In response to:

Sylvia Plath's Biographers from the December 7, 1989 issue

To the Editors:

In the continuing saga of Hughes vs. Alvarez in the matter of Sylvia Plath, Olwyn Hughes has raised the question of the editing of Plath’s Journals. As the editor of the book, my motivation in marking “omission” on the many cuts Ted Hughes requested at the last minute was not, of course, a “publicity ploy” or “playing to feminist appetite,” as Olwyn Hughes says, but rather an effort to salvage the book for publication. Although the editor’s note at the front of the book clearly states what the omissions actually were, and how they affect the perception of the author, virtually no one has read this note as anything but a cover-up. This seems the right occasion to set the record straight.

I never saw the original journals; what was sent on to America by the Hugheses was a new typescript, presumably already thoroughly edited by the family, but without any acknowledgment of that fact. (The journals on deposit at Smith College, which many scholars have identified as the originals, are in fact this typescript, with scissored and inked out passages.) After I made my cuts, the family made some further requests for cuts as well as a few reinstatements. We were agreed, with some minor quibbling, and the agreed-upon version was set in galleys when suddenly there were new waves of cuts demanded, all of them, to my mind, quite serious; others might disagree. These included a magnificent account of Plath’s son’s birth, a series of passages about Plath’s feelings toward her husband and details of their relationship (mainly glorifying Ted Hughes, but a few strongly negative) and a lot of Plath’s nasty comments about other people. I understood and to some degree sympathized with the reasons for the cuts; on the other hand, they presented the publisher with a serious problem. Dial Press had bought a book which was quite different from the much thinner, blander document that was now proposed, which was simply unacceptable. The Plath that emerged from this new cutting seemed much smaller—in fact more like a benign version of the Plath of the new Stevenson biography—without some important dimensions of her character.

Clearly this was not a last-minute bait-and-switch scam; I’m convinced that Ted Hughes’s concern was for the sensitivity of people peripherally involved in the Plath story. He was also increasingly uncomfortable with the many passages in which Plath wrote almost worshipfully about him. At this point the publisher was ready to scrap the book entirely, but we managed to take a position in which everyone gave up something. I held out for two single passages, the most important of which was the scene of Ted and Sylvia’s meeting, when she bit him on the cheek and drew blood; the other, a wry comment on American virginity and rape, was one of Plath’s few flashes of humor. Although the meeting scene is deconstructed by Hughes’s friends in the Stevenson biography, the fact that Plath wrote it this way seems important. Those two cuts would be reinstated, the remaining cuts would be granted, albeit with clear markings to show omissions, and I would lose the $2000 I was to be paid by the Hugheses for my work on the book. Our last communication on this subject was a memorable cable from England: WITH RAPE AND BITE OUT TED EDITOR STOP IF INTRUDED QUOTE CONSULTANT EDITOR UNQUOTE ONLY REGARDS OLWYN.

In retrospect, there may have been a better way to handle the situation; I’m as unhappy as the Hugheses are to find myself seen as Plath’s censor, when all my efforts went in the opposite direction. But there was no time to come up with better alternatives, and the urgent business was to save the book itself. The difficulties inherent in publishing contemporary intimate documents are obviously enormous, sometimes insurmountable; the ethical questions raised in the process are daunting. Within all those constraints, we did manage to produce a book that tells us more about the real Plath than any of the dozens of books that have been written about her since.

Frances McCullough
Hastings-on-Hudson, New York

This Issue

January 18, 1990