Articles

Sylvia Plath and Winthrop-By-The-Sea

By Jeffery Round

During her early years, Sylvia Plath lived in a number of places in Massachusetts. Of her youthful residences, none is more bleakly picturesque than Winthrop-By-The-Sea and the adjacent Point Shirley. It is a fitting childhood home for a poet whose words are more intensely chilling than almost any other.

Although Plath eventually moved to England with her husband, poet Ted Hughes, and died there by her own hand at the age of 30, her writing was formed long before. Certainly, her time in Winthrop contributed to it. And while the town may not have been responsible for her recurring mental instability, one of the most devastating and lasting events of her short life occurred there when her father died.

The Plath family moved to Winthrop in 1936 in the middle of the Great Depression. Sylvia’s father, Otto, as a professor of German and biology, was able to get a mortgage to buy a house.  Sylvia’s mother, Aurelia, had grown up in Winthrop. Her grandparents, the Schobers, still lived on Point Shirley. It was here Sylvia saw her first poem published, in the Boston Herald’s children’s section, when she was eight. It was also here that Otto Plath died in 1940, leaving his daughter an ambiguous legacy of love, loss and unanswered questions.

Today, Winthrop is an island community of 18,000-plus, located off Boston. Two roads connect it to the mainland along Highway 145.  One road enters from the town of Revere, the other from East Boston. Approached from the north along the coastal highway, the town sits perched on a rise like a fairy castle. From a distance, it seems so tiny and perfect it might fit in a teacup.

You might be expecting something welcoming, even quaint.  As you get closer, however, you realize Winthrop is neither. Rather, it’s aloof and withdrawn, as if it wants to be left alone.

Winthrop measures just over one-and-a-half square miles.  It takes less than five minutes to drive through along the flat coastal avenue on the ocean side.  If you prefer to go up and down its two steep interior hills, it might take six.

Like any end-of-the-line seaside town, it seems almost every other backyard has a boat frame beached on its lawn. The view of Boston’s skyline is unrivalled. To Bostonians, however, Winthrop is merely that little town out by the airport.

Young Sylvia loved the view from her bedroom window where she would sit watching planes land and take off across the harbor at Logan Airport. Years later, in the short story Superman and Paula Brown’s New Snowsuit, a tale of childhood betrayal and loss, her narrator marvels “at the moving beacons on the runway” and calls the airport “my Mecca, my Jerusalem.”

To walk through, Winthrop seems quiet, sleepy.  It’s the sort of place you might go for long, meditative strolls in the restorative sea breeze. Yet it’s not difficult to imagine a doomed, gifted and solitary Plath stalking through the town and along its beaches.

In Ocean 1212-W, a radio broadcast from 1962 whose title was her grandmother’s former phone number, Plath says her childhood landscape was not land, but the end of land the cold, salt running hills of the Atlantic.

Her portrayal of Winthrop is not unkind; nor is it sentimental or cheery. But Plath was not driven to create the world in sentiment or cheer. Its bleakness she was after, and bleakness she found. In 1959, in the poem Point Shirley, she wrote

The gritted wave leaps/The seawall and drops onto a bier/Of quahog chips/Leaving a salty mash of ice to whiten/In my grandmother’s sand yard./She is dead/Whose laundry snapped and froze here

The town got its name from James Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony.  Eventually, he became owner of Winthrop’s beaches and Point Shirley in 1637. During the Revolutionary War, a battle between British forces and the American patrols was fought here.

A plaque erected in 1997 mentions that the area contains a considerable part of the history of the north side of Boston Harbor.  It also notes that many prominent political and literary types, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Oliver Wendell Holmes, stayed at Point Shirley’s renowned Taft Hotel.  Oddly, it doesn’t mention Sylvia Plath.

For Plath, many things in life were belated: success, fame, the Pulitzer Prize and, more recently, an ill-fated bio-pic starring Gwyneth Paltrow. Despite having been immortalized in some of Plath’s best poems, recognition from Winthrop can safely be added to that list.

When asked about her, the townspeople can express amazement to learn the poet once lived among them. The former Plath house at 92 Johnson Avenue bears no mention of her. The one tangible piece of evidence of her life here is her father’s gravestone.

To find Otto E. Plath is to locate the lodestone of Plath’s writing.  He was myth, warrior, teacher and beekeeper (he’d even authored a bestselling book on bumblebees) and one of her earliest wellsprings of neurosis and inspiration.

Otto Plath was the dominant parent in Sylvia’s early years.  He encouraged her verbal and intellectual feats, and discussed her days activities with her on his return from work. Sylvia reportedly kicked and pinched her younger brother, Warren, to make him cry when Otto was near, thus stealing her father’s favor.

The symptoms of Ottos illness first appeared in 1935. (He would eventually die of an embolism caused by diabetes long ignored and diagnosed too late.) Once handsome and robust, Otto became increasingly weak and withdrawn. He saw his children less as time wore on. To protect her husband, Aurelia often kept the children away from him, and even sent Sylvia to stay at her grandparents’ house.

