24 March 2015

Four Days at the Lilly Library with Sylvia Plath Archives

The Lilly Library
From 16-19 March, I was at the Lilly Library, Indiana University at Bloomington, working with the Sylvia Plath archives there doing reference leg work and inquiry for the Letters of Sylvia Plath project. In the past, I have made nightly updates on the materials with which I worked, but I found this too time consuming for the kind of work I was doing this time around. In the process of being there, I was able to look through the majority of all the boxes and folders in Plath mss II; as well as dabbling a little in other, smaller collections  such as the Lameyer mss; Plath mss IV; Plath mss VI; and one book from her library, Christopher Fry's 1950 play The Lady's Not for Burning.

The trip was very successful and rewarding, and the staff, from the Curator of Manuscripts Cherry Williams to Reference Librarian David K. Frasier and Public Services Assistant Zach Downey, and all the additional library staff who paged materials, brought them to me, took them away, and let me stay until the exact closing time, did everything they could do to make me feel welcome. This was IU's Spring Break, and so the campus was quiet and the library open one hour less each day. I missed those hours, but was happy to trade that loss for the benefit of a ghost-town like feel to the campus.
Cambridge & the Charles River

Leaving snowy Boston was bittersweet, but I was greeted by unusual things such above freezing temperatures, grass and sidewalks.

Research commenced at 9 am sharp on Monday and I worked with the correspondence first, looking at the originals of letters I had copies of to see if any unclear bits were discernible. Then I worked with Plath's earliest diaries from 1944 and 1945 as well as the small envelopes of loose materials removed from the diaries.  From there, I worked with Plath's "Publications Scrapbook" in Box 15. It is truly an honor to work with these materials and to see and hold diaries, documents, photographs, menus, matchbooks, ticket stubs, theater programs, etc. that Plath used to own. The Publication scrapbooks hold letters of acceptance for her work, telegrams, and other memorabilia of her life as a professional writer. It shows the concentrated focus that he had for this profession from a very early age.

Moving along to Boxes 11 and 12 which hold "Smith College Memorabilia", I found some fascinating materials. Again, all of which was proving useful to be able to write good contextual reference notes and annotations to Plath's letters. I am gaining a far greater understanding and education on Plath's early life. This is vital, I think, as so much attention is given to her post 1956 doings when she was a professional teacher, writer, wife, and mother. In the process of this day, I made an exciting discovery. But then it was closing time.

Still life at 5:47 a.m.with bananas, pears, 
laptop, photocopies, and coffee
On Tuesday I picked up where I left off in Boxes 11 and 12 and right off the bat found a letter I previously did not have listed in my files. This was an excellent way to start the day, which ended having found several more letters in a variety of places! This makes for more work, but it is work happily done. After I wrapped up with these boxes, I moved to two of my favorite Plath documents out there: her high school and Smith College Scrapbooks, housed respectively in Oversize 3 and Oversize 8, and spent the bulk of the day playing with these.

The scrapbooks are glorious documents of Plath's life, colored with creative and fun captions, illustrated with the stuff of her life. Some of those things mentioned above like programs, menus, matchbook cases, photographs galore and other wonderful things. Having no idea how many times I have visited the Lilly, I do know that each visit I look at these scrapbooks and I gain more and more information with each time. This is something the archive does. Your own knowledge and perspective shifts and expands, so re-visiting a collection or a document can yield wonderful insight. On a project like the letters, which I have read through three times completely so far, documents like the scrapbook practically scream with newly relevant information.

Continuing with the oversize materials, I looked at the Clippings in Oversize 10 and ended the day in Box 13, which holds materials relating to Cambridge University and Plath's teaching year at Smith College. Also on this day, a former Smith College student and current student at IU's Library school, Amanda Ferrara, found me and so it was wonderful to see her and to chat. You will remember Amanda from her excellently curated The Bell Jar exhibit that was on at both Roger Williams University and Smith College in 2013.

On Wednesday I worked with Boxes 7a and 8 which hold Plath's poems and prose among other materials which include an early scrapbook of poems, the typescript for "Circus in Three Rings", a manuscript she put together in her last semester at Smith College; the typescript of The Colossus she submitted to the Yale Series of Younger Poets, In looking at this and in particular at the very massive list of Acknowledgements, a thought occurred to me that perhaps Plath did not win because she was too accomplished a younger poet. Also looked at Oversize 1 ("Awards"), 2 (The Bradford), 10 (those clippings again), and Oversize 11 ("Clippings Miscellaneous"). In 10 I particularly enjoyed seeing clippings that Plath sent, signed with  a note, to Olive Higgins Prouty, as well as that famous one of "Sylvia Plath Tours the Stores and Forecasts May Fashions Week" where she typed on a clipping of her in swimsuit "with love, from Betty Grable".

