The Beekeeper’s Daughter
Prussia, Austria, America, 1850–1932
Like Sylvia Plath herself, Plath’s parents, Otto and Aurelia, have had to bear a difficult posthumous burden. Plath used her parents, like so many others in her life, as material for her writing. They existed as real people whose praise she craved and, at the same time, a deep fictional resource. They were of her, but not her—a looking glass that reflected the possibility of what might or might not be, and she could not resist plumbing their depths as she sought to understand her own. She came to feel that in her parents lay the root of her anxieties, and, encouraged by her psychiatrist in the late fifties, she began to lash out at them in her journals and, later, her poems. Plath would express rage toward her parents—at her father for abandoning her, at her mother for hovering too close. They remain distorted caricatures, stuck in amber. In Plath’s most famous poem, “Daddy,” Otto—who died when she was eight—is a patriarchal tyrant, a Nazi “bastard.” Aurelia, skewered in The Bell Jar, is a menacing martyr who demands perfection from her daughter. But if Plath inherited anxiety and depression from her parents, she also inherited intelligence, discipline, and ambition. They stand Janus-faced, curse and blessing, at the beginning and end of Sylvia Plath’s story.
In Otto Plath’s case, myth has overshadowed truth in the popular imagination. For many readers of Sylvia Plath, Otto Plath is “Daddy”: Aryan, fascist, Nazi. In fact, Otto Plath was a committed pacifist who renounced his German citizenship in 1926 and watched Hitler’s rise with trepidation. He held himself to rigid moral standards and expected others to do the same. In a photograph taken when he was a college student in Wisconsin, around 1910, he gives the impression of a man who does not suffer fools gladly. He sits unsmiling in the front row surrounded by drunken peers, laughing and holding steins. This is the serious, driven young man who would not compromise his ideals, even if that meant severing ties with his family—a decision that would have a profound impact on his daughter.
At least three generations of the Plath family lived in Posen Province, West Prussia, before coming to America. Today Posen (Poznan) is part of Poland, in the area known as the “Polish Corridor” when it was transferred from the German empire to Poland after the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. Like the Alsace-Lorraine region, it became a disputed territory, where tensions between ethnic Poles and Germans ran high. Despite the fact that the majority of those living in this area were Poles, Hitler attempted to annex it in 1939—one of the early acts of aggression that spurred France, Britain, and other Commonwealth nations to declare war on Germany. Though Otto Plath left Posen in 1900, well before both world wars, his daughter would eventually portray him as an embodiment of German imperialist aggression in “Daddy.”
Posen, whose population comprised Germans, Poles, and Jews who lived in separate ethnic enclaves, was perhaps the poorest region in Prussia. By the late 1800s, ethnic Germans, lured by the booming industrial economy in the Rhine and Ruhr regions, as well as free land in America, began leaving the region en masse in the Ostflucht, or “flight from the east.” More than two million had left by the early 1900s, including Sylvia Plath’s paternal great-grandparents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and father. Her great-grandfather, Johann Plath, was an illiterate farmer, but his grandson Otto would eventually become a Harvard-educated professor, and his great-granddaughter a trailblazing poet and novelist. Sylvia’s “perfectionism,” often derided as neurotic or pathological, needs to be understood within the historical and sociological context of the American immigrant experience, which framed her life. Her desire to excel on all fronts has its roots in the Germanic aspirational work ethic that was her inheritance.
Otto Plath’s German provenance was important to his daughter. Sylvia wrote that she felt her “German background very strongly,” and talked up her German-Austrian roots to her German pen pal, Hans-Joachim Neupert, in high school. “I feel a strong kinship for anything German,” she told him in 1949. “I think that it is the most beautiful language in the world, and whenever I meet anyone with a German name or German traits, I have a sudden secret warmth.” She felt “patriotic pride” when she read German authors such as Thomas Mann and spoke lovingly of her grandmother’s hearty Austrian cooking. She was well aware of the dazzling artistic and intellectual achievements of German musicians, writers, and philosophers; she listened to Bach and Beethoven, and read Nietzsche and Goethe with her mother. But hers was a dual inheritance, for she had also heard how her mother’s family was harassed during the First World War by Irish and Italian neighbors in Winthrop, Massachusetts. Sylvia may have been picked on for similar reasons during the Second World War and possibly nervous that members of her family would be sent to a domestic detention camp for German Americans. (Her father was, in fact, detained by the FBI for alleged pro-German sympathies in 1918.) In December 1958, she described a short-story plot in her journal—which eventually became “The Shadow”—about a young German American girl who is treated suspiciously by her neighbors during the Second World War:
My present theme seems to be the awareness of a complicated guilt system whereby Germans in a Jewish and Catholic community are made to feel, in a scapegoat fashion, the pain, psychically, the Jews are made to feel in Germany by Germans without religion. The child can’t understand the larger framework. How does her father come into this? How is she guilty for her father’s deportation to a detention camp? As this is how I think the story must end?