Sylvia didn’t attend her father’s funeral, probably at her mother’s insistence.  (Neither she nor her brother were allowed to view his body in the casket.)  When told of his death, Sylvia pulled the covers over her head, declared that she would never talk to God again, then got up and insisted on going to school. Years later she accused her mother of having shown no feelings at the time.

While the accusation may be true, it seems likely that Aurelia Plath was simply protecting her children, as she had protected her husband, from the sudden reality of their fatherless-ness and poverty. What is clear is that both Sylvia and Warren were loved and encouraged by their mother. It was Aurelia’s love for poetry, and her habit of reading aloud to Sylvia, that first inspired her daughter’s creative urges.

Sylvia avoided her father’s grave for 19 years, and then made a single visit with Ted Hughes, in 1959, at the urging of her therapist.  She wrote about it in the famous Electra on Azalea Path, telling how she found his speckled stone askew by an iron fence.  Electra, Plath’s persona in the poem, confesses that it was her love that killed him.

Hughes claimed Sylvia was so distraught by the visit to her father’s grave that she made him walk the length of the town with her to calm down. Eventually, a guard at the entrance to Deer Island, near Winthrop’s farthest end, turned them back.

Later, referring to her first suicide attempt, Plath wrote of her father: I was ten when they buried you./At twenty I tried to die/And get back, back, back to you.  She might well have said get back at you.  The poem, Daddy, is full of dark insinuations about her father whom, all the same, she loved very much.

The Winthrop cemetery is three-tiered.  Otto Plath’s grave lies inside the main gate, on the lowest and newest level, just to the right of Azalea Path.  Given the size of the cemetery, it should be easy to locate. It isn’t.  Azalea Path isn’t marked.  And you could spend an hour reading every headstone and still not find the marker, unless you realize you’re looking for a stone embedded in the ground rather than one jutting up from it.

During her father’s illness, Sylvia was looked after by her grandparents in their home at 892 Shirley Street, where she received a great deal of attention and coddling. The Schober house had always been a refuge for Sylvia.  She’d requested to stay there the summer following Warren’s birth, feeling she’d been displaced, and later wrote that she “hated” babies because of Warren’s arrival.  It was her safe house.  After her father’s death, Sylvia’s grandparents gave up the home to move in with Sylvia, her mother, and brother.

Today the former Schober house stands with a walled-in front lawn that looks as though it has been caged to keep it from escaping.  The backyard is a long curve of sand leading to the ocean where Sylvia was said to spend hours alone, exploring and nursing starfish with missing limbs.

On a drab and gray day last September, the flag in the front yard flapped listlessly. The house itself seemed quite, quite ordinary.  Certainly there was nothing about the place to suggest that such an extraordinary and volatile presence had ever lived within its walls.

But Plath was notoriously tempestuous well before fame touched her life.  Considered imperious by fellow students, she was known for sitting and holding court on the grounds while she attended Smith College.  Her romance with Ted Hughes was colored by violent episodes, including the legendary first meeting where she bit him on the cheek and drew blood.

Sylvia was long fascinated by violence.  In September 1938, a hurricane hit the Boston area. Sylvia and her family stayed inside their house on Johnson Avenue, while outside the wind shrieked and the windows of her father’s study bellied inwards.

Boats were tossed about, cabins blown into the harbor and telephone poles snapped in half.  The next day a dead shark lay in her grandmother’s garden just inside the sea wall.  Of the event, young Sylvia wrote in her diary: “The wreckage was literally all one could wish.” Considering her natural propensity for self-destruction, those words might well describe her own life.

By ten, Sylvia and her family had already moved away from Winthrop to Wellesley.  She was to write in The Bell Jar that she had not been purely happy since the age of nine when she ran along the hot white beaches with her father the summer before he died.

Many have come to know Plath through this one surviving novel, with its candid portrait of a young woman’s mental breakdown.  (There was a sequel that she burned after her separation from Hughes, as well as a substantial portion of a third novel which, Hughes later wrote, has since disappeared.)

Plath did not think highly ofThe Bell Jar.  She had it published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, and referred to it privately as a pot-boiler.  It is much better than that, of course. And while it’s tempting to read it as the last will and testament of a suicide (she died less than a month after its publication), it would be wrong to overlook its comic exuberance, however dark that may be. It is, however tentatively, a novel of redemption.

Sylvia Plath was unable to reconcile her feelings with the world around her.  Eventually, they destroyed her.  In Point Shirley, written the same year she visited her father’s grave, Plath mourns her dead grandmother, recalling the house with “planked-up windows where she set/Her wheat loaves/And apple cakes to cool.  Steadily, she writes, “the sea/Eats at Point Shirley. She died blessed/And I come by/Bones, bones only, pawed and tossed/A dog-faced sea./The sun sinks under Boston, bloody red.”

“What is it”, she asks, “Survives, grieves/So, over this battered, obstinate spit/Of gravel?” What survives are the words of this remarkable poet who captured desolation and despair like almost no other.

Jeffrey Round is an award-winning filmmaker, television producer, poet and author of the novel A Cage of Bones.  His second novel, The PTown Murders, is forthcoming from Southern Tier Editions.  He lives in Toronto and is a frequent visitor to Massachusetts.