02 August 2007

Collecting Sylvia Plath

Plath's readers are fanatical; and only a chosen few go beyond the normal call and seek out first, limited, or rare editions of Plath's works.

The first step to take should one chose this pursuit, is to obtain a bibliography of Plath's works. Fortunately, many academic libraries have copies of Stephen Tabor's 1985 publication Sylvia Plath: An Analytical Bibliography. If you do not have access to an academic library, inter-library loan (ILL) is always an option.

Since around 1998, prices of Plath's books have steadily risen. The sharper rises in costs coincide with publications and other events such as Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes and Hughes's death in 1998, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath in 2000, and the biopic Sylvia in 2003. Another reason for the rise in costs is based on the world economy; the dollar is much weaker than the pound, making books available for sale in England much costlier. But, do not be dissuaded!

The next step to take is to create a list based on the bibliography of books you would most like to own. Then, rank them in order of preferred ownership.

There are several booksellers out there that have sizable Plath collections for sale. Books include fine first, rare and limited editions as well as books with significant provenance (previous ownership/association). Two booksellers that come to mind immediately are Waiting for Godot Books in South Hadley, Massachusetts, and Maggs Brothers, in London, England. Maggs's web site is http://www.maggs.com/. Both Waiting for Godot Books and Maggs have searchable inventories online via http://www.abebooks.com/. There are bound to be other booksellers with a number of Plath titles for sale.

As you compile your list, pay attention to how booksellers describe the books they sell. The language is one to study and to learn; it will inform your decisions. John Carter and Nicholas Barker's ABC for Book Collectors will explain the terms that you will see over and over again. The most current edition is the 8th, published in 2004.

Many books are bought and sold over the internet these days. This is tough because you cannot actually see and feel the whole book. Thankfully, many booksellers scan the covers of their books, allowing at least some view of the item you are purchasing. The better booksellers offer long, honest descriptions of their stock. These are the sellers from which to buy your books. Booksellers will also offer a full refund if for some reason you are dissatisfied with the item and find it not as described.

A complete list of Plath books appears on my website for Plath "A celebration, this is". Books authored by Plath are generally easier to find as they had larger print runs than those designated as limited editions. But, the limited edition books are gorgeous, lovely and…limited. These books are held by academic and other libraries in relatively large quantities; private ownership is common but less so and the nature of the private collector lends itself to hiding copies.

There are some Plath books that are rarer than others. Anything with Plath's signature will likely mean taking out a loan or winning the lottery. For example, if you have $50,000.00, you can purchase Theodore Roethke's copy of The Colossus (Heinemann edition), dedicated and signed by Plath. Similarly, there are currently two autograph manuscript poems by Plath for sale from Jett W. Whitehead in Michigan ("The Snowflake Star", for $17,500.00) and Peter Harrington of London ("The King of Ice" for $15,690.01).

Plath's first two published books, The Colossus and The Bell Jar (Victoria Lucas edition), published by Heinemann in 1960 and 1963, respectively, are the most expensive regularly published Plath titles. For a copy in good condition, you can expect to pay at least $2000, likely much, much more.

For the more modest of us, a decent collection is possible, and without going into too much debt! One can purchase decent condition first editions of Plath's best known works, Ariel and The Bell Jar (Harper & Row, 1971 edition), for around $500 combined, possibly less. Crossing the Water, Winter Trees, Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, Letters Home, and The Journals of Sylvia Plath (both abridged and unabridged) are all very affordable and very available. Either way you cut it, the first edition Colossus, either the British or American first edition, will likely set you back some.

And, on that note, when collecting books authored by Plath, there are two major editions for each title. With some exceptions, the British editions preceed the American editions, making them the "true first" edition. Collecting both can be rewarding, if only for the different covers each book receives by the publishers. Books like The Colossus, Ariel, Crossing the Water, and Winter Trees have different contents depending on whether they were published in the United Kingdom or in the United States of America.

When starting a collection it is important to remember to be patient and to do some research prior to sending out those credit card numbers. There are resources out there you can turn to, so please use them. Lastly, do not be afraid to contact dealers directly if you have questions. The best booksellers are very helpful, and not just because they want a sale. Good luck and happy shopping.


Melanie Smith said...

You have been such a help... and such a bad influence.

Thank you!

Peter K Steinberg said...

Thanks Melanie. I'd say anytime but am afraid of the consequences for you! & me!


Melanie Smith said...

We are hopeless Plath-a-holics aren't we!

At least the support group is 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.
  • 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.