08 March 2014

How Rare is Sylvia Plath's The Colossus (1960)?

A couple of years ago, I learned and reported that the first edition print run for a Victoria Lucas Bell Jar (Heinemann, 1963, pictured right) was 2,000. This is an interesting number to know because it helps us recognize the scarcity of Plath's novel. The number was described in Stephen Tabor's incomparable Sylvia Plath: An Annotated Bibliography as a "token quantity".

Recently I learned from a bookseller in England, Giles Bird O.B.E. of BAS Ltd. in London, that the first printing of Plath's 1960 volume of poetry The Colossus was a number far less than that of The Bell Jar. (He in turn, it should be said, was provided with the figure by the amazing Jean Rose, an archivist at Random House Group UK which holds Heinemann's archives.) Anyone want to take a guess as to the number?

My first reaction was shock. However, shock might have been a premature evaluation. After all, Heinemann was not normally a publisher of poetry. And in light of the fact that they were more known for their fiction -- Heinemann were publishers, according to Plath, of "Somerset Maugham, Evelyn Waugh, DH Lawrence, Erskine Caldwell" (letter to Aurelia and Warren Plath, 11 February 1960) -- perhaps the qualification for the size of the print of The Bell Jar as a "token quantity" of 2,000 is not too low after all? That is, perhaps it was a "token quantity" compared to the normal print runs of those well-known novelists. Regarding Plath's assertion that Waugh was a Heinemann author, Bird wrote me that "Sylvia got it wrong about Evelyn Waugh having Heinemann as his publisher. He didn't. His UK publisher was pretty consistently Chapman & Hall. Heinemann only brought out a few Waugh reprints in the late 70s - which Sylvia never saw. However, in addition to the other great writers she listed, Heinemann were Graham Greene's publisher from 1929 up until 1961."

Oh, I still have not mentioned how many copies were in the first print run of The Colossus, have I? Frankly, I cannot get over it. Plath was disappointed that her book, which although it had almost all of the poems in it published individually, won no prizes and was hardly promoted in England. Just after publication in October 1960, Plath wrote resignedly to her mother and brother, on 19 November 1960 to be exact, that perhaps The Colossus would make "a nice gift book". Indeed. Anyone lucky enough to own the book now is quite lucky!

Still waiting for the number of Colossi? Read on, please. Because I love Plath's books and enjoy seeing them, reading them, drooling over excellent quality first and limited editions at book fairs and in rare book libraries, it seems appropriate to list five current titles for sale from BAS Ltd., which all seem accurately described, affordably & competitively priced, and in fine condition.

***Please note the images provided in each description are from Giles Bird of BAS Ltd. There are more from where these came! Each book is available as of today's date, please contact BAS Ltd. for availability and information.***
1. Ariel, Faber, 1965:

London; Faber; octavo; first impression of first edition of author's celebrated and influential second collection of poetry, published posthumously, collated and edited by Ted Hughes, in a small printing of 3100 copies preceding the American edition by a year.

Very crisp and clean in original pink-red cloth boards, with gilt lettering bright to spine; unfaded and unworn appearance, binding very tight and square, with corners and edges sharp, unrubbed; gentle bump to foot of spine; internally also very fresh and unmarked with no inscriptions, no signs of previous usage or flaws to the paper; slightest of shadowing from inflaps to endpapers. Dustwrapper is very good and not price-clipped; it has light edgewear and handling marks, and very minor losses to extremes. Very good indeed. £440
2. Crossing the Water, Faber, 1971:

London; Faber; octavo; first impression of this first edition of a newly issued collection of poetry; very crisp in original blue cloth boards, with gilt lettering to spine, which is lightly spotted; tight and square, with corners sharp and unrubbed, and edges not bumped; a tiny flaw to cloth on rear cover; internally completely unmarked with no signs of usage or any faults to the paper; the unclipped dustwrapper is bright and in excellent condition; complete and undamaged with no handling signs to inflaps, no fraying to extremes or folds; only very minor vertical shelf-wear marks towards spine on rear white panel. Very good indeed. £80
3. The Bell Jar, Faber, 1966:

London; Faber; octavo; first printing – only 3000 copies in the run – of the first Faber sub-edition (the first with the author explicitly identified in titles) of Sylvia Plath's only novel.

Very crisp in original black cloth boards, with gilt lettering to spine; very tight and square, with corners sharp and unrubbed, and edges not bumped or shelf-worn at all; a remarkably fresh copy, totally denying nearly a half-century of age; internally completely unmarked with no signs of usage – apparently untouched; the unclipped dustwrapper is bright and totally unfaded; undamaged with absolutely no handling marks to white of panels or inflaps; only the tiniest of wear at the foot of spine at the rear fold. The black vortex design has never looked stronger than this. Fine. £390
4. Winter Trees, Faber, 1971:

London; Faber; octavo; first impression of first edition (5000 copies) of a newly issued collection of poetry which was Poetry Book Society's Choice for 1971. Very firm and fresh in original blue cloth boards, with silver lettering to spine; very tight and square, with corners sharp and unrubbed; edges not bumped, and only tiniest of wear evident at one edge at side of foot of spine; internally completely unmarked with no signs of usage or deterioration of paper quality; the unclipped dustwrapper is bright in its rich blue and white, complete and undamaged with no handling marks on rear white panel or either inflap. Fine. £90
5. The Colossus, Heinemann, 1960:

London; Heinemann; octavo; a first impression of the very scarce first edition of Sylvia Plath's first published collection of poetry: the only book published under her name in her lifetime, and then at the age of just 28. Published on 31st October 1960 [at 15/-] in an edition of ONLY 500 COPIES. (viz. Heinemann Archive/Random House Librarian's confirmation).

