Recent Publications

Poet Stanley Plumly takes a lyrical look at John Constable and J.M.W. Turner

By Paul Alexander

August 21, 2018

Stanley Plumly was already a giant among poets by the time he decided, several years ago, to turn his attention to narrative nonfiction.

He began, understandably, with a poet: “Posthumous Keats” was a “personal” biography that grew out of Plumly’s decades-long obsession with John Keats. That same passion compelled his follow-up, “The Immortal Evening: A Legendary Dinner With Keats, Wordsworth, and Lamb.” Recounting in gripping detail the night Keats met William Wordsworth, the book won the Truman Capote Award.

Now, remaining in the Romantic era but branching out into the world of art, Plumly has written “Elegy Landscapes: Constable and Turner and the Intimate Sublime,” a dual portrait of British landscape painters John Constable and J.M.W. Turner. With a keen eye for artistic composition and in language that easily alternates between analytical and lyrical, Plumly explores the two artists’ canons through the prism of their lives, all the while asking: What makes their work unique and lasting?

“Elegy Landscapes” contains 41 incisive, engaging chapters that alternate between the painters. Plumly depicts Constable as a genius whose value went unrealized during his life. Born in rural England in 1776, the son of a merchant and landowner, Constable began painting in his 20s but had trouble selling his work — a curse he suffered throughout his career. To earn commissions, he painted portraits. One early subject was Maria Bicknell; she was 12, he 24. Years later, they fell in love and married despite her family’s disapproval of Constable’s financial prospects; he often lived on an allowance from his father. “My life is a struggle,” Constable wrote to a friend, “between ‘my social affections’ and ‘my love of art.’ ” The couple had seven children.

Constable also fell in love with “his father’s land and the land around it,” Plumly writes. Or as Constable put it: “Landscape is my mistress.” That love affair produced paintings such as “The Hay Wain,” his most famous picture, and “The Cornfield,” a late masterpiece — work that Plumly calls a “meditation on the pastoral.” As his popularity grew, largely after his death, Constable’s oeuvre was viewed with such distinction that the place where he grew up — his muse — became known as “Constable Country.”

Meanwhile, Plumly portrays Turner as a self-made man deeply conflicted over his success, “a wealthy man who hates spending money.” Born in poverty in London in 1775, Turner, the son of a barber, showed artistic brilliance at a young age. Throughout his career, his work sold well, earning him a handsome living. There were three women in his life — the widow Sarah Danby, with whom he had two daughters; her niece Hannah Danby; and the widow Sophia Booth — though he never married. After Turner’s mother was committed to the Bethlehem Hospital for the insane — Bedlam — where she would die, his father, Plumly writes, “moves in with his son and becomes odd jobber, art supplier, grocery shopper, canvas preparer, cheerleader, and total parent, mother as well as father.”

Turner was obsessive about his work. Plumly quotes a story Turner told (some believe hyperbolically) about his research for “Snow Storm,” a painting of a steamboat at sea during a storm: “I got sailors to lash me to the mast to observe [the storm]; I was lashed for four hours, and I did not expect to escape, but I felt bound to record it if I did.”

Although other masterworks — “A Skeleton Falling Off a Horse in Mid-Air,” “The Angel Standing in the Sun” — may have proved less perilous to create they share a common trait. Whereas Constable preferred the concrete image, Turner chose to depict the “essence” of a landscape over reproduction. Plumly notes that “over time, [Turner] develops ghostlier and ghostlier forms” to capture what Thomas Hardy saw as “the deeper reality underlying the scenic.”

Despite differences in their lives — “Turner’s growth as an artist seems to occur at the speed of ‘genius’ [while] Constable’s evolution is stubborn, slow going, and uncertain” — they had this similarity: Each suffered a death that had a lasting effect. For Constable, it was the death of Maria to consumption. “She is dying,” Plumly writes, “very slowly but relentlessly, and has been since who knows when, her late teens likely . . . on the same street where a very young Keats and his brothers have set up house . . . finally, Maria Constable passes.” For Turner, it was the death of his father, in 1829 — a loss that caused him to suffer bouts of depression for the rest of his life.

The painters also shared this: Their work aspires to, and at times achieves, “the sublime” — “a term,” Plumly once wrote in an essay, “of breathtaking, soaring, awe-inspiring fear and fascination, a traveling word evoking out-of-the-body.” The almost indescribable sense of grandeur, meant to inspire through beauty or magnitude, is why a work lasts. Wise in its knowledge of art, readable in its storytelling, “Elegy Landscapes” documents Constable and Turner on their quest to capture the intimate sublime.

Stanley Plumly will discuss “Elegy Landscapes” at Politics and Prose on Aug. 21 at 7 p.m.

Paul Alexander is the author of seven books, among them “Rough Magic” and “Salinger.” He teaches at Medgar Evers College and Hunter College in New York City.

