Her ‘I Spy’ Books Challenged Children
By Neil Genzlinger
April 13, 2018
Jean Marzollo, who sent millions of young children searching through elaborate photo collages for an eclectic collection of objects in her “I Spy” rhyming picture books, died on Tuesday at her home in Cold Spring, N.Y. She was 75.
Her family announced her death. The cause was not given.
Ms. Marzollo wrote more than 150 children’s books, some factual, some fanciful, all imparting skills and information to young — often very young — readers.
There was “I’m a Seed” (1996, illustrated by Judith Moffatt), in which two seeds have a conversation and, over time, learn that they are different — one grows into a marigold, the other into a pumpkin plant.
There was “Ten Little Christmas Presents” (2008), in which 10 animals open gifts, one at a time — a counting lesson that also turns into a memory test when, on the last page, it asks readers to try to match each gift with the box it came out of.
Her signature, though, was the “I Spy” series, begun in 1992, in which Ms. Marzollo’s rhyming text invited the reader to try to find various objects and shapes in elaborate scenes photographed by Walter Wick. Every page was a visual adventure, the images often staged like an artwork.
One page suggested backstage at a theater, with evocative masks and costumes. Another was an aerial view of a seaside town, complete with clam shack and lighthouse. And the “I Spy” tasks Ms. Marzollo gave youngsters were more than just a game.
“While kids perceive that they are simply hunting for objects in a picture,” Jinny Gudmundsen, a columnist for Gannett Newspapers, wrote in 2006, describing a video-game version of the books, “this visual puzzle game actually teaches young children about visual discrimination, rhyming, vocabulary, word-object association and reading.”
Jean Martin was born on June 24, 1942, in Manchester, Conn. Her father, Richard, was Manchester city manager and had also been a state water commissioner. Her mother, the former Ruth Palmer Smith, taught high school biology.
Jean received a bachelor’s degree at the University of Connecticut in 1964 and a master’s degree in teaching at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 1965. After teaching high school in Arlington, Mass., and serving as assistant director of Harvard’s Upward Bound program, she moved to New York City in 1967 to work on early childhood development projects for the General Learning Corporation. In New York she also met a sculptor, Claudio Marzollo; they married in 1969.
She and some friends formed a company to write educational material for and about children, including a parent/teacher guide to “Sesame Street,” which had premiered on public television in 1969.
That led Ms. Marzollo into book writing, first for grown-ups. “Learn Through Play” was published in 1972, and she would write others for adults, like “Fathers & Babies” (1993), a baby-care book for dads, and “Your Maternity Leave” (1989), which carried the forthright subtitle “How to Leave Work, Have a Baby, and Go Back to Work Without Getting Lost, Trapped or Sandbagged Along the Way.”
But children’s books were her main interest. In 1972 she became editor of “Let’s Find Out,” a monthly magazine for kindergartners, and 1978 brought her first children’s book, “Close Your Eyes” (illustrated by Susan Jeffers), about a boy having trouble falling asleep.
Of the many that followed, one of her favorites was “Pierre the Penguin: A True Story” (2010, illustrated by Laura Regan). It is about a penguin at a California zoo whose caretaker makes the animal a wet suit because it is missing feathers.
“Using a cute (and catchy) rhyme, author Marzollo tells the true story of a bedraggled penguin and the human caretaker who hits upon the perfect solution to his problem,” wrote Terri Schlichenmeyer, author of the Bookworm Sez syndicated review column. She added that children “who have a problem with teasing will be able to identify with Pierre.”
Another that Ms. Marzollo was particularly pleased with, her family said, was “Happy Birthday, Martin Luther King” (1993, illustrated by J. Brian Pinkney). In it she recognized the sensitivity of writing for a young audience. When dealing with King’s death, the text is sparse but straightforward.
“Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed in 1968,” it says. However, in the book’s foreword, she advises those reading it to preschoolers to use their judgment.
“If you feel that the words ‘shot and killed’ on page 30 are inappropriate for the child or children you plan to read this book to, you may want to change the words and say simply that Martin Luther King ‘died’ in 1968,” she wrote. “It isn’t, after all, necessary for us to tell very young children the harsh details about Reverend King’s death in order to convey to them the central message of his inspirational leadership.”
