01 November 2012

Guest Post: Into the Sylvia Plath Archives by Julia Gordon-Bramer

[The below is a guest post by Julia Gordon-Bramer. Sylvia Plath Info is interested in guest posts on the archival experience. For many, the Sylvia Plath 2012 Symposium was the first time working with original Sylvia Plath materials, and these impressions, if not too personal and private, make for fascinating reading and consideration as the interaction with Sylvia Plath becomes more tangible; more real the the print in books. - pks]

I hadn't known exactly what to expect, how it would actually feel, to step into the Sylvia Plath archives at Indiana University's Lilly Library. I had read of Peter K. Steinberg and Gail Crowther's Plath-archival experiences at Smith College and other archives, and these past few years I have been over my share of photocopied early versions of Plath's poems, for which I'd paid something like ten cents a copy for each side, plus the postage of a large block of paper delivered to my home. I was used to seeing Sylvia Plath's clean, rounded handwriting, her cross-outs and side-line musings. But what would the archives themselves be like?

I added two extra days onto the beginning of my Plath 2012 Symposium trip to immerse myself in the archival experience. Little did I know that I would spend every possible second there, even forfeiting lectures I had originally wanted to attend, and that six days in the Lilly would still not be enough.

The Lilly Library is unlike any other library to which I had previously been. In real life, it is not as large and grand as its picture. It is not a place with shelves of books, but rather rooms of displays and the closed-off archives behind two great, locked doors. Registration takes place first, with a picture ID required. All unnecessary belongings, including purses, jackets, and pens are stored in a locker. There is no food or drink. One is given a pass and buzzed into the room. On the archive side, a doorbell tone lets the desk attendants know you're coming. The pass then goes to the desk and one is directed to the listings of the archives, to make your requests.

On my arrival, I honed in on Plath Profiles'/Sylvia Plath Info Blog's Peter K. Steinberg right away, and shook his hand hello. This was the first time we'd met in person after a long online relationship through my contributions to the Profiles and occasional guest blogs. Next to him were other names I knew: poet David Trinidad, and scholar Amanda Golden. We made our quick hellos, everyone there to work while we could. There would be time to socialize after hours.

As it was my first archival experience and I wanted to review a little bit of everything. I selected the Plath mss. II correspondence box from 1955, for starters. I also had a lot of interest in the annotations of Plath's books, and I made a long list of those I wanted to see. I wanted to see what had not been published. To touch the untouchable.

The air is necessarily cool and dry, and most of the time, the sounds are papers rustling and hushed tones, the occasional cough or sneeze, and sometimes an excitable gasp or an aha! escapes a scholar's lips, or else, there is the full-volume whisper to call a friend over to see. It is an atmosphere of suspense, a perpetual build-up of anticipation toward what might be found next.

Gluttonous me, I thought, Give me everything. Little did I know the magnitude of a file of a single year of letters, which took me a full two days to get through. In fact, I never could have seen everything in one visit. I made mental plans to schedule in another week at the archives—soon. That four-and-a-half hour drive from St. Louis to Bloomington, Indiana is perhaps not ideal, but it is workable, I reasoned. I will just need to somehow postpone all other responsibilities. Family, teaching, my tarot clients… could they make do without me for a while longer? I wanted to postpone my own life to curl into Sylvia's for a month or two. I wondered: would anyone really miss me? [pks editorial comment: yes]

The attendant placed a blue blotter on the table for me to lay the papers on. I was given a small rolling table to hold the large brown cardboard file box full of folders beside me. A long thin rectangular piece of cardboard is library-standard equipment to hold one's place. Weighted cords, to keep books open, and magnifying glasses for tiny annotations are available at the front desk. I was to write in my own notebook only in pencil. No photographs were allowed of anything, which meant a lot of either typing if you'd brought your laptop, or writing in long-hand. I don't like my laptop—and there is something about long-hand that brings me closer to the work. I feel more a part of it, more connected to feel it in the way of recreating the letters, and this was work that I definitely wanted to feel a part of. Long-hand it would be.

