08 October 2007

Review of The Unraveling Archive: essays on Sylvia Plath

For more than four decades, Plath's greatest achievement has been her suicide. The focus is displaced, severely, from where it ought to be: on the writing. Certain milestones throughout the decades perpetuated and expanded upon Plath's dark ending. Robert Lowell's introduction to the first American edition of Ariel set the tone, ''These poems are playing Russian roulette with six cartridges in the cylinder.'' His comment is presumably on the poems, but the image reflects more upon her final act. In the 1970s, Plath's fan base grew thanks in part to the feminist movement. However, a vision or label of Plath as a hysterical writer affixed itself to an image of Plath as a strictly suicidal writer. Popular culture refers to Plath in books and television, as well as in the music and film industry. These references continue the stereotypes already mentioned, as a hysterical suicide. Most recently, Fox's House (played by Hugh Laurie) referred to a depressive, pill-popping patient, saying, "You were practically living with Sylvia Plath." Plath scholars have had enough.

Around 1998, however, critical attention to Plath began to change. Publication of Ted Hughes's Birthday Letters coupled with the unsealing of some of Plath's journals and the subsequent issuance of an unabridged addition of the journals set in motion serious review of Plath's works and her placement in literary tradition. Of particular focus in this Plath renaissance has been primary source materials. These are her published and unpublished papers housed in three major literary archives at Smith College, Indiana University, and Emory University. These archives hold her poetry and fiction manuscripts, unpublished letters and journals, rarely discussed artwork, other educational effects, and much more. The result of this re-examination will not be a skipping, sing-songy snap-happy Sylvia Plath. Rather, the result of such investigations may be a better understood woman and poet and maybe, if the right scholar(s) approaches the right materials, a better understanding of her life and its conclusion.

Anita Helle's The Unraveling Archive: essays on Sylvia Plath is a very welcome and long-awaited addition to Plath scholarship. The eleven literary critical essays examine Plath's work and life and each author's experience using Plath's archives connects and informs their topic. Helle writes, "The collection aims to enlarge and enrich the contexts of Plath's writing with the archive as its informing matrix, unraveling tangled connections...." This aim is very much achieved.

Historically, two dates define Plath's writing: 1950 and 1956. Both the published journals and letter start in 1950. Plath's Collected Poems begin in 1956, the year she met Hughes, with a select fifty poems classified as "juvenilia". Even Plath's two major archives divide her life: with some exceptions, the collection at the Lilly Library primarily holds earlier materials and the Mortimer Rare Book Room, Plath's later papers. Plath scholars are no longer content - if they ever were - with the arbitrary division of Plath's writing - and life - into two discrete parts, juvenilia and mature. The essays in The Unraveling Archive look at Plath's total archive. That is, they unite otherwise inextricable collections separated by hundreds of miles.

The essays are divided into the following sections (themes): "The Plath Archive" and "Culture and the Politics of Memory." The essays in the first section concern themselves with "newly published, underutilized, and underrepresented material." (8) Tracy Brain, Robin Peel, Kathleen Connors, and Kate Moses examine various aspects of the Plath archive. Brain discusses Plath's Ariel manuscripts and the recent publication of Ariel: The restored edition. In his survey of Plath's political education, Peel continues to draw out Plath's interest in politics, following up on his 2002 book Writing Back: Sylvia Plath and Cold War politics. Kathleen Connors, mastermind of the 2002 exhibition "Eye Rhymes" and co-editor with Sally Bayley of a forthcoming book under the same title, discusses the riches of Plath's visual works, a skill which was highly developed at an early age. Moses draws on the audio recordings of Plath's voice in a variety of poetry readings and interviews conducted from 1958 through early 1963.