But softening reality for young readers had its limits for her. In 1993, she and another children’s author, Kate McMullan, were invited to speak at Sag Harbor Elementary School on Long Island for an “author’s day.” But the ostensibly harmless event caused a local uproar when school officials objected to two small illustrations in Ms. McMullan’s book “The Noisy Giants’ Tea Party,” one of a boy running away after breaking a window with a basketball, the other of three men staggering out of a tavern.
When a school official explained that the intent of the event (which was eventually canceled) was not to prompt a discussion of social issues and values, Ms. Marzollo took umbrage.
“All literature is about values,” she told The New York Times. “I can’t name a picture book that is not about values. That’s why people read. Kindergarten teachers impose values on children all day long. They say, ‘Let’s clean up.’ ‘Let’s not hit each other.’ ‘Let’s not run in the hall.’ If something in a book triggers a discussion, that’s a teachable moment.”
There was no controversy surrounding Ms. Marzollo’s “I Spy” books, just a demand for more of them. The eight original “I Spy” books led to spinoffs like an “I Spy Challenger” series, with extra-hard puzzles. The concept was adapted for the digital age, first with a CD-ROM, then with video-game version for Nintendo, Leapster and other platforms. The original “I Spy” books have been translated into more than 20 languages.
Ms. Marzollo is survived by her husband; two sons, Dan and David; a brother, Allen Martin; a sister, Katherine Martin Widmer; and three grandchildren.
Last year the Butterfield Memorial Library in Cold Spring, in Putnam County, where the Marzollos had lived for many years, announced that its newly renovated children’s room would be named for Ms. Marzollo.
She had served for eight years on the Haldane School Board, which encompasses Cold Spring, including two as its president. Representative Sean Patrick Maloney, whose district includes Cold Spring, this week called Ms. Marzollo “a passionate voice for education and a stalwart booster of the Haldane School District.”
At the end of “I’m a Seed,” the marigold explains to the pumpkin what is inside each of them.
“Seeds,” the marigold says. “When my seeds are planted, they will become new marigolds.”
To which the pumpkin replies, “When my seeds are planted, they will become new pumpkins. There should be a name for it.”
Says the marigold: “There is. It’s called life.”
A feminist poet and revolutionary who became a martyr known as China’s ‘Joan of Arc.’
BY AMY QIN
With her passion for wine, swords and bomb making, Qiu Jin was unlike most women born in late 19th-century China. As a girl, she wrote poetry and studied Chinese martial heroines like Hua Mulan (yes, that Mulan) fantasizing about one day seeing her own name in the history books.
But her ambitions ran up against China’s deeply rooted patriarchal society, which held that a woman’s place remained in the home. Undeterred, Qiu rose to become an early and fierce advocate for the liberation of Chinese women, defying prevailing Confucian gender and class norms by unbinding her feet, cross-dressing and leaving her young family to pursue an education abroad.
Her legacy as one of China’s pioneering feminists and revolutionaries was cemented on July 15, 1907, when she was beheaded at 31 by imperial army forces who charged her with conspiring to overthrow the Manchu-led Qing government. It was her final act of resistance, and it would later earn her a place in the pantheon of China’s revolutionary martyrs.
To this day, she is often referred to as “China’s Joan of Arc.”
“Qiu Jin lived at a time when women in China were not permitted to venture out of their homes, let alone participate in public affairs,” said Zhang Lifan, a writer and historian in Beijing. “So Qiu Jin not only participated in politics, her actions alone were a rebellion.”
Throughout her life, Qiu wrote often of what she saw as China’s stifling gender roles, as seen in this passage from a 1903 poem:
My body will not allow me
To mingle with the men
But my heart is far braver
Than that of a man.
At the time of the poem’s writing, China was an empire in distress. The Qing government was on its last legs, heaving under the weight of internal bureaucratic decay and external pressure from foreign powers.
