This article is part of the USSO special series Resilience/Renewal: Shifting Landscapes in American Studies
For decades, American Studies in the UK has had a glaring underrepresentation in terms of the presence of disability in twentieth-century American literature. In the twenty-first century, scholarship is moving towards looking at disability studies, encompassing both physical and mental illness, as this new landscape of disability studies literature is being brought into classrooms through teaching. The presence of mental illness pervades American poetry, seen in the works of Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, and Allen Ginsberg, to name a few poets who are often taught on modern American poetry syllabuses, including within my own classroom.
Studies of disabled writers who have mental illnesses often get grouped with the misconception that ‘madness makes art good’ rather than having a nuanced study into the experience of disability. Clinical Psychologist Kay Jamison-Redford captures this: ‘no one is creative when paralytically depressed, psychotic, institutionalized, in restraints, or dead because of suicide.’[i] This article explores teaching American poetry through a disability studies lens, primarily focusing on the changing landscape of Plath studies. The inclusive practise of bringing disability studies into American literature modules helps to make visible the disabled experience throughout history.
Higher education tutors are bringing more inclusive practises into the classroom, such as Sarah Brown who has discussed her teaching of the The Bell Jar. Brown gets her students to consider recovery narratives, questioning whether protagonist Esther in The Bell Jar recovers and whether this push towards recovery is helpful when analysing Plath’s work. Brown suggests ‘the search for wellness threatens to occlude the thoughtful and provocative depictions of mental illness that The Bell Jar and other literary texts offer’[ii]. I bring this idea into classrooms by discussing how we can allow disabled characters to sit with their disability rather than forcing recovery. In her teaching, Brown states ‘[I] would like my students to work […] in a way that gets beyond an obsession with curing a supposedly well-understood condition, in favor of examining how knowledge of the state we call depression is produced across disciplinary divides.’[iii] Brown aims to move away from the overly clinical discourse and look more at representations of depression, which is a good foundation for exploring disability in the classroom.
Understanding the way Plath studies is taught in classrooms allows for increased use of up-to-date scholarship. When tutors are on the same path, it allows the next generation of American poetry scholars to bloom with a more inclusive outlook on the literature. Goodspeed-Chadwick—who designed a revolutionary course challenging the misogynistic outlook toward Assia Wevill within Plath studies—notes that ‘what we teach and how we teach it—what we choose to highlight and what we expect from our students and our rationale for doing so—will inform every aspect of a course and students’ experience of it.’[iv] Considering this, teaching Plath and disability is of the utmost importance for representation: disability discrimination occurs daily, and for students with disabilities, they may not feel represented in the literature they study. Goodspeed-Chadwick notes the socio-political importance of teaching Plath in the twenty-first century: ‘we had to consider what it is about Plath’s, Hughes’s, and Wevill’s texts that teach us about ourselves and/ or gives us insight into our world; why sexist and misogynistic rhetoric is dangerous and damaging; and why we need explorations of literature to revisit, recover, and reform our ideas, ideologies, and expectations of women and of gender and gendered dynamics in interpersonal relationships.’[v] Goodspeed-Chadwick notes that studying Plath requires a challenging of problematic rhetoric, which can also be applied to disability studies: when reading and teaching Plath, uncovering the disabled identity within her work allows for a challenging of the ableist rhetoric which has seen disability go unnoticed in the works of mentally ill writers.
Just as Goodspeed-Chadwick and Brown are bringing inclusivity into teaching Plath in the classroom, in the academic world Elizabeth Donaldson, Maria Rovito, Rose Miyatsu, and I are bringing disability into Plath studies more generally.[vi];[vii] Rovito suggests that ‘it is still a fact that mentally different people are widely stigmatized and ostracized almost everywhere we exist.’[viii] With Rovito’s ideas in mind, bringing disability into the classroom is important for representation. Primarily the preceding scholars focus on The Bell Jar, whereas I teach Plath’s poetry. Nonetheless, I apply their scholarship to readings of Plath’s poetry; Miyatsu posits this in Plath’s work she ‘imagines what a community of people who identify as mentally ill might look like.’[ix] In my classroom, I apply this to Plath’s poetry which explores mental health, particularly psychiatric institutionalisation as this has clear links to The Bell Jar, which is the text Miyatsu’s comment references. These scholars’ understandings of the presence of disability in Plath’s work forms the basis of further reading suggested to students interested in Plath and disability studies. I use these scholars’ ideas to plan my lessons as they align with the disability studies perspective I aim to teach my students when we study Plath. I use slides with quotes from each scholar in order for students to see the relevance of disability in Plath studies both inside and outside of the classroom.
The first time I taught Sylvia Plath and disability studies was to a first-year undergraduate class, focusing on “Lady Lazarus” and “In Plaster.” To begin the lesson, the class thought about examples of everyday ableism. This activity is designed to show the students how relevant disability studies are. Ableism is not merely a theory, but a life experience for people with disabilities. The students came up with examples such as the number of tube stations that do not have step-free access, and the misuse of disability language when mental illnesses are used as adjectives. Getting students to understand the everyday implications of disability discrimination allowed them to see the sheer importance of looking at disability in American poetry. When it came to comparing the poems, my class looked at the presentation of illness and how the speakers respond to their illness.
