Sylvia Plath died in 1963, and yet her writing has lived on. Plath’s poetry collection Ariel was published two years after her death, establishing her as an icon in 20th century poetry. But Ariel does not contain the only material written by Plath published posthumously — far from it. More poetry followed in the ‘70s, and as interest in the poet grew, her private letters and journals followed.
Plath continued to collect accolades despite being relatively uncelebrated in her lifetime. Nearly 20 years after her death, her collected works won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Now, in 2019, the locomotive that is Plath’s writing continues to barrel down the tracks with increasingly reckless speed with the release of “Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom,” a short story.
Upon opening the slim paperback, fittingly reminiscent of a poetry collection, the reader will learn that the story was written while Plath was a student at Smith College and that she submitted it to the magazine Mademoiselle, only to be rejected. The question that thus emerges in the reader’s mind is, “Was the publication sorely mistaken in rejecting the young writers’ prose?”
A casual reader will wonder, fairly, what could be interesting about a college student’s unsuccessful story. It’s true, the story will not be making it into any curriculum or anthologies anytime soon, and yet reading the story is far from a valueless experience, particularly for students of writing.
Readers will immediately pick up on two things. Firstly, that this is the work of Sylvia Plath. And secondly, that this is the work of a writer who hasn’t quite earned her sea legs. The sharp imagery characteristic of Plath’s writing introduces you to the train station where the story finds young Mary Ventura.
From the “red neon lights” to the man in a “grey felt hat” to the “long black hand of the clock on the wall,” the reader sees landmarks of Plath’s later writing, although perhaps from a distance and more specifically through a train window. Unfortunately, these landmarks whiz by before we can get a good look.
They show up steadily as the story lumbers down the tracks. Mary’s parents are sending her somewhere by train. Mary boards, albeit begrudgingly, and is joined by a woman with a “puffing and red face.” It’s an uneasy story. Out the window Mary sees smoke from “the forest fires” and a scarecrow among rotting corn husks.
Here we see the tell-tale signs of a writer over-eager to establish her tone. Almost every line beats the reader over the head with it. However, rather than being entirely ineffective, the oversaturation of tonal expressions makes the story feel inauthentic and somewhat dreamlike yet not absent of skill or attention to detail.
It is unclear exactly what the “Ninth Kingdom” actually is, aside from Mary’s final destination. All we know is that once one arrives there, there is no turning back. Having been written around the time Plath left her own home and featuring a main character with the name of one of Plath’s childhood friends, the story first seems to be about the anxieties surrounding moving away from home.
And yet readers familiar with Plath and her themes will wonder whether the Ninth Kingdom could represent an afterlife. The other passengers, oblivious to their final destination, resemble the damned with the way they seem resigned to their fate. Hypothesizing begins to feel tiresome after a while for this story. Plath herself labels it a “vague symbolic tale.” Rather than making the story powerful, it renders it toothless.
Ultimately it’s not a particularly special story. Is it just Plath’s estate’s attempt to make extra cash? Perhaps in part. Yet a reader can’t help but feel as though perhaps it is almost an apology for Plath’s lack of recognition during her lifetime on behalf of the literary world. What would she have thought knowing her college story would be published in 2019?
Additionally, for students of writing, the story may serve as encouragement. Being rejected by literary magazines does not preclude you from winning the Pulitzer Prize, and even if you write a story that doesn’t quite hit the mark, it may contain the seeds of your strengths.
Just remember, next time you turn in that story for Introduction to Fiction and Poetry, 60 years from now it could line the shelves of Barnes & Noble.