Writing Back: Sylvia Plath and Cold War Politics

Writing Back: Sylvia Plath and Cold War Politics

Writing Back: Sylvia Plath and Cold War Politics

Writing Back: Sylvia Plath and Cold War Politics


Writing Back: Sylvia Plath and Cold War Politics explores the relationship between Plath's writing and Cold War discourses and argues that the time (1960-1963), the place (England), and the global politics are important factors for us to consider when we consider the rhetoric of Plath's later poetry and fiction. Based on fresh readings arising from new research, this study argues that Plath should not be depoliticized, and examines her writing alongside the discourses of the period as expressed in newspaper reporting, magazines, and BBC radio. In contrasting her relationship with institutions in America in the 1950s with her responses in England to church, the American arms industry, the National Health Service, and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament it becomes clear that the process of cultural defamiliarization causes Plath to question the model of the individual artist divorced from society, a model of the writer that had previously seemed so attractive.


We shall by morning
Inherit the earth.
Our foot's in the door.

“Mushrooms” (1959)

I just wish England had the sense to be neutral, for it is quite obvious
that she would be 'obliterated' in an nuclear war, and for this reason
I am very much behind the nuclear disarmers here.

—Sylvia Plath, Letters Home 7 December 1961

I want to study, learn history, politics, language.

—Sylvia Plath, Letters Home 23 October 1962

THIS BOOK OFFERS A DETAILED EXPLORATION OF THREE ISSUES WHICH, despite the steady growth of studies of Sylvia Plath and her writings, remain neglected. The first issue, virtually ignored by the main body of Plath criticism, is the extent to which Plath's later writing was influenced by the reporting of the Cold War politics and events of the early 1960s. The second issue involves an assessment of the effect on Plath's writing of her transatlantic shuttling, and the relationship of her work to specific places. The third issue is, perhaps, the most contentious, and concerns the extent to which some of the writing constitutes an act of deliberate and conscious performance. Discussion of this third issue will interpret the idea of “performance” in two quite distinct ways. One of these identifies particular writings as conscious experiments in voice. The other, suggested by the expression “writing back,” reads Plath's poetry and fiction as performed responses to the would-be controlling forces of state and institutions, forces that operate on a national or global scale.

Linking all three issues is the idea of disguise, for the relationship between Plath's poetry and the public events of her time is a concealed relationship. In attempting to uncover it, certain objections have to be acknowledged and overcome. Allen Tate, speaking on behalf of those who make poetry, argued that what matters is the completed poem, not where it came from or why. Other poets, such as Robert Graves, believed that . . .

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