Recent Publications

Sylvia Plath narrates her self-destruction

By Paul Alexander

The Washington Post

October 30, 2018

In the literary world, there have been writers who marry — Percy and Mary Shelley, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne. But few, if any, literary couples are as well known for the end of their marriage as Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. That’s because Plath used Hughes’s “desertion,” as she called it, as source material for poems in “Ariel,” the posthumous collection that made her one of the most widely read poets of the 20th century.

“The Letters of Sylvia Plath Volume 2,” deftly edited by Plath authorities Karen V. Kukil and Peter K. Steinberg, serves as a chronicle of the Plath-Hughes marriage. “Volume 1,” published last year, covered Plath’s youth and education, concluding with her four-month courtship with Hughes, whom she met at Cambridge University in February 1956. Because Plath was an ardent letter writer, “Volume 2,” coming in at more than 1,000 pages, assiduously documents the joy and success of the marriage’s first six years and the anguish and drama of its final six months that resulted in Plath’s suicide one frigid morning in February 1963.

It started out so blissfully. During their first year of marriage, Plath often wrote to her mother about Hughes: “I really am convinced he is the only person in the world I could ever love.” And: “[I]t is simply impossible to describe how strong . . . and brilliant he is.” And: “My joy in Ted increases every day.” On their first anniversary: “I can’t actually remember what it was like not being married to Ted.” Two years later: “Ted & I are so happy, and healthy — our life together seems to be the whole foundation of my being.” She also gushed about his support during the birth of their daughter, Frieda, in 1960, and after Plath’s appendectomy a year later: “To see him come in at visiting hours . . . with his handsome kind smiling face is the most beautiful sight in the world.”

The enthusiasm continued, with some caveats. Plath told one friend that Hughes would “bash my head in” if she tried to “boss” him and mentioned “violent disagreements” to her mother and “rousing battles” to her brother, Warren. In late 1961, the couple bought Court Green, a sprawling thatched-roof house on a small estate in Devon, and settled in just in time for Plath to give birth to Nicholas in January 1962. The Hugheses had sublet their London flat to David and Assia Wevill, another literary couple (though less accomplished). After the Wevills visited in May 1962, Ted and Assia struck up an affair that Plath discovered in July, and Hughes left Court Green in August to live in London.

Then the fawning stopped. To her mother, Plath wrote: “I hate & despise [Ted]”; and because Hughes was “dangerously destructive . . . I feel both the children and I need protection from him, for now & forever.” She wrote a friend, Kathy Kane: “Ted has deserted us. . . . I can’t tell you the terrible sadistic footnotes, they are too involved and elaborate and poetic.” And to her psychiatrist, Ruth Barnhouse, she confessed: “I think I am dying. I am just desperate.”

Barnhouse had treated Plath at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., after Plath’s nervous breakdown and suicide attempt in 1953, an ordeal that was the basis of Plath’s autobiographical novel “The Bell Jar.”The two were regularly in touch for the next decade. The letters Plath wrote to Barnhouse would be her most revealing. When the existence of 14 surviving letters — long, detailed dispatches totaling about 18,000 words — was discovered last year, it warranted national media attention. Included in “Volume 2,” the letters, especially those written after the breakup, contain unsettling disclosures.

Hughes’s “lies are incredible & continuous,” she wrote, adding, “Any kind of caution or limit makes him murderous.” Indeed, Hughes could be violent. “Ted beat me up physically a couple of days before my miscarriage [in 1961]: the baby I lost was due to be born on his birthday. . . . He tells me now it was weakness that made him unable to tell me he did not want children.” She also wrote that Hughes hated their son, Nicholas. “He has never touched him since he was born, says he is ugly and a usurper.” Finally, Hughes wanted to be free of Plath. “He told me openly he wished me dead,” she wrote. “He was furious I didn’t commit suicide, he said he was sure I would!”

Plath’s next moves she carried out with the help of an attorney in London. The legal separation she insisted on in August and September — Hughes agreed to pay 1,000 pounds a year in maintenance — turned into a planned divorce by October. That month, she announced her intended divorce to her mother, friends and Barnhouse.

For years after Plath’s death, Hughes told friends that he and Plath were on the verge of reconciliation when she died. But Plath’s letters tell the opposite story. She was resolute in her decision to get a divorce. She was working with an attorney to make sure it happened. She was “ecstatic” that Hughes was gone. She also decided to move on from Court Green. She planned on relocating to Ireland, where she could recover in peace far from Hughes, but her mother lobbied against it and surreptitiously encouraged Plath’s friends to dissuade her.

It worked. In early November, Plath elected to move to London, not Ireland. It would be a fateful choice to relocate to 23 Fitzroy Rd. in December. Now that she was in the same city with Hughes, he was constantly dropping in, and she was continually learning, from him and friends, about his romantic exploits. Plath could not get on with her life. By Feb. 4, in the last letter she wrote to Barnhouse — and the last included in the new volume — she lamented the “return of my madness.” One week later, she killed herself by gassing herself in the kitchen oven. She was 30.

