Sylvia Plath was born in the time of the Great Depression, was a child during World War II, and became a young adult during the Cold War era, catalysing her own disapproval of this latter, turbulent period in American history. Her literary representation of McCarthyism and the Cold War is apparent in her only published novel, The Bell Jar (1963) and poems, such as “Lady Lazarus” and “Fever 103°” which mark her strong opposition to authoritarianism. In the US, the late 1940s and early 1950s were characterised by forceful fight against Communists of the Cold War and threats of a nuclear war. President Harry S. Truman and Senator Joseph McCarthy were the key figures associated with the suppression of political enemies and investigating people who were suspected of committing “un-American” activities. Joseph McCarthy gained larger political presence after his speech delivered in 1950 in West Virginia in which he waged a war against Communists who “infested” the State Department.[i]
McCarthyism was a broader political ideology encompassing patriotic right-wing activists and liberal anti-Communists (Schrecker 2004, 1043). It was a political witch-hunt against everyone who did not conform with state-enforced politics, reaching its peak when Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were electrocuted on 19 June 1953 for allegedly giving out information to the Russian government about American nuclear weapon designs. Plath was in New York undertaking her internship at the Mademoiselle magazine when the execution took place which she commemorated in a fictionalised account in The Bell Jar: “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York” (Plath, The Bell Jar 2001, 1). Her emotionally charged journal entry likens the Rosenbergs’ sentence to public executions evoking the Salem witches (Clark 2020, 253):
The execution will take place tonight; it is too bad that it could not be televised … so much more realistic and beneficial than the run-of-the mill crime program. Two real people being executed. No matter. The largest emotional reaction over the United States will be a rather large, democratic, infinitely bored and casual and complacent yawn
All right, so the headlines blare the two of them are going to be killed: Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed on 19 June 1953 by the United States government for conspiracy of espionage. (Plath, Journals 2002, 541; 699)
Plath’s allusion to the newspaper headlines in the second citation gives an account of the direct influence of mass media in her writing. In her letters, she also often used the term witch-hunt to refer the Anti-Communism of the McCarthy era which was often described in newspapers as evocative of the Salem witch trials of 1692 as a symbol of abuse of institutional power.[ii] Many of the similarities between the Salem and Communist witch-hunt are more than mere metaphor; the methods of prosecution and diabolic rhetoric that ‘becomes the only form of language capable of representing reality’ (Kovel 1997, 7; 10) frequently parallel one another and a through-line between both periods of American civil unrest can be drawn. Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953) brought McCarthyism on stage by his fictional representation of the Salem witch trials. In May 1953, a month before the Rosenbergs were electrocuted, Plath saw The Crucible in New York while having a trip with her friends. She reported it to her mother that it was “[a] very good play about the witch hunt in Salem” (Plath, Letters Volume I 2017, 610). Though she did not elaborate on the play’s allusions, her writings show awareness of the understanding of McCarthyism as a political witch-hunt.
To her mother, Plath often expressed her disapproval of the state politics and the McCarthy witch-hunt. After the presidential election of October 1952 when Eisenhower was elected, Plath debated with her mother on her voting choices:
Really, I can’t see why you didn’t vote for him [Adlai Stevenson II]. Do you think the change of administration, which of course is partially desirable if only to make the opposition party more responsible – is worth the power it will give to the red-witch hunts of McCarthy, the southern snowberry of Jenner, the reactionary foreign policy of Taft??? (Plath, Letters Volume I 2017, 516)
Plath’s condemnation of Aurelia Plath’s white middle-class conformism marks the start of her separation from her mother. Her pacifism was influenced by her father and her high school English teacher, Wilbury Crockett, who encouraged his students to engage with social and political issues (Ferretter 2010, 92-93). In 1950, Plath co-published an article in the Christian Science Monitor with Perry Norton, “Youth’s Plea for World Peace” in which they called for the abandonment of the atomic bomb: “Since one of the many advantages of democracy is free speech, we would like to take the opportunity to speak out concerning the President’s direction to the Atomic Energy Commission to continue its work on the hydrogen bomb.”[iii]
Plath’s opposition to the Cold War politics did not start with McCarthy but with her disapproval of the atomic bomb and Korean war. As a teenager, Plath had a German pen pal, Hans Neupert, with whom she exchanged letters and occasionally discussed political matters. In a letter from August 1950, she condemned the Korean war and the politics of fear cultivated by McCarthyism: “As for the Korean situation, I feel ill every time I read about it. (…) What are we fighting for? For nothing. Against communism. That word, communism, is blinding. No one knows exactly what it means, and yet, they hate everything associated with it” (Plath, Letters Volume I 2017, 168). According to Clark, “[t]hese ideas could have earned Plath a place on the FBI blacklists” (Clark 2020, 102). In the same letter, Plath also expressed her opposition against the nuclear war: “My only hope is that the great horror of the atom bomb will be great enough to prevent such a terrible war. That the A-bomb was ever dropped seems like a sin to me” (Plath, Letters Volume I 2017, 168).