With the uncertainty of the period came opportunities for educated Chinese women like Qiu. As a result, Qiu soon found herself at the forefront of an emerging wave of new feminists who believed that women’s rights and political revolution naturally went hand in hand.
But scholars say the enduring strength of Qiu’s legacy lies not only in her leadership, but also — and perhaps more important — in her willingness to ultimately sacrifice her life for the cause.
“She argued that it wasn’t enough for women to just sit around and ask for equality,” said Hu Ying, a professor of Chinese literature at University of California, Irvine. “She believed you had to be willing to put your life on the line. And the fact that she really did put her life on the line is what made her words stick.”
As is often the case with any historical martyr, it is difficult to disentangle the facts of Qiu’s life from later myth making.
Qiu Guijin (pronounced Cho GWAY-Jeen) was born into a respected, albeit declining, gentry family in the southern port city of Xiamen on Nov. 8, 1875 (some scholars say 1877). Her father, Qiu Shounan, was a government official. Her mother, surnamed Shan, also came from a distinguished literati-official family.
With her older brother and younger sister, Qiu grew up in Xiamen and her family’s ancestral home of Shaoxing in China’s eastern Zhejiang Province.
By all accounts, she had a comfortable childhood. But she was forced to bind her feet, learn needlework and — worst of all, in Qiu’s eyes — submit to an arranged marriage.
The man Qiu’s father chose for her was Wang Tingjun, the son of a wealthy merchant in Hunan Province. In 1903, seven years after marrying, the young couple moved with their two children from Hunan to Beijing.
For Qiu, life in the imperial capital was decidedly less dull. She struck up friendships with like-minded women and began to take an interest in China’s political affairs. She unbound her feet, drank copious amounts of wine and began experimenting with cross-dressing and swordplay.
Still, the frustrations of her marriage took a deep toll on her psyche. Her husband, she felt, was uncultivated and had no interest in poetry or learning.
So in the summer of 1904, Qiu, then 28, acted on a bold decision: She left her husband and two children, sold her jewelry and sailed for Japan. (For that reason, scholars sometimes call her “China’s Nora,” after the character in Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 play “A Doll’s House”.)
She summed up her life in a 1904 poem called “Regrets: Lines Written En Route to Japan”:
Sun and moon have no light left, earth is dark,
Our women’s world is sunk so deep, who can help us?
Jewelry sold to pay this trip across the seas,
Cut off from my family I leave my native land.
Unbinding my feet I clean out a thousand years of poison,
With heated heart arouse all women’s spirits.
Alas, this delicate kerchief here,
Is half stained with blood, and half with tears.
In Tokyo, Qiu enrolled at Shimoda Utako’s Women’s Practical School, shortening her name to Qiu Jin. But she focused most of her energy outside the classroom, connecting with other reform-minded Chinese students similarly keen on fomenting revolution back home. She joined influential anti-Manchu secret societies, including the Restoration Society and Sun Yat-sen’s Revolutionary Alliance.
She came back to China in 1906 with a militant determination to advance women’s causes and topple the Qing government. She started the short-lived “Chinese Women’s Journal,” which, unlike most feminist magazines at the time, used vernacular language to appeal to a broader audience on topics like the cruelty of foot-binding and arranged marriages. She also learned how to make bombs.
By 1907, Qiu was running the Datong School — a front for a group that recruited and trained young revolutionaries — in Shaoxing when she learned that Xu Xilin, who was her friend and the school’s founder, had been executed for assassinating his Manchu superior.
After Xu’s death, friends warned Qiu that Qing troops were coming to Shaoxing to find the woman thought to be his co-conspirator. But Qiu refused to run away. In a scene that has since been memorialized and embellished in a multitude of forms, Qiu attempted to fight back but was quickly captured, tortured and beheaded.
Over the years, critics have accused her of being naïve in her belief — widely shared at the time — that overthrowing the Qing could resolve China’s social and political ills. Others said her death was unnecessary since she had ample time to escape from the advancing soldiers.
Perhaps her most notable critic was Lu Xun, one of China’s greatest 20th-century writers, who believed Qiu’s reckless behavior in Shaoxing was linked to the enormous adulation she received during her time in Japan. She was “clapped to death,” he told a friend.
