20 December 2015

Sylvia Plath 2015: Year in Review

In the past, the year in review has tried to summarize the small world of Sylvia Plath as I live it. I suspect this post will be no different. Rather than go through the blog month by month, I trust that the blog archive in the sidebar will be a sufficient way for many of you to access the posts that appeared in the calendar year 2015.

By and large this year was dominated for me in two respects. The first is the Letters of Sylvia Plath project, a book which I am co-editing with Karen V. Kukil of Smith College for Frieda Hughes to be published by Faber. From the beginning of the project which officially was underway in 2013 -- but which I have been working on since circa 2010 -- it has been a privilege to read, transcribe, annotate, index, etc. all of the known letters by Sylvia Plath. I am not at liberty to say too, too much about the letters or the project now but suffice it to say someday I will. Each and every one of the thousands of hours I have spent on this project has been with you, this readers of this blog as well as those who read Plath in general, in mind. I hope that you take as much enjoyment in reading the book as I have had in helping to prepare it for publication (at a to be determined future date). Here is a photograph of me signing the contract for this book next to the second draft!


There were not too many books to come out this year. Elizabeth Sigmund and Gail Crowther's Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning came out late in 2014. 2015 saw the publication of Julia Gordon-Bramer's Fixed Stars Govern a Life: Decoding Sylvia Plath (Stephen F. Austin University Press) was published in January 2015. I have dipped into and out of Julia's book this year as I can but am ashamed to say I have not yet finished reading it. I have found it difficult to read about Sylvia Plath while I have been so intensely reading Sylvia Plath. In addition, there were two other academic press books to come out: Sylvia Plath and the Language of Affective States: Written Discourse and the Experience of Depression by Zsofia Demjen (Bloomsbury Academic) and Mirrors of Entrapment and Emancipation: Forugh Farrokhzad and Sylvia Plath by Leila Rahimi Bahmany (Leiden University Press).

Also published this year was the long awaited biography Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life by Jonathan Bate (William Collins, UK & Harper Collins, US). In late September and early October, it seemed the world was dominated by reviews, contention, and drama and somehow we have come out on the other side of all that. I was privileged to read and comment on the manuscript in the spring and am thrilled some of my corrections and/or suggestions were taken! Bate makes excellent use of archival resources, and his notes and citations for Hughes' letters, journals and poetry drafts is commendable. It will be immeasurably helpful for Hughes scholars and future Hughes biographers.

The second dominant aspect of this year for me in terms of Sylvia Plath was befriending her first best and lifelong friend Ruth (Freeman) Geissler. After reading Andrew Wilson's Mad Girl's Love Song back in 2013, I slowly and systematically tried to reach out to many of the people that Plath knew in the attempt to locate letters. I did not reach out to too many people who had already donated or sold letters to various archives as presumably they gave or sold everything they had. In late 2014, I wrote to 'Ruthie'. I did not hear anything for a few weeks but shortly into January and email popped up in my inbox from her and it was one of those heart-skips-a-beat moments. Initially we discussed Plath at length: from the letters that Ruth held, to photographs, handmade cards, clothing, etc. We discussed life in Winthrop and Wellesley in the 1940s as well as college life in the early 1950s and married life in the later 1950s. Our friendship developed through discussing Plath's stories and poems; particularly those stories that Ruth herself lived through and witnessed. When I work on any letter or ready a diary entry by Plath that mentions Ruth, a little spark of excitement goes through me. All the emails lead to a strong friendship, so strong in fact that we have inside jokes about things like meat (yuck), dandelions (bane of my existence), and dictums of balancing out my obsessive Plathian tendencies by taking my wife out for nice dates.

This was all fine and dandy until the recent weekend of 14 November when Karen Kukil and I drove out to meet Ruth. To quote Plath: "What a thrill"! We discussed Plath among other topics and had a wonderful five hours together over dinner one night and coffee and treats the next morning. A whirlwind weekend I hope repeat, repeat, repeat.

This year I spent a decent chunk of time also tracing down some press releases that Plath more than likely authored based on evidence in her letters, diaries and calendars, and other sources. This will be the subject of a forthcoming blog post in 2016. I did not find everything that Plath took notes on, which was frustrating, but it likely just meant that the article was not published due to space constraints in the respective newspapers.

I was able to find a couple of other things along the ways, such as a previously unacknowledged letter to the editor published in the March 1955 issue of Mademoiselle. In March of this year, I was able to spend four days at the Lilly Library, sleep deprived, doing research for the letters book. I accomplished a lot and still make use, nearly daily, of the information I obtained whilst there. Deepest gratitude to the staff there for being so accommodating.

Over on my website for Sylvia Plath, A celebration, this is, things were updated periodically (text, book covers and photographs) and mostly unacknowledged. I did add a new page to the Bibliography section: Articles of Sylvia Plath's First Suicide Attempt. This builds upon the previous bibliography of articles I published in my paper "'They Had to Call and Call': The Search for Sylvia Plath" (2010).

