I picked up The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath at a second-hand store in Hyde Park back in January. In the past week, I've managed to read 100 pages of it. Needless to say, this hasn't been a particularly inviting read. Not only is it over 700 finely-printed pages long, it's Sylvia Plath. Which isn't easy for me to deal with.
Here's the thing; I get incredible secondhand embarrassment from reading Sylvia Plath's letters and journals. It's almost like watching I Love Lucy. There are many reasons for this, the first of which is primary identification. Sylvia Plath grew up in a suburb of Boston, went to Smith College, majored in English literature, and wrote poetry (duh). So did I. So there are times when it's a cringing embarrassment to read her ... the self-centeredness, the judgmental attitudes, and most of all, the rhapsodies about the various boys she had crushes on. And I don't get the feeling that she was writing with an eye towards publication, so on top of everything else, I feel like a voyeur. I've also read the collection of letters she wrote home to her mother, so to read her journals and get an idea of what she really thought, as opposed to what she was telling Mom ... well, it fills me with literary insight and such, but it makes me feel uncomfortable. Then there's the fact that I know what happened to her.
What with one thing and another, it's almost as awful as reading Anne Frank.
And she's so focused on men. I want to tell her, "Jesus, Sylvia, calm down. You're a freshman in college. You don't have to find a husband right now." But then I realize that she was writing in the 1950s, at the height of the get-the-women-back-into-the-kitchen postwar period. As a rising sophomore, she was already worried that she wasn't going to be able to have a family and a career.
I can't tell whether I was spoiled rotten. Perhaps I was. But as a student in the 1970s, it never occurred to me that I wouldn't be able to have a career as well as a husband. And I also realize how incredibly thoughtful she was. And already such a wordsmith. I mean, yeah, an annoyingly show-offy one, but holy hell. She was 18.
I remember being an 18-year old poetry-writing freshman English major at Smith College ... and I think I was putting about 10 percent of her energy, work ethic, and intelligence into thinking about my life, where I wanted to go, and what I wanted to do.
Then again ... I wasn't a genius. I guess that helps.