In often haunting detail, “The Letters of Sylvia Plath Volume 2” documents the rise and fall of a literary marriage whose dissolution ended up destroying a genius.

Paul Alexander is the author of seven books, among them “Rough Magic” and “Salinger.” He teaches at Medgar Evers College and Hunter College in New York City.

THE LETTERS OF SYLVIA PLATH VOLUME 2

1956-1963

By Sylvia Plath. Edited by Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil

Harper. 1088 pp. $44.

Recent Publications

What Sylvia Plath’s letters reveal about the poet we thought we knew

By Paul Alexander

The Washington Post

October 18, 2017

Sylvia Plath may have died at the age of 30, but in her short life she produced an enormous body of writing. She wrote a radio play, a children's book, dozens of short stories, and numerous incidental pieces of journalism and memoir. She started two novels and published a third, "The Bell Jar," now regarded as a coming-of-age classic. She wrote more than 200 poems. Gathered into her "Collected Poems," which posthumously won a 1982 Pulitzer Prize , they showcased her as a master of the "confessional" style.

She also kept an extensive journal and carried on voluminous correspondence with a range of family members, friends and business contacts. It has fallen to Plath experts Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil to gather Plath's correspondence into "The Letters of Sylvia Plath," a collection so mammoth it will be published in two volumes. Volume 1, covering 1940 to 1956, is being released now. Volume 2, covering 1957 to 1963, will appear next October.

Often using vivid and compelling language, Plath addresses many topics in her letters — from politics and literature to her education and love life to her own unbridled literary ambitions and her plans to achieve them. The sheer quantity of the letters — Volume 1 runs to more than 1,300 pages — is as impressive as their quality. "I am in awe of her output," Frieda Hughes, her daughter, writes in a foreword, "and the way in which she recorded so much of her life so that it was not lost to us."

The letters begin in 1940, when Plath was 8, with notes to her parents, Otto and Aurelia. They go on to document her youth in Wellesley, a quaint town outside Boston where she grew up in a "cozy little 'matchbox.' " Tellingly, Plath almost never mentions the death in 1940 of her father, a highly regarded biologist and Boston University professor who misdiagnosed himself with cancer, refused treatment, and died from what turned out to be a treatable form of diabetes. "My father is dead now," Plath wrote as a teenager in a rare reference to him to a German pen pal, "so my mother teaches instead."

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A vast number of the letters document her education at Smith College, where Plath excelled on a scholarship funded by Olive Higgins Prouty, the novelist who would serve as a sponsor and mentor for the rest of Plath's life. The litany of successes at Smith — studying with figures such as W.H. Auden, acceptances from publications such as the Nation and the Christian Science Monitor, a guest editorship at Mademoiselle — were eclipsed by what happened in the summer of 1953 when she was not accepted into Frank O'Connor's fiction class at Harvard University.

"I began to frequent the offices and couches of the local psychiatrists," Plath wrote to her friend Edward Cohen. "I underwent a rather brief and traumatic experience of badly-given shock treatments on an outpatient basis. Pretty soon, the only doubt in my mind was the precise time and method of committing suicide." She stole a bottle of 50 sleeping pills from her mother's safe, hid in the crawl space under the front porch of the family home and swallowed many of them. "I . . . 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 the dark hell. . . . My brother finally heard my weak yells."

A stint at McLean Hospital was followed by her return to Smith to complete her degree. A Fulbright scholarship allowed her to study at Cambridge University. There, she met the man who would alter the direction of her life. Through her high school and college years, Plath had enjoyed romances with a variety of young men, but this time it was different.

In March 1956, Plath mentioned her new love interest to her mother for the first time: "Met, by the way, a brilliant ex-Cambridge poet at the wild St. Botolph's Review party last week; will probably never see him again (he works for J. Arthur Rank in London) but wrote my best poem about him afterwards: the only man I've met yet here who'd be strong enough to be equal with." In another letter she named him: "His name is Ted Hughes: he is tall, hulking, with rough brown hair, a large-cut face, hands like derricks, a voice more thundering and rich than Dylan Thomas."

[‘Ted Hughes’: A controversial biography shows the poet’s darker side]

Four months after meeting, Plath and Hughes were married in a secret ceremony in London — Plath feared losing her Fulbright — attended only by Plath's mother. Volume 1 ends with a decision by Plath to reveal her marriage so that Hughes could join her at Cambridge. Readers will have to wait a year for the letters that chronicle their marriage — one of the most discussed in literary history — the dissolution of which contributed to Plath's suicide in 1963.

Engaging and revealing, "The Letters of Sylvia Plath" offers a captivating look into the life and inner thinking of one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. "Through the publication of her poems, prose, diaries, and now her collected letters," Frieda Hughes writes, "my mother continues to exist."

Paul Alexander is the author of, among other books, "Rough Magic," a biography of Sylvia Plath, and "Salinger," a biography of J.D. Salinger.

THE LETTERS OF SYLVIA PLATH

Volume 1: 1940-1956

By Sylvia Plath

Edited by Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil

Harper. 1,424 pp.