Kirk's Reviews > Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams: Short Stories, Prose, and Diary Excerpts

Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams by Sylvia Plath
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Mar 21, 08

bookshelves: currently-teaching
Read in August, 1999

Reviewing this collection of posthumously published ephemera in 1979, Margaret Atwood called Johnny Panic "a minor work by a major writer." Unfortunately, that perception has stuck for nearly thirty years now, leading to the rather unfortunate conclusion that Plath was less than successful in her attempts at the short story. That presumption does a real disservice to the stories in this collection, which by any other standard than the towering accomplishments of Plath's own poetry, are accomplished, varied, experimental, and compelling. We would do well to remember that Plath launched her career as a storywriter, winning the Mademoiselle creative writing contest in the early 50s with "Sunday at the Mintons." While only a contrarian would argue that these stories equal the poetry, a valid argument can be made that, if we can accept The Bell Jar as a classic coming-of-age novel, then we ought to make a place for Plath in the short-story canon.

To that, however, would require a reinvention of this collection (which differs anyway from the 1977 British edition). First, get rid of Ted Hughes' introduction, which doesn't mince words when informing readers that what they're about to delve into is mediocre. I suppose that in the 70s, amid the rushing to market of Plathiana (including The Bell Jar, which, lest we forget, nobody ever heard of in America until 1971), such an argument had to be made for the sake of Plath's reputation. Now that she's an uncontested major, however, it's time to allow the stories to stand on their own merits rather than compete with her other efforts.

Second, the book needs reorganizing. The original British version presented the stories chronologically; this version presents them in reverse chronological order. Either way, readers are urged to consider the fiction within the arc of Plath's career and biography, which already are far too dominant in assessments of her. I would recommend a thematic organization (Marriage, Motherhood, Family--Dreams and Visions---Life and Death in America, etc). That way a solid effort like "Tongues of Stone" can stand on its own instead of being considered a precursor to Jar, and a genre exercise like "All the Dead Dears" can be read formalistically.

Finally, the diary passages excerpted here are redunant since the publication of Plath's journals; their presence only serves to undermine the autonomy of her stories. Same for the smattering of journalism, which would more profitably fit as an appendix of the journals.

Until something along these lines happen, I doubt Johnny Panic will ever transcend its "minor" status, which will be unfortunate. The title story is brilliant; at least a half dozen entries here are top-notch ("The Wishing Box" especially); and even the weaker ones have some thematic relevance to Plath's trademark issues of creativity, domesticity, and emotional discontent. They deserve a fairer reading than they've thus far been accorded.
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