“We should meet in another life, we should meet in air,
Me and you.”
― Sylvia Plath, Ariel: The Restored Edition
Had she still been alive Sylvia Plath would have been 69-years-old today. Known more for her death than her life, readers often forget that she was young, ambitious writer lived a short and ultimately hard life, struggling to make a name for herself while standing in the shadow of her already successful husband [Ted Hughes.]
Most famous for her poetry, Plath did not gain the fame she had hoped for until her famous suicide in 1963. Even then her only novel, The Bell Jar, published just before her death, remained hidden in the shadows under a pseudonym [Victoria Lucas,] through her early rise to popularity.
Something often ignored when discussing Plath is her early writings. Before the poetry, before The Bell Jar, Plath had desperately wanted to be a journalist. She had wanted to write news, and short fiction for magazines, and many of her early work falls into this arena. Enter Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams. Originally published in 1977, Johnny Panic is a collection 13 short stories as well as some prose essays, and journal entries. In 1979, author Margret Attwood paid homage to Plath and her early work in a New York Times review of Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams:
“When a major work by a major writer is published posthumously, no one bats an eye. Minor works by minor writers presumably don’t get published until the author has been dead long enough to have become quaint. “Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams” is a minor work by a major writer, and it’s the contrast that causes niggling. Whom does such a publication benefit? Not the author, and not the author’s reputation, which is doing very well without it. Not the general reader hitherto innocent of the Sylvia Plath opus and myth who may stumble upon it and wonder what all the shouting is about. I suppose the answer is “the student,” if by “student” is meant any reader sympathetic enough to Plath’s work to have read most of it already and to be interested in foreshadowings, cross-references, influences and insights; and this is the kind of audience “Johnny Panic” assumes. It’s a prose catch-all, composed of short stories, short prose essays and journal entries, and as such it ought to round out one’s knowledge of the writer and, perhaps, offer some surprises. Luckily it does both.
The author has been well served, both by her publisher–the cover is both handsome and appropriate, the presentation low-key–and by her editor, though it’s a slight tease to tell the reader that Sylvia Plath wrote “vivid, cruel” things about people and then refuse to print them. The stories are arranged chronologically but in reverse order. This creates an archeological effect: the reader is made to dig backward in time, downward into remarkable mind, so that the last, earliest story, “Among the Bumble-bees” (a wistful story about a little girl’s worship of her father who dies mysteriously), emerges like the final gold-crowned skeleton at the bottom of the tomb–the king all those others were killed to protect. Which it is.”
For those who love Plath’s work, Johnny Panic may come as a bit of a shock to your perception of her. For those who have been wary, it will give you a chance to see her lighter side first. For those who hate her writing, and there are many, give her and Johnny Panic a chance, you might be surprised by what you find in those pages. This isn’t your average Plath story here, and besides, it’s her birthday after all.