In 1956, a 26 year old Ted Hughes met and married the American poet Sylvia Plath. After she completed her Fulbright at Cambridge University, the couple moved to the United States for two years. In their first year, Hughes and Plath visited her mother in Wellesley, Massachusetts and lived in Northampton, Massachusetts while Plath taught at her alma mater, Smith College and Hughes taught at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. The following year, they lived in Boston before taking a road trip throughout the country and spending the fall at a artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, New York.
Hughes, a faithful writer of letters to his friends and family, recounted in his typical astutely observant and poetic fashion his impressions and assessments of American life and culture.
Below is a collection of such observations culled from Letters of Ted Hughes. Disarmingly accurate and foreshadowing of the caricature of itself American culture was to become, Hughes’ appraisals and analyses offer a unique look at America’s past and how it influenced the country’s present.
While Hughes’ commentary largely rings embarrassingly true, it is particularly disconcerting to consider how it is based a comparatively moderate precursors to modern American life.
‘The houses are splendid here – each in its little grounds. The food, the general opulence, is frightening. My natural instinct is to practise little private filthinesses – I spit, pea on shrubbery, etc, and have a strong desire to sleep on the floor – just to keep in contact with a world that isn’t quite so glazed as this one.’ – June 1957
‘If America is good for nothing else, it is good for my composing strophes & antistrophes to the real world. The real world retreats a bit here. Sterilised in cellophane.’ – 22 July 1957
‘What a place America is. Everything is in cellophane. Everything is 10,000 miles from where it was plucked or made. The bread is in cellophane that is covered with such slogans as de-crapularised, reenergised, multi-cramulated, bleached, double-bleached, rebrowned, unsanforised, guaranteed no blasphemin. There is no such thing as bread. You cannot buy bread. And fifty processes that side of the wrapping these loaves saw the last molecule of their original wheat. Garlic comes in little boxes – two garlics to a box – covered with manager’s and directors’ names & the multiple vitamins injected to keep the flavour even though the garlic in appearance is black-rotten. Everything is a bit the same. […] This is my main impression of American – it is a temporary expedition, in which we’re living on food we brought to last the expedition out. And we mustn’t put up houses to last more than a year because we shall soon be going. And everything is a temporary fixture and we’ve so much to get done before we leave that there’s no time to do more than sleep & hurry. There’s something like a temporary mountain-top expedition, too, in the way everybody’s so friendly, and nobody knows anybody else’s family history, and nobody ever bothers to get to know anybody except on purely temporary and facetious terms.’ – 22 August 1957
‘It’s terrifying to see this American race turning into gaping automata – audiences, consumers, – “Show me, amuse me, feed me.”‘ – December 1957
‘Here in America it is all “grab easy you can boys, this land belongs to everybody, the land of plenty” — follows greed, vulgarity, & the horrible superficiality of a race without any principles left either to impose on itself or defend.’ – Early 1958
‘I meant to get some fishing over here, but I was a bit deflected by the fact that there is an air over all American sports, I don’t know how to define it. As if all those duck-shooters who were going out daily to make washing machines, you remember, were actually driving past the factory for a few hours and going fishing because fishing was a sport for the man of the house, and only tough woodsy guys get round to it and so on. In America a calendar picture, say, of a fishing episode, is of some bronzed pipe-smoking lawyer-cum-doctor-cum-truck-driver-cum-your-honest-neighbour plated and belted and buckled from head to foot in all those frontierish looking accessories, gaffs, nets, bowie-knives and the rest, healing over in a tarzan-tearing-the-arms-off-the-ape-stance as he surfaces some proud king of the deeps, and in the background, just on land will be shown the family beach-wagon in three colors drawn up with the back open showing the hams, steaks, squashes, and so on or perhaps they will all be actually laid out on a cloth on the pine-needles, while the R.K.O. wife smiles at the five bouncing boys in their woodsy outfits. No I’m spoiling it. But that is the tendency. That is the image of the fisherman in the American mind. Now the same image in the English mind is of some clown sitting in pouring rain fishing in a pool that has a great notice “Petrol Dump.” Something of that sort. But there’s a difference. One can go fishing in England without feeling that you’re taking part in some national Let’s All Be Good Americans campaign, and be sure that any fish you catch won’t have tattooed on its underside “I’m an American too so treat me well and cook me with FRENCH’S HOTCHA SAUCE.”‘ – Late August 1958
‘The only thing an American really has to himself, & really belongs to, is his family. Never a locality, or a community, or an organisation of ideas, or a private imagination.’ – 21 March 1959
‘American taste in poetry is basically, aside from sophistications & hep, like their taste in cars. The indigenous literary form, gradually becoming predominant as indigenous forms do after invasions, is the advertisement. Ponder that. I mean it seriously. American & English poetry are already as far apart as French & English. I think poetry is either cultivated or perverted or extinguished by national character, & in countries of the wrong character the hugest & most excitable geniuses come to nothing. It’s my belief that American character is now entering a phase as favorable to poets as, say, Norway’s is. I think English is in such a phase too, but the small artists there are pretty individual. In America, they’re all the same. Tumbleweed country.’ – 21 March 1959
‘I like the [translations of the Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilym (1340-60)] very much — it’s about the most moving of them. This sort of thing is all but meaningless to Americans — for which you have to take into account the way their whole life is condensed on the superficies of the moment. Relation to a changing past, & to all the various pleasant enviable periods of it, they are without, and get no pleasure from contemplating it. These translations to them are simply strange speeches suspended in vacuum. Also, poetic language is getting to be more or less consonant with HEP talk over here. I can’t describe the terrifying lack of inwardness about America. I think periods of poetry pass because the national character becomes anti-poetic — beauty, & form & metrical laws become meaningless, & that’s happened over here. Behind all these million poems weekly there is nothing individual or human — no brain, just a slightly circumscribed spy-holy into the deathly sargasso of paper-back popularised philosophico-sociologico-aesthetic-critick-tock mechanisms that passes for modern intellectual life. They feel that somehow their numbers must prove they’re right, but you’ve only to think of glancing through a foot-high pile of Quarterlies & weeklies to realise they aren’t even plunderable as scrap. A living defunction.’ – 15 May 1959