Tuesday September 1st, 2009

Another Side of Sylvia


Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams by Sylvia Plath
Harper Perennial, 352 pp., $14.95

Sylvia Plath’s only work of fiction, The Bell Jar, continues to be one of the most widely read books of all time, finding a home in most high school English curricula as the female version of The Catcher in the Rye. It’s unfortunate — and surprising — that Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, a collection that includes nonfiction, should be so neglected by the literary establishment and even by her fans.

It’s true that the book is not for the faint of heart. It takes stamina and patience to read in its entirety. Johnny Panic is the product of the Ted Hughes camp’s total control of Plath’s posthumous legacy, and Hughes’ arrogant introduction comes as no surprise. Although Hughes claimed there were seventy unpublished stories extant, he only chose twenty to include, tossed with five essays and five journal entries. His excuse for not publishing more was his determination to protect those Plath chose to caricature in her stories: “Her description of neighbors and friends and daily happenings is mostly too personal, her criticisms frequently unjust.” We might reasonably translate this to say that her description of Hughes is too just.

Plath used alter egos and character names repeatedly. Esther (perhaps another version of The Bell Jar’s Esther Greenwood) appears in the first story, “Mothers,” as a young mother living in Devon, with a husband named Tom. This story could be the beginning of the happily-ever-after sequel Plath had planned for Esther, tentatively titled Falcon Yard, based on her own marriage. When she discovered Hughes’ infidelity in the spring of 1962, she burned the manuscript. So “Mothers,” and a later story recounting her meeting Hughes at Cambridge, “Stone Boy with Dolphin,” are the only survivors of the pieces that might have constituted that second novel. She began another draft, with an adulterous version of the husband, called Double Exposure, but, according to Hughes, “that manuscript disappeared somewhere around 1970.”

Meandering through a field of fiction, nonfiction and diary entries can be exhausting, especially when the content has been censored or poorly managed. The weakest links appear in the middle of the collection, where it seems Plath was still struggling about what kind of fiction to write. American publishers had not accepted The Bell Jar. Plath had it successfully published under a pseudonym in Britain, but its sales there were meager. Hoping to earn more money, she turned to commercial writing, attempting fiction that she could sell to women’s magazines. Unsurprisingly, these stories — “Snow Blitz,” about her lack of water and heat in London; “The Smiths,” about her neighbors and her jealousy of their teenage daughter; and “America!,” a recounting of her days as a popular high school student — are strained, poorly written and sentimental.

But there are moments in these largely failed pieces where the real Plath, the confident poet, asserts herself with a gleefully sarcastic remark or a serious comment on the role of women. In “The Smiths,” Plath’s jealousy of the neighbor’s daughter, in her obvious bid for Ted, also stems from her deep insecurity about motherhood. In 1962, to make complaints about the “slovenliness of Motherhood” was completely taboo. Even if Plath’s execution left something to be desired (remember, this was unpublished work), these emotions were revelatory. In this story, Plath wears her pregnancy like an ill-fitting dress.

The essays are a window onto a kind of writing Plath never had the chance to fully explore — the more academic, critical writing of her college years. In “A Comparison,” she wrote about the processes of writing fiction and poetry. “The door of the novel, like the door of the poem, also shuts,” she wrote, “but not so fast, nor with such manic, unanswerable finality.” In the following essay, “Context,” she explained why she was drawn to timeless subjects for her poetry: “for me the real issues of our time are the issues of every time.” She didn’t believe in writing “headline poetry,” and named her favorite poets as Lowell, Roethke, Bishop and Stevie Smith.

“Ocean 1212-W,” an essay about Plath’s first discovery of poetry at her grandmother’s house by the sea, is the brightest star in Johnny Panic. As her mother read Matthew Arnold to her, Plath wrote, “I wanted to cry. I felt very odd. I had found a new way of being happy.” The essay is beautifully written. Virginia Woolf’s influence, particularly from her memoirs, is keenly felt. Plath’s memories reveal themselves “like a ship in a bottle — beautiful, inaccessible, obsolete, a fine, white flying myth.”

It’s obvious that Plath’s lasting contribution is her poetry, but some of the short stories here are vibrant enough to make us freshly feel the tragedy that her second novel was lost. The real heart of the book is found in two stories, “The 59th Bear” and the title story. In “The 59th Bear,” Plath successfully translated her personal life into an intricate story about the dissolution of a marriage. Vacationing in a national park, a wife has bet that she and her husband will see fifty-nine bears. They’re on number fifty-seven when the story begins. Like Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” the ending is left to our imagination.

The voice most familiar to Plath’s readers is the one in Ariel, a collection of poetry published after her death, and it reappears in “Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams.” The story, about a young woman who works in a mental ward transcribing the dreams of patients, is well developed and deadly. Plath’s eerie description of the doctors and the mental profession evokes Woolf’s diatribe on “prescription” and “conversion” in Mrs. Dalloway. She describes the head nurse: “you could scratch her eyes with a pin and swear you’d struck quartz.” Knowing about Plath’s own experience in psychiatric institutions reinforces the story’s revealing look at the inadequacies of mental health treatment in the 1960s. Plath’s own anxiety was that she would someday end up back in the depths of the basement, or else at “the twenty story leap, the rope at the throat, the knife at the heart.”

The pleasure in reading Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams is akin to reading Plath’s unabridged journals for the first time. Her legacy is so defined by her iconic status that it’s difficult for readers to get a sense of her as an artist separate from her personal traumas. This collections gives us a view of the process and pain of writing — the little nooks or even gaping holes where a writer can fall into autobiographical quicksand. The development of the authorial voice is a struggle, an important maturation, and Plath’s journey to the accomplishment of her Ariel poems is a story that continues to fascinate millions. Johnny Panic is a good start, but it leaves us with only a sliver of Plath’s work. It’s high time someone honored her with a complete, unabridged collection of her short fiction and essays.

Jessica Ferri is a writer living in Brooklyn. She blogs here.

Mentioned in this review:

Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams
The Bell Jar
The Catcher in the Rye
Mrs. Dalloway