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Review: The Boundaries of the Literary Archive: Reclamation and Representation

The Boundaries of the Literary Archive: Reclamation and Representation edited by Carrie Smith and Lisa Stead (Ashgate, September 2013) is an important book. I approach it as an archivist, as an archivist who works primarily on digital projects; as someone interested in archives in general, and as someone particularly keen on the literary and personal archive Sylvia Plath: it is feels as though the book was written just for me. While no essay in the book deals directly and fully with the Plath archive which is a frequent focus of this blog, there are general subjects and applications of theory within the book that do have direct baring on it.

Each of the essays in Smith and Stead's book has an immediate relevance to the important issues of our time; as I read each piece I was able to relate to nuggets as they apply to both my work and my interest in Plath's literary archive. These essays tell the stories, both practical and theoretical, of the varied experiences of scholars, archivists, and teachers. Stead writes in her "Introduction":
The Boundaries of the Literary Archive addresses the archive as both source and subject. In doing so, the collection poses a number of key questions for archival study and investigation in a digital age. What does the archive offer current literary scholarship? How can it complicate and enrich our engagement with both canonical and lesser-known texts and writers? How can it help us to push the boundaries of existing methodological approaches to textual study? (2)
Each of these questions are answered and done so in a way that is current, clear, and refreshing. There is something in each of these essays that truly expands one's appreciation of the archive, of what composes the modern, the future, and the historical archive; the creative process; and the way in which we as humans conduct our daily affairs, from the mundane to the sublime. What I would have liked to have seen was more on archival collaboration between scholars: its benefits and even its possible pitfalls. This is something you might expect is important to me as, for example, for last five years I have co-authored a series of papers on the Plath archives (links to read them here). Often research is a solitary action; however, as I have found through collaborating with Gail Crowther (and others) that a certain enrichment takes place when two (or more) people contribute to the mission of expanding and explaining and understanding a writer. Especially authors like Plath or Ted Hughes or Elizabeth Jennings, among others, whose archives are split up, with thousands of miles and several time zones between them.

The archive is a hot topic. It is at a crossroads. Traditional houses of archives are being challenged by at-your-fingertips accessibility to documents and digital surrogates, and the result, according to Stead, is "less access to the human quality of the archive" (7). No amount of pixels or screen colors and resolution can replace the real thing. Karen Kukil's essay particularly addresses the issue of losing this personal, hands-on aspect of the archive in her discussion of the importance of examining paper for the information it has the potential to yield. The belief that if a particular search query is not returned in a Google search that it does not exist is dangerously common and expanding like a virus. However, as yet, the future of the archive and how it will work digitally is still something of a question mark: it poses its own set of questions and difficulties, and can be just as indeterminate the working with paper and other relics of the past.

Sylvia Plath and her archive is mentioned throughout the book in the Introduction, as well as in essays by Wim Van Mierlo, Jennifer Douglas, Jane Dowson, Karen Kukil, and Helen Taylor. Writing on Plath and the archive has been en vogue for a number of years, starting really with Jacqueline Rose in The Haunting of Sylvia Plath and continuing with important contributions by Tracy Brain (The Other Sylvia Plath, 2001) and Anita Helle (The Unraveling Archive, 2007). I was particularly interested in these invocations and found that each author's use of Plath added to my understanding and appreciation of her archive(s). I liked, too, that the editors submitted their own pieces to the book. I was captivated by the focus on how the "everyday" is captured by the archive in Lisa Stead's essay "Letter writing, cinemagoing and archive ephemera" and found Carrie Smith's essay on "Illustration and ekphrasis: the working drafts of Ted Hughes's Cave Birds" particularly illuminating. Smith expertly breaks down the creative process of collaboration between poet and artist, making me feel as though I were a witness to the work. Each essay is vital and the entire book, which has no weak spots, should be required reading in archive, history and library science courses. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

In addition to a wonderfully written, tone-setting introduction by Lisa Stead, the books contents include:

Part I: Theorizing the Archive:
The archaeology of the manuscript: towards modern palaeography, Wim Van Mierlo;
Allusion and exogenesis: the labouring heart of Samuel Beckett's Ill Seen Ill Said, Iain Bailey;
Original order, added value? Archival theory and the Douglas Coupland fonds, Jennifer Douglas

Part II: Reclamation and Representation:
Untrustworthy reproductions and doctored archives: undoing the sins of a Victorian biographer, Isabelle Cosgrave;
The double life of 'the ghost in the garden room': Charles Dickens edits Elizabeth Gaskell, Fran Baker;
Lost property: John Galsworthy and the search for 'that stuffed shirt', Simon Barker;
Poetry and personality: the private papers and public image of Elizabeth Jennings, Jane Dowson

Part III: Boundaries:
Illustration and ekphrasis: the working drafts of Ted Hughes's Cave Birds, Carrie Smith;
Letter writing, cinemagoing and archive ephemera, Lisa Stead

Part IV: Working in the Archive:
To reveal or conceal: privacy and confidentiality in the papers of contemporary authors, Sara S. Hodson;
Teaching the material archive at Smith College, Karen V. Kukil;
'What will survive of us are manuscripts': archives, scholarship and human stories, Helen Taylor

The book includes black and white illustrations in each chapter which greatly enhance the topics discussed. Other important information about the monograph include: 228 pages; Hardback (also ePUB and ebook PDF); ISBN: 978-1-4094-4322-3. List price: £55.00 (roughly $89 or €65) (and worth every pence, penny or cent).

All links accessed 25 October 2013.

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