Pecuniary Botheration (Part 5)

(This is final part of Five part essay that was originally published in the literary journal drafthorse.)

Much of Anne Sexton’s voluminous correspondence deals with money matters. She never shied away from the importance of getting paid for her work. In 1961 she wrote to her friend, the poet W. D. Snodgrass, “I signed a first reading contract with the New Yorker. You get $100 just for signing…but it hasn’t changed my poetry at all.”

A few years later (1968) Sexton wrote a terse note to Howard Moss at the New Yorker asking him, “Why does Ed Sissman get $300 for signing his contract and I get $100? What more is there to say?”

In 1962 she wrote to poet, teacher, and friend George Starbuck, “…read a script a few weeks ago and got 25 bucks reading fee…reading bad poems. I now make (if you can stand this) $250 bucks a reading plus expenses. Keee rist!!!

Ten years later she again wrote to George Starbuck, about teaching at Boston University. “…If John Barth doesn’t come back next year and you pay his replacement four grand per course more than I am getting I’m going to wonder if a woman’s fist shouldn’t be painted on my classroom door!!! Even if John Barth stays at his same salary I’m going to wonder. I know it is a desperate time of money at B. U. but if a man gets it then why doesn’t a woman? Need I list my qualifications as a writer, teacher etc? If I’m important I want to be paid importantly.”

Sylvia Plath, another prolific letter and journal writer, candidly mentions the link between her writing and financial considerations throughout her adult life. Her correspondence is peppered with references to prize money (and what it would pay for), amount of payment for her poems, and the constant struggle she and her husband the poet Ted Hughes had balancing a creative life with the realities of household economics.

On November 13, 1956, shortly after her marriage to Hughes, Plath wrote dispiritedly to her mother about, “…two rejections of poems and stories from the disdainful New Yorker.” In the same letter, Plath wrote, “The next two months will be very hard… Ted has not yet got a job… He may have to take a laboring job for these first few months to cover coal, electricity, gas and food bills.”

Success at the New Yorker did come eventually, and with it the promise of money for hard work done. In a 1958 letter to her brother Warren, Plath was joyous, “VERY GOOD NEWS: In the mail I just got my first acceptance from the New Yorker! In our materialistic way, Ted and I figured, amid much jumping up and down, this should mean close to $350, or three full months of Boston rent! For two poems!”

A scant five years later, on January 16, 1963, Plath wrote to her mother Aurelia, after the devastating breakup of her marriage. “…if only I could have some windfall, like doing a really successful novel, and buy this house, this ghastly vision of rent bleeding away year after year would vanish, and I could almost be self-supporting with rent from the other two flats – that is my dream. How I would like to be self-supporting on my writing! But I need time.”

One month later Sylvia Plath died by her own hand.

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