This year has had far fewer blog posts than in years past. Sorry! But I hope the content that did appear continues to be relevant and interesting. This was because of the letters project and I hope that in 2016 I have more time to do more original blogging, reviews, and keeping more up-to-date on news stories on Plath as and when the come up (if they are interesting, most are not!). A lot of people did guest blog posts or gave me ideas for other posts this year which relieved a lot of stress and kept the blog going to regular updates. Thanks must therefore go out to Annette Stevens, Amanda Ferrara, Sheila Hamilton, Katie Mikulka, Peter Fydler, Tony Cockayne, and Gail Crowther.

Things to look forward to in 2016 and beyond. Heather Clark is still very hard at work on her new literary biography of Sylvia Plath, to be published by Knopf (see Plath Unbound here). There is a book for which I am particularly thrilled to give some advance promotion! Gail Crowther recently submitted her manuscripts titled The Haunted Reader and Sylvia Plath to Fonthill Media, publishers of her Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning. Look for The Haunted Reader and Sylvia Plath in mid-to-late 2016.

Thank you all for reading, following, commenting, encouraging, visiting, and supporting this blog. Your interest and enthusiasm fuels me beyond expression. Be safe and warm. Happy holidays and New Year. See you in 2016!

All links accessed 22 October, 10 November 2015, and 20 December 2015.

10 December 2015

Plath, Otto Plath

The following is a post first started between June and December 2012, revisited briefly in June 2014, and then forgotten about as I was working full time on the letters of Sylvia Plath project. I felt it was important to work on the blog some more this fall with the intention of posting it on 5 November, which was the 75th anniversary of the death of Otto Plath. But then other things got in the way...

Recently, though, I had a change of heart about the bulk of this post. Much of what I wanted to say I learned years ago but will refrain from posting now as I believe that Heather Clark, in her forthcoming biography of Sylvia Plath, will discuss at beautiful and thorough length the history and biography of Otto Plath.

However, what I do still want to relate is interesting information I obtained Warren's Plath's daughter Susan in June 2014 concerning something Paul Alexander wrote as fact in his biography of Sylvia Plath, Rough Magic. Alexander writes, "On April 13, 1885, in the village of Grabow, Germany, he a born Otto Emil Platt" (Da Capo Press edition, 2003: 15). This is patently not true. Susan told me that when she asked Alexander about this several years ago he admitted that he simply made it up. (And makes me wonder what else he made up in his book! Rough Magic, indeed ) So, if you ever happen to read anywhere that Otto Plath was born Platt, please keep in mind this valuable information provided by the PLATH family.

01 December 2015

When Sylvia Plath Rocked Cleveland

In late September and early October I took a vacation, the purpose of which was to enjoy the last hold of summer and enjoy the American pastime: baseball. I found myself in Cleveland, Ohio, a city in which there is almost nothing to do (it took me 6 hours of walking around just to find a postcard).

So, before attending the Minnesota Twins versus the Cleveland Indians baseball game that night, a game won by the Twins and in which I caught a home run ball hit during Twins batting practice, I visited the Cleveland Public Library to, of course, look through microfilm of their 1953 newspapers. As you do, right?

The Cleveland Plain-Dealer was available through a database but I did not find an article there. Two other papers, the Cleveland News and the Cleveland Press were available on microfilm only so I spent an hour or so looking through the papers this way. Happily! I found one article in each paper, which adds to the list of articles on Plath's first suicide attempt/disappearance.

"Smith College Student Missing." Cleveland News. August 26, 1953: 1.
"Hunt Top Student." Cleveland Press. August 26, 1953: 12.

These two articles bring the total up to 198 articles found.

Before Cleveland, in Cincinnati which is a city with even less to do (especially during the rain delay of the Chicago Cubs versus the Cincinnati Reds baseball game), it did not occur to me to look through their microfilm in their public library (which has a beautiful book sculpture on Vine Street). We were so bored one day by 8 a.m. that I asked my wife if we could pop over to the Lilly Library for the day but she said no.

I requested the Cincinnati newspaper via Interlibrary Loan so perhaps the city might have covered it and will redeem itself, somehow. That's disingenuous and maybe unfair as the food was fine at Taste of Belgium and Melt Eclectic. The other city we hit, Pittsburgh, was amazing on all fronts: feel/vibe, food, ballpark and quality of baseball.

Later . . . not like you can tell . . . But after a couple of weeks the Boston Public Library received the Cincinnati Enquirer for me on microfilm via Interlibrary loan and the Queen City only marginally redeemed itself by yielding an addition article on Plath's first suicide attempt, bringing our total to 199.

"Missing Student Found." Cincinnati Enquirer. August 27, 1953: 11.



See the complete, in progress, bibliography here.

Some images of the beautiful ballparks at night:

Cincinnati's Great American Ballpark
Cleveland's Progressive Field
Pittsburgh's PNC Park

All links accessed 6 October 2015.

You can see a bibliography of articles on Plath's first suicide attempt, and read PDF's of them, over at A celebration, this is.

20 November 2015

"'Viciousness in the Kitchen': The Backstory of Sylvia Plath's 'Lesbos'" by David Trinidad

Poet and writer David Trinidad has a new essay on Sylvia Plath: "'Viciousness in the Kitchen': The Backstory of Sylvia Plath's 'Lesbos'" published today on Blackbird out of Virginia Commonwealth University.

