17 October 2008

The peanut-crunching crowd

As expected - probably - there has been some criticism that has sprung from the big news this week that the British Library had acquired some of Ted Hughes' papers. Heather McRobie's response "Can't we leave Hughes and Plath alone? We have their poems. We really don't need access to every corner of their lives" is one such example.

The short answer is "No". We cannot leave them alone. And it is arguable that by having access to every corner of their lives does add incredibly valuable insight to their poems. Archival materials allow for the assessment and the reassessment of the subject. Therefore, it is vital that saved materials be made available for use by the public.

There is, undeniably and unfortunately, a gossipy aspect to the story of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. The news of additional archival material being sold was picked up so widely because news about Plath and Hughes does sell papers, and will be clicked on by readers on the Internet. People are interested - and what does it matter why or in what fashion? Of course the media jumped right to the inclusion of materials relating to Ted Hughes' Birthday Letters. Having perused the finding aid available at Emory University, I often wondered if there were extent manuscripts of these poems.

The better attitude is that serious scholarship can and will - and has - benefited tremendously from these respective archives opening up for use. Every paper or book published on Plath and/or Hughes uses archival material; this is especially true of books published on these two poets in this century. Having worked with Plath's archives a good deal, I can say that in reading & researching poem drafts, short stories, early versions of The Bell Jar, as well as unpublished letters and other biographical materials - the end result is always a deeper understanding of her creative process and the product of that process. I am certain I am not alone in this. Plath scholarship has vastly improved because of this access to her papers. It enables a deeper reading and understanding of her work and her life.

The United States holds two major Plath archives, and with a massive amount of Hughes' papers (and some of Plath's too) available at Emory University, scholars are now seeing works created by Hughes during their brief lives together. Diane Middlebrook's Her Husband: Plath and Hughes - a marriage and Eilat Negev and Yehuda Korens biography of Assia Wevill, A Lover of Unreason, both owe much of their information to those papers in Atlanta. If biographical information assists in this quest for understanding the works, so be it.

Plath and Hughes have been labeled the literary couple of the 20th century. The first word of that phrase, literary, defines them more than anything else. It instructs, ultimately, that for which they are known. And, because events happened as they did, their lives, deaths, and afterlives as a result are "interesting." And because their lives are so interesting, Ms. McRobie even got to write about it! The research and interviews Kate Moses undertook to write Wintering was remarkable and extensive. Likewise, Koren and Negev's A Lover of Unreason attempts to give shape and meaning to lost lives that had, essentially, been forgotten, ignored, etc. For the record, Wintering does not just focus on the last months of Plath's life; "the Plath-word" does not guarantee financial success for the author or film-maker; and Assia Wevill was a poet - her translations of Yehuda Amichai (published in March 1969 by Harper & Row) could not have been done if didn't have poetic talents.

Perhaps Ms. McRobie will be surprised by what use the scholars make of Hughes' archive and what private details may or may not exist and come to light or stay hidden deep within the snares and hooks of Hughes' handwriting. Perhaps I might be as well. If the collection is available by the end of 2009, we still won't know for up to 14 months what is in these papers, and it will be longer still before scholars truly understand and publish what they learn. Ongoing research may get missing pieces filled in; previous research can potentially be further supported or perhaps refuted. I suspect Ted Hughes was private enough that anything he might not of want to have saved likely would not have been saved. Would Ms. McRobie prefer that librarians and archivists refuse to care for these documents because "the peanut-crunching crowd" wants an archival striptease? (As an archivist, well, nevermind...) Sometimes it is the private, biographical details than can inform and explain bits of the poetry. And I trust that most scholars will use the information they obtain in a responsible and ethical manner, no matter what form their research ultimately takes. If the output is something along the lines of what Emma Tennant or Susan Fromberg Schaeffer produced, it is easy enough to ignore it. Perhaps this biofictive micro-industry is what Ms. McRobie is really taking issue with? However, for the rest of us the materials that are now available and will become available will be crucial to the continually evolving examination of their work.


P.Viktor said...

Here, here - a typically eloquent riposte to this article which I myself had recently come across. If she is so opposed to the archival corpses of Hughes and Plath being brought to life again my mention of this news, why even engage with it? Why even bother with it at all? Because she herself knows that anything with Hughes/Plath in the headline will get people reading. Anyway - her article I have to say was utter tripe - another example of the Guardian creating copy for copy's sake. Glad to read your more tempered response to the news.


Anonymous said...

Hello Peter! You might remember that we met at the SP Symposium at Smith last April - I was working with Karen on a project on identity in Plath's life and writing (and I'm still planning to submit it to Plath Profiles!). I completely agree with your argument for the value and validity of detailed and accessible archives of Plath's and Hughes' work.

I've found archival research to be an exciting investigative process that always teaches me about myself as well as my subject. Plath and Hughes both lived fascinating lives from an individual biographical standpoint, but their stories are also universal. So studying their lives lends insight not only into their work, but also into a range of significant topics (literature, women's history, marriage, British and American relationships, cultural history, etc.).

And as you mention, we know that both Plath and Hughes destroyed information they didn't want made public, while remaining incredibly prolific in documenting their lives and work. They both knew during their lifetimes that they were public figures, and I think (even though it's not as obvious with Plath) they both accepted the consequences of that kind of fame.

Peter K Steinberg said...

Thank you both for your comments on my posting. I hope that the archives provide valuable insight to Hughes' poems. In reading his letters, I find his those to Barrie Cooke, Nicholas Hughes and others about fishing to be among his most remarkable. So, his private fishing journals likely would be fascinating reading. But, let's face it, I'd rather try to decipher those manuscripts of the Birthday Letters poems...

jamie andrews said...

I'd like to add my appreciation of the above post/comments. One of the things we tried to get across in the press views etc. was that the size and scope of the archive allows us to get away from a manichean view of both their work/lives- and towards a well-rounded and so inevitably more nuanced understanding. Of course the immediate reaction will focus on the 'gossipy' side of the material (newspapers have to sell themselves, that's understood], but over time, study of the material at the BL (and elsewhere in the UK and US) can only add to the appreciation of their works' enduring legacy. Jamie Andrews, British Library

Peter K Steinberg said...


An insider! Wonderful. Fortunately the media focus will shift away immediately to some other story and leave you all to do your great work to prepare it for the more seriously interested parties.


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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.