Dispatches | November 08, 2006
Literary Fame? Forget About It
In the 1977 Academy Award winning romantic comedy Annie Hall, Woody Allen as his neurotic alter ego Alvy Singer pulls a copy of Syliva Plath’s Ariel from a cluttered bookshelf and says to Annie in his know-it-all voice, “Interesting poetess whose tragic suicide was misinterpreted as romantic by the college girl mentality.” Thirty years later, the average college girl doesn’t know who Plath is, let alone enough to romanticize her tragic end in London in 1963.
How do I know this? Well, this semester I am teaching a contemporary authors class on Plath and Hughes. I asked my students to do an informal survey around Stephens campus. “What do you know about Sylvia Plath?” More often than not, the reply was “Who?” A few knew she was some sort of writer. Even fewer knew she was a poet. A small handful, mostly other English majors, had heard details of her suicide.
Last week, my own classroom became a microcosm of the larger campus. It was premiere week, which means my class turned into a spectator sport. On a Friday afternoon, I had six parents sitting on the perimeters of our table-in-the-round, and six prospective students mixed in with the class. By way of introduction, I asked my visitors what they knew about Ted Hughes. No one had heard of him. Next I said, “What about Sylvia Plath?” One vague detail triggered another until they arrived at a fuzzy image of one of our greatest contemporary poets as “some depressed lady who died a long time ago.” When the parents looked at me blankly, I had a momentary pang of guilt. What was I doing teaching something so seemingly esoteric?
Last week, for the English department Spook-a-thon, I dressed as Annie Hall. I wore wide-legged cuffed trousers and one of my husband’s dress shirts and ties. I pulled my black bowler hat down below my brows and put a pair of spats on my shoes. It was a look Diane Keaton would sport for thirty years after her break-out success in Woody’s film. I soon learned that Plath is not the only one who has been forgotten. My costume was a complete mystery. One of my students said, “You make a great looking man.” (I guess you take your compliments where you can get them.)
At the beginning of Annie Hall, addressing the camera, Alvy Singer says, “There’s an old joke. Two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of ’em says, ‘Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.’ The other one says, ‘Yeah, I know; and such small portions.’ Well, that’s essentially how I feel about life — full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly.” The same is true of literary fame. Oh, how quickly it fades away…
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