For various reasons, the piece had to be published without the images that David intended. So as a complement to the piece, I have agreed to publish the photographs here on the Sylvia Plath Info Blog.

Sylvia Plath and her children at Court Green, spring 1962


Marvin Kane, circa 1961


Cadbury House, 2010. ©Derek Harper


"Lesbos" beach: "the most heavenly gold sands by emerald sea."


Beyond the stone arch, the only cottage in Hicks Court with
"a sort of cement well." Could this be "Quaintways"? 2010, ©Gail Crowther


Lane to "Lesbos" beach, 2010, ©Gail Crowther

"Lesbos" beach, 2010, ©Gail Crowther

"Lesbos" beach, 2010, ©Gail Crowther


Memorial plaque for Kathy Kane


Memorial plaque for Marvin Kane

11 November 2015

Sales Results: Two Sylvia Plath Lots at Bonhams Knightsbridge

As reported on 10 October 2015 in this blog post, there were two Sylvia Plath lots at the Fine Books, Maps and Manuscripts auction via Bonhams Knightsbridge auction today in London. The two Sylvia Plath lots just finished.

Lot 120 featured an autograph manuscript of Plath's early short story "The Mummy's Tomb".

Lot 121 featured annotated typescripts of five poems written when Plath was a student in high school and at Smith College: "acquatic nocturne", "Terminal", "Van Winkle's Village", "The Dark River (P.N.)", and "The Invalid".

Lot 120 sold for £5,000 ($7,559)  also blowing passed the high estimate. Price includes buyers premium.

Lot 121 sold for £13,750 ($20,789) annihilating the high estimate. Price includes buyers premium. Go Plath.

That was intense and interesting bidding to watch online!

All links accessed 10 November 2015.

06 November 2015

A Penny for Sylvia Plath's Thoughts...

In February 1955, Mademoiselle published a special "twentieth anniversary issue". One of the sections of this issue did a year-by-year review of highlights and Sylvia Plath was mentioned as one for 1952. This was the year in which her short story "Sunday at the Mintons'" was published and won first prize in the College Fiction Contest.

Mademoiselle, March 1955
We know Plath read this February 1955 issue for two reasons. One is that Cyrilly Abels sent Plath a telegram (held by the Lilly Library) on 1 March 1955 saying "Thanks for your fine words about February and also for the stories". It is possible this is in reference to three stories Plath sent to Abels on 30 January 1955: "The Day Mr. Prescott Died", "Tongues of Stone", and "Superman and Paula Brown's New Snowsuit". The second reason we know Plath read the February 1955 issue is because in their March 1955 issue, Mademoiselle printed Plath's brief accolade referred to in Abels' telegram in the "A Penny for your thoughts…" section.

Appearing on page 64, this brief but previously unknown periodical appearance for Plath has not been recorded in any previous bibliography. Printed under a heading of "Many happy returns", Plath's text reads:
Page 64 of Mademoiselle,
March 1955 
Never have I read such a plump, magnificent issue as your February one! A very happy twentieth birthday to you.

At Smith, my friends and I were especially enchanted by the gay, lilting love poem by Donald Hall and the winsome, whimsical Peynet sketches. I reveled in the superb story by Bryan McMahon and you can imagine how I welcomed Dylan Thomas! To tell the other features I enjoyed would be to run through the contents of the whole magazine. Congratulations on the most wonderful MLLE yet -- a delight and challenge to the eye and to the mind.

S. P., Smith College, Northampton, Mass.
The February 1955 issue of Mademoiselle, as Plath mentions, printed the following works: Donald Hall's "Valentine" (p. 121), French artist Raymond Peynet's sketches under the collective title "The Path of Love" (pp. 144-145), Bryan MacMahon's "O, Lonely Moon!" (pp. 164-165, 211-216), and Dylan Thomas' short, short story "The Vest" (pp. 142-143), among other features. Here is a photograph of the Table of Contents which Plath so enthusiastically enjoyed:



And here are the Peynet sketches:


27 October 2015

Parliament Hill Fields: In the Footsteps of Sylvia Plath

The following is a guest blog post by Sheila Hamilton. Thank you, Sheila!

Sylvia Plath wrote the poem "Parliament Hill Fields" in February 1961, in London, very shortly after suffering the miscarriage which is the poem's subject. In the poem, the narrator walks in a wintry landscape and ponders the loss ("Already your doll grip lets go.") Towards the end of the poem, there is a sense of renewed life. At this time, Plath, Ted Hughes and their baby daughter Frieda were living in a small flat on Chalcot Square, maybe a mile away from Hampstead Heath of which Parliament Hill Fields are a part. Like many London dwellers, they would have enjoyed access to the Heath, sometimes referred to as "London's green lungs", a spacious place of grass and trees, birds and ponds, secluded glades overgrown with ivy, bramble and nettle, quiet meadows and, here and there, wonderful views of the city. Once marshy and very much outside London, part farmland, part private estate, by the mid nineteenth century the Heath was being transformed into a leisure space for the public. Several attempts to sell it off for "development" met with vigorous opposition and, ultimately, failure.