I sat with Plath's letters, remembering the bits from Letters Home and able to once and for all finally read everything Aurelia had censored for publication. I was able to see Plath's application form for graduate school at Radcliffe, and to experience the horror and insult of personal and subjective questions about nervous temperaments and morals. Questions like these were common place in school files of the 1950s, in addition to nude photos determining scoliosis, and more.

We owe a great debt to Aurelia Plath's smother-mothering. Without her incredible doting, her saving of everything and careful attention to chronicling and preserving every detail of her daughter's history, these archives would not exist. And Aurelia's meticulous German-Austrian ethic passed the traits to her daughter, creating searchable, dated documentation, seeming to anticipate its importance even before Plath died. If Sylvia Plath had been born to a "normal" mother, there would be merely a handful of baby pictures, a couple relevant letters, and maybe some yearbooks. End of story.

It was in the reading these 1955 letters that I grew fond of Plath's boyfriend, Gordon Lameyer. He was deeply devoted and poetic, if a bit self-absorbed. Later at dinner, my friends would mock me that I had a historical crush, and my group of other Plathians had decided, in accordance with Plath evidently, that he was too dull for her in the long run.

I mused at Sylvia's careful use of all available space, typing on all sides of the paper, in margins, and even unfolding greeting cards to type inside them. On a quick afternoon break I called my British mother in the middle of the day, as I could not stop thinking of her, seeing the Bible-paper thin, blue Par Avion air mail paper of letters to and from her home that filled my own childhood. I got to "know" that major heartbreak of Sylvia's, Richard Sassoon. He wrote so many letters, half in French and only half-legible, so full of arrogance and drunken rants that I began to despise him. He was passionate, gooey, and the evidence suggests, occasionally abusive. He was a dark and dysfunctional mix that probably appealed to Sylvia's masochistic side. He was no Gordon Lameyer, I'll tell you that. It is a curious thing to read deeply and come away feeling you "know," and even dislike a person never met.

Dinner was usually at the Siam House, as the small early group of us was either vegetarian, vegan, or "vegan-ish," as I like to say. At dinner we chuckled over the long and overlapping list of Sylvia's boyfriends, of the complex chart that might be made and the Six Degrees of Separation to Sylvia Plath. It was a bonding dinner of finishing each other's thoughts, mingling with people of the same mind, and feeling like I finally found a place where I belong which would set the tone for the entire week.

The library is open from nine to six weekdays, and nine hours is simply not enough time. It is certainly not enough to waste upon meals and breaks, and this may be one of my first vacations where I lost a pound or two. There was just no time to eat.

In Plath's 1955 letters, I found some key details supporting the work I've been doing that will be invaluable. I formulated new questions and new pursuits, but most of all, I had fun. Sylvia was coming to life for me in a way she never had before, always censored by her mother or Ted Hughes, or slanted to meet an author's take, or simply cut for space.

On my third day there, I moved out of her letters and into Plath's personal library, reading book annotations. This turned out to be a gold-mine for my work. Peter, beside me, pored over her tiny little calendars, loaded with details both mundane and fascinating.

"You're gonna want to see this," he said, pulling me over and sharing the date Plath purchased her book on the tarot at Charing Cross. Woo-hoo!

Working with book annotations might be the strangest inter-textual game ever: First, there is the author's idea and words on the page. Then, Plath's underlinings as she processed these ideas and added marginalia. Then, occasionally either Ted Hughes' or Aurelia Plath's take on Sylvia's thoughts. And of course, our own ideas about it on top of it all. It is our words about the words of words of words. The resonance of this emotional response is occasionally breathtaking. To see the underlines and comments is to feel it with Plath, and to be taken back in time. At dinner again, we discussed time, how it has no end and no beginning, how Einstein said it is all happening at once, how Plath was indeed with us, perhaps right there at the table beside us.

Back in her books, I watched how Plath circled similar sounds, finding the poetry even in prose. I watched how she identified patterns and contrasts, how she revered the imagery and symbolism. I watched how she saw parallels with her own life. It was a wonder to see how her mind worked, even in reading. I will never read the same way again.

