12 Fascinating Facts About Sylvia Plath

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Though she's considered a pioneer of the confessional poetry style, Sylvia Plath was not widely famous when she died by suicide in 1963 at age 30. But her legacy has long outgrown her untimely death: Her collections of poetry and one novel, most published posthumously, are still read, debated, and quoted reverently.

1. Sylvia Plath published her first poem at 8 years old.

Entitled "Poem," Plath's first foray into poetry was featured in the Boston Herald's children's section in 1941.

"Hear the crickets chirping
In the dewy grass.
Bright little fireflies
Twinkle as they pass."

Plath, of course, would later have poems published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, and Harper's Bazaar.

2. Sylvia Plath's father was a prestigious bee expert, inspiring her "Bee Poems."

Sylvia's father, Otto Plath, emigrated to the United States from Germany as a teenager, and he grew up to become a professor of entomology at Boston University and an authority on bumble bees—his 1934 book Bumblebees and Their Ways analyzed bee colonies and the power of the queen in them. Otto was a huge influence on Sylvia's work—one of her most famous poems is entitled "Daddy," and it and others suggest she fell into the marry-your-father type of trope as well.

Otto died unexpectedly of complications from late-diagnosed diabetes when Sylvia was 8, and she would grapple with that loss for the rest of her life. At the height of her creative output, the fall of 1962, she wrote a sequence of five poems, "the bee poems," in less than a week. They are hopeful and life-affirming works that were originally intended to end her collection Ariel, but were instead posthumously displaced with the darker, more depressive poems like "Edge" and "Words" that she wrote in her final days. The Bee Poems, which were unceremoniously dumped in the middle of the published version of Ariel, are so different from what Plath is known for—self-destruction, casual violence—that they have often been overlooked as part of her creative canon.

3. Sylvia Plath also wrote children's books.

Illustration by Rotraut Susanne Berner, for Sylvia Plath's The It-Doesn't-Matter Suit.
Illustration by Rotraut Susanne Berner, for Sylvia Plath's The It-Doesn't-Matter Suit. Amazon

All published posthumously, Plath had a small collection of children's stories that were found amongst her journals and papers. One, The It-Doesn't-Matter-Suit, tells a sweet story about Max Nix and his mustard yellow suit. In the story, 7-year-old Max is the youngest of seven brothers. Two of those brothers were Otto and Emil—her father's names.

4. Sylvia Plath's early life has been described as "accomplished."

Although Plath is most often referred to as a tragic figure, she is described as a driven high achiever in adolescence and young adulthood. She had straight As, a full ride to Smith College, and was a Fulbright scholar studying in Cambridge, England. She also won various writing prizes while in college.

5. Sylvia Plath was an intern at Mademoiselle Magazine.

A mural of Sylvia Plath in Portland, Oregon

A mural of Sylvia Plath, created by Jane Brewster, in Portland, Oregon.

Photo © 2009 by Todd Mecklem via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

While at Smith College, Plath won a contest to become one of a few "guest editors" at Mademoiselle magazine during the summer of 1953. The experience marked a turning point in Plath's work and life; her novel, The Bell Jar, is a thinly veiled fictionalization of her time in New York City. She described the experience as "pain, parties, work," and one of the book's scenes detailed an attempted rape—an event Plath's personal journals from that summer seem to corroborate. After returning home to Boston, Plath spiraled into depression and survived an attempted suicide; she was briefly institutionalized, but returned to school and graduated with honors.

6. Colossus is the only larger work published in Sylvia Plath's name while she was alive.

In 1960, Plath published this collection of poems first in England, where she lived with her husband, to positive critical reviews (if not massive sales). Technically The Bell Jar was published in England just a month before her death, but it was under the pen name Victoria Lucas, due to publisher concerns of getting sued for libel. The Bell Jar, with Plath rightfully named as author, didn't arrive in the U.S. until 1971—but when it did, it became a surprise bestseller.