These questions suggest that Sylvia understood from a young age that the German identity she shared with her father was somehow dangerous—a secret source of shame.
Plath’s journals are full of frustration about her inability to master the German language. In January 1953 she regrets not having taken more German in college; in February 1956 she wants to “revive German again,” declaring, “I haven’t really worked at learning it”; she vows to spend the summer of 1957 studying the language; in 1958 she berates herself for “wasting my German hours” and writes, “to learn that would be a great triumph for me.”In 1960, exhausted and homesick in London, she was comforted by her German-speaking friend Helga Huws, whose German cooking made her weep. As late as 1962, she listened to German linguaphone records and tuned into a BBC German radio program. She hired a German-speaking au pair shortly before her death in 1963.
Sylvia was the daughter of a German immigrant and a first-generation Austrian who had studied German language and literature and knew Middle High German. Her mother’s parents, the Schobers, with whom she lived in Wellesley, spoke German at home. Despite her exposure to the language—and the fact that she excelled at every other academic subject—German did not come easily to her. In her 1962 poem “Daddy,” the German language itself becomes the “barb wire snare” and “the language obscene,” “An engine, an engine / Chuffing me off like a Jew” to the death camps. Plath’s notorious metaphorical appropriation of Jewishness may not have been a fantasy of victimization, but rather a fantasy of purgation and purity: only by aligning her speaker with the enemy of the Germans could she reject her own Germanness, which, in the wake of the Holocaust, seemed like a curse.
Previous biographers have stated that the Plath name was originally “Platt,” and that it was anglicized on entry to America. According to a family member, the family name in Germany was von Plath. Sylvia’s paternal great-grandparents, John (Johann) von Plath and Caroline (Katrina) Katzsezmadek, were born in the Posen region in 1829 and 1826, respectively. John was German and Lutheran, Caroline Polish and Catholic, but the couple overcame the religious divide to marry in the 1850s. They raised their children as Lutherans, though there was religious tension within the marriage. Both spoke Polish and German; in later years, Otto would list both languages as his mother tongue. The couple settled in the small town of Budsin, now Budzyn, in Posen Province. They had eight children, of whom Otto’s father, Theodore (b. 1850), was the eldest. The six children who survived into adulthood—Emil, Augusta, Mathilde, Mary, Emilie, and Theodore—all immigrated to America between 1882 and 1901 and settled across the West and Midwest in North Dakota, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Oregon.
The fact that all of John and Caroline’s children emigrated suggests that the family did not prosper in Posen. In America they became blacksmiths and seamstresses, their spouses railroad laborers and meat cutters. Mary Plath endured a particularly dark fate. According to a family story, she fell in love with a young man from Cando, a neighboring town in North Dakota, while she was visiting her relatives in Maza. She became pregnant by him, but he left her for another woman in Cando. Jilted and alone, she ran away to a boardinghouse in St. Paul, Minnesota, where she died in childbirth. Mary’s lonely death speaks to the cost of veering from traditional Lutheran codes of behavior. (Later, one of Mary’s nieces expressed guilt over her aunt’s sad fate.) Otto, too, would be cast out after his peregrinations from the faith.
In their fifties and sixties, John and Caroline decided to follow their children across the Atlantic, and they immigrated to the Lincoln–Fall Creek area of Wisconsin, where they had Posen connections, in the 1880s. Immigration officials struck the “von” from the Plath surname when John landed in New York. When he protested that the prefix was a matter of “family pride,” the immigration official replied, “there is no aristocracy in America!”