The essays in the "Culture and the Politics of Memory" section reflect "the opening up of critical approaches to Plath and also the explosion of the canon." These essays explore "works that have received less critical attention" but also drawn on the "heightened awareness of the contexts and settings that have mediated our understanding of Plath's multiple identities." (8) Essays by Sandra Gilbert, Ann Keniston, Janet Badia, Anita Helle, Marsha Bryant, Lynda K. Bundtzen, and Diane Middlebrook each present valuable, critical insight and opinion on Plath's work and literary merit. Each helps to continue a theoretical re-evaluation of Plath's critical reception.

Plath scholarship has moved away from over-reading canonized works such as "Lady Lazarus" and "Daddy". Thankfully, there is a movement towards looking at lesser known poems and stories. Each of the essays in the second part examines such works. Gilbert contextualizes culture and history in Plath's 1962 poem, "Berck-Plage". Critics typically pan Plath's use of Holocaust imagery in her poetry, but Keniston attempts to reset this disapproval by assessing a combination of Plath's lyrical technique with her dictionary annotations. Badia looks at Plath's cultural image and interpretation, as well as her status as a cult figure, with particular attention given to her female readers. Anita Helle's essay assesses photographs of Plath as "image events." She also looks at relatively neglected poems such as "The Hermit at Outermost House", "Point Shirley", and "A Winter's Tale", each poem is rich in scenic, photographic detail of places frozen in time and place through Plath's words. Bryant explores the archive of the Ladies' Home Journal, a magazine that published only one of Plath's poems in 1958. The Ladies' Home Journal was Plath's Holy Grail, not just the magazine she most wanted to see her work printed in, but the magazine that also epitomized mid-century American domesticity and what it meant to be a woman in America. Bundtzen and Middlebrook look at the Plath/Hughes creative partnership and poetic influence each had on the other. Bundtzen appraises Plath's poem "Burning the Letters" and Middlebrook compares Plath's "The Rabbit Catcher" with Hughes's Birthday Letters poem of the same name.

With some exceptions, I find the essays in "The Plath Archive" more readable than I do those in the second section. However, as a frequent user of the Plath archives and as a one undergoing training and schooling to be and archivist, perhaps my enthusiasm for the first section is not too surprising. All the essays dig deeply into Plath's archives, however, the focus of the essays by Brain, Peel, Connors, and Moses is placed more centrally on the "stuff" of the archive. I find their use of the materials and the presentation of their findings of such immense importance and interest that it overshadows the theoretical approaches applied to essays in "Culture and the Politics of Memory." More attention is given to reading and interpreting what is physically on the page versus the endless, tricky, and interconnecting "discourse" of academic theory.
I find that theoretical discourse does much less unraveling of those tangled connections than it purports to do. Also, I have never found this kind of criticism understandable, more my own failing than that of the authors.

Plath predicted in her journals that she and Hughes would "publish a bookshelf of books between us before we perish!" Plath perished too soon, but her books do fill a bookshelf. For the most part, books about Plath continue to add substantive analysis and review of her contributions to literature. Anita Helle's The Unraveling Archive: essays on Sylvia Plath is a most welcome addition to my bookshelf of Plath books. Two enthusiastic thumbs up; my only regret is that I do not have more thumbs...

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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 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, Redux." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 232-246.
  • 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: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath. Oxford: Fonthill, 2017.
  • 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.
  • Elements of Literature, Third Course. Austin, Tex. : Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2009. (Photograph used)
  • Gill, Jo. "Sylvia Plath in the South West." University of Exeter Centre for South West Writing, 2008. (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, Volume 1, 1940-1956. 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. "'A Fetish: Somehow': A Sylvia Plath Bookmark." Court Green 13. 2017.
  • 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. "'They Had to Call and Call': The Search for Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 106-132.
  • 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. "Sylvia Plath." The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath. London: British Library, 2010.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Textual Variations in The Bell Jar Publications." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "The Persistence of Plath." Fine Books & Collections. Autumn 2017: 24-29
  • 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. "Writing Life" [Introduction]. Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning. Stroud, Eng.: Fonthill Media, 2014.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. Sylvia Plath (Great Writers). Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004.