Parliament Hill Fields is the name given to the south-eastern portion of the Heath. It acquired its name during the English Civil War (1642-1649) when Parliamentary forces led by Oliver Cromwell encamped there. Though it has another, earlier Parliamentary connection: in 1605, the Gunpowder Plotters came here to get a good view of the Houses of Parliament as they blew up. Unbeknownst to them, their co-conspirator Guy Fawkes, the man sent to actually prime the gunpowder in the cellars under Parliament, had already been arrested. They waited, almost certainly, right at the top of what later became known as Parliament Hill.


(Plath writes in the poem of how "Southward, over Kentish Town, an ashen smudge/Swaddles roof and tree. . ."; this is a view from a different angle.) Moving a short distance down this hill you come to the place known as the tumulus ("I circle the writhen trees. . .These faithful dark-boughed cypresses/Brood, rooted in their heaped losses."). One myth suggests that this tumulus was an Iron Age settlement of some kind, another that it is the burial-mound of Boadicea, queen of the Iceni tribe who raised a doomed revolt against the Romans. Archaeologists digging there several decades ago found tobacco pipes, broken bits of Delftware pottery and Chinese porcelain, all dating from the eighteenth century, but nothing earlier and certainly no bones or any signs of burial. In Plath's time, as now, the tumulus would have been simply a cluster of dark trees, a place of birdsong, with some benches.

Photograph by Gail Crowther
Parliament Hill Fields, like the rest of the Heath, is a leveller: everyone comes here. Parents with buggies, nannies with buggies, joggers, solitary walkers, kite-fliers, people walking energetic dogs. People with cameras. People with magnifying glasses and field guides examining fallen trees colonised by fern and fungus.


Bird-lovers make their way down the hill towards Highgate Pond No. 1 and Bird Sanctuary Pond, both home to swans, herons, moorhens, various species of duck. Swimmers aim north-westwards towards the Men's Bathing Pond or the Kenwood Ladies' Pond, as appropriate, or westwards to the Mixed Bathing Pond, or south-eastwards to the Lido, an open-air unheated pool opened in 1938. These three ponds and the Lido are popular throughout the year, with some people aiming to swim every day, rain or snow notwithstanding.


(One of these swimmers is A. Alvarez, Plath's friend and, in the early 60s, a prominent literary critic, one of the first people to recognise the importance of her work. Now in his 80s, Alvarez lives near the Heath and writes extensively of its joys in his recent book Pondlife, a selection of his journals.) I found it easy to imagine Plath strolling among these various groups of people. On that day in February 1961, her view of the ponds ( "the linked ponds") would have been clearer on account of bare trees than the one I got in September.

Hampstead Heath is a place rich in historical, artistic and literary associations. John Constable the English landscape painter lived nearby in the 1820s and 1830s, partly because the air of Hampstead was good for his consumptive wife and partly because he loved to paint the Heath in its many moods and weathers. John Keats, it is said, heard the nightingale to which he addressed his "Ode to a Nightingale" on Hampstead Heath if not on Parliament Hill Fields themselves. Several years earlier, as a medical student, he herborised here, observing and learning about many species of medicinal plant: bogbean, coltsfoot, lady's smock, sphagnum moss. (Later drainage projects sounded the death-knell for most of these species.) Anna Pavlova the Russian ballerina lived near here for twenty years before her death in 1931, almost certainly enjoying the sight of swans on the ponds as well as having several swans as pets. Religious and political gatherings often focussed on the Stone of Free Speech until maybe the middle of the nineteenth century.


In Plath's time, one of the recognisable walkers here and thereabouts was Hugh Gaitskell, the then Leader of the British Labour Party and probable future Prime Minister. Gaitskell died at the age of 56, of the complications of lupus, in January 1963, less than a month before Plath's own death. That month was the coldest month in England in the twentieth century; in fact, you would have to go back all the way to 1814 to find a colder one. Snow would have been lying thick on the grass on Parliament Hill Fields, there would have been ice on the ponds, and I assume, many struggling swans, ducks and other birds. Simultaneously, Plath was struggling in her flat on Fitzroy Road with frozen pipes, power-cuts, flu, depression. Winters like this kill, sometimes directly, more often indirectly, felling those already vulnerable.

Time brings changes. The Lido no longer has any diving-boards and it now has CCTV but it is still the much-loved destination of water-loving Londoners. The bowling-green, children's playground and cafe, here in Plath's time as far as I have been able to establish, are still here and much used. There is still a bandstand. Nowadays, a little further off, there is also an athletics track. The whole place, now as then, is wonderfully uncommercial for the most part. Walkers, both human and canine, continue to walk and enjoy. Though the emotional tone of "Parliament Hill Fields" is one of sadness, I have formed the strong impression that this place was in general a nurturing one for her, a mixture of haven, bolt-hole and gentle, unobtrusive therapy.

Sheila Hamilton
September 2015

Unless otherwise stated, all photographs by Sheila Hamilton.

10 October 2015

Two Sylvia Plath Lots at Bonhams in November

Bonhams will offer two small Sylvia Plath lots in their 11 November 2015 sale at Knightsbridge in London.