More than a century after her death, many Chinese still visit her tomb beside West Lake in Hangzhou to pay their respects to the woman now embedded in the national consciousness as a bold feminist heroine.
Some can also still recite the famous words she wrote just before her death: “Autumn wind, autumn rain, fill one’s heart with melancholy.”
The line was a play on her surname “Qiu” which means “autumn” in Chinese.
A Harlem Renaissance-era writer whose heritage
informed her modernist take on the topic of race.
BY BONNIE WERTHEIM
When Nella Larsen died, in 1964, she left little behind: a ground-floor apartment, two published novels, some short stories, a few letters. She was childless, divorced and estranged from her half sister, who, in some accounts, upon learning she was to inherit $35,000 of Larsen’s savings, denied knowing the writer existed.
It was a fitting end for a woman whose entire life had been a story of swift erasure.
Larsen’s immigrant parents — Mary Hanson, from Denmark, and Peter Walker, from the Danish West Indies — had settled in a mostly white, working-class neighborhood in Chicago, a city that was rapidly growing and segregating by the time Larsen was born on April 13, 1891.
Two years later, Walker disappeared, leaving Hanson alone with the couple’s young daughter. In his absence, Hanson married a fellow Dane, Peter Larsen, with whom she had another daughter, Anna.
By all appearances, the family was white. But Nella Larsen was different, something that would come to inspire her fiction — celebrated during the Harlem Renaissance, forgotten by midcentury and rediscovered to be read today in American literature and black studies courses.
The public schools that Larsen attended in Chicago drew students from mostly German and Scandinavian backgrounds. So it wasn’t until she left Chicago for Nashville in 1907 to attend the Fisk Normal School, a teacher-training program affiliated with the historically black Fisk University, that she was surrounded by faces that weren’t white.
Larsen later enrolled at the Lincoln School for Nurses in the Bronx, which was founded to recruit black women into the field. After graduating with the equivalent of a registered nurse’s degree in 1915, she was hired as a superintendent of nurses at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.
The next year, she moved back to New York to join the staff at Lincoln. She met Elmer Imes, the second African-American to receive a Ph.D. in physics, whom she married in 1919. As the Harlem Renaissance began to take shape in the 1920s, Larsen and Imes took up with a circle of black intellectuals that included W.E.B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes.
Larsen first expressed a professional interest in literature and art as a volunteer helping to prepare the New York Public Library’s first exhibition of African-American artists. She later enrolled in the library’s teaching program, eventually becoming its first black female graduate.
Her initial placement was on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, but she transferred to the library’s 135th Street location to be closer to home and to the heart of the Harlem Renaissance. Today the branch is the Countee Cullen Library (named for a poet who contributed to Harlem’s artistic prosperity) and is near the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, where the archive includes two of Larsen’s letters.
In one of the letters, from 1928, in a looping scrawl, Larsen addresses Edward Wasserman, a wealthy bohemian whose social circle included the novelist Zora Neale Hurston and the publishing matron Blanche Knopf. After years in which she had written stories under a pseudonym, her first novel, “Quicksand,” had just been published by Alfred A. Knopf, and she was eager to get Wasserman’s opinion:
I do want to see your review. Will you have a copy? I’m too poor to subscribe to a clipping bureau. Besides, what’s the use? It seems that your review will be the only notice I’ll have.
But that was not the case. Thadious M. Davis, one of Larsen’s biographers and a professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, said that “Quicksand” was widely and positively reviewed, including in The New York Times, The Times Literary Supplement and The Nation.
The novel follows Helga Crane, a teacher at Naxos, a black boarding school in the South where excellence is measured by its proximity to whiteness. Helga, whose mixed-race background mirrors Larsen’s, is unsettled by Naxos’s rigid and racially fraught standards. So she leaves in search of financial stability and her own identity. When she connects with her mother’s white relatives, they treat her with a mix of contempt (in Chicago, her remarried uncle’s wife rejects her) and fascination (her aunt, in Copenhagen, parades her around the predominantly white city as an exotic).