In 1952, Plath saw Joseph McCarthy giving a lecture which took place at Smith College on 10 April (Plath, Letters Volume I 2017, 436). A couple of days later she reported her admiration towards Patrick Murphy Milan, the head of the Civil Right Commission at that time “[a]s an antithesis to Senator McCarthy’s “guilt by association and hearsay” lecture” (Plath, Letters Volume I 2017, 443). For Plath, the political struggle against the so-called Red witch-hunt was a personal matter: in 1953, one of her Smith College teachers was investigated for allegedly committing “Un-American Activities” (Clark 2020, 191). During her years at the Smith College, several of her professors were called in for hearings; even, in 1954 a letter was sent to alumni students asking them not to donate to the college until it employs Communists (Ferretter 2010, 95). These stories demonstrate that Plath experienced McCarthyism from first-hand, though, she never had a confrontation with the political system, she articulated in her writings her disapproval of the modern witch-hunt. In 1955, in a letter to her mother, Plath portrayed herself as a humanist who wants to combine her “creative urges” with serving the world which can “counteract McCarthy” (Plath, Letters Volume I 2017, 893). Plath believed in “living a life with honesty and love” and human potentials which she saw as opposite of the Cold War politics of the United States.
Throughout her life, Plath opposed the authoritarian religious and political Puritanism embodied in McCarthyism. Her poems, such as “Daddy”, “Lady Lazarus”, “Fever 103°”, and “Witch Burning”, “The Jailer”, and “The Rabbit Catcher” often express sympathy towards marginalised groups (Jews, heretics, witches, abuse victims) and condemned the authoritarian politics personified by priest, God, Führer, executioner, and male lover alike. Plath’s poetic opposition symbolising the abuse of institutional power is reminiscent of her experiences of postwar American politics. McCarthyism meant that anyone could be enemy who did not conform with the state-enforced politics which included the nuclear and Korean war, the fight against alleged Communists, and the return Puritanical values in American society. The McCarthy witch-hunt marked the return to one of America’s darkest moments and the spreading of the politics of fear. Whereas Plath was never herself accosted by these institutions, her treatment of McCarthyism and the Cold War in her writings demonstrate that opposing the authoritarian politics is not only possible, but required from all of us.
[i] McCarthy, Joseph. “Enemies from Within” Digital History. Last modified 29 Dec. 2020
[ii] Leslie Amour, Washington. “Modern Witch Hunt.” The Washington Post (1923-1954), Jun 21, 1949. https://uoelibrary.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/modern-witch-hunt/docview/152163416/se-2?accountid=10792; Special to The New York Times. 1950. “Pacific States: Real Spy Case is Contrasted with the “Witch Hunt””.” New York Times (1923-Current File), May 28, 1950. https://uoelibrary.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/pacific-states/docview/111422941/se-2?accountid=10792.
[iii] Sylvia Plath, Perry Norton English H. Wellesley Senior High School, Wellesley, Mass. “Youth’s Plea for World Peace.” The Christian Science Monitor (1908-Current File), Mar 16, 1950. https://uoelibrary.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/youths-plea-world-peace/docview/508174305/se-2?accountid=10792.