Over the course of the week, I got through Plath's annotated copies of The Unicorn: William Butler Yeats' Search for Reality by Virginia Moore; The Portable James Joyce; Huxley's Heaven and Hell; and George Eliot's Middlemarch. In moments I was full of glee with a new discovery. Other times I was close to weeping, feeling her comments, knowing what would come later. Next to me, poet Annie Finch turned through Plath's childhood greeting cards and photographs, sharing the especially amazing ones with me. I felt like I got a double archive experience with her generosity.

There is so much more to say: about the lectures, about the camaraderie, about the discoveries. Perhaps I will write another guest blog and cover a lecture or two that hasn't been reported on. Some of this work will most definitely find its way into my book and future papers.

Over my symposium nights I dreamt of Plath's "Finisterre," and zombie-like intruders who would not die, and then, on the night before my last, a spectacular dream of Plath standing in my room, all shadows, her perimeter defined by electricity and stars. She was too beautiful and frightening to look at for long. And yet, I could stay in those archives forever.

By Saturday evening, my three-subject, 150-page notebook was nearly full. My family was calling relentlessly, asking questions about the cat's insulin shots, and about scheduling next semester's classes, and paying for my son's marathon portraits. My family in Ocean City, Maryland was panicking over the oncoming Hurricane Sandy. I was missed. Real life wanted me back.

I will return soon.


Carl Rollyson said...

A great guest blog post. I recognize many of the reactions I had when I visited the Lilly, especially the iimpressions of boyfriends Gordon and Richard.

Melanie Smith said...

Thank you so much for sharing Julia, brings one that tiny step closer.

Kristina Zimbakova said...

I learned something completely new for me from this post: I never knew Plath had applied to Radcliff for graduate studies! Thanks.

Peter K Steinberg said...

Carl, Melanie, and Kristina - the feedback to this blog post is really encouraging. I'm glad you liked it so, and thanks to Julia for sharing her experiences! - pks

Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

Thanks for the nice comments, everyone!

BridgetAnna said...


Thanks for posting your impressions of the Lilly's archives on Plath. Beautifully written and so accurately capturing the experience.

As Carl above me mentioned, yes yes yes about Gordon and Richard. You wrote: "It was in the reading these 1955 letters that I grew fond of Plath's boyfriend, Gordon Lameyer. He was deeply devoted and poetic, if a bit self-absorbed." I could only handle a bit of Gordon's letters as they WERE so self-absorbed for the most part. Aside from that, I do recall one part of one letter where Gordon mentioned to Sylvia their possibly marrying the coming April--that being the April, before the June, in which Plath and Hughes married.

I also live close to the archives--I'm 4 hours away, compared to your 4 1/2. Please let me know when you plan to visit next--perhaps we could let our schedules collide and make the visit together. I'd be more than happy to share the archives experience with someone else as I always find myself there alone (which is fine for the purpose at hand, but it would be nice to share thoughts and impressions!).

You're a wonderful writer and I would be eager to hear more from you on this blog. Take care!

Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

Thank you, BridgetAnna! Yes, let's make a joint visit sometime, and get some meals together outside of it!

I meant to also tell Kristina Zimbakova what a wonderful artist she is! There is a lot of talent around this blog...

Catherine said...

Love it. Surprised that despite so much research on Plath there is so much left to be discovered.

Carole Brooks Platt, Ph.D. said...

I second everything the others have said above. I learned so much from this blog and felt as if I was really there, thanks to the immediacy of the writing. The dream was especially spectacular, Julia, how priceless! Reading Plath's personal annotations on her books would make you feel her presence as you are constantly stoked electrically by verbally significant information--then the electrically charged dream. Wow! If you are interested in my research on a sense of presence and poets, you can read my article, "Presence, Poetry and the Collaborative Right Hemisphere" on the publications page of my Web site: www.carolebrooksplatt.com

Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

I will look at your article this week, Carole. Thanks for your kind words!

Rehan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
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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.