Thursday was wide open as I had largely worked through everything I had wanted to by the end of the day on Wednesday. So, I started the day looking at Plath's other early diaries from summer camp 1945 through 1949 (with an entry or two from 1951). I looked more through boxes 8 (Poems and Fiction Prose), 9 (Non-fiction prose & Letters Home), and 10 (High school memorabilia) as follow-ups to things I worked with the other days and based on things I had researched on in my hotel in the evenings and in the mornings, too, before the library opened. Looked also at Plath mss VI a small collection of materials related to Sylvia Plath, which had to my surprise some fascinating information. About 90 minutes was dedicated solely to examining intimately (what?) a 1962 letter by Plath to her mother with lights and magnifying glasses; standing up, sitting down, on my knees, trying to read some redacted text. This was the day that I was cramming information in right up until quarter to five when the staff (respectfully) boots you out.

By far this was the most intense four day research trip I have ever undertaken. Not that it will do me any good now, but I even learned the combination to Plath's high school locker! Too stimulated to fall asleep, mind racing too fasts to stay asleep, and abandoning sleep altogether I was up generally by 4:30 am going through everything from the day before and mapping out a plan of attack for the day ahead. Does this happen to others?  In all, I found eight or nine new letters and one or two other simply fascinating discoveries which I will write about later. When not in the library, I was enjoying to quiet of downtown Bloomington. Though, it being spring break it never occurred to me that places would be shut down, so finding food was made a little more challenging. I found excellent beer and vegetarian/vegan food at the Owlery (and conversation there Thursday for dinner with the aforementioned Amanda). As well, delicious ice cream for dessert most nights at Hartzell's on Dunn Street.

The Lilly Library, at this present moment, as 9 Plath mss collections. You can see them all listed nicely here in a general run of alphabetical P collections. I have noticed recently some new information in them, so make sure that you check back regularly for added value information, or even new collections. If that list is too long, I recommend (and prefer) this view.

All links accessed 22 March 2015.


Rehan Qayoom said...

How wonderful to read this, I believe it is a phase or (to use a Sufi term) a state us writers go through. I worked 16 hours non-stop before the final draft of one of my longer poems I knew I had to complete that day as it was being unveiled to me. The trick is to keep the Muse there once you've got her and to make it last before she flits away capriciously.

I am in the process of transferring my old Myspace blogs to blogger as several people have asked me about them, I was surprised to find that lots of them are Plath-related. I'll send you the relevant links once they are all up.

A Piece of Plathery said...

Wow Peter, sounds like a fabulous experience, you are always uncovering little gems. Thank you for sharing this.

Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

I too loved reading Plath's early diaries, which I think are largely and unfortunately ignored. There is a goldmine of information there as to who she was as even a young girl, and details on her family. I spent the Thanksgiving and winter vacations there at the Lilly, and it IS a ghost-town. The worst thing about it is that Starbucks is closed in the Union Memorial. But that meditative quiet is wonderful, and much of what you've said here feels true for me too. I plan another trip up in early April.

boston12855 said...

My locker for three years at Wellesley High was right outside Mr. Crockett's classroom. How cool it would be if Sylvia and I had the same locker! As always, Peter, thanks for such an interesting and inspiring post.

BridgetAnna said...

Ok, I know EXACTLY what 1962 letter you are referring to when you talk about trying to read the redacted (blacked-out with marker) written letter. I have tried and tried too to decipher it. Grrr! Also, all of those matchbook!! I will forever remedy stumbling across her hitherto unknown collection of matchbooks. Who would have guessed?
Sounds like you had a fantastic time, PKS. Yay!

Peter K Steinberg said...

Thanks everybody for your comments! It was a wonderful four days and I am still trying to wrap my head around all the information.


A Tiny Point said...

Dear Peter,

For sure the time and energy you are devoting to your love for Plath and your kindness to share the related information with us (especially with the ones like me who may never have the chance to visit neither Smith nor Indiana archives)is appreciable.

though it feels a little awkward to eat the fruit of your efforts since we (I) don't have the chance to attend your mentioned places in person, your little pieces of information can be truly illuminating for us (me)who are miles away from the Plath center yet trying hard to keep updated on her for their won researches.

Well, thanks dearly.
Be good.


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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.