"The Mummy's Tomb",
from Bonhams
Lot 120 features an "Autograph manuscript of her early story 'The Mummy's Tomb', headed by her: 'The Mummy's Tomb / by Sylvia Plath/ May 17, 1946". The estimate is £1,500 - 2,000 (US$ 2,300 - 3,100).

The lot details read:
"Autograph manuscript of her early story 'The Mummy's Tomb', headed by her: "The Mummy's Tomb/ by Sylvia Plath/ May 17, 1946", opening: "I had come to the museum to do some research work on Egypt for my history notebook...", recounting the gothic tale of a girl's nocturnal visit to a display of mummies and her encounter with their sinister keeper ("...'Ha!' he leered, 'you got away yesterday, but you won't now. I'll muffle your screams of anguish and let you die from loss of blood and in terrible pain. You must meet the Egyptian gods. I will slowly cut out your eyes and harden them for the show case display!'..."), 4 pages, on two separate sheets, very faint spotting and light pencil-smudging, 4to, 17 May 1946."
"Aquatic Nocturne",
from Bonhams
Lot 121 consists of "Annotated typescripts of five poems written when at Smith College, Smith College, 1948-1950 where dated". The estimate for this lot is a reasonable £1,500 - 2,000 (US$ 2,300 - 3,100). The poems are: "aquatic nocturne", "Terminal", "Van Winkle's Village", "The Dark River (P.N.)", and "The Invalid".

The lot details for this read:
"Annotated typescripts of five poems written when at Smith College, comprising 'Aquatic Nocturne', opening: "down where sound/ comes blunt and wan/ like the bronze tone/ of a sunken gong/ or the garbled jargon/ of a drowning man...", two lines revised in ink with an alternative opening indicated in pencil, also marked up by her teacher ("This experiment is a most successful one/ I don't quite get these lines"), typed initials at head, marked in pencil "85"; 'Terminal', opening: "Bolting home from credulous blue domes...", one line revised in ink, typed name and Smith College address at head, marked in pencil "16/2"; 'Van Winkle's Village', opening: "Today, although the slanting light reminds...", first four lines reworked in ink and marked "Rewritten", typed name and Smith College address at head, marked in pencil "80/2"; 'The Dark River (P. N.)', opening: "You are near and unattainable...", dated in ink "1948", marked in pencil "67a"; 'The Invalid', opening: "Half-past four on an April morning...", carbon undercopy, title in ink and dated "1950", marked in pencil "52b", 5 pages, in folders marked with sequence numbers, 4to, Smith College, 1948-1950 where dated."
These are select pieces of the big Sotheby's auction from December 2014. See this blog post and this one as well if you want to refresh your memory. That auction failed to sell as a complete archive of its own and as a result, as is typical of this kind of thing, the whole of it will likely be broken apart.

"The Mummy's Tomb", while an early story, is one of a kind. As it is handwritten, no other version of this story is extant in this format. The Lilly Library at Indiana University, Bloomington, holds a three page typescript (four pages if you include the cover sheet).

The poems are also unique. While other copies exist, these contain comments and revisions both by Plath and her instructor. The Lilly Library holds several typescripts of "Aquatic Nocturne" that show the progress of the poem: its final form as well as its initial one, including Plath changing the title from "aquatic nocturne" to "Aquatic Nocturne". What is unique and most attractive about this lot (or at least, this poem as it's the only one with an image) is that it shows the changes to the poem in progress. Completing, if you will, the creative process of her drafts. Additional typescript copies of these poems may be held at Smith College and Emory University, as well.

All links accessed 9 October 2015.

07 October 2015

Linda Freedman on Sylvia Plath and The New Yorker

The essay on Sylvia Plath by Linda Freedman that appears in Fiona Green’s edited collection Writing for The New Yorker: Critical Essays on an American Periodical (Edinburgh University Press, 2015), is entitled: "Sylvia Plath and 'The Blessed Glossy New Yorker'". On the surface, this is a brilliant title for an essay that considers a subject that should prove fascinating. Plath coveted just about everything about The New Yorker: the typeface, the cartoons, the quality of the writers it published,the content; even the sheen of the paper. However, Freedman's treatment of Plath and The New Yorker is wanting; the essay suffers from distinctive gaps and oversights which suggest a lack of familiarity with the subject.

The initial disillusionment comes in Freedman’s second paragraph when she states: "even though her [Plath's] work appears more frequently in other periodicals such as the Ladies' Home Journal, Mademoiselle, and Seventeen" (118). In fact, Plath published only once in Ladies' Home Journal when she placed an old sonnet "Second Winter" written on 8 March 1955 in Ladies' Home Journal's December 1958 issue. Freedman cites Jacqueline Rose, but one expects some fact checking to take place, and thus she could offer a correction to Rose's false statement and not a continuation of misreporting in this innovative volume of new essays. For the record, by December 1958, which saw Plath's second published piece in The New Yorker, Plath appeared nine times in Seventeen; three times in Mademoiselle, and once in Ladies' Home Journal. Inexplicably, Freedman goes on to spend a chunk of time on poems by Plath that were never included in The New Yorker such as "The Munich Mannequins", "Edge", and "Mary's Song". Here, again, Freedman perpetuates misinformation about Plath’s work, falling into the usual trap of stating as fact that Plath's last poem was "Edge". For the love of Plath, people, you cannot say that! The truth is two poems were written that day: "Balloons" and "Edge". Alphabetically, yes, "Edge" was the last poem Plath wrote on 5 February 1963.

