The summer before I turned 14, I fell in love. You might think that a little young, and I promise you that it was quite unrequited.
The object of my affection was Sylvia Plath.
I had mono that summer, which spread to my spleen, leaving me feverish and exhausted. Shifting from bed to couch, and couch to bed, left me little to do besides indulge my already-bookish tendencies, and I decided to read my way through a list of 100 books one ought to read when applying to college. The compilation definitely skewed mid-century American – Kerouac and Hemingway, The Great Gatsby and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – and I liked a lot of it, much more than the dreary British lit I’d been reading. But it was Plath, The Bell Jar, that demanded my attention, and affection.
I’ve read the book a dozen times – honestly, probably dozens – since, but I can still recall how immediately I was sucked in, by the hot shame of the Rosenberg execution in the opening lines and Esther’s struggles to seem cool, by the narrator’s displacement and engagement, her near-death and resurrection. At the time, I barely went a few hours without napping, but I read The Bell Jar deep into the night, finishing it in a single sitting. Then I read it again. And Plath’s poetry and every bit of fan-girl lit-crit, the tawdry biographies that revealed more about author than subject.
It’s the 50th anniversary of her death this year, and so Plath is in the zeitgeist again, if she ever left. This time, the debate is brought by a group of women who believe too much ink has been devoted to the tragedy of Plath’s personal history and that a greater focus ought to be on the college summer Plath spent as an intern at Mademoiselle. Of course, that is the setting of The Bell Jar and of course, she made her first suicide attempt right after – but no matter.
It’s hard to know, but I imagine that Plath, intelligent and impatient, might’ve rejected all these meta-readings of her story. I do know that I object to the notion that all of us who read Plath before were black-clad cutters, seduced by her myth of death. I loved Plath because, like me, she was a smart girl and a writer. Because in The Bell Jar she sounded like the voice in my own head, self-critical and scornful and unsure and sometimes a little silly. Because in Ariel she sounded like the voice I’d never permitted myself to have, angry and powerful, wielding words like weapons.
Please do not try to redeem her. She was my young love.