Read The Bell Jar Online

Authors: Sylvia Plath

Tags: #Fiction, #Psychological, #Literary

The Bell Jar




Sylvia Plath




for Elizabeth and David





























by Frances McCullough


You might think that classics
The Bell Jar
are immediately
ognized the moment they reach a publisher’s office. But publishing
history is rife with stories about classic novels that barely squeaked into
print, from
A Confederacy of Dunces,
The Bell
is one of them. It’s hard to say whether, if Sylvia Plath had
lived--she’d be a senior citizen on her sixty-fifth birthday, October 27th,
1997--the novel would ever have been published in this country: Certainly it
would not have been published until her mother died, which would have kept it
from our shores until the early ‘90s. And by that time, Plath might have become
a major novelist who might see her first book in a quite different light.

But of course Plath did die a
tragic death at the age of thirty, and the book’s subsequent history has
everything to do with that fact. The first time her manuscript came into the
offices at Harper and Row in late 1962 it was under the auspices of the Eugene
F. Saxton Fellowship, a grant affiliated with the publishing house that
supported the writing of the book. The grant required Plath to submit the final
manuscript to the Saxton committee. Two Harper editors, both older women with a
special interest in poetry, read the novel in hopes of getting first crack at a
new voice in the literary world--but both of them found it disappointing,
juvenile and overwrought. In effect, they rejected the book, though it hadn’t
been offered to them officially, and in fact Plath was quite insistent that it
shouldn’t be published in America because its roman-à-clef elements would be so
hurtful to her family and their friends.

Actually, Plath already had an
American publisher. Knopf had bought her first book of poems, The
an event that triggered the first outpouring of prose that became
The Bell
For a long time Plath had been thinking about writing a novel; her
ambitions to break into “the slicks,” especially the
Ladies Home journal)
constantly on the back burner as she concentrated on her poems. Addressing her
as “Dear Mrs. Hughes,” the Saxton Fellowship had turned down her poetry
manuscript, the one that became
The Colossus)
so it must have been a
particular point of pride when they later accepted
The Bell jar

She also had a British
publisher: William Heinemann Limited had published
The Colossus
in the
fall of 1960, and agreed to publish
The Bell jar)
under the pseudonym
Victoria Lucas (though everyone in literary London knew Plath was the author),
in January 1963--which turned out to be just a few weeks before Plath’s death.
Reviews were lukewarm, and Plath was deeply stung by them. But she had already
begun another novel the previous spring, and by her mother’s account, there was
yet another finished one that went up in a bonfire one day when Plath was in a
rage. Although she wasn’t as surefooted in her fiction as she was in poetry,
she planned to write “novel after novel” once her book of poems

But by the time
The Bell Jar
out in London, Plath was in extremis; her marriage to poet Ted Hughes was over,
she was in a panic about money, and had moved to a bare flat in London with her
two small children in the coldest British winter in a hundred years. All three
of them had the flu, there was no phone, and there was no help with child care.
She was well aware of the brilliance of the poems she was writing--and in fact
A. Alvarez, the leading critic of the day, had told her they deserved a
Pulitzer. But even that knowledge didn’t save her from the dreaded bell jar
experience, the sudden descent into deep depression that had triggered her
first suicide attempt in the summer described in the novel. A number of the
same elements were in place this time: the abrupt departure of the central male
figure in her life, critical rejection (Plath had not been accepted for Frank
O’Connor’s writing class at Harvard that
Bell Jar
summer), isolation in
new surroundings, complete exhaustion.

Plath’s suicide on February 11,
1963 brought her instant fame in England, where she had made occasional
appearances on the BBC and was beginning to be known through her publications.
But she was still not well known here in her native land, and there was no sign
that she would become not only the last of the major poets read widely, but
also a feminist heroine whose single published novel had spoken directly to the
hearts of more than one generation.

When I first arrived at Harper
in the summer of 1964, there was no actual job for me--I’d been reading for the
Saxton Prize novel contest, the latest incarnation of the Fellowship, on a
temporary basis, and I’d been put on staff simply because, as my new boss put
it, “If you’re as good as we think you are, you’ll figure out something to do.”
I looked around; the poetry editor, who was one of the readers of
The Bell
who hadn’t liked it, was retiring. I did a little checking and
discovered that virtually every poet in America was unhappy with his or her
publisher. This seemed to me a good opportunity to attract some stars to our
list, so I proposed hiring a poetry scout--my candidate was Donald Hall. I sent
off a memo to Cass Canfield, the publisher, who thought this was a fine idea.