Freedman goes on to discuss a dream that Plath that involved the editing of her New Yorker poems, and makes a very uninformed claim: that "she always agreed to suggested changes" (127). Nothing could be farther from the truth. One look at the correspondence between Plath and New Yorker poetry editor Howard Moss held by the New York Public Library shows that, even while discussing her first acceptance of "Mussel Hunter at Rock Harbor", Plath held her ground about suggested edits by Moss. This was a pretty assertive thing to do, given Moss’s status at the time, but it clearly shows that, in fact, Plath was not always in agreement with her editors. Yes, there were a number of times, when Plath did agree with changes suggested by editors, but there were also other occasions when her intentions for her poetry would have been lost by the edits suggested which led her to refuse to implement them.

In the last section of her essay, "Taking Up Space", Freedman also makes some poor judgments. On the big, double-page spread of Plath's leftover New Yorker poems published on 3 August 1963, Freedman writes disparagingly of the inclusion of Plath's life-span dates underneath her name, "Readers had no choice but to construe the poems within the narrative of Sylvia Plath's life and premature death" (131).She then states, "The bracketed dates of Plath's birth and death did not give any sense of when the individual poems were written" (132). In principle, I agree with this, as some poems were written was much as five years previously. But Freedman continues, "Readers would not have known that 'Mystic' was written in 1963, close to the time of Plath's suicide" (132). That's right: because the majority of the readers of the 3 August 1963 issue of The New Yorker would not have known of the manner in which Plath died. This makes absurd Freedman's next claim that "even a comparatively early poems such as 'The Elm Speaks' (April 1962) might be taken as a suicide note" (132). Most readers might have read 'Elm' (as it was originally and later titled when it was published in Ariel -- the fascinating backstory about this poem held in The New Yorker records is lamentably not a part of Freedman's essay and, in light of how short-sighted it is, perhaps this is a good thing) as a brilliant soliloquy on nervous agitation. Freedman seems intent on stating that the readers of that issue of The New Yorker knew that Plath's death by suicide was common knowledge: "The transition in this poem ["Elm"] from movement to stillness is particularly affecting, given the context of recent suicide that would govern a reading of the poem in the 1963 magazine" (132).

Page 132 is just a bad page. The last paragraph on this page is no better than those that precede it. Freedman writes, "On 11 December 1969 Olwyn sent Moss six newly discovered Plath poems". The idea that these poems were "newly discovered" was a marketing ploy on behalf of the estate. However, Freedman naively accepts this for fact, dragging Moss along for the ride: "Moss had never accepted an entire batch of poems while Plath was alive. His immediate acceptance of these six must have been at least partly because their discovery was newsworthy"(133). The six poems all appeared in the 6 March 1971 issue of The New Yorker: "The Babysitters", "Pheasant", "The Courage of Shutting Up", "Apprehensions", "For a Fatherless Son", and "By Candlelight". How newsworthy could these poems be if they were submitted in December 1969 and then held on to for 15 months? Freeman fails to mention that all six poems had been previously read and rejected outright by Moss. The record of this is clear in both the correspondence in The New Yorker records and via Plath's submissions lists held by Smith College. Plath wrote each of these poems after had signed her first-reading contract with the magazine so she was obligated to send them to Moss for consideration. Inexplicably, and contradicting herself, in writing about Olwyn Hughes's subsequent submission of "Last Words", "Lyonnesse", and "Gigolo" in April 1970, Freedman does acknowledge that Moss had previously seen "Gigolo", which was accepted by Moss and published in November of that year.

In all, this was a promising essay topic that failed to convince because of a lack of familiarity with, or knowledge of, the subject of Plath's business relationship with The New Yorker which could have been remedied by consulting the well-catalogued correspondence, manuscripts and typescripts that are now available in archives. Both Freedman and the book's editor Fiona Green might have provided a more carefully researched essay following careful and thorough examination of archival documents. Distance from archives (Freedman and Green are located in the UK, the archive is in the US) and issues of copyright and photocopying is not an excuse for the perpetuation of misconceptions or misinformation in lieu of consulting archival material. Fly or sail over. Hire a proxy researcher. Ultimately, ask a Plath scholar to write on Plath. Freedman is undoubtedly gifted and bright, but have you looked at her c.v.? Freedman outlines her thesis as "concerned with the making of Sylvia Plath in the context of The New Yorker, and with her sense of her own materiality, or immateriality, as a writer in that context" (118). But, heck, even her thesis statement leaves me scratching my head.

My thanks to Gail Crowther and Gillian Groszewski for reading and commenting on a draft of this blog post.

All links accessed 28 June 2015.

15 September 2015

A bit of a professional: Sylvia Plath

The following is a guest blog post by Katie Mikulka, Smith College '16 (American Studies & Archives). Originally published on the National Portrait Gallery's blog, facetoface, on 10 August 2015, I am very pleased to re-post the piece here and hope that by doing so there builds excitement about the forthcoming 2017-2018 exhibit.
Sylvia Plath's Royal typewriter
Photograph courtesy of Smith College / Samuel Masinter.