7. Sylvia Plath's husband was a famous poet, too.

Poets Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath
summonedbyfells, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Plath met English poet Ted Hughes—who is considered one of the greatest poets of his generation and was Poet Laureate of the U.K. for the last 14 years of his life—while she was at Cambridge on scholarship in 1956, and the two married within four months. They chose the date June 16 in honor of Bloomsday, the annual celebration of the life and work of James Joyce. The two were young—she was 23, he 25—and they read, critiqued, and supported each other's work. "I am writing poetry as I never have before," Plath wrote to her brother in 1956, "and it is the best, because I am strong in myself and in love with the only man in the world who is my match."

Their relationship was charged but unstable—by the 1960s, Plath wrote her therapist saying Hughes beat her before she suffered a miscarriage; he cheated on her, and many scholars say his mistress was pregnant at the time of Plath's suicide (the mistress was said to have gotten an abortion soon after). For the last five months of Plath's life, they were separated, and she was living and writing in London with their two young children. Because they were not yet divorced at the time of her death, Hughes inherited Plath's estate—including her unpublished works. Hughes made plans to publish Ariel, but he removed some of her chosen poems, added in new poems, and reordered the rest differently from Plath's original manuscript, some say to maximize the narrative of an increasingly depressed woman doomed to take her own life.

8. Sylvia Plath wrote the poems that would make her an icon just before she died.

Plath died by suicide on the morning of February 11, 1963, the culmination of months of turmoil, severe depression, and an astonishing output of writing. Plath and her husband had recently separated, and she had two young children at home, so she would feverishly write between the hours of 4 and 8 a.m. during a notoriously cold London winter. The resulting poems became the collection Ariel, featuring her most famous poems, including "Lady Lazarus" and "Daddy."

9. Sylvia Plath was the first poet to win a Pulitzer Prize posthumously.

Sylvia Plath book
Like_the_Grand_Canyon, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

In 1982, Plath became the first poet to win a Pulitzer Prize posthumously. She won for The Collected Poems—edited by Ted Hughes. "Her attitude to her verse was artisan-like," Hughes wrote in the introduction to the collection. "If she couldn't get a table out of the material, she was quite happy to get a chair, or even a toy. The end product for her was not so much a successful poem, as something that had temporarily exhausted her ingenuity."

10. A psychologist named a phenomenon after Sylvia Plath—then regretted it.

The "depressed poet" has long been a creative stereotype—so much so that psychologist James C. Kaufman named the idea the "Sylvia Plath effect" in 2001, leading to its more mainstream use. Kaufman recently reframed his point of view, calling himself "young and stupid" at the time he introduced the term. He's now studying the impact of creativity on social justice.

11. Sylvia Plath's headstone has been repeatedly vandalized.

Plath's grave, in the West Yorkshire hills of England, has been tampered with multiple times—first, her married name was expunged (some think by "feminist activists" looking to remove Ted Hughes from Plath's narrative), leading to a long period where there was no marker at all. "When I first had the lettering set into the stone … the only question in my mind was how to get the name Plath on to it," Hughes wrote in 1989, when the stone was replaced. "If I had followed custom, the stone would be inscribed Sylvia Hughes, which was her legal name … I was already well aware, in 1963, of what she had achieved under that name, and I wished to honor it."

12. Sylvia Plath continues to impact culture today.

Sylvia Plath has been influencing culture for the nearly six decades since her death. From Twitter feeds to famous movie quotes and cameos, a Sylvia Plath mention is often shorthand for "tortured female writer." She's also an influence on modern writers of all kinds—Lena Dunham wrote a college essay comparing Plath and Alanis Morissette, and Joyce Carol Oates has written about her extensively.

5 Facts About Shirley Jackson

Photo illustration: Shaunacy Ferro. Images: Penguin Random House
Photo illustration: Shaunacy Ferro. Images: Penguin Random House

Midcentury American writer Shirley Jackson has long been known for her spooky short story "The Lottery," which caused widespread controversy when it came out in The New Yorker in 1948 and continues to appear in short story anthologies today. Her equally haunted novels are less widely read. But ever since her 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House was turned into a hit Netflix series, her work has been experiencing a critical and popular revival more than 50 years after her death. (A well-reviewed 2017 biography as well as new releases of some of her short stories and previously unpublished writings in the last few years have no doubt helped.)

