I was browsing at the Brattle Book Shop on West Street in Boston in October and came across a book by Grant Uden entitled Understanding Book-Collecting. To my surprise on the back of the dust jacket was a line of books, all but one just showing the spines. The most recognizable being... that of Sylvia Plath’s Ariel in that distinctive Faber dust jacket. In the text, Plath is given mention just once, as being a writer who is collected but also of potentially questionable durability. We’ll prove him wrong yet! In the last dozen or so years since I’ve been paying attention, Plath books certainly have risen in value and desirability, particularly those books published during her lifetime. But this is another subject for another time perhaps.
This got me thinking where else I’d seen Ariel.
At some point in some other book store browsing experience, I had seen the Faber Ariel on the front cover of a book which, I recalled, was on book covers. It didn’t take long to find this title again: Front Cover: Great Book Jacket and Cover Design by Alan Powers (2001, 2006). Ariel does get a prominent spot towards the top right. The image and the dust jacket itself kind of yells at you. The text on inside flap begins, “From the arresting type on Sylvia Plath’s Ariel...readers remember the jackets and covers of the books they read.”
So true. I read Front Cover cover to cover and when it actually got to Ariel found the coverage it received a little disappointing; it weakly says, “Published two years after her suicide, this collection included five poems written in the last week of Plath’s life” (99). Front Cover runs the gamut giving details on how the cover can be either subtle or in-your-face as an interpretive device about the books contents or something completely abstract as well. The blurb on Ariel concluded, “The poetry list at Faber and Faber first achieved eminence when T.S. Eliot was the editor, and has continued to include many of the best British poets ever since.” I shut the book in frustration. My expectations were dashed. I wanted the blurb to say something about how jacket design looks like the letters had been displaced by an earthquake; that they read louder than the neon signs at Piccadilly Circus. In fact, the flap text about the “arresting type” is far more poignant. But that page on Poetry books wasn’t a total let down, what was interesting to learn was that the the designer of Ariel, Berthold Wolpe, was also the designer of a 1960 book of poems called Lupercal.
In Front Cover, the author Alan Powers says the following in his discussion of “Classic Novels”: “One of the pleasures of book-collecting is to come across a famous book in its original jacket, and to understand the relationship between the contents and the image. An original jacket still says something about the world into which the book was launched, and the publisher’s expectations of the kind of reader he was hoping to attract” (24). This is the way historicist's approach texts and the value inherent in this form of criticism cannot be understated. While it is often valuable to know a circumstance or the circumstances by which a Plath poem or story or novel came to be it is of crucial importance also to understand when a book - especially a book like Ariel - was published. We are where we are now because of it!
Powers’ thoughts on the book collecting of classic novels above is applicable not just to classic novels, but to books in any genre. For Sylvia Plath - for Ariel in this instance - what does the 1965 Faber jacket say about the author her reader and the “world into which the book was launched”? I’ve written my thoughts on the Faber Ariel above. But what about its cousin across the Atlantic, the 1966 Harper & Row edition?
By contrast, the first American edition of Ariel published by Harper & Row (1966) could not be more different. The vibrant primary colors have been replaced by a starkly designed book that graphically resembles a headstone. If you stare at the cover long enough; the letters appear three dimensional, they appear almost to be in motion; rising up, towards the left out of the off-white background.
There was one other place, recently, I had seen the Faber Ariel. And that was on the bookshelf of Anne Sexton. I re-read the excellent Her Husband by Diane Middlebrook earlier this year. One cannot speak highly enough of this book but this is not the post for that. No. But, page 128 is illustrated with a photograph of Sexton ca. 1966 and just behind her typewriter is the 1965 Faber Ariel.
Of course you can see more Plath book covers over at A celebration, this is.
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.
- 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)
- Helle, Anita. "Lessons from the Archive: Sylvia Plath and the Politics of Memory". Feminist Studies 31:3. Fall 2005: 631-652.. (Acknowledged in)
- Helle, Anita Plath. The Unraveling Archive: Essays on Sylvia Plath. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007. (Photographs used, 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. 2000. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. New York: Anchor Books. (Acknowledged in)
- Gill, Jo. "Sylvia Plath in the South West." University of Exeter Centre for South West Writing, 2008. (Photograph used)
- Reiff, Raychel Haugrud. Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar and Poems (Writers and Their Works). Marshall Cavendish Children's Books, 2008.. (Images provided)
- Plath, Sylvia. Glassklokken. Oslo: De norske Bokklubbene, 2004. (Photograph used on cover)
- 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. "'They Had to Call and Call': The Search for Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 106-132.
- Steinberg, Peter K. "Sylvia Plath." The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath. London: British Library, 2010.
- 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. "Proof of Plath." Fine Books & Collections 9:2. Spring 2011: 11-12.
- Steinberg, Peter K. "A Perfectly Beautiful Time: Sylvia Plath at Camp Helen Storrow." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 149-166.
- Steinberg, Peter K. "Textual Variations in The Bell Jar Publications." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012.
- "Banking on his passion for Plath" by Melissa Davis Haller. UMW Today. Spring 2005.
- "Sylvia Plath's Three Women to be staged in London" by Alison Flood. The Guardian. 3 December 2008.
- "FBI files on Sylvia Plath's father shed new light on poet" by Dalya Alberge. The Guardian. 17 August 2012.
- "There Are Almost No Obituaries for Sylvia Plath" by Ashley Fetters. The Atlantic. 11 February 2013.