John and Caroline were uneducated: neither could read, write, nor speak fluent English even after living in America for two decades. “They were poor people when they came to Fall Creek,” a resident said. Yet by farming and taking in boarders such as the local public school teacher, they were able to buy a house and eventually help their grandson Otto come to America. Caroline, who had “deep-set intense eyes,” died in Fall Creek in November 1913. John died two years later, in June 1915, the year his grandson Otto turned thirty. They were hearty people who lived into their eighties at a time when life expectancy was much shorter. An undated photograph shows John and Caroline seated on stools outdoors, probably in their yard, while a young Otto and his aunt Emilie stand stiffly behind. Otto, with his jacket, vest, tie, and neatly combed hair, embodies the grandson made good. John, however, wears a dark, rumpled suit, while Caroline and Emilie are in plain, faded housedresses. The grandparents’ stern, weathered faces look straight out of American Gothic.
John and Caroline’s eldest child, Theodore Friedrich Plath, married Ernestine Kottke (b. 1853) in a Protestant church in Posen Province in 1882. He was thirty-two, and she was twenty-nine—a rather late marriage for the time. Ernestine was Otto’s mother and Sylvia Plath’s grandmother. Otto remembered his mother as “a rather melancholy person . . . weighed down with the care of six children and an ulcer on her leg that never wholly healed.” He described Theodore, however, as “energetic, jovial, inventive.” Ernestine and Theodore had six children: Otto, Paul, Max Theodore, Hugo, Martha, and Frieda, all born between 1885 and 1896. Another child, born when Ernestine was just nineteen and possibly out of wedlock, died. Ernestine raised the children on her own for long stretches of time while her husband sold equipment for the McCormick company in Germany, Poland, France, and Russia. Theodore picked up several languages during his travels and was able to converse easily with his clients; his son Otto would inherit his linguistic talents.
Theodore’s job in Germany was steady and well paid, but around the turn of the century McCormick was restructured, and family members later speculated that Theodore had been laid off or was unhappy with the changes in the company. Theodore left Hamburg on March 3, 1901, on the Batavia and arrived in New York sixteen days later. He listed his occupation in the ship’s log as “master blacksmith.” At fifty, he was the last of the Plath siblings to emigrate. He arrived with $125, no contract of employment, and plans to stay with his sister Mathilde and her husband in Chicago. Ernestine sailed from Liverpool to St. John, Canada, on the RMS Lake Ontario in December 1901 with five of her six young children. She moved first to Maza, North Dakota, where Theodore’s brother Emil worked as a blacksmith, and where at some point she reunited with her husband. They lived in Maza until 1906 or 1907. By 1907, the couple was living in Harney, Oregon, and by 1912, Oregon City. Theodore worked as a blacksmith and farmer.
From this time on Ernestine vanishes both from the general record and from family anecdote. Sylvia’s mother Aurelia said that after Sylvia’s suicide attempt in 1953, Otto’s sister Frieda wrote to her confiding that their mother Ernestine had been hospitalized for depression, and that a sister and niece had also suffered from the illness. According to Frieda, they had “all made some sort of recovery.” Yet this was not quite true. Ernestine Plath died in September 1919 at the Oregon Hospital for the Insane.
Theodore had committed her to the Salem asylum in October 1916. She was sixty-three. According to the admission form he filled out, her physical and mental health had been “normal” until 1905, when she suffered her first episode of “insanity” in North Dakota. The symptoms then had consisted of “head-ache, sleep and appetite loss, and anxious as persecution [sic].” Theodore stated that Ernestine had received treatment for this condition in Jamestown, North Dakota, in 1905, but that the same symptoms had recently reappeared. His wife had no previous history of suicidal thoughts or attempts, he wrote—no seizures or fits, no history of alcohol or drug abuse, and no hint of violent temperament. Her general disposition was, according to court records, “Good when well.”
The admitting doctor found Ernestine reluctant to speak with him, and “much depressed & fearful. . . . Appears to be hallucinated but will not converse.” The admitting nurse further noted that she was “well nourished, clean but helpless.” She was also, the nurse thought, depressed. Another set of hospital admission notes observed that the brown-haired, blue-eyed, five-foot-five-inch, 130-pound woman “Gets out of bed at unreasonable periods . . . Thinks someone might kill her, begs to stay with us. Worrys [sic] for fear we will send her away.” The admitting doctor’s provisional diagnosis was “senile dementia."
Copyright © 2020 by Heather Clark. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.