If you’re just catching on to Shirley Jackson mania, here are five things to know about the master of gothic horror.

1. Many modern writers cite her as an inspiration.

Shirley Jackson has a number of fans among modern writers. Stephen King has called The Haunting of Hill House one of the two "great novels of the supernatural in the last hundred years,” and he has said he wrote The Shining with Jackson’s The Sundial in mind. Writers like Neil Gaiman and Joyce Carol Oates sing her praises, and Donna Tartt has called her stories “among the most terrifying ever written.” Sylvia Plath was a fan, too, and hoped to interview her during summer internship at Mademoiselle in 1953. It didn’t work out, but Plath would go on to write works with plenty of parallels to Jackson’s.

2. Shirley Jackson was her family's chief breadwinner.

Jackson’s husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, was a writer, too. A literary critic who taught literature at Bennington College, it was his job that brought the couple to the small Vermont city, where Jackson often chafed at being placed in the role of faculty wife. Yet it was Jackson’s work that supported the family. (Like many wives of her day, she also did all the cooking, cleaning, taking care of their four kids, and driving the family around town—as one of Hyman’s former students wrote of him, “Stanley never did anything practical if he could help it.”)

In addition to the fees she earned selling short stories and novels, Jackson had a lucrative career writing lighthearted essays on motherhood and family life for women’s magazines, which she eventually parlayed two successful memoirs.

3. Shirley Jackson claimed to be a witch.

In keeping with the haunted themes in her writing, Jackson studied the history of witchcraft and the occult, and often told people she was a witch—though that may have been in part a publicity tactic. As Ruth Franklin writes in her 2017 Jackson biography Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life:

"During her lifetime, she fascinated critics and readers by playing up her interest in magic: The biographical information on her first novel identifies her as ‘perhaps the only contemporary writer who is a practicing amateur witch, specializing in small-scale black magic and fortune-telling with a tarot deck.’ To interviewers, she expounded on her alleged abilities, even claiming that she used magic to break the leg of publisher Alfred A. Knopf, with whom her husband was involved in a dispute. Reviewers found those stories irresistible, extrapolating freely from her interest in witchcraft to her writing, which often takes a turn into the uncanny. ‘Miss Jackson writes not with a pen but a broomstick’ was an oft-quoted line."

It’s not clear whether she actually performed any magic rituals, but she referenced them often, usually in a tongue-in-cheek way. She often joked with her editors about bringing about victories for her favorite baseball team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, through her magical abilities.

Her interest was definitely real, though. She started studying witchcraft while writing a paper as a student at the University of Rochester, and later took up tarot reading. Her personal library was filled with hundreds of books about witchcraft, and in 1956, she wrote a children’s book, The Witchcraft of Salem Village, about the history of the Salem witch trials.

4. Shirley Jackson considered becoming a professional cartoonist.

Jackson wasn’t just good with words. She loved to draw, and even considered becoming a professional cartoonist at one point, according to Franklin. While her favorite subjects were cats, she regularly made minimalist, humorous sketches of herself and the people around her (particularly her husband), keeping a kind of cartoon diary of her life.

“They’re Thurber-esque in style, but they’re kind of edgy, too,” her son, Laurence Jackson Hyman, told The Guardian of the drawings in 2016. “There’s one in which she is trudging up a hill carrying bags of groceries, and my father is sitting in his chair, reading. ‘Dear,’ he says, without bothering to get up. ‘You know you’re not supposed to carry heavy things when you’re pregnant!’” Some of these drawings are held with Jackson’s papers in the Library of Congress, including sketches she made of how she imagined the layout of Hill House. Her unpublished illustrated ABC book for kids, The Child's Garden of New Hampshire, is also held there.

