10 August 2007

The Pathology of Ambition

The Pathology of Ambition – A review of Rick Gekoski’s chapter on The Colossus in Nabokov’s Butterfly

Rick Gekoski is a brilliant rare books dealer and not a bad writer, either. His short tale on purchasing and selling a copy of the first American edition of Sylvia Plath’s The Colossus and other poems is a fascinating one. It appears in his Nabokov’s Butterfly: And other stories of great authors and rare books, published in 2004 by Carroll & Graf in the US.

This is an exciting story. Plath first published The Colossus in 1960 under the Heinemann imprint. It was a collection that took up three-quarters of an inch on the bookshelf. With difficulty and time, as well as a reduced table of contents, Plath found an American publisher in 1961 in Knopf. The copy in Gekoski’s account was actually Ted Hughes’ personally inscribed copy from Plath. Gekoski points out, vividly, that the inscription can be dated to May 1962, mere weeks before the break-up of their marriage. The inscription read:

Of Whom Colossus and Prince Otto learn their craft and art
with love

The inscription brings to mind Plath’s and Hughes’s intense admiration for the poetry of Dylan Thomas (“In my craft of sullen art”). Gekoski states uncompromisingly, “If you don’t immediately feel how exciting this book is – if you haven’t, in some form or another, just whispered ‘that is so fabulous!’ to yourself – I’m afraid you don’t have the makings of a book collector. I’m not even sure if I would like you very much.” I agree with him wholeheartedly.

Hughes offered his copy of The Colossus to Gekoski in 1992 for £4,000 ($8,000). The sale took place through Hughes’ preferred mediator Roy Davids of Sotheby’s. Gekoski admits that loving a rare book is a strange and dangerous thing, but even he has fallen prey to it, “…every now and again a book pops up that has such a visceral appeal that you feel a resolute attachment to it…and you don’t wish to let it go.”

The early 1990s was an abysmal time in the Plath-Hughes story; having recently suffered through two piteous biographies there was not much of an “industry” at the time. It would take another eight years before prices would explode in the market for collectible Plath items; and unfortunately Gekoski did not keep it until that time.

With the advent of eBay in the late 1990s and the very important publication of Plath’s unexpurgated Journals in 2000, collecting Plath became almost as important as reading Plath. I began collecting Plath in the knick of time during the winter of 1998. Initially, I had no idea of what I was doing; I just collected first editions of Plath’s books. Owning old, pretty books was rewarding, and I wanted a bookshelf full of them. Gekoski calls this “the pathology of ambition” and relates it to Plath’s frustration at getting good reviews and an American publisher throughout 1960. Her wants, my wants: they were one in the same.

One “meets” nice people through web sites such as abebooks.com. Nicer, in particular, than the folks selling items for auction and greed on eBay. I have even found that by buying multiple books from bookseller’s leads to special treatment and advance notice when new books become available. Antiquarian Book Fair’s are also a wonderful place to see and touch and buy rare books; it is better than the internet as the descriptions, though generally very accurate, pale in comparison to seeing the books in a display case. The Antiquarian Book Fair’s are annual events in major cities like London, Boston, Paris, New York City, and San Francisco, to name a few. It makes one feel special to be remembered, too. I happened on the Book Fair in Boston two years in a row and the gentleman from Harper’s Books in New York remembered me – despite the fact that I didn’t purchase anything the previous year.

Nowadays, prices of many Plath books have at least doubled; and the number of copies available for sale has grown, too! It seems that even for books printed in limited numbers there aren’t enough buyers; and some prices are so astronomically high it seems highly unlikely the sellers will ever part with their stock. Is this intentional? When Gekoski put The Colossus on sale for £9,500 ($19,000), Hughes was reportedly miffed. It sold in late 1992 for $9,000 (£5,000) to a collector in Philadelphia who in turn sold it several years later for a significant profit. Gekoski ends with a deal of his own: he wants The Colossus back. One wonders where Hughes’ Heinemann edition is now…

This book was published in England under the title, Tolkien’s gown and other stories of famous authors and rare books.

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Publications & Acknowledgements

  • BBC Four.A Poet's Guide to Britain: Sylvia Plath. London: BBC Four, 2009. (Acknowledged in)
  • Biography: Sylvia Plath. New York: A & E Television Networks, 2005. (Photographs used)
  • Connell, Elaine. Sylvia Plath: Killing the angel in the house. 2d ed. Hebden Bridge: Pennine Pens, 1998. (Acknowledged in)
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives." Plath Profiles 2. Summer 2009: 183-208.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives, Redux." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 232-246.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 3." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 119-138.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 4: Looking for New England." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012: 11-56.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 5: Reanimating the Past." Plath Profiles 6. Summer 2013: 27-62.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath. Oxford: Fonthill, 2017. Forthcoming.
  • Death Be Not Proud: The Graves of Poets. New York: Poets.org. (Photographs used)
  • Doel, Irralie, Lena Friesen and Peter K. Steinberg. "An Unacknowledged Publication by Sylvia Plath." Notes & Queries 56:3. September 2009: 428-430.
  • Gill, Jo. "Sylvia Plath in the South West." University of Exeter Centre for South West Writing, 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Elements of Literature, Third Course. Austin, Tex. : Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2009. (Photograph used)
  • Helle, Anita Plath. The Unraveling Archive: Essays on Sylvia Plath. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007. (Photographs used, acknowledged in)
  • Helle, Anita. "Lessons from the Archive: Sylvia Plath and the Politics of Memory". Feminist Studies 31:3. Fall 2005: 631-652.. (Acknowledged in)
  • Holden, Constance. "Sad Poets' Society." Science Magazine. 27 July 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Making Trouble: Three Generations of Funny Jewish Women, Motion Picture. Directed by Rachel Talbot. Brookline (Mass.): Jewish Women's Archive, 2007. (Photograph used)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Karen V. Kukil. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. New York: Anchor Books, 2000. (Acknowledged in)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil (eds.). The Letters of Sylvia Plath. London: Faber, 2017. Forthcoming.
  • Plath, Sylvia. Glassklokken. Oslo: De norske Bokklubbene, 2004. (Photograph used on cover)
  • Reiff, Raychel Haugrud. Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar and Poems (Writers and Their Works). Marshall Cavendish Children's Books, 2008.. (Images provided)
  • Steinberg, Peter K. Sylvia Plath (Great Writers). Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'I Should Be Loving This': Sylvia Plath's 'The Perfect Place' and The Bell Jar." Plath Profiles 1. Summer 2008: 253-262.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Sylvia Plath." The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath. London: British Library, 2010.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'They Had to Call and Call': The Search for Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 106-132.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "This is a Celebration: A Festschrift for The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3 Supplement. Fall 2010: 3-14.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "A Perfectly Beautiful Time: Sylvia Plath at Camp Helen Storrow." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 149-166.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Proof of Plath." Fine Books & Collections 9:2. Spring 2011: 11-12.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Textual Variations in The Bell Jar Publications." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Writing Life" [Introduction]. Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning. Stroud, Eng.: Fonthill Media, 2014.