According to Davis, Larsen was remarkable in approaching the subject of race as a modernist, rather than drawing on Southern tropes or vernacular to convey her characters’ blackness.
Larsen followed “Quicksand” the next year with “Passing,” which tells the story of Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry, two mixed-race women who grew up together and reunite at a Chicago hotel after years of separation. Clare, Irene discovers, has been living as a white woman married to a racist who is none the wiser about his wife’s background. The relationship between the two women flirts with the sensual as each becomes obsessed with the other’s chosen path.
In its review of “Passing,” The New York Times noted that “Larsen is quite adroit at tracing the involved processes of a mind that is divided against itself, that fights between the dictates of reason and desire.”
When “Passing” was reissued in 2001, the Times’s book critic Richard Bernstein wrote that “reading it and knowing that its author wrote very little after it imparts a sense of loss, giving as it does a glimpse of an original and hugely insightful writer whose literary talent developed no further.”
In 1930, one of Larsen’s short stories became the subject of plagiarism accusations. She had riffed on a story by a British contemporary, Sheila Kaye-Smith, infusing its arc with racial tension.
“I think she was much too smart an individual to boldface plagiarize that story,” Davis said.
Despite the controversy, that same year she became the first African-American woman to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship. She used the grant, worth roughly $2,500 at the time, to pay for a period as an artistic expatriate in Europe.
When Larsen returned to New York, she was forced to confront the realities of her marriage. She knew that Imes, who had moved to Nashville for a post at Fisk University, was having an affair, and it led to their divorce in 1933. Supported by alimony, she continued as a fiction writer producing at least one novel and a number of short stories that were not published. After Imes died in 1942, she moved downtown from West 135th Street to Second Avenue and returned to nursing to support herself.
Having cut her ties to Harlem’s circle of artists and intellectuals, and with no connection to her last living relatives, Larsen had, wittingly or not, created the conditions necessary to disappear quietly. She died of a heart attack in her apartment on March 30, 1964. She was 72.
Overlooked No More:
Charlotte Brontë, Novelist Known for ‘Jane Eyre’
By Susan Dominus
March 8, 2018
Since 1851, obituaries in The New York Times have been dominated by white men. With Overlooked, we’re adding the stories of remarkable people.
Charlotte Brontë was a 20-year-old schoolteacher — impatient, dreamy, long-suffering, unpublished — when, in 1836, she sent a sample of her writing to Robert Southey, England’s poet laureate at the time. Although her friend and biographer Elizabeth Gaskell would eventually write of Brontë’s “constitutional absence of hope,” the young teacher clearly already had a firm sense of her own worth — an enterprising spirit and ambition, and a longing for her own genius to find its way into the world.
In his reply, Southey acknowledged that Brontë showed talent, but he nonetheless discouraged her from pursuing her craft, and warned her off ambition itself. “Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life,” he wrote, “and it ought not to be.”
Brontë wrote back conceding the wisdom of his advice, then devoted much of her life to ignoring it. When she later decided to send a sample of her work to the poet Hartley Coleridge, she made no mention of her gender. Coleridge offered no great praise, but even his unbiased diffidence failed to sap Brontë’s will to write, to publish, to be, in a sense, heard. It was a will that would ultimately produce some of the most revolutionary novels of the 19th century.
Charlotte Brontë, born April 21, 1816, was one of six siblings whose mother died when they were all still small; her father, Patrick Brontë, a brilliant clergyman on a modest salary, brought the children up in Haworth, England, by the desolate moors of Yorkshire, in a stone house surrounded by a graveyard on all sides but one, Gaskell wrote.
As a child, and even as an adult, Brontë was small and frail, so shy among strangers that one host recalled her twisting herself around in her chair so that she could converse without making eye contact. Yet in her elaborate imaginary life, one she created with her siblings, in plays and stories and with maps, she could imagine herself as bold and swashbuckling, a magician or soldier or politician — her personal hero was the Duke of Wellington. In her imagination, and in the way she valued the product of her imagination, she was fearless — so fearless that she eventually paid to have a volume of poems by her and her younger sisters published under pseudonyms, an unusually ambitious act for a woman of her era.
