21 November 2016

Book Review Fronts of Modernity: The 20th-Century Collections at the University of Victoria Libraries

Editor J. Matthew Huculak's Fronts of Modernity: The 20th-Century Collections at the University of Victoria Libraries (2016) is a remarkable work. He, along with the other contributors, survey the important archival collections held at the University of Victoria in Victoria, British Columbia. Published in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the special collections at the university, Fronts of Modernity is a treat for anyone interested in archives, modernism, poetry, literature, photography, art, and more. And if you have not heard of the collections at the University of Victoria, you are missing out.

Fronts of Modernity was printed in limited run (1,000 copies), but is free to download as a PDF. In the book/document, readers are treated to a smorgasbord of archival topics, from collection policies to descriptions of unique manuscripts. Throughout, there is context provided in these cohesive "letters" so that you always know how the materials fit into the mission of what the library collects, preserves, and makes available for scholarly research or personal use. In addition to excellent, riveting essays, high resolution scans compliment the expert texts written by Huculak, Jonathan Bengston, Heather Dean, Nicholas Bradley, G. Kim Blank, James Gifford, Matthew S. Adams, Elizabeth Grove-White, Stephen Ross, Christine Walde, and Michael Nowlin.

The essays are presented in a geographical fashion covering records originators from Canada, Ireland, France, Egypt, England, and America. Within each chapter/letter, there is chronological progression of themes and authors. This is not a book that requires a completely linear reading. As Huculak writes, the collections represented at UVic are an "interconnected ecosystem of material spanning thousands of years across various disciplines" (xv). The University holds papyri, but it's strength is in the modernist moment from Ezra Pound to W. B. Yeats and T. S. Eliot to Virginia Woolf. There is Henry Miller and Lawrence Durrell. As well as Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, and the Harlem Renaissance. What I loved particularly were the first essays which detail the genesis of the libraries collecting focus: from the first librarians/archivists/collectors and the players responsible for the foundation of the the university's first acquisitions. They do not forget their roots, which is so wonderful and refreshing. I feel in these pieces the writing is so enticing that if it does not give you archive fever then there is something wrong with you.

It may not surprise you that I gravitated towards Christine Walde's piece "Talking Back to The(ir) Archive: File SC060, or the Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath Collection at UVic Libraries". Christine navigates this important collections with expert precision and care. Acