6.24.2008

Walking Off the Sultry Summer of 1953: The New York of The Bell Jar

During one bright fall of my Texas high school years, I fantasized about my imminent life as a writer in New York. I had applied to three of the Seven Sisters colleges and imagined a career track that would take me after graduation to the city. I would work for a magazine or a book publisher, write small effective essays to establish my literary voice, and live in the company of other young women in some place like the Barbizon. My mother, too, encouraged this ambition, looking forward to visiting my ivy campus where I'd be in company with nice girls from established East Coast families. I would get married, too, eventually, and I even thought a nice English poet boy would be a good choice. The future looked clear.

Then one day a friend of similar literary passions gave me a copy of Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar. She said, and I'll never forget it, "You need to read this book. She reminds me of you." OK, thanks. I'll read it. As was my habit in high school, and one that continues to this day, I like to wake up at the crack of dawn ("rosy-fingered dawn") and read novels, usually of the classic variety. As soon as I began reading the story of narrator Esther Greenwood, a gifted young writer attending a prestigious women's college and that "queer, sultry summer" in New York after her junior year, I remember reaching up to grab an imagined emergency break and pulling my bright future to a grinding halt.

As Esther's psyche plummets into greater depths, the more I took this cautionary tale as my own. I take most all novels seriously, finding in them great lessons in life, as old-fashioned as that sounds. Reading Moby Dick, for example, I think, "Don't get on a boat with a crazy monomaniacal person." This lesson has served me well. With Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, a novel I re-read recently and that scared the living hell out of me, I drew many life lessons, including, "Don't play cards for money with rich people." Likewise, an important lesson. By the time I finished reading The Bell Jar on an early morning in that Texas autumn, I was not in despair so much as alarmed. I knew there would be consequences if a train passenger pulled the emergency break for no reason. I would have much to explain to my mother. I would have to work on Plan B.

As I remember those days of literary decision so long ago, I now look out my window to see a woman running to catch a taxi on the street, shopkeepers raising the gates in front of their stores to open for business, a man out walking his dog. I can see the tops of the trees in Washington Square Park. It's a sultry summer in New York. Many young women have started to arrive in the city to launch their promising careers. So for the next walk, I'd like to explore Plath's The Bell Jar and walk us through the New York summers of 1953 and 2008. I think I can handle this now.

I am finally here.

Image: "I wore a black shantung sheath that cost me forty dollars. It was part of a buying spree I had with some of my scholarship money when I heard I was one of the lucky ones going to New York." - Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar, Chapter 1

See follow-up posts;
Walking Off The Bell Jar: The Wicked City
Walking Off The Bell Jar: The United Nations, a Simultaneous Translator, and the World Beyond the 1950s
Walking Off The Bell Jar: The Long Walk

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