In Letters Home [26 October 1960], Sylvia Plath confided to her mother how excited she was with Heinemann's production of her poems:

"I am touched that my publisher got them out in my birthday week after I told him how superstitious I was. I hope the two printing errors towards the end don't upset you as much as they did me! I've marked the corrections in your books and am appalled that after several proofreadings I was guilty of letting them get through, but Ted has reassured me about them and you do, too. I am delighted with the color of the cover – the rich, green oblong, white jacket and black-and-white lettering – and the way the green cover inside matches with the gold letters. It is a nice fat book which takes up ¾ inch on the shelf, and I think they did a handsome job of it…"

This copy has clear provenance, and was purchased in March 1963 (the month after Sylvia Plath's untimely death at the age of 30) by Giles Gordon, whose dated ownership name is found on the ffep., and neat bookplate is set on the front pastedown. (Giles Gordon was an innovative and very influential literary agent who represented Peter Ackroyd and John Fowles among many others.)

In original green cloth boards with gilt lettering bright to spine; no noticeable wear, nor rubbing nor bumping of corners; square and tight; internally very fresh and firm; absolutely no handling marks or paper deterioration. An excellent copy in a very good dustwrapper, lightly nicked at head of spine and upper inflap fold, slightly sunned to spine and folds, as one might well expect for a frail, white and scarce wrapper - but still remarkably well preserved, and with no restoration. Now housed in a custom-made complementary dropback box, this is a highly desirable and rare copy of the very significant and influential first published collection of poetry by Sylvia Plath. £2500

500 copies! My my my.

All links accessed on 1 March 2014.


Rehan said...

Crikey! 500!?

I can see how she might possibly have mixed up Graham Greene with Waugh!

A Piece of Plathery said...

Wow, that is seemingly small, thank you for this Peter, it is very interesting. Hmmm maybe I should get a second copy?

Peter K Steinberg said...

Plathery: Maybe you should! I know a nice one for sale with a good provenance from BAS Ltd! At the least I think it is the sweetest copy out there at the most reasonable price.


suki said...

500 copies must be a tad ironic, considering the copies and editions sold since....

Peter K Steinberg said...

Indeed! Plath's books and their sales have certainly taken on a life of their own in the last five decades. The first Knopf edition in May 1962 really was not a great seller. A document I've seen at Smith indicated Knopf took a net loss of $1420 on the book (see note 8, chapter 7, of my largely unread and critically panned biography Sylvia Plath).

Maddy said...

I feel lucky to have found the first edition of Winter Trees shown here at a bookstore for $35. But to have The Colossus or that Victoria Lucas Bell Jar....wow! I wish!

suki said...

Lucky you Maddy!

Milarvy said...

I'm looking to sell my first edition copy of The Colossus. Where would be the best place to sell it to get a fair price, as selling to a book dealer would probably only get me about a third of what it's worth?

Peter K Steinberg said...

Milarvy- That's a tough one because you can try eBay, but there is no certainty you'll get what you want unless you set a reserve. Perhaps you can try a dealer on consignment or something? You can try contacting someone through the ILAB to get an appraisal? But I think unfortunately once you sell it, it is up to the buyer -- be they a collector or a dealer -- to do with it what they want.


Milarvy said...

Thanks for your reply Peter. I may try eBay, with a reserve, and see how that goes.

Maddy said...

Just left a bookstore almost in tears because I couldn't afford the first edition Crossing the Water and first (American) edition of The Colossus. I, literally, kissed them goodbye. Haha, Plath problems!

Anonymous said...

Does anyone here know what a pirated first u.s. edition of the bell jar might be valued at? I can't find any information aside from the fact that it exists...

Anonymous said...

does anyone know what a pirated first us edition of the bell jar might be worth??

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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." 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.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath. Oxford: Fonthill, 2017. Forthcoming.
  • 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.
  • Gill, Jo. "Sylvia Plath in the South West." University of Exeter Centre for South West Writing, 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Elements of Literature, Third Course. Austin, Tex. : Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2009. (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. 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. 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. "Sylvia Plath." The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath. London: British Library, 2010.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'They Had to Call and Call': The Search for Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 106-132.
  • 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. "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. "Textual Variations in The Bell Jar Publications." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Writing Life" [Introduction]. Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning. Stroud, Eng.: Fonthill Media, 2014.