Channel: Poetry | The Guardian
Viewing all articles
Browse latest Browse all 3823

FBI files on Sylvia Plath's father shed new light on poet


Otto Plath, who inspired 1962 poem Daddy, described as morbid man with possible pro-German sympathies during war

When FBI officers noted the "morbid disposition" of a German-born US suspect called Otto Plath during a first world war investigation, little did they realise how incisive their psychological assessment was, or its significance. Fourteen years later, he fathered Sylvia Plath, one of the 20th century's most influential poets who continually battled against depression.

Scholars of Plath have expressed their astonishment at the newly discovered FBI files, as they were unaware that Otto, a scientist, had even been investigated over alleged "pro-German" sympathies. "My heart literally jumped in my chest," one of them said.

Although Otto died in 1940 when his daughter was eight, he exerted a lifelong hold on her, inspiring her bitter tirade against him in her famous 1962 poem Daddy.

But relatively little was known about him, and this new material will offer invaluable insight into his daughter.

Apart from the investigators' report on Otto's character, the files reveal that he was detained over suspected pro-German allegiance.

He also encountered discrimination at the University of California, and was passed over for a scientific post due to his birth in East Prussia, though he moved to the US aged 15. The files also reveal that he lost a salesman job for not buying Liberty Bonds to aid the war effort, and it is implied that he had a less than wholehearted attitude towards the first world war and America.

The FBI concluded that he was "a man who makes no friends, and with whom no one is really well acquainted". But there was no evidence of disloyalty.

In the light of the second world war, Plath had mixed emotions about her father, writing in her journal in 1958: "He … heiled Hitler in the privacy of his home." She wrote in her vicious poem, Daddy: "I have always been scared of you,/ With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo./ And your neat mustache/ And your Aryan eye, bright blue./ Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You-- / Not God but a swastika."

In that poem, she also vented anger at poet Ted Hughes, the husband who abandoned her and blamed her recurrent depression on her Oedipal obsession with her father.

Theirs was one of literature's great, doomed love stories. Plath took her own life in 1963, having left food for her sleeping children. Some Plath fans blamed Hughes for her suicide.

Months before he died in 1998, Hughes, a poet laureate, broke his silence on their marriage with his collection of poems, Birthday Letters.

The FBI files, headed "Pro-German", recorded that, as an "alien enemy", Otto lost teaching positions, having graduated from Northwestern College and the University of Washington, Seattle. Later however, he did obtain positions.

In one passage, they noted: "He has stated … that he will return to Germany after the War, and seems to have assumed a rather pro-German attitude towards [it] on account of losing his positions." But later they commented he had "a rather indifferent attitude" and mentioned a denial of saying he would go back to Germany after the war.

He also told investigators that his parents came to the US "because of the better conditions" but defended his homeland, saying: "Some things are rotten in Germany, but not all; that the German people and their character is not altogether rotten."

FBI officers reported "his brooding over the bad luck he is having making a living" due to his nationality and that he felt persecuted.

The FBI files will be revealed in October at an international Plath symposium at Indiana university, Bloomington, a leading research centre boasting an important Plath archive.

Academics to attend include Peter K Steinberg, who unearthed the files. Recalling his first reading, he said: "For me, as a Plath scholar, it was all new."

On Otto's morbid tendencies, he said: "Certainly people in general will want to read this as evidence or proof of the conditions that ailed Plath."

He passed the files to his colleague, Heather Clark, who is writing a Plath biography and who will present a paper on them at the symposium. She said: "We were both amazed that these existed … [Plath] had a conflicted attitude towards her own German-Austrian identity." Her mother was of Austrian descent. She added: "It helps explain this … hard-driving, intense immigrant work ethic that Plath in some ways inherited … People talk about her perfectionism as being almost part of her neurosis."

She dismisses the suggestion that Otto had Nazi sympathies: "He was a pacifist … Maybe [Sylvia] was misremembering, or angry towards him."

The FBI investigators reported information gleaned from their interviews with academics and others who knew Otto: "His scientific work is excellent." They said that he was turned down for an assistant's role partly because "he has not the personality that is required of an instructor at the University, being very nervous and not being able to interest students".

Steinberg noted the irony of his "not being unable to connect with students" given that he married one of them, Aurelia Plath, 14 years later.

guardian.co.uk © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Viewing all articles
Browse latest Browse all 3823

Latest Images

Trending Articles

Latest Images