When the poems did not earn the family fame, Brontë persisted, sending to publishers her and her sisters’ novels (also under assumed, gender-ambiguous names): Emily’s “Wuthering Heights,” Anne’s “Agnes Grey” and, a bit later, her own “Jane Eyre.” The daring contrivance played out like a plucky scheme, a plot point in some future novel: “Jane Eyre” became a runaway hit, fueling interest in the other two novels, but readers also clamored to know the authors’ true identities, with the attempt at anonymity only stoking curiosity.
By the time Brontë wrote “Jane Eyre,” she had already lost her two older sisters, who suffered in much the way Jane Eyre’s beloved Helen Burns suffered, from ill health and poor care at a boarding school that Brontë attended alongside those sisters. Less than a year after “Jane Eyre” was published, her brother, Branwell, died of tuberculosis, possibly complicated by his alcoholism; soon after, Brontë bore the burden of caring for her two younger sisters, Emily and Anne, both of whom also died of tuberculosis and both of whom she watched suffer in considerable agony.
In “Villette,” a novel that Brontë wrote after the loss of her siblings, she suggested that such pain could engender fearlessness. “I might suffer; I was inured to suffering: death itself had not, I thought, those terrors for me which it has for the softly reared,” says Lucy Snowe, the heroine of the novel thought to be Brontë’s most autobiographical. “I had, ere this, looked on the thought of death with a quiet eye. Prepared then, for any consequences, I formed a project.”
A survivor whose life had been shaped by grief, Brontë was perhaps emboldened to write as few, if any, women had before: tales of resistance and insistence on trusting one’s own sense of true morality, however unconventional. In “Jane Eyre,” she wrote from the first-person perspective of a child, an innovation that gave voice and power even to the very young; she created, too, a heroine who was, like Brontë herself, plain, pale, small, and yet frankly desirous, as well as worthy of desire.
Brontë once wrote to a friend that she considered the marital ambitions of women of no means or beauty “an imbecility which I reject with contempt,” a practical response to the frank injustices of class and a kind of sexism. In her novels, however, those same plain women are entitled to not just any marriages, but to passionate, loving ones. The interior lives of Jane Eyre and Lucy Snowe are shared in such detail that the characters’ unfair burdens are plainly manifest; Brontë could make great sweeping plotlines of the small moments and humiliations in an unmarried woman’s life. Lucy Snowe’s struggle to find a private place to read a long-awaited letter reads, over several pages, with the suspense and drama of a Spenserian quest.
A miniaturist of the soul, Brontë captured shades of emotion with a psychological subtlety that still feels exquisitely modern. When Lucy Snowe, battling depression, is advised to cultivate her own happiness, her strong response will feel familiar to many a 21st-century person who has the condition: “No mockery in this world ever sounds to me so hollow as that of being told to cultivate happiness,” she wrote. “Happiness is not a potato to be planted in mould and tilled with manure.”
She had a mordant wit, which could protect her only so much from the series of losses that left her so fragile. “It is useless to tell you how I live,” she wrote to a friend in 1851. “I endure life — but whether I enjoy it or not is another question.” She startled readily, and wrote to friends complaining of crushing insomnia, a poor appetite, grief and flashbacks; she put off writing letters for fear of how dejected she would feel if the replies came too slowly. Her two most intense romantic passions — one, involving a married Belgian school master, was meticulously memorialized in “Villette”; the other, for her publisher, George Smith (also captured in the characteristics of a doctor in “Villette”) — were both unrequited.
But reader, she married, eventually, at the age of 38, choosing Arthur Bell Nicholls, a pastor who worked for Brontë’s father. Although she acknowledged frankly that he was not her intellectual equal, he pursued her persistently, and against her father’s wishes, possibly imbuing a late-in-life courtship with a jolt of romance.