5. Shirley Jackson died before finishing her last novel.

Jackson died unexpectedly from heart failure in 1965 at the age of 48. (At the time, newspapers listed her as 45, as she often lied about her age, perhaps to minimize the age difference between her and her husband, who was two years younger than she.)

A significant chunk of her work has been published since her death, though. When she died, she was in the midst of writing a novel, Come Along With Me, which was published in its incomplete format by her husband in 1968. In 1996, Laurence Jackson Hyman found a crate of unpublished stories by his mother, and, with his sister, Sarah Hyman Dewitt, turned them into a collection called Just an Ordinary Day. In 2015, they edited and released Let Me Tell You, a collection of stories, essays and lectures from her archive that were mostly unfinished or unpublished at the time of her death.

12 Surprising Facts About Evelyn Waugh

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Evelyn Waugh was one of the most prolific writers of the 20th century. From his early satires, like Decline and Fall, to his more serious works, like Brideshead Revisited, Waugh is beloved by both literary critics and readers. But many readers don’t know much about Evelyn Waugh, the man, who was born in London in 1903. Here are 12 facts about his colorful life and work.

1. Evelyn Waugh's first name caused confusion.

Waugh was often mistaken in print for a woman, thanks to his first name. In 2016, a TIME poll even named him the 97th "most read female author in college classes," a mistake that inevitably went viral.

This wasn’t even the strangest incident. When Waugh arrived in Abyssinia (now Ethiopia and Eritrea) in the 1930s, on assignment from the Daily Mail, he found that the Italian military's occupation of the city of Asmara had resulted in a population of seven white women and 60,000 men. Waugh's Italian host was ecstatic to hear about the arrival of the female-sounding Evelyn Waugh, and raced to the airport with a bouquet of flowers—and was sorely disappointed. Ironically, Waugh's given first name was Arthur (Evelyn was one of his middle names).

2. Evelyn Waugh’s first wife was also named Evelyn.

Waugh married Evelyn Gardner, an aristocratic socialite, in June 1928 despite the objections of her family; they thought Waugh lacked ambition and direction. Their friends called them He-Evelyn and She-Evelyn. The marriage broke down a year later, however, when Gardner had an affair with their mutual friend, John Heygate, and eventually left Waugh for him. In 1936, Waugh had his first marriage annulled and married Gardner’s cousin, Laura Herbert, in 1937. They had seven children.

3. Evelyn Waugh was incredibly old-fashioned.

According to NBC producer Edwin Newman, who filmed a TV interview with Waugh in 1956, the novelist wished he had been born 200 or 300 years earlier. He loathed the modern world and its technology; he refused to fly in a plane or learn to how to drive a car. He resisted using the telephone in favor of writing letters, which he did with an old-fashioned pen dipped in ink. His quirky eccentricity informed his conservative political leanings and his opposition to reforms in the Catholic Church, of which he was a devout convert.

4. Evelyn Waugh's brother wrote a bestselling novel at age 17.

Alec Waugh, Evelyn's older brother, wrote the semi-autobiographical novel The Loom of Youth based on his time at the elite Sherborne School, a boarding school in Dorset. The novel was incredibly controversial for its time—it depicted homosexual relationships between students as well as hypocrisies and prejudices in the school system—and it was also an immediate success when it was published in 1917. Alec was then fighting as part of the British army in World War I.

The Loom of Youth hit close enough to the truth that Sherborne's headmaster wrote to Alec and accused him of libel. He also told Alec that he was being expelled from the Old Shirburnian Society, a private organization for former Sherborne students; he remains the only student to have ever been booted from it.

5. Evelyn Waugh based his novel Scoop on his career as a journalist.

In 1935, Waugh and approximately 100 other journalists arrived in Abyssinia to cover the invasion of Benito Mussolini’s fascist military. Waugh didn't think much of being a journalist. According to The Guardian, he described journalists as "lousy competitive hysterical [and] lying." Waugh didn't even know how to use a typewriter and regularly predicted breaking news that never materialized. His distaste for journalism and the people who practice it inspired his satirical, semi-autobiographical novel Scoop.

