Sylvia Plath and Winthrop-By-The-Sea

During her early years, Sylvia Plath lived in a number of places in Massachusetts. None is more bleakly picturesque than Winthrop-by-the-Sea and the adjacent Point Shirley. It’s a fitting childhood home for a poet whose words can be more chilling than almost any other.

Although Plath eventually moved to England, where she died by her own hand at the age of 30, her writing was formed long before. Certainly, her time in Winthrop contributed to it. The Plaths moved to Withrop in 1936 in the middle of the Great Depression. Sylvia’s mother, Aurelia, had grown up in Winthrop. Her father, Otto, would teach German and biology there. Sylvia’s maternal grandparents, the Schobers, still lived on Point Shirley.

It was in Winthrop that eight-year-old Sylvia saw her first poem published, in the Boston Herald’s children’s section. 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. Two roads connect to the mainland. One enters from the town of Revere, the other from East Boston. Approached from the north along the coastal highway, Winthrop sits perched on a rise like a fairy tale castle. From a distance, it looks so tiny and perfect it might almost fit in a teacup. You might be expecting something welcoming, even quaint. As you get closer, however, you realize Winthrop is neither. Rather, it feels aloof and withdrawn, as if it wants to be left alone.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 from tip to tip along the flat coastal avenue. If you prefer to go up and down its two steep interior hills, it might take six. Like many end-of-the-line seaside town, almost every other backyard has a boat frame beached on its lawn. The view of Boston’s skyline is unrivalled here. To Bostonians, however, Winthrop is merely “that little town out by the airport.”

Young Sylvia loved the view from her bedroom window where she sat watching planes land and take off across the harbour at Logan Airport. Years later, in her short story “Superman and Paula Brown’s New Snowsuit,” the narrator marvels “at the moving beacons on the runway,” calling the airport “my Mecca, my Jerusalem.”

Walking through town, 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 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; neither is it sentimental or cheery. But Plath was not driven to create the world through sentiment or cheer. It was bleakness she was after, and bleakness she found. 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 John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony. 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 a bio-pic starring Gwyneth Paltrow. Despite having been immortalized in some of Plath’s best poems, recognition from the town of Winthrop can safely be added to that list of things come by too late. When asked, the townspeople 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 Plath is to locate the lodestone of Plath’s writing. He was myth, warrior, teacher, beekeeper (he authored a best-selling book on bumblebees) and one of her earliest wellsprings of neurosis and inspiration. Otto Plath was clearly the dominant parent in Sylvia’s early years. He encouraged her verbal and intellectual feats, and discussed her day’s activities on his return from work. Sylvia reportedly kicked and pinched her younger brother, Warren, to make him cry when Otto was around, stealing her father’s favour.

The symptoms of Otto’s illness first appeared in 1935. (He would eventually die of an embolism caused by diabetes 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 kept the children away, and even sent Sylvia to stay at her grandparents’ house.

Sylvia didn’t attend her father’s funeral, likely 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 over it.

While the accusation may be true, it seems likely that Aurelia Plath was protecting her children, as she had protected her husband. Whatever the case, both Sylvia and Warren were clearly loved and encouraged by their mother. It was Aurelia’s love for poetry, and her habit of reading aloud to Sylvia, that inspired her daughter’s first creative urges.

Sylvia avoided her father’s grave for 19 years. In 1959, she made a single visit with her husband, poet Ted Hughes, at the urging of her therapist. That visit gave birth to one of Plath’s most famous poems, Electra on Azalea Path, telling how she found her father’s “speckled stone askew by an iron fence.” According to Hughes, Plath was so distraught by the visit that she made him walk the length of the town with her to calm down. In the poem, Plath’s persona, Electra, confesses it was her love for her father that killed him.

Referring to her first suicide attempt, Plath later 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 clearly loved.

The Winthrop cemetery is three-tiered. Otto Plath’s grave lies inside the main gate on the lowest and newest level, to the right of Azalea Path. Given the cemetery’s size, the grave should be easy to locate, but it isn’t. Azalea Path isn’t marked. 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’s grandparents looked after her in their home at 892 Shirley Street. The Schober house had always been a refuge for Sylvia. She stayed there the summer following Warren’s birth, feeling she’d been displaced, and later wrote that she “hated” babies because of Warren’s arrival. Today, the house stands within a walled yard that looks as though it’s been caged to keep it from escaping. Out back, a long curve of sand leads down to the ocean where Sylvia spent hours alone, exploring the beach or nursing starfish with missing limbs.

On a drab September day as I passed, the flag in the front yard flapped listlessly. The house seemed quite ordinary. There was nothing to suggest that such an extraordinary, volatile presence had ever lived inside its walls. Yet Plath was notoriously tempestuous before fame touched her life. Considered “imperious” by fellow students, she was known for holding court on the grounds while attending Smith College. Similarly, her romance with Hughes was coloured by violent episodes, including their legendary first meeting where she bit him on the cheek and drew blood.

Plath 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 harbour, and telephone poles snapped in half. The next day, a dead shark lay in her grandmother’s garden. Of the event, young Sylvia wrote in her diary: “The wreckage…was literally all one could wish.” Considering her propensity for self-destruction, those words might well describe her own life.

By ten, Sylvia and her family had moved away from Winthrop to Wellesley. She was later 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 my father the summer before he died.” It is through this one surviving novel, with its candid portrait of a young woman’s mental breakdown, that many have come to know Plath’s writing. (There was a sequel, which Plath burned in anger 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 of The Bell Jar. She published it under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, and referred to it privately as a “pot-boiler.” It’s 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, as dark as that may be. The book is, however tentatively, a story of redemption.

Sylvia Plath was unable to reconcile her feelings with the world around her. Eventually, they destroyed her. In Point Shirley, written the year she visited her father’s grave, Plath mourns her dead grandmother, recalling the house with its “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.


 
 
 

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