01 May 2013

Parting Ways with Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath's friend Elinor Klein described Plath's hair in her article "A Friend Recalls Sylvia Plath" published in Glamour (November 1966: 168, 182-184) as follows:
Her yellow hair, which had been lightened several shades from its natural light brown, was shoulder length and had been carefully trained to dip with a precise and provocative flourish over her left eyebrow. Her eyes were very dark, deeply set under heavy lids that give them a brooding quality in many of her photographs. Her cheekbones were high and pronounced, their prominence exaggerated by the faint, irregular brown scar that was the only physical reminder of the suicide attempt.
It might be safe to say that everyone going to the Lilly Library at Indiana University wants to see and to touch the cutting's they have of Plath's hair. As such we pay attention to Plath's hair both in images of her as well as in its appearances in her creative writing. At least I do...do you? Some famous appearances are: "A rose of jeopardy flames in my hair" from "Circus in Three Rings"; "The wind gagging my mouth with my own blown hair" from "The Rabbit Catcher"; "Warm rain greases my hair, extinguishes nothing" from "Burning the Letters"; and "And dried plates with my own dense hair" from "Stings", to name only a few.

However, it is not the use of Plath's hair as prop-imagery in her poetry that this post concerns itself. No, it is the photographic images of Plath and her hair. In the Journals of Sylvia Plath (Faber) (The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (Anchor)), image 16 "SP in front of the President's House, Smith College, 1954" was accidentally reversed when it was published. Below is the image as it appears in the book.

Note the part in her hair-part in the image above is on the left side of her head with her hair descending down over the right side of her face. However, per Klein (and many images of Plath), Plath parted her hair on the right so that it swooped over the left side of her face (and could cover her left eye and the scar she got from her first suicide attempt, for which I am told there is a charge to see). Also, the angle of the President's House is all wrong in the above image and believe me, I have traipsed all over this part of Smith's campus trying to find the angle: it doesn't exist. The original image is held in the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith Collection. Below is a composite image with the incorrect image on the left and the correct one on the right.

Try covering up the one on the left. Do you agree, maybe, that Plath looks more "normal" or more like herself in the image on the right? From "Three Women": "The mirror gives back a woman without deformity."

Noticing this, I started looking at other images of Sylvia Plath, to see how many others might have been accidentally printed in reverse. You might be surprised...I certainly was. Unfortunately, many of the images printed in association with Andrew Wilson's brilliant Mad Girl's Love Song were accidentally flipped in the images that accompanied pre-publication articles and excerpts. This is no fault of Wilson's, obviously. It is most evident looking at the covers of Wilson's book and Carl Rollyson's American Isis: The Art and Life of Sylvia Plath. In Carl's book the part is clearly on the right side of Plath's head; and in Wilson's on the left.

Here are some of images below, composited together. In each case, the incorrect image is on the left and the correct one on the right.

How does this affect (or not affect) our vision or image of Sylvia Plath? As in, the way that we view her? Does it? I do think it changes the way Plath looks; there is something unsettling or discomforting about those printed in reverse. Of course this is how Plath would have see herself in a mirror. We know that mirror images were important to Plath and her poetics. She told us: "Mirrors can kill and talk, they are terrible rooms". Even in working on this post, I feel there to be "A disturbance in mirrors" which leaves me only to say: "Destroy your mirror and avoid mishaps." Now: "The mirrors are sheeted."


Right Mind Matters said...

Peter, this post is extremely interesting to me as gauging a poet's brain lateralization by their images and proclivities is what I do. I didn't realize there were so many instances of flipped photos in Plath's case, which now explains the inconsistent parting. Great photo sleuthing! I've seen flipped pictures of Charles Dickens and others too, especially from the 19th century, making it difficult to tell if they were left or right-handed.

Still, the very fact that she parts on the right, and always did, even before the scar from the suicide attempt, points to a measure of atypical lateralization.

The mirror image is tricky. When you look in a mirror, what you see is a direct reflection of yourself, versus holding up a piece of writing to the mirror where it will be flipped or mirror writing which can only be read by turning it around in front of a mirror, as in Leonardo da Vinci's case. So, when Plath looked in a mirror her part would still be on the right. I know because I'm left-handed and part my hair on the right and have tested this.

Your own image looks flipped to you in a mirror because you're used to the perspective seen by the photographer standing in front of you for a picture.

On the other hand, when I take a profile picture of myself using my computer, I appear right-handed, because the camera is opposite to me. The whole business if maddening, believe me.

I totally agree that mirrors are dangerous and often reflect things you don't want to see or actually distort them into something worse than they are.

Peter K Steinberg said...

Thank you Carole, for your comment. You're spot on about the mirror: just went and checked it myself. Then I tried taking a photo of myself using my phones camera thing and it's freaky weird.


suki said...

Hi Peter I have just been talking to someone who taught a German student, in Sydney, in the late fifties. When he met her she had long hair, the next week she had short hair.
Apparantly it was a rite of passage for German girls, to cut their hair at the age of 16, to indicate the end of their childhood....

Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

A fascinating post, Peter.

Jessica McCort said...

Hmmm.... I had never thought about this before. But I can see your point. I'm back to Plath, btw, after a little hiatus (OK, maybe a 2- to 3-year hiatus wokring on/finishing another project). Hope you are well! J

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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.
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil (eds.). The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 2, 1956-1963. London: Faber, 2018.
  • 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.