“Lady Lazarus” is arguably one of Plath’s most famous poems, yet the implications of ableism are ignored. The image of a ‘peanut-crunching crowd’ can be read within the context of the way mentally ill people become spectacles in an ableist society, thus causing them to be ostracised.[x] We explored the sense of two selves in the hospital presented throughout “In Plaster” and the discomfort present in hospital settings. By looking at disability in these poems, a new lens of reading is enabled, where mental illness is understood to be a disability that is subjected to ableism by both the responses of others and feelings of discomfort in the body.
For another undergraduate class, I will be teaching “The Stones” with a disability studies lens. This 1959 poem was the first time Plath used poetry to share her experience within the psychiatric system. The discussion questions centre around how psychiatric institutions, patients, and medical professionals are conveyed. Our main focus will be the patient-staff dynamic, as the patients in the hospital are not viewed as human by the staff; hidden away from society, the patients are merely ‘spare parts’ in an ableist society that wants to keep them hidden. [xi] The staff carry the patients’ bodies as if they were not human, showing the ableist way the hospital staff treats the patients by dehumanising them. Reading “The Stones” through this lens is crucial for understanding the way Plath developed from writing short stories on institutionalisation (namely “Tongues of Stone”) to writing poetry, then ending with writing her novel The Bell Jar. This progression helps map Plath’s understanding of disability and is important when assessing Plath’s oeuvre.
Plath is not the only poet who can, and should, be taught with a disability studies lens. Anne Sexton, Allen Ginsberg, and Robert Lowell are three prominently taught poets that can be read from a disability studies perspective. All three poets explore psychiatric treatment in their poetry, with the trauma from disability discrimination coming through clearly. When previously teaching Ginsberg’s “Howl,” my class explored images of psychiatric treatment throughout the poem, particularly focusing on section three of the poem. In this class, we explored the extent to which Ginsberg uses madness as a metaphor to protest American society, and the extent to which he is purely conveying the experience of madness and psychiatric institutionalisation.
In our lesson exploring the poetry of Robert Lowell, we looked at the 1959 Boston circle—the poets that met at Robert Lowell’s poetry class. To understand mental illness in what is loosely termed ‘confessional poetry,’ we did a comparative activity on Anne Sexton’s “You, Doctor Martin” and Lowell’s “Walking in the Blue,” looking at the ableism that takes place in psychiatric institutions. We looked at the distorted signifiers of knives and razors and explored the position of power psychiatric hospital staff have over patients. The multitude of commonly taught poets that can be taught with a disability studies lens emphasises the importance of bringing this discourse into the classroom.
Using the classroom to draw attention to the myriad possibilities for exploring disability in American literature helps shape the future generation of scholarship. The landscape in American studies is moving towards a more inclusive practise and drawing attention to disability studies is much needed. The aforementioned poets from the 1950s are currently and widely studied in classrooms and are all by definition disabled given their mental illness. Erasing their disability is reductive to both their lives and work. Bringing disability studies into the classroom is a positive step in American studies, whilst also ensuring that students with disabilities can see themselves represented in literature. This changing landscape is a positive step towards claiming disability status for poets who are mentally ill.
[i] Redfield Jamison, Kay. Touched with Fire. (New York: Free Press, 1996), 249
[ii] Brown, Sarah. “Post-Pharma Pedagogies: An Intertextual Feminist Approach to Teaching Depression in The
Bell Jar.” Women’s Studies 48.2, (April 2019): 207-222, 210
[iii] Brown, Sarah. 2019. “Post-Pharma Pedagogies: An Intertextual Feminist Approach to Teaching Depression in The Bell Jar.” Women’s Studies 48.2, (April 2019): 207-222, 218
[iv] Goodspeed-Chadwick, Julie. “Feminist Recovery, Services Learning, and Community Engagement in a Sylvia Plath Studies Undergraduate Seminar,” in The Bloomsbury Handbook to Sylvia Plath, eds. Anita Helle, Amanda Golden, and Maeve O’Brein (London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2022), 289-296, 290
[v] Goodspeed-Chadwick, Julie. “Feminist Recovery, Services Learning, and Community Engagement in a Sylvia Plath Studies Undergraduate Seminar,” in The Bloomsbury Handbook to Sylvia Plath, eds. Anita Helle, Amanda Golden, and Maeve O’Brein (London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2022), 289-296, 290
[vi] See Donaldson, Elizabeth. “Psychiatric Disability and Asylum Fiction: From The Snake Pit to The Bell Jar,” in The Bloomsbury Handbook to Sylvia Plath, eds. Anita Helle, Amanda Golden, and Maeve O’Brein (London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2022),
[vii] See Murphy, Iona. “Ableist Psychiatric Structures in Sylvia Plath’s “Tongues of Stone”.” Plath Profiles 14, no.1 (October 2022): 69-78
[viii] Rovito, Maria. “Toward a New Madwoman Theory.” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies 14, no. 3 (2020): 324
[ix] Miyatsu, Rose. ““Hundreds of People Like me”: A Search for a Mad Community in The Bell Jar”, in Literatures of Madness: Disability studies and mental health, ed. Elizabeth Donaldson (Switzerland, Springer International Publishing AG, 2018), 52
[x] Plath, Sylvia. “Lady Lazarus.” Collected Poem, ed. Ted Hughes, Faber & Faber, 1981, 244
[xi] Plath, Sylvia. “Poem for a Birthday—The Stones.” Collected Poem, ed. Ted Hughes, Faber & Faber, 1981, 136