Sylvia Plath’s summer internship as a guest editor at Mademoiselle magazine is explored in William and Mary graduate Elizabeth Winder’s insightful debut Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953.
In the spring of 1953, Plath, then a 20-year-old junior at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, is one of twenty young women selected by the editors of Mademoiselle magazine for an internship as a guest editor of the magazine’s yearly college issue. She travels to New York in late May and spends the month of June in the city: living at the Barbizon Hotel; spending long days working at the magazine; and enjoying evenings filled with parties, ballets, and dates.
Within two months of her return to Massachusetts, Plath suffers a mental breakdown that leads to her first suicide attempt. Years later, these experiences form the basis for her only novel, The Bell Jar, published shortly before her suicide in 1963.
Instead of recounting the grim details of Plath’s breakdown, Winder focuses on Plath’s interests and cultural influences in an “attempt to undo the cliché of Plath as the demon-plagued artist.” Winder succeeds in reaching her ambitious goal.
Divided into eight sections filled with short, fast paced chapters, the book’s structure gives the reader the experience of an exciting, yet ephemeral, summer adventure. The whirlwind of activity is anchored by candid interviews with several of Plath’s fellow guest editors. These interviews are insightful and serve as a response to Plath’s depiction of her summer in New York in The Bell Jar. The interviews, particularly the recollections of Carol LeVarn, provide some of the book’s most poignant and thought-provoking moments.
Winder balances the serious tone of the interviews with lively descriptions of Plath’s love of literature, fashion, and the popular culture of the early 1950s. The text is enhanced by the inclusion of photographs, vintage advertisements, and fashion illustrations, including photos from the college issue. Frequent sidebars include extended interviews, biographical sketches of people Plath met in New York, and quotes from her journals. These sidebars add context to Plath’s experiences without breaking the momentum of Winder’s narrative.
Engaging and well-researched, Pain, Parties, Work will appeal to readers who are interested in Sylvia Plath’s life and work. Elizabeth Winder is scheduled to present a program on Plath with Catherine Bowman at William and Mary on Thursday, March 20.
Check the WRL catalog for Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953