12 Things You Might Not Know About Sylvia Plath

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Though she's considered a pioneer of the confessional poetry style, Sylvia Plath was not widely famous when she died by suicide in 1963 at age 30. But her legacy has long outgrown her untimely death: Her collections of poetry and one novel, most published posthumously, are still read, debated, and quoted reverently.

1. SHE PUBLISHED HER FIRST POEM AT 8 YEARS OLD.

Entitled "Poem," Plath's first foray into poetry was featured in the Boston Herald's children's section in 1941.

"Hear the crickets chirping
In the dewy grass.
Bright little fireflies
Twinkle as they pass."

Plath, of course, would later have poems published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, and Harper's Bazaar.

2. HER FATHER WAS A PRESTIGIOUS BEE EXPERT, INSPIRING HER "BEE POEMS."

Sylvia's father, Otto Plath, emigrated to the United States from Germany as a teenager, and he grew up to become a professor of entomology at Boston University and an authority on bumble bees—his 1934 book Bumblebees and Their Ways analyzed bee colonies and the power of the queen in them. Otto was a huge influence on Sylvia's work—one of her most famous poems is entitled "Daddy," and it and others suggest she fell into the marry-your-father type of trope as well.

Otto died unexpectedly of complications from late-diagnosed diabetes when Sylvia was 8, and she would grapple with that loss for the rest of her life. At the height of her creative output, the fall of 1962, she wrote a sequence of five poems, "the bee poems," in less than a week. They are hopeful and life-affirming works that were originally intended to end her collection Ariel, but were instead posthumously displaced with the darker, more depressive poems like "Edge" and "Words" that she wrote in her final days. The Bee Poems, which were unceremoniously dumped in the middle of the published version of Ariel, are so different from what Plath is known for—self-destruction, casual violence—that they have often been overlooked as part of her creative canon.

3. HER EARLY LIFE HAS BEEN DESCRIBED AS "ACCOMPLISHED."

Although Plath is most often referred to as a tragic figure, she is described as a driven high achiever in adolescence and young adulthood. She had straight As, a full ride to Smith College, and was a Fulbright scholar studying in Cambridge, England. She also won various writing prizes while in college.

4. SHE WAS AN INTERN AT MADEMOISELLE MAGAZINE.

While at Smith College, Plath won a contest to become one of a few "guest editors" at Mademoiselle magazine during the summer of 1953. The experience marked a turning point in Plath's work and life; her novel, The Bell Jar, is a thinly veiled fictionalization of her time in New York City. She described the experience as "pain, parties, work," and one of the book's scenes detailed an attempted rape—an event Plath's personal journals from that summer seem to corroborate. After returning home to Boston, Plath spiraled into depression and survived an attempted suicide; she was briefly institutionalized, but returned to school and graduated with honors.

5. COLOSSUS IS THE ONLY LARGER WORK PUBLISHED IN HER NAME WHILE SHE WAS ALIVE.

In 1960, Plath published this collection of poems first in England, where she lived with her husband, to positive critical reviews (if not massive sales). Technically The Bell Jar was published in England just a month before her death, but it was under the pen name Victoria Lucas, due to publisher concerns of getting sued for libel. The Bell Jar, with Plath rightfully named as author, didn't arrive in the U.S. until 1971—but when it did, it became a surprise bestseller.

6. HER HUSBAND WAS A FAMOUS POET, TOO.

Poets Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath
summonedbyfells, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Plath met English poet Ted Hughes—who is considered one of the greatest poets of his generation and was Poet Laureate of the U.K. for the last 14 years of his life—while she was at Cambridge on scholarship in 1956, and the two married within four months. They chose the date June 16 in honor of Bloomsday, the annual celebration of the life and work of James Joyce. The two were young—she was 23, he 25—and they read, critiqued, and supported each other's work. "I am writing poetry as I never have before," Plath wrote to her brother in 1956, "and it is the best, because I am strong in myself and in love with the only man in the world who is my match."

Their relationship was charged but unstable—by the 1960s, Plath wrote her therapist saying Hughes beat her before she suffered a miscarriage; he cheated on her, and many scholars say his mistress was pregnant at the time of Plath's suicide (the mistress was said to have gotten an abortion soon after). For the last five months of Plath's life, they were separated, and she was living and writing in London with their two young children. Because they were not yet divorced at the time of her death, Hughes inherited Plath's estate—including her unpublished works. Hughes made plans to publish Ariel, but he removed some of her chosen poems, added in new poems, and reordered the rest differently from Plath's original manuscript, some say to maximize the narrative of an increasingly depressed woman doomed to take her own life.

7. SHE WROTE THE POEMS THAT WOULD MAKE HER AN ICON JUST BEFORE SHE DIED.

Plath died by suicide on the morning of February 11, 1963, the culmination of months of turmoil, severe depression, and an astonishing output of writing. Plath and her husband had recently separated, and she had two young children at home, so she would feverishly write between the hours of 4 and 8 a.m. during a notoriously cold London winter. The resulting poems became the collection Ariel, featuring her most famous poems, including "Lady Lazarus" and "Daddy."

8. SHE WON A PULITZER.

Sylvia Plath book
Like_the_Grand_Canyon, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

In 1982, Plath became the first poet to win a Pulitzer Prize posthumously. She won for The Collected Poems—edited by Ted Hughes. "Her attitude to her verse was artisan-like," Hughes wrote in the introduction to the collection. "If she couldn't get a table out of the material, she was quite happy to get a chair, or even a toy. The end product for her was not so much a successful poem, as something that had temporarily exhausted her ingenuity."

9. SHE ALSO WROTE CHILDREN'S BOOKS.

Illustration by Rotraut Susanne Berner, for Sylvia Plath's The It-Doesn't-Matter Suit.

Illustration by Rotraut Susanne Berner, for Sylvia Plath's The It-Doesn't-Matter Suit. Amazon

All published posthumously, Plath had a small collection of children's stories that were found amongst her journals and papers. One, The It-Doesn't-Matter-Suit, tells a sweet story about Max Nix and his mustard yellow suit. In the story, 7-year-old Max is the youngest of seven brothers. Two of those brothers were Otto and Emil—her father's names.

10. HER HEADSTONE HAS BEEN REPEATEDLY VANDALIZED.

Plath's grave, in the West Yorkshire hills of England, has been tampered with multiple times—first, her married name was expunged (some think by "feminist activists" looking to remove Ted Hughes from Plath's narrative), leading to a long period where there was no marker at all. "When I first had the lettering set into the stone … the only question in my mind was how to get the name Plath on to it," Hughes wrote in 1989, when the stone was replaced. "If I had followed custom, the stone would be inscribed Sylvia Hughes, which was her legal name … I was already well aware, in 1963, of what she had achieved under that name, and I wished to honor it."

11. A PSYCHOLOGIST NAMED A PHENOMENON AFTER HER.

The "depressed poet" has long been a creative stereotype—so much so that psychologist James C. Kaufman named the idea the "Sylvia Plath effect" in 2001, leading to its more mainstream use. Kaufman recently reframed his point of view, calling himself "young and stupid" at the time he introduced the term. He's now studying the impact of creativity on social justice.

12. PLATH CONTINUES TO IMPACT CULTURE TODAY.

Sylvia Plath has been influencing culture for the nearly six decades since her death. From Twitter feeds to famous movie quotes and cameos, a Sylvia Plath mention is often shorthand for "tortured female writer." She's also an influence on modern writers of all kinds—Lena Dunham wrote a college essay comparing Plath and Alanis Morissette, and Joyce Carol Oates has written about her extensively.

15 Fascinating Facts About Beatrix Potter

Getty Images
Getty Images

Even today, more than 75 years after her death on December 22, 1943, celebrated children’s author Beatrix Potter's beautifully illustrated tales—featuring animals and landscapes inspired by her beloved home in England’s Lake District—are still hugely popular. Below are 15 fascinating facts about The Tale of Peter Rabbit author.

1. Beatrix wasn't Potter's real first name.

Potter was born in London on July 28, 1866 and was actually christened Helen after her mother, but was known by her more unusual middle name: Beatrix.

2. The Tale of Peter Rabbit was inspired by a letter.

The first edition of The Tale of Peter Rabbit.
Aleph-bet books via Wikimedia // Public Domain

Potter’s most famous book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit , was inspired by an illustrated letter Potter wrote to Noel, the son of her former governess, Annie, in 1893. She later asked to borrow the letter back and copied the pictures and story, which she then adapted to create the much-loved tale.

3. Peter Rabbit and her friends were partly based on Beatrix Potter's own pets.

Peter was modeled on Potter’s own pet rabbit, Peter Piper—a cherished bunny who Potter frequently sketched and took for walks on a leash. Potter's first pet rabbit, Benjamin Bouncer, was the inspiration for Benjamin Bunny, Peter's cousin in her books. Potter loved sketching Benjamin, too. In 1890, after a publisher purchased some of her sketchers of Benjamin, she decided to reward him with some hemp seeds. "The consequence being that when I wanted to draw him next morning he was intoxicated and wholly unmanageable," she later wrote in her diary.

4. Potter’s house was essentially a menagerie.


Riversdale Estate, Flickr // Public Domain

Potter kept a whole host of pets in her schoolroom at home—rabbits, hedgehogs, frogs, and mice. She would capture wild mice and let them run loose. When she needed to recapture them she would shake a handkerchief until the wild mice would emerge to fight the imagined foe and promptly be scooped up and caged. When her brother Bertram went off to boarding school he left a pair of long-eared pet bats behind. The animals proved difficult to care for so Potter set one free, but the other, a rarer specimen, she dispatched with chloroform then set about stuffing for her collection.

5. Peter Rabbit wasn’t an immediate success.

Potter self-published the Tale of Peter Rabbit in 1901, funding the print run of 250 herself after being turned down by several commercial publishers. In 1902 the book was republished by Frederick Warne & Co after Potter agreed to redo her black-and-white illustrations in color. By the end of its first year in print, it was in so much demand it had to be reprinted six times.

6. Beatrix Potter understood the power of merchandising.

In 1903 Potter, recognizing the merchandising opportunities offered by her success, made her own Peter Rabbit doll, which she registered at the Patent Office. A Peter Rabbit board game and wallpaper were also produced in her lifetime.

7. Potter was a naturalist at a time when most women weren’t.

Potter was fascinated by nature and was constantly recording the world around her in her drawings. Potter was especially interested in fungi and became an accomplished scientific illustrator, going on to write a paper , “On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae, ” proposing her own theory for how fungi spores reproduced. The paper was presented on Potter’s behalf by the Assistant Director of Kew Gardens at a meeting of the Linnean Society on April 1, 1897, which Potter was unable to attend because at that time women were not allowed at meetings of the all-male Linnean Society—even if their work was deemed good enough to be presented.

8. Potter sometimes wrote in secret code.

Between 1881 and 1897 Potter kept a journal in which she jotted down her private thoughts in a secret code . This code was so fiendishly difficult it was not cracked and translated until 1958.

9. Potter was reportedly a disappointment to her mom.


Wikimedia // Public Domain

Despite her huge success, Potter was something of a disappointment to her mother, who had wanted a daughter to accompany her on social calls and make an advantageous marriage. In 1905 Potter accepted the marriage proposal of her publisher Norman Warne. However, her parents were very against the match as they did not consider him good enough for their daughter, and refused to allow the engagement to be made public. Unfortunately, Warne died of leukemia just a few weeks after the engagement. Potter did eventually marry, at age 47, to a solicitor and kindred spirit, William Heelis.

10. Potter wrote much more than you. (Probably.)

Potter was a prolific writer , producing between two and three stories every year, ultimately writing 28 books in total, including The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin , The Tale of Mrs Tiggy Winkle , and The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher . Potter’s stories have been translated into 35 different languages and sold over 100 million copies combined.

11. Potter asked that one of her books not be published in England.

In 1926 Potter published a longer work, The Fairy Caravan . It was at first only published in America because Potter felt it was too autobiographical to be published in England during her lifetime. (She also told her English publishers that it wasn’t as good as her other work and felt it wouldn’t be well-received). Nine years after her death in 1943, the book was finally released in the UK.

12. Potter's later books had to be cobbled together from early drawings.

As her eyesight diminished it became harder and harder for Potter to produce the beautiful drawings that characterized her work. As a result many of her later books were pieced together from earlier drawings in her vast collection of sketchbooks. The Tale of Little Pig Robinson was Potter’s last picture book, published in 1930.

13. A lost work of potter's was published in 2016.

A lost Potter story , The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots , was rediscovered in 2013 and published in summer 2016. Publisher Jo Hanks found references to the story in an out-of-print biography of Potter and so went searching through the writer’s archive at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Hanks discovered a sketch of the kitty in question, plus a rough layout of the unedited manuscript. The story will be published with supplementary illustrations by Quentin Blake.

14. Potter was an accomplished sheep farmer.

Potter was an award-winning sheep farmer and in 1943 was the first woman elected President of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders’ Association.

15. You can visit Hill Top, Potter's home.


Strobilomyces, Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0 

When Potter died in 1943 at the age of 77, she left 14 farms and 4000 acres of land in the Lake District to Britain’s National Trust, ensuring the beloved landscape that inspired her work would be preserved. The Trust opened her house, Hill Top, which she bought in 1905, to the public in 1946.

Mental Floss is partnering with the Paper & Packaging – How Life Unfolds® “15 Pages A Day” reading initiative to make sure that everyone has the opportunity (and time) to take part in The Mental Floss Book Club. It’s easy! Take the pledge at howlifeunfolds.com/15pages.

This article has been updated for 2019.

No, Ernest Hemingway Didn’t Write That Six-Word ‘Baby Shoes’ Story

Ernest Hemingway and actor Gary Cooper (right) leave a cinema on the Rue Royale in Paris, France in 1956.
Ernest Hemingway and actor Gary Cooper (right) leave a cinema on the Rue Royale in Paris, France in 1956.
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Journalist-turned-novelist Ernest Hemingway was known for his clean, restrained writing style. Which makes it conceivable that he's the author of the most famous six-word short story of all time.

The story goes that Hemingway wrote the gut-punching line "For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never Worn" to win a bet against his writer friends. But there's no evidence that such a bet ever took place, and it's likely that one of the best-known works attributed to Hemingway has nothing to do with the author at all.

According to Open Culture, the urban legend sets Hemingway in a hotel (usually the Algonquin, but the location varies) some time in the 1920s. He was allegedly having lunch with a group of writer pals when he bet them he could write a story with a full narrative in just six words. After his friends put their money down, Hemingway jotted down a few words on a napkin and passed it around the table. Though brief, the other writers couldn't deny that "Baby Shoes" was indeed a full story.

Chances are this story actually originated years after Hemingway's 1961 death. It first appeared in print in the 1991 book Get Published! Get Produced!: A Literary Agent’s Tips on How to Sell Your Writing by agent Peter Miller. When recounting the anecdote, Miller wrote that he first heard the tale from an unnamed newspaper syndicator in 1974.

The story spread from there and its original source only became murkier. A retelling of the tale was included in the one-man biographical Hemingway play Papa in 1996, and then in a Reader's Digest essay in 1998. The internet—for which Hemingway's punchy, compact style was a perfect fit—got "Baby Shoes" in front of more eyeballs than ever.

Though it's been cited in articles and books numerous times, no one has ever been able to trace the story back to a first-hand source. As for the true author of "Baby Shoes" if it isn't Hemingway, flash fiction fans may never know his or her identity. It's possible that the line was never meant to be a fictional story in the first place: Real ads that bear striking similarities to the legendary work predate the myth.

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