6. Evelyn Waugh failed to deliver his one real scoop.

Portrait of Evelyn Waugh by Carl Van Vechten

While in Abyssinia, Waugh befriended some Italians, who gave him a heads-up when their leader was preparing to leave Addis—a move that meant the fascist invasion was imminent. It was the moment they had all been waiting for, and Waugh didn't want the tip to find its way into another journalist's hands. Waugh sent a telegram alerting his Daily Mail editors to this development, but wrote it in Latin. The attempt at subterfuge backfired: The editors thought it was nonsense and threw it away.

7. The Daily Beast is named as an homage to Evelyn Waugh.

The paper at the center of Scoop is the brazen tabloid The Daily Beast. In 2008, editor Tina Brown chose that name for her news website to honor Waugh's novel. But critics picked up on the fact that, just like its fictional counterpart, Brown’s project was owned and financed by a media baron. In her case, it was film and television executive Barry Diller; in Scoop it's the unscrupulous Lord Copper, which invited unwanted comparisons when The Daily Beast website launched.

8. Winston Churchill procured a military commission for Evelyn Waugh.

At the start of World War II, Waugh solicited his friend Randolph Churchill, the son of future prime minister Winston Churchill, to help him obtain a military commission. Waugh finally got a position in the Royal Marines because of the elder Churchill’s admiration for his dogged determination. While one of his subordinates said that he was "everything you'd expect an officer to be,” nothing in his plummy upbringing prepared him to lead rank-and-file soldiers.

9. Evelyn Waugh stole his children’s bananas.

After World War II ended, a shipment of bananas arrived in England for the first time in years. Laura Herbert Waugh managed to procure three bananas for her three oldest children. As son Auberon recounted in his 1991 autobiography, Evelyn snatched the fruit for himself, peeled each one, doused them in cream and sugar, and ate them as his children watched. "He was permanently marked down in my estimation from that moment," Auberon wrote.

10. Evelyn Waugh killed a Hollywood film of Brideshead Revisited.

MGM proposed a film version of Waugh's epic novel Brideshead Revisited in 1946, and offered a significant sum for the rights. When Waugh met the screenwriter in 1947, he realized that Hollywood saw Brideshead only as a love story with a happy ending—not a family and class saga interwoven with Catholic themes, as Waugh had written it. He sent the studio a condescending letter that effectively guaranteed the project would fall through.

11. Evelyn Waugh got his friend to change his will to avoid lawsuits.

While he was in Hollywood for the Brideshead discussions, Waugh visited the famed cemetery Forest Lawn Memorial Park, where numerous movie stars are interred. Forest Lawn aimed to erase signs of mourning by replacing headstones with brass plaques, giving corpses extensive cosmetic treatment and elaborate embalming, and naming sections of the cemetery Babyland, Graceland, and Eventide.

The visit inspired his 1948 novel The Loved One, which satirizes the funeral business and the movie industry. His publishers were concerned that he could get sued, since "Whispering Glades" in The Loved One could easily be recognized as Forest Lawn. So he got his aristocratic friend, Lord Stanley of Alderley, to vouch for the legitimacy of his prose by adding a codicil to his will stating that he wanted to be buried at Forest Lawn because it resembled the beautiful place described in The Loved One. The endorsement of a lord evidently carried weight: After 10 years without a lawsuit, Stanley removed the codicil.

12. Sunset Boulevard owes a debt to The Loved One.

When he couldn't secure film rights to The Loved One, director Billy Wilder used elements of the story in his masterpiece Sunset Boulevard. Wilder's main character, Joe Gillis, is a washed-up screenwriter like Waugh’s Dennis Barlow. Both men live with a faded Hollywood talent in a dilapidated mansion with an empty swimming pool: Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond was a silent film star and Waugh’s Sir Francis Hinsley is a former scriptwriter. And Waugh’s protagonist works in a pet cemetery, while Wilder's Norma mistakenly thinks that Joe has come to bury her pet monkey.

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