Perhaps one of the best known American poets of the 20th century, Sylvia Plath has captivated generation after generation of readers. But even the most dedicated of Plath fans might not know that the poet's career got an early start, at the age of only eight! On this day, August 10, in 1941, Sylvia Plath's first published poem was printed in a local Boston newspaper. She continued to publish work throughout high school, in popular magazines such as Seventeen, and while a student at Smith College.

When asked in a 1962 radio interview how she first began writing poetry, Plath had this to say:
I don't know what started me, I just wrote it from the time was quite small. I guess I liked nursery rhymes and I guess I thought I could do the same thing. I wrote my first poem, my first published poem, when I was eight-and-a-half years old. It came out in The Boston Traveller and from then on, I suppose, I've been a bit of a professional. Interview with Peter Orr, 1962
Photographs and objects from Plath's early life will be on display in an upcoming exhibition at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. One Life: Sylvia Plath will trace Plath's biography through photographs, self-portraits, manuscripts, and other objects. The exhibition will also explore how Plath constructed her identity throughout her lifetime. In her journals, Plath considers her place in literary history, ranking herself alongside other famous female poets and describes her belief that she might one day become "The Poetess of America." When asked by the interviewer, Peter Orr, what exactly a young poet writes about, Plath had this to say:
Nature, I think: birds, bees, spring, fall, all those subjects which are absolute gifts to the person who doesn't have any interior experience to write about. I think the coming of spring, the stars overhead, the first snowfall and so on are gifts for a child, a young poet. Interview with Peter Orr, 1962
As Plath grew up, both as a person and a poet, she turned to her own life as inspiration and subject matter for her poetry, the "interior experience" that she describes. As the interview concludes, Plath's describes the pleasure to be found in writing poetry:
Oh, satisfaction! I don't think I could live without it. It's like water or bread, or something absolutely essential to me. I find myself absolutely fulfilled when I have written a poem, when I'm writing one. Interview with Peter Orr, 1962
It seems that for Plath, living life and writing life were almost one in the same.

All quotations are taken from a 1962 interview with Peter Orr.
All links accessed 18 August & 10 September 2015.

You can read more on the exhibit in Dorothy Moss's 29 April 2015 blog post "Sylvia Plath: 'What I fear most, I think, is the death of the imagination.'" and in "A New 'Portrait of Plath': Alumna's Typewriter Among Items in Smithsonian Exhibit" from Smith College's Grecourt Gate from 26 August 2015.

01 September 2015

Sylvia Plath's copy of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead

Earlier this summer I had the opportunity to work with Sylvia Plath's copy of Ayn Rand's novel The Fountainhead which is held privately.

Sylvia Plath's library is largely divided between three major collections: Emory University, Indiana University, and Smith College. For several years now I have maintained a reconstruction of Plath's library (if you will) via LibraryThing as a part of their Legacy Library project. This list includes books not only owned by Plath at the time of her death, but also books Plath mentioned in her letters and journals, as well as those that appear in papers she wrote and other archival documents. There is still work to be done in the project so check her catalog periodically.

The three main collections can be looked at the following way: those at Indiana University were books that Plath left behind when she moved permanently to England in December 1959; those at Smith College were books Plath had with her in England at the time of her death that Ted Hughes selected; and those at Emory were those books Ted Hughes retained after Plath's death and held back from the sale of Plath's later papers to Smith College.

Front cover, spine, and rear cover of Sylvia Plath's
copy of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead
Sylvia Plath's copy of The Fountainhead was one such book left behind in Wellesley in December 1959. It is the triple volume Signet / New American Library edition (T934) first published in 1952; a fat paperback copy with a gaudy cover, and a cover price of 75¢.

Well read and worn, the book is in three parts now, with two large chunks (pages 1-210 and 211-478) completely unglued from the spine. The third portion (pages 479-720) is still attached but precariously so. I came armed with laptop, camera, book foams for support, and book weights to prevent the pages from popping up. Of the books' 720 pages (including front and back matter), there are handwritten annotations in the form of underlines, marginal lines (including brackets), stars, and some textual commentary on 202 pages. This means that approximately 28% of the book is marked. In addition to the pen annotations, Plath turned down many page corners. Plath's name and date appear on the front free endpaper (which is also page 1 of the book). Though acquired in 1954 according to her ownership signature, Plath's 1955 calendar, held by the Lilly Library, notes that she read The Fountainhead on Monday-Tuesday, 13-14 June 1955. It is unclear if Plath read it in the year the book was acquired. That she read the book in two days makes her rather more amazing than I believed previously. After Plath's death, Aurelia Plath gave this book to the person who has owned it since that time. It was a privilege and an honor to work with this book and to be able to blog about it for you. Perhaps the most fun was copying Plath's annotations into my own copy of The Fountainhead. I was able to find the exact edition Plath had on abebooks.com.

Below is a table of page numbers and the kinds of annotations that appear on each page respectively.

