost” another. Even after her death Hughes fought to control her story, stifling parts of who she was and etching away at how she’s remembered. 

So the unknown vandals etched away at his name in return. 

Despite his personal life, Hughes is still valued and remembered for his work as a poet. Meanwhile, Plath has a combined "career and marriage" section on Wikipedia.

But like these vandals, I will rebelliously celebrate Plath’s place in literature - however altered it may be - as a gift to me and to all that read her work. Her words are substance in the vapor of depression and her story a strange sprinkling of hope that we are not alone in our darkness.

So here’s to the unknown vandals - may we know them, may we be them, may we raise them.