When Don went to London later
that year,
had just been published and Don was elated; he bought a
copy of the book and sent a cable urging us to publish it. Knopf was of course
interested too, but they’d quickly hit a sticking point. None of their
poets--and they had a fine list--had ever been paid over $250 as an advance
against royalties for a book of poems, and it was unthinkably unfair, they
felt, to make an exception for Plath. Meantime, Don pointed out to Plath’s
husband and executor Ted Hughes that it would make perfect sense to publish
with Harper since Hughes himself was published there, so the nod was going
in our direction.

I knew about Plath; her odd name
had been ringing in my head ever since I’d first heard it from A. Alvarez,
who’d been teaching at Brandeis in my graduate school days. But these poems
profoundly affected me as none of her
New Yorker
poems or
had. Although there was opposition inside the house from some quarters, who
felt the poems were too sensational, eventually Roger Klein, a young editor,
and I were allowed to buy the book for $750--a small sum, noted editor in chief
Evan Thomas--to give the young people their head.

From the moment
in print, it was a sensation, with a double-page spread in
setting off a frenzy. Women were joining consciousness-raising groups, and
Plath was often the center of the discussion. After her death, Ted Hughes, who
inherited the copyright on all her work, published and unpublished, had assured
her mother that
The Bell Jar
would not be published in America during
Mrs. Plath’s lifetime. But the demand for more Plath had led to bootleg copies
of the novel coming in from England; at least two bookstores in New York
carried the book and sold it briskly.

There was yet another quirk in
the publishing history of
The Bell Jar,
a copyright snag. Because it had
been published abroad originally by an American citizen, and had not been
published in America within six months of foreign publication or registered for
copyright in the United States, it fell under a provision (since nullified)
called Ad Interim, which mean it was no longer eligible for copyright
protection in America. This had been a closely guarded secret, but one day in
1970 I had a phone call from Juris Jurjevics, an old friend at another
publishing house, alerting me that John Simon at Random House was aware of the
copyright situation and was planning to publish the book. This was horrifying;
I called Simon and explained to him that the only reason the book hadn’t been
published was out of respect for Mrs. Plath’s feelings, that we had an
agreement to publish it if she changed her mind or if she died, and that it was
unconscionable for him to steal this book. To my utter astonishment, he agreed,
and said he would cancel the publication.

Obviously we had to publish the
novel immediately. I called Ted Hughes and his sister Olwyn, who was the
literary agent for the Estate, and we undertook the delicate business of
telling Mrs. Plath--who later told her side of the story in
Letters Home
a selection of Sylvia’s letters to her.

But again there was internal
opposition to the project, from the remaining original reader of
The Bell
who didn’t like it any better the second time around. Despite the
success of
the house was concerned about publishing posthumous
work that wasn’t up to snuff. I turned to Frank Scioscia, a brilliant Harper
sales manager with a legendary book nose, and asked if he could read the novel
overnight and give me a reaction the next day. He did; Frank loved the book and
thought it would have extraordinary sales. That saved the book for Harper, and
nearly three million paperback copies have been sold since 1972.

The eight-year wait between the
novel’s original publication in England and its American appearance had only
increased its audience. Plath was nearly a household name by 1971, there were
Plath groupies, and the women’s movement was in full bloom, with recent books
from Germaine Greer and Robin Morgan. Confessional literature was in vogue. And
there was a new fascination with death; Elisabeth Kubler-Ross had burst on the
scene and Erich Segal’s tearjerker,
Love Story,
seemed to have a
permanent place on the bestseller list. Depression and mental illness were
subjects much on people’s minds as well; they were reading R. D. Laing. A.
Alvarez, the critic who so admired Plath, had written a highly romantic book
about suicide featuring Plath as Exhibit A. A timely excerpt from the British
edition appeared in the
New American Review
around the time of
publication and became the topic of the moment.

The Bell Jar
sailed right
onto the bestseller list and despite some complaining reviews, it quickly
established itself as a female rite-of-passage novel, a twin to
Catcher in
the Rye--
comparison first noted by one of the original British
reviewers. In fact
The Bell jar
was published on the twentieth
anniversary of Salinger’s classic and Sylvia Plath herself was just two years
older than the fictional hero, Holden Caulfield.

To Molly O’Neill, a
seventeen-year-old lifeguard in Ohio who would grow up to become a food writer
for the
New York Times
and a novelist herself, reading
The Bell Jar
summer was nothing short of astonishing. Above all she was amazed by the
possibility of madness descending like a tornado into a typical bright young
woman’s life out of nowhere--”That could happen? I could hardly believe it.” To
Janet Malcolm, the
New Yorker
writer who became fascinated by how we
know what we know about Plath,
The Bell Jar
is a fine evocation of what
madness is actually like.

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