Page
 Annotation type (underline, star, marginal line, text)
1
(ffep), text: Sylvia Plath, 1954
16
underline, marginal lines
18
underline
21
marginal line
38
marginal line
39
underline
43
underline
47
underline
54
underline
57
marginal line
58
underline
59
marginal line
67
marginal line
72
marginal line
73
Text: NO ; NO; marginal line
89
underline
98
marginal line
99
marginal line
100
marginal line
106
underline
130
star; marginal line; underline; corner turned down
131
underline
132
underline
133
underline
134
marginal line; underline
141
marginal line; underline
142
marginal line
149
marginal line
159
underline
163
marginal line; underline
167
marginal line
172
marginal line
180
underline
194
underline
202
marginal line; corner turned down
206
marginal line; underline
208
underline
227
marginal line
231
underline
232
marginal line
235
marginal line
236
marginal line; underline
239
underline
241
underline
245
underline
246
marginal line
251
marginal line
255
underline
263
marginal line
265
underline
266
marginal line
268
underline
272
marginal line; corner turned down
276
marginal line
281
marginal line; underline
285
marginal line; underline
302
marginal line
303
underline
305
marginal line; underline
306
star; marginal line
307
marginal line; underline
311
marginal line; underline
313
underline
318
underline
322
marginal line
326
marginal line
335
marginal line
354
underline
359
underline
362
marginal line
363
marginal line
364
marginal line; underline
370
marginal line
371
underline
372
marginal line; underline
383
underline
384
star; underline; corner turned down
398
marginal line
399
marginal line
421
underline
423
marginal line; underline
424
marginal line
432
marginal line
435
marginal line; underline
436
underline
437
underline
441
underline
447
marginal line
453
marginal line
454
underline
455
underline
456
marginal line
457
marginal line
459
underline
463
marginal line; underline
466
underline
468
underline
473
underline
477
underline
480
marginal line; underline
481
underline
482
marginal line
484
marginal line
485
underline
487
marginal line; underline
488
marginal line; underline
491
marginal line
492
marginal line
498
marginal line
499
marginal line
500
underline
503
marginal line; underline
504
underline
505
marginal line
506
underline
508
underline
509
underline
510
underline
511
marginal line; underline; corner turned down
514
marginal line; underline
517
marginal line
518
marginal line; underline
525
underline
529
marginal line
530
marginal line; underline
532
star; underline
533
underline
534
marginal line
541
underline
543
underline
550
marginal line
553
star; marginal line; underline; corner turned down
554
marginal line
564
star; marginal line; underline
565
star; underline; corner turned down
566
marginal line; underline
568
marginal line
570
TEXT: NO! ; marginal line; underline
573
marginal line; underline
578
marginal line
583
marginal line; underline
584
marginal line
585
TEXT: God! ; marginal line; underline
588
marginal line
589
underline
590
marginal line
593
marginal line
594
star; marginal line; underline; corner turned down
595
marginal line; underline
596
underline
597
underline
598
star; marginal line; underline
599
marginal line; underline
604
underline
609
underline
612
underline
615
marginal line
616
star; underline
617
marginal line
618
marginal line
620
marginal line; underline
621
star; marginal line; underline
622
marginal line; underline
623
star; arrow; marginal line; underline; corner turned down
624
TEXT: Yes ; marginal line; underline
625
star; marginal line; underline; corner turned down
629
marginal line
640
marginal line; underline
641
marginal line; underline
642
underline
650
marginal line
651
marginal line; underline
652
marginal line
653
marginal line; underline
654
TEXT: Hideous prophecy of collectivism; marginal line; underline
655
star; underline
656
marginal line; underline
657
star; underline; corner turned down
658
underline
659
underline
661
star; underline; corner turned down
676
underline
678
marginal line
680
underline
686
marginal line; underline
694
underline
696
marginal line
698
marginal line; underline
699
underline
700
star; underline; corner turned down
701
marginal line; underline
702
star; marginal line; underline
703
star; marginal line; underline
704
marginal line; underline
705
underline
706
marginal line
711
underline
716
check
717
check
718
check
719
TEXT: Saw film ; check
720
check; arrow


 
If you made it through all that, your reward is more images!
Sylvia Plath's ownership signature
Sample pages (700-701)  with annotations
The Fountainhead and its box

The current state of the book

Glue.
Postscript: Plath absorbed something from everything she read. After reading the novel myself in August (same edition, with annotations copied from Plath's into mine), I think it is possible to argue that her encounter and interaction with The Fountainhead manifest itself in her recollection of her famous meeting with Ted Hughes. There are two particular scenes in the novel that come to mind and both involve Howard Roark and Dominique Francon. The language in the novel, at least, I think informed Plath's word choice in her journals when she wrote:
His poem "I did it, I." Such violence, and I can see how women lie down for artists. The one man in the room who was as big as his poems, huge, with hulk and dynamic chunks of words; his poems are strong and blasting like a high wind in steel girders.
Much has been said on comparing Hughes to Emily Brontë's Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights. There is a different kind of purity and romanticism in Roark than there is in Heathcliff. But I wonder how much of Howard Roark might have been read into Hughes' actions and attitudes?
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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.

Interviews