Did Brontë ultimately find the kind of happiness that she described as “a glory shining far down upon us out of heaven”? In “Villette,” Lucy Snowe describes her own feelings about happiness: “The negation of severe suffering was the nearest approach to happiness I expected to know. Besides, I seemed to hold two lives — the life of thought, and that of reality. And provided the former was nourished with a sufficiency of strange and necromantic joys of fancy, the privileges of the latter might remain limited to daily bread, hourly work and a roof of shelter.” Once Brontë married, however, her life of thought suffered. “My own life is more occupied than it used to be,” she wrote to a friend. “I have not so much time for thinking.”
Literature would no longer be the business of her life; whether the pleasures of marriage could offset that loss remains unclear. To one friend, she wrote, “It is a solemn and strange and perilous thing for a woman to become a wife.” But several months later, she wrote, “I have a good, kind attached husband, and every day makes my own attachment to him stronger.”
In “Jane Eyre,” Brontë imagines what a perfect union might be like: “I know no weariness of my Edward’s society: he knows none of mine, any more than we each do of the pulsation of the heart that beats in our separate bosoms,” she writes of Jane’s marriage to Mr. Rochester. As for what marriage would come to mean in her own life, Brontë had little time to find out: She died on March 31, 1855, only nine months after her wedding. She was pregnant, and unable to survive morning sickness so severe that complications from malnutrition and dehydration were the likely cause of death. Given the trials of her life, an obituary in The Leeds Mercury Saturday noted, her early demise seemed preordained — “but not the less deep will be the grief of society that her genius will yield us nothing more.”
While Brontë did not get an obituary in The New York Times, her husband, who died 51 years later, did. The article was just five lines long, and the headline said it all: “Charlotte Bronte's Husband Dead.”
A postwar poet unafraid to confront her own despair.
BY ANEMONA HARTOCOLLIS
She made sure to spare the children, leaving milk and bread for the two toddlers to find when they woke up. She stuffed the cracks of the doors and windows with cloths and tea towels. Then she turned on the gas.
On the morning of Feb. 11, 1963, a Monday, a nurse found the poet Sylvia Plath in her flat on Fitzroy Road in London, an address where W.B. Yeats had once lived. She was “lying on the floor of the kitchen with her head resting on the oven,” according to a local paper, the St. Pancras Chronicle.
Plath had killed herself. She was 30.
Because the death was a suicide, Plath’s family did not much advertise it, said Peter K. Steinberg, an editor, with Karen Kukil, of “The Letters of Sylvia Plath,” the second volume of which is to be published this year. And although she was a published poet who had received good reviews, and had determinedly made her way in a literary world dominated by men, the press did not pay much attention.
There were eight-line death notices in tiny print in The Boston Globe and The Boston Herald. To find them, a sharp-eyed reader had to look under “H,” for Plath’s married name, Hughes. The notices were almost as terse as a headstone: of London, England, formerly of Wellesley, Mass., wife of Ted Hughes, mother of Frieda and Nicolas (her son’s given name mysteriously missing its “h”), daughter of Aurelia, older sister of Warren.
Plath’s hometown paper, The Townsman of Wellesley, falsely reported that she had died of “virus pneumonia.” It nodded toward her literary career, “as poet and author.” But it did not name her poetry collection, “The Colossus,” first published in 1960 to positive reviews in the British press, or say that her poems had been printed in prestigious magazines like The New Yorker.
In its Fleet Street sensationalism, the St. Pancras Chronicle’s report was more satisfying, and more truthful.
“Tragic Death of Young Authoress,” the headline blared, before subordinating her reputation to that of her husband. “Found with her head in the gas oven in the kitchen of their home in Fitzroy-road, N.W. 1, last week was 30-year-old authoress Mrs. Sylvia Plath Hughes, wife of one of Britain’s best-known modern poets, Ted Hughes,” the article said. It went on to say that her doctor had arranged for her to see a psychiatrist, “but the letter was delivered to the wrong address.” It ended with the coroner’s verdict that Plath had died of carbon monoxide poisoning and, to leave no doubt in the matter, “that she killed herself.”
At that moment in time, it was easy to see why she might have wanted to. She was estranged from Hughes after discovering that he was having an affair with another woman, Assia Wevill. On Dec. 28, 1962, just weeks before her death, Alfred A. Knopf, which had published her poetry, had rejected her novel “The Bell Jar.” Judith B. Jones, the editor who sent Plath the rejection notice, did not try to soft-pedal it.
“To be quite honest with you, we didn’t feel that you had managed to use your materials successfully in a novelistic way,” wrote Jones, who has been credited with rescuing the diary of Anne Frank from the reject pile and with discovering Julia Child. Jones said she had found the attitude expressed in the first half of “The Bell Jar,” about the young heroine’s adventures as a magazine intern in New York, “perfectly normal,” and had liked it well enough. As for the second half, Jones wrote, “I was not at all prepared as a reader to accept the extent of her illness and the suicide attempt.”
An editor at Harper & Row concurred with Jones’s assessment. In a letter addressed to “Mrs. Ted Hughes,” this editor wrote, a little more charitably, that the first part of the novel was “arresting, a fresh and bright recreation of a girl’s encounter with the big city — universal and individual.” But she added, “With her breakdown, however, the story for us ceases to be a novel and becomes more a case history.”
As she grappled with the rejection of editors and her husband, Plath spent her last months writing the poems that would secure her literary reputation.
Six days after she died, her friend, the literary critic A. Alvarez, predicted in The Observer that those poems, many of which were later published in her best-known collection, “Ariel,” would establish her as “the most gifted woman poet of our time.”
Thus it was in death that Plath found her literary due.
The public fascination with her death has hovered over her family. One of Warren Plath’s two daughters, Susan Plath Winston, recalled the surprise that she and her sister would feel when their aunt’s name appeared, for instance, in a snippet of “The Simpsons.”
Worse was when Plath’s son, Nicholas, a fisheries biologist in Alaska, hanged himself in 2009, at 47. Because of who his mother was, his death received front-page treatment. “Your family pain being literary/celebrity news is a bizarre place to be,” said Winston, a lawyer in Oklahoma City who represents victims of domestic violence.
Sylvia Plath was born in Boston on Oct. 27, 1932. Her father, Otto Emil Plath, a German-born professor at Boston University, died when she was 8, and her mother, the former Aurelia Schober, made ends meet teaching in a university secretarial program. Biographers have linked Plath’s bouts of depression to the childhood trauma of losing her father, as well as to her own perfectionism and her mother’s smothering nature.
As a student at Smith College, Plath won a “guest editorship” at Mademoiselle magazine in New York in 1953, an experience that became the basis of “The Bell Jar.” Later that summer, she had a breakdown after being rejected from a writing course at Harvard. She received shock treatment, and then swallowed most of a bottle of sleeping pills.
She met Hughes, a future British poet laureate, at a party in 1956 while studying at Cambridge University on a Fulbright grant. (In describing the encounter in her journal, she wrote of biting his cheek so hard she drew blood; he pocketed her earrings.) They married within four months, a romantic union that was also a literary partnership.
It was after their separation in fall 1962 that Plath — jealous, feverish, addicted to sleeping pills and writing at dawn while her children slept — produced poems like “Lady Lazarus” and “Daddy” that helped make “Ariel” an exemplar of confessional poetry.
“The Bell Jar” was not published in the United States until 1971. (It had been published in England a month before Plath died, under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, for fear, Kukil said, that its resemblances to real life would attract libel suits.) In 1982, she was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize.
“Lady Lazarus” has been quoted so often it has become a kind of epitaph for Plath.
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.
I do it so it feels like hell.
Gloria Steinem, who was a year behind Plath at Smith College, published Plath’s BBC radio play, “Three Women,” in an early edition of Ms. magazine — “probably one of the reasons she was taken up by second-wave feminism,” said Kukil, the associate curator of special collections at Smith. “The Bell Jar” has risen from the ashes of rejection to become a perennial favorite of high school and college students. It spent 24 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list in 1971, and had sold nearly three million paperback copies by the 25th anniversary of its publication in 1996.
“I like to think she somehow helped to open up and legitimate female anger,” said Gail Crowther, author of “The Haunted Reader and Sylvia Plath,” among other books about the writer.
Plath made the object of much of that anger clear elsewhere in “Lady Lazarus.”