This week, PhD-wise I have been trying to write a paper I would like to put forward at an upcoming postgraduate symposium. I am looking in particular at two stories from the "Johnny Panic" collection that deal with the US schooling system and social clubs/sororities. I want to look at how Plath presented schooling and also, how she looked back at her time in school, attendence in social cliques, etc. This has meant I've had to do a lot of background reading into the USA and the climate in which Sylvia Plath lived. I found myself getting de-railed a little by engrossing myself in looking at the rise of McCarthyism and conservativism of that time period - something that has always interested me. It interested me further to see how in many schools and Universities in the 1940/50s, schoolchildren and teachers were asked to pledge 'loyalty oaths' to the USA and renounce any thoughts regarding communism or any kind of 'radical thoughts' whatsoever. I read about Universities having to sack staff members because of their leftist leanings, libraries taking books off shelves for a 'quieter life' and even the burning of books in some areas of the US.
Paradoxically, the 1940/50s seem to have been remembered by people as generally happy times in any account I have read so far. The US and it's "arsenal of democracy" experienced good job prospects, a prosperous emergence from WW2 and increased buying of commodities (by the mid-1950s 20,000 television sets were being bought per day in the USA).
The more I read, the more it seems to me like the USA was teetering on the brink of mass-hysteria in so many ways: the threat of cold war, nuclear attack - children being drilled on what to do if the H-bomb was dropped.. The fear of infiltration from within limiting the freedom of speech and thought that the USA prided itself was smoothed over by television sets, new household appliances, marketing strategies - everything geared towards consumerism and adopting an "American" way of life. Of course, what became of those who thought differently or outside the box?
By using schools and sororities as an embodiment of the USA, Sylvia Plath is able to give an interesting account of what it is to conform and what it is to reject the straightforward path that would make life in America much easier. In 'Initiation', after performing a series of trials in order to join a sorority, Millicent is forced to ask everyone on a bus what they ate for breakfast. One strange, eccentric man replies he ate the eyebrows from a heather bird. This outside-the-box answer challenges Millicent to think otherwise; to realise that there is another option open to her, although it will be a tough and sometimes lonely road - she will be choosing her own path instead of taking one set out for her by American tradition and values. The following is the description of the heather birds which really impacts upon Millicent -
"Swooping carefree over the moors, they would go singing and crying out across the great spaces of air, dipping and darting, strong and proud in their freedom and their sometime loneliness".
In the end, Millicent opts for the sometime lonliness of going it alone. Plath proves to us here that desipte the suffocating climate in the US at that time, the option to go your own way was still there. Despite all the banning of books, the no-tolerance attitude when it came to leftist/radical thought - the true values of the USA: freedom of speech, freedom of mind - could not be dispelled.
However, an interesting fact to note is that Sylvia Plath herself was a member of a high school sorority. She was able to write this story but actually joined up (albeit for a short time) and was part of the social clique that Millicent walked away from.
Does this mean my initial conclusion is wrong? That actually, the avenue Millicent chose was not open and this story was just a re-imagination of what Plath wished she had been able to do? This is something I'm still trying to work out (I'm looking at 'America! America!' which also documents a sorority initiation) but I think the answer is that it's probably a bit of both. Plath scholars always talk about a duality in her work: this may be a simple duality - the split between what Plath wished she could have done (her 'real' self) and what she, being a straight A student had to do (the 'other' self).
On a side-note, and putting on my Plath-fan hat, I really have to say what a joy it has been to re-read and devote time to the "Johnny Panic..." stories. The collection is given some luke-warm reviews, but if you give it time and attention, the stories really unfold themselves and take you away with them as you read. I would definitely recommend the collection for even the Plath fan who is solely devoted to the poetry. The mixture of short stories and diary excerpts give it a great all-round perspective on what, if she had had time to develop further, would have been a great novel-writing career for Sylvia.