01 April 2016

Sylvia Plath: Secret Befouler

Sylvia Plath famously wrote about picking her nose in this 25 January 1953 journal entry:
do you realize the illicit sensuous delight I get from picking my nose? I always have, ever since I was a child -- there are so many subtle variations of sensation. A delicate, pointed-nailed fifth finger can catch under dry scabs and flakes of mucous in the nostril and draw them out to be looked at, crumbled between fingers, and flicked to the floor in minute crusts. Or a heavier, determined forefinger can reach up and smear down-and-out the soft, resilient, elastic greenish-yellow smallish blobs of mucous, roll them round and jelly-like between thumb and forefinger, and spread them on the under surface of a desk or chair where they will harden into organic crusts. How many desks and chairs have I thus secretively befouled since childhood? (165)
What else was she supposed to do? What with her broken leg and experiencing another Massachusetts winter!

On a research trip to Smith College last year, I was talking with College Archivist Nanci Young about the college atmosphere in the 1950s during Plath's time as both a student and a teacher. I was trying to get a more authentic perspective for the look and feel of Smith College at this time as I thought it might lend some authority to the notes I was writing for the Plath Letters project. I was initially interested in traditional archival materials like photographs, yearbooks, or even newspaper articles. But I wanted something more visual, if you will, something three dimensional. Nanci mentioned to me that Smith still holds scores of the old desks from that time period. As a side note, and a way to possibly explain this, the College Archives and Mortimer Rare Book Room are in the process of merging to become a single entity in the Neilson Library under the name Department of Hoardology. Nanci will oversee the operation as the Chief Hoarding Officer (CHO). She expressed absolute delight, "I'm chuffed to be the CHO! Overnight, very quietly, I get more stuff. It's all about the stuff, anyway. We are a library, we are an archive. Yes. But it's time to face the truth: we're hoarders at heart. That's the reason for the name."

Classroom, undated photograph,
The 1950s era desks are stored offsite in a converted Holyoke mountain range cave. I asked for three dozen to be called and set up in the Smith Alumnae Gymnasium. In the process of examining them, we found lots of substances on the undersides of the desks. This got me curious about possibly trying to identify if any of these desks were befouled by Plath! Fortunately, the provenance of each desk is cataloged, so it was possible to recall only those desks that were in rooms where Plath had classes. Thank God for Librarians!

The Lilly Library at Indiana University at Bloomington sent some of Plath's hair to Smith and from that, a DNA profile was established. Smith College's head of Rhinology, Dr. Sy Nusshaft, conducted the extensive testing on the desks. Taking a few hundred scraping samples from the desks, the initial results were quite grim. However, after three months positive results came back on three of the 36 desks! Each of the desks will take turn on a rotating display in the Mortimer Rare Book Room. If additional desks are identified, they will likely be auctioned off. One will feature in the 2017 One Life: Sylvia Plath exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Due to concerns over copyright it is not possible at this time to post photographs of the befouled desks as according to US copyright law, mucous counts as a product (a creative work of the nose) of the author. Visitors to Smith College can see the desk, sit in it(!), and take personal use photographs.


Amy said...

You trickster, you. :-)

Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

"Dr. Sy Nusshaft"! Oh, groan! That was painful! ;-)

naveed said...


anonymous said...

Love your April fools posts!

boston12855 said...

So those were the snot blobs I felt under the old desks in Room 206 of Mr. Crockett's classroom at WHS! It all makes sense now.

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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.