Date of Degree

2-2019

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D.

Program

English

Advisor

Carrie Hintz

Committee Members

Wayne Koestenbaum

Steven Kruger

Robin Hackett

Subject Categories

American Literature | Literature in English, British Isles | Literature in English, North America | Other Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies | Women's Studies

Keywords

twentieth-century literature, Edith Sitwell, Marianne Moore, Richard Wagner, Hannah Arendt, Erich Fromm

Abstract

Sylvia Plath and “the bigger things” explores the ways in which Plath’s “confessionalism”—so often read as antithetical to T. S. Eliot’s notion of “impersonality”—constituted not a break from modernism but rather a negotiation of its transatlantic legacy. In doing so, it works against a long-standing critical tradition that has defined Plath, who was living in England as she composed her Ariel poems, as nonetheless a distinctly American poet and one focused uniquely—and, as some have claimed, even pathologically—on the self. An examination of Plath’s published work, including interviews, statements of poetics, journal entries, and letters, in the context of a range of archival materials, such as college essays, teaching notes, and annotations she made to texts now housed in her personal library, reveals the extent to which engaging modernism—and, in particular, the tradition of the modernist epic—enabled her to position her explorations of “the personal” in relation to what she called “the bigger things.” As I argue, Plath’s engagements with modernism and the atrocities of World War II, which she indeed defined as “the bigger things,” prove not an escape to a literary “golden age,” to a New Critical conception of modernism institutionalized at midcentury, nor a regression to a childhood framed by the war. Instead, they constitute a direct engagement not only with the literary scene of early 1960s London—in which the critic Al Alvarez had issued a call for poets to address the “forces of disintegration” at work in both the horrors of the twentieth century and in the individual psyche—but also with her broader historical moment. At the time that Plath was writing the majority of the poems that she would include in her Ariel manuscript, such atrocities of the past as the Holocaust (in the wake of the capture, trial, and execution of Adolf Eichmann) and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (with Cold War tensions at fever pitch on the brink of the Cuban Missile Crisis) had indeed become newly present.

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