02 December 2014

The Sylvia Plath Time Machine: Sotheby's 6 April 1982 & 2 December 2014

The 2 December 2014 auction of Sylvia Plath manuscripts, typescripts, lecture notes, artwork, a letter and photographs, among other items, is a massive treasure of her "early" works. The auction was held today in New York City as Lot 121 of the Fine Books & Manuscripts, including Americana Sale N09237. The lot came in at an estimate of $150,000-$250,000 and was one of the highest estimates to its point in the auction. While there were bids, starting at $90,000 and ending at $120,000, the lot unfortunately failed to sell, likely not meeting a reserve.

Who wants to take a trip on the Sylvia Plath Time Machine?

A provenance note on the auction catalog indicates the material originally sold, also by Sotheby's, at auction on 6 April 1982. The auction took place around the time of some major Sylvia Plath publications: The Collected Poems came out on 25 November 1981; The Journals of Sylvia Plath (abridged) came out on 31 March 1982; and the announcement of the Pulitzer Prize going to Plath was made a week after the auction on 13 April 1982. Curious about reading the original cataloging descriptions, I was able to obtain a scan of the auction catalog from the great Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I was glad I was sitting down when I read the details on the lots for if I wasn't, I might have fainted.

The Plath papers were spread out into nineteen lots were 96, 98, 99, 100, 101, 102, 103, 104, 105, 106, 107, 108, 109, 110, 111, 112, 113, 114, and 115. There was seemingly no lot 97.

The items currently up for auction were listed specifically in eight of those nineteen lots 98, 99, 102, 103, 104, 106, 113, and 115. Where are the other eleven lots??

Two of the eleven lots are now in libraries:

That leaves nine.

One of these lots I think has been dispersed into three separate publications:
  • Lot 111 Autograph manuscripts of three apparently unpublished poems as follows: "Something there was about the time", 26 lines, 1 page 8vo, in pencil [star] "The sweet sickish female odor", 37 lines, 1 1/2 pages 8vo, in ink, the last 6 lines in pencil, possibly incomplete, 4 lines of another poem deleted at head of the page [star] "A time of clear white understanding", 34 lines, 1 1/2 pages, 8vo, in ink."

    APPARENTLY UNPUBLISHED. Not in The Collected Poems. Each poem is written on a sheet torn from a different spiral notebook. The handwriting indicates that they are not contemporary though it may be conjectured that they all date from the period of Sylvia Plath's education at Smith (1950-1955)"
These poems were published as Trois Poèmes Inedits by JJ DuFour in Paris. There is no publication date on the book which was published in a limited edition of 100. There were 97 normal copies and three 'especial" ones. The bookseller  James Cummins seems to have command of the whole run of copies and has assigned the publication date of circa 1975. Though given the above description from the 1982 Sotheby's auction, I question the supplied publication date unless there were multiple copies of the manuscript poems? Which seems unlikely as there are few, if any, manuscript or even typescript drafts of Plath's early poems. (There is differential between typescript drafts and typescripts - by typescript drafts I mean a typescript poem with changes in Plath's hand.) If there were drafts of these early poems, Plath did not tend, at this time, to keep them.

Smith College holds one of these special copies of Trois Poèmes Inedits, which includes the original manuscript of the poem "A time of clear white understanding". I wrote about these poems on this blog on 19 November 2012. But, as happens time and time again, with the passage of months and years more information can be learned. Smith College's copy is numbered "3" and was acquired in July 1996. The other known copy, via WorldCat, is held by University of North Carolina. They obtained their copy on November 20, 1998. As stated above, there is no publication date in the book. Also, it does not appear in Stephen Tabor's excellent Sylvia Plath: An Annotated Bibliography. So perhaps it is a case that the book was published after the 1982 Sotheby's auction? It seems remarkable to me that a book could be published in or around 1975 and go completely unnoticed in the book trade for 20 years before Smith College acquired their copy, and another couple of years before rare book dealer Rick Gekoski found a second copy in 1998 (see article mentioned in link above), and when UNC obtained theirs. Seems unusual. Especially in the height of limited edition publications of Plath's work which was in its heyday in the 1970s.

This feels like an Agatha Christie mystery, and then there were eight.

The location of items in these eight lots remains unknown and are presumably held in private collections. These are:
  • Lot 101 "Autograph draft of a letter written on behalf of members of Class English 31, Gamaliel Bradford Senior High School, Wellesley, Massachusetts, 1 ½ pages 4to, {15 March 1949}, in pencil, to Irwin Edman, Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University [star] Together with a typed copy of the final letter

    "A letter sent by member of Sylvia Plath's English class, but drafter by her (with many deletions and corrections) in which they 'challenge a few of your statements' in his article 'A Reasonable Life in a Mad World' published in Atlantic Monthly, March 1949 "

The final, signed copy of this letter is held in the Irwin Edman papers at Columbia, but the whereabouts of this lot are unknown.
  • Lot 105 "Autograph letter signed ("Your happy girl Sylvia"), 2 pages 8vo, Smith College, {winter 1951 or 1952} to Aurelia Plath

    "A rapturous account of 'the nicest weekend I ever had' skiing in the New Hampshire hills: 'we went out into the most beautiful world imagineable! {sic} snow had fallen in a fine powder last night, and the sun was out in a snow-blue sky. A white-new-england church is so lovely - and it was one of those heavenly dry-cold days, with blinding sun and snow and sharp blue shadows . . .'"

    "Not in Letters Home"
This item, from February 1951 when Plath and Marcia Brown went the Francestown, New Hampshire, sold again at auction via Christie's on 12 November 1997 in Sale 8055, Lot 52. The price for the letter was a reasonable $1,840 and its location is not currently known.
  • Lot 107 "Autograph postcard signed ("sivvy"), 22 lines, {McLean Hospital, Belmont, Mass.}, "Thursday", postmarked 18 December 1953, to Aurelia Plath

    "Written when Sylvia Plath was in hospital recovering from her first breakdown and suicide attempt, at the end of her Junior year at Smith, she writes that she will be able to come over for tea on Saturday and come home for two days at Christmas. ' . . . I am doing occasional work over at the library - and am having my 6th treatment tomorrow I hope I won't have many more ...'"

    "Not in Letters Home"
  • Lot 108 "Typed letter signed ("sivvy"), 4 pages bvo, Wellesley, 9 August {1955}, to Aurelia Plath, with envelope

    "A detailed account of her social life including a metting with Padraic and Mary Colum, referring to the publication of her poem 'Two Lovers and a Beachcomber by the Real Sea' in Mademoiselle ('its my favorite of the later ones') and to her 'platinum summer' story

    "Not in Letters Home"
  • Lot 109 "Typed letter signed ("sivvy"), 2 pages bvo, Wellesley, 10 August {1955}, to Aurelia Plath, with envelope

    ". . . I finished my story today . . . It is exactly 20 pages and I ironed out the two places which bothered me. Tonight it goes to Collier's. Bless it! I'll need the money, and I am sure it must sell somewhere . . .' The remained of the letter concerns family news, dresses and a forthcoming dinner in Cambridge with Peter [Davison]: '. . . It is enormously stimulating just to know him. I must never be away from that wonderful 'bookish' environment where everybody knows and loves writing and thinking . . . '"

    "Not in Letters Home"
  • Lot 110 "Annotated copy of Modern Abnormal Psychology, ed. W.H. Mikesell (New York, 1950), with Plath's underlinings or marginal markings on approximately 235 pages (of 880) and her annotations on 8 pages, with her bookplate.

    "Most of the 24 essays in this collection bear some markings and two are particularly noted in the Table of Contents - H.M. Graumann's 'Disorders in Perception and Imagery' and E.W. Lazell's 'Schizophrenia'; the latter bears more markings and annotations than any other in the volume. See especially pp. 592-3 which bear annotations relating schizophrenic symptoms to Plath's own experience in New York in 1953 and to 'G' (perhaps her friend Gordon Lameyer)"
  • Lot 112 "Typescript (carbon) of an article entitled 'Poppy Day at Cambridge', 8 1/2 pages large 4to, 4 Barton Road, Cambridge, England, {1956}, with many autograph corrections and deletions

    "An evocative account of the celebration of Armistice Day (11 November) in Cambridge"
  • Lot 114 Self portrait, head and shoulders, pencil on paper, 12 x 9 inches, stamp of Sylvia Plath estate on verso"

There is a ton of information in the above catalog descriptions. I am interested in all these items, but given the work I am doing with Karen V. Kukil on Plath's letters, learning of the existence of four new letters by Sylvia Plath is particularly tantalizing. The February 1951 letter about being in Francestown, New Hampshire; two from August 1955; and then the whopper: one sent from McLean Hospital dated "Thursday" (17 December 1953) and postmarked the 18th.

In the brief excerpts from that letter we learn that Plath was set to have her sixth round of ECT treatment, which is double, the generally accepted "few" that biographies report she had. In Paul Alexander's Rough Magic: A Biography of Sylvia Plath, he reports that shock treatments commenced around 15 December and ended by Christmas eve and he reports that Dr.Ruth Beuscher recalled "I don't think she had more than two or three" treatments (1999: 134). Dangerous to draw attention and parallels to The Bell Jar, but in the novel Esther Greenwood is set to receive "shock treatments three times a week - Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday" for an indeterminate period of time (1963: 227). These treatments in the novel concluded "after a brief series of five" (228).

If you are reading this and you are the holder/owner of one of these four letters: Please, please, please consider sharing scans or photocopies with us so that they can be considered for the Plath letters book!

On the subject of Plath's correspondence. There is no known correspondence from Plath before this 17 December 1953 postcard to her mother during her recovery at McLean. There are two letters to Gordon Lameyer from late August & early September 1953, sent mostly likely from Newton-Wellesley Hospital where she first recovered. After this December postcard, however, Plath wrote a letter to Gordon Lameyer on Christmas (from Wellesley) and a letter to Eddie Cohen on 28 December in 1953 (from McLean). In early 1954, Plath wrote to Lameyer again on 10 January; to fellow student Enid Epstein on 18 January; and to a prospective Smith student called Sally Rogers on 21 January (undated, date from postmark).

All links accessed 18 November 2014.


BridgetAnna said...

And no newfound letters from AP to SP. despite my obvious excitement about these letters of SP's, I would be INFINTELY more excited if new letters from AP to SP turned up!

suki said...

Do people just keep letters because they can, rather then seeing them as part of a historical/ literary / something ?
Would you really 'own' a letter no one else knew about...

Peter K Steinberg said...

Suki! Hi there. It's a good question about the motivations on owning a letter like this and keeping it to ones self. I do think that yes, the person owns the letter. They don't own copyright to it, but they own the physical object. And I would also consider that even if they were the only ones that knew about it that they would own it, too. I think the owner also has the right to make it public or to keep it private. We might not like that! But that's the way it probably is. But I also think that even if someone keep it private, they could still recognize its historical and/or literary value. Particularly that letter from McLean, which still fairly blows my mind.

Bridget! Not sure what I can say about AP's letters to SP. Maybe AP kept copies of some or all of them? Much of Plath's pre-1959 final move to England was left in Wellesley, including as you know many letters she received from boyfriends and others. It is possible that APs letters to her daughter were among them, but withheld from the sale to Indiana in the 1970s. But it's also entirely possible those letters weren't retained. Or that they were taken to England an incinerated. Or, or, or...


Anonymous said...

Reading this good discussion sparked a vague memory and I've just been rooting around. Given that we know AP was a source for Rough Magic by Alexander I found this comment in my UK Penguin edition (1991: 286):
'This was not the only bonfire Sylvia built that summer. On another occasion, she burned all of the letters - upwards of a thousand - her mother had mailed her through the years. The loss of the letters especially hurt Aurelia, who watched as Sylvia burned them, since she had hoped eventually that she and Sylvia could publish a selection of their extensive correspondence. (Fortunately Sylvia's letters to her mother were in Wellesley, or she might have destroyed those too.)'.
The final sentence is a scary thought!

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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.