03 June 2012

The Battle over Sylvia Plath's Colossus

A small battle was waged twenty years ago in the spring of 1992 over the selling of the a copy of a first edition Knopf The Colossus, signed and inscribed by Sylvia Plath to Ted Hughes.

On June 3, 1992, a letter was published in The Times called "War-Plath" (p. 14). The article quotes expresses the concern of the "Sylvia Plath Society" that this one sale might be "the first of a tranche of Plath's books and papers Hughes might sell." The article quotes Elizabeth Sigmund as saying, ''I think it is amazing that he is selling this book, which should go to the family. If he does not want it he should give it to the children, Frieda and Nicholas, or to one of Britain's libraries.'' It also says Sigmund is the president of the Society! It was then stated that, "[t]he next volume to reach the market would be Plath's annotated version of T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets*." Hughes and his wife Carol responded, "This volume of Colossus was owned by one of Sylvia Plath's and Ted Hughes's children."

Bookseller Rick Gekoski's reply, "Collector's Items," ran six days later (June 9, 1992, p. 13). I disagree with his statement that this copy "has no substantial research value, and libraries are characteristically wise enough to avoid buying such collector's items," because I think it does. But it is possible we are just thinking differently about it because of our respective interests. I am certain the book could provide some kind of research value, and as a rare book and manuscript dealer, it is likely that less interesting or relevant material has passed through his shop that less research value. Gekoski ends his response saying, "Sylvia Plath has been dead for 29 years; isn't is time that the carping misapprehension regarding the slightest of her affairs, and of those who knew her, was laid to rest?"

This is awfully naive, and it is arguable that even the Plath Estate itself certainly would not have wanted Plath's affairs to rest. The controversy sells books. It keeps her name in the public and attaches to the words "Sylvia Plath" an allure of mystery, highly charged emotions, contention, etc.

Gekoski writes at length about about this purchase and sale in his chapter "The Colossus" which was printed in his 2004 book Nabokov's Butterfly: And Other Stories of Great Authors and Rare Books (New York: Carroll & Graf), pages 109-120. I wrote a little bit about it in 2007. In that review, some of the details that were relayed I have since found out were erroneous. I should probably update the post, but that seems to me like cheating. Anyway, looking at Gekoski's comments above, consider how he tells the story of The Colossus in Nabokov's Butterfly: "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." Like I said in my blog post, I agree wholeheartedly: that is so fabulous. And, I think there is research value in the book.

Anyway, basically the run down is that Ted Hughes gave the book to his son Nicholas Hughes, and Nicholas Hughes in turn sold it to Gekoski. Gekoski, after a period of time where the book simply sat on a shelf, sold it "to a canny and discriminating poetry collector in Philadelphia" (119). The book eventually sold again, for a higher price as you might imagine, to a different collector. Who that collector was the ended up with it, no one would say.

Until now...

(Was that dramatic?)

Well, we finally know in whose collection this book can be found. Published in 2011, American Prayer gives us "A look into Richard Prince's private library and his influences, published on the occasion of an exhibition of the artist's work at the Bibliotheque nationale de France, Paris." Exhibition installation photographs can be seen here. And, included in the book on page 14 is a gorgeous, lovely image of the inscription. I presume this means that the book was included in the exhibit. Wish I would have known about it, as it would be truly fabulous to see.

Prince's book collection is evidently legen - wait for it - dary. In browsing the internet, I stumbled on this interview on Artinfo, in which Prince says he [had at that time in 2008] recently purchase typescript carbon's of Plath's Ariel. This is likely the same group of typescripts I blogged about here. This would be truly fabulous to see, as well.

*Regarding Plath's copy of T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets. It did eventually sell, and you can learn a little bit about it - and a lot of other great stuff - in "These Ghostly Archives 4: Looking for New England" by Gail Crowther and myself in Plath Profiles 5, out this summer. And if you have not read Gekoski's Nabokov's Butterfly (in the UK as Tolkien's Gown), please do so.


Laura Cherau said...

Can't wait to read it! Glad you are writing about Four Quartets!

Peter K Steinberg said...


We don't write that extensively on it, so please do get your hopes up too high...but its location has never been stated (I don't think) and it's never been used as a resource in Plath scholarship. The book, though, is a fascinating specimen of Plath and her "active readership" with her books.


Anonymous said...

Wow, it's great to see the pictures of Plath's inscriptions to Ted and her mother:




Thanks for the heads-up, Peter!


Peter K Steinberg said...

~VC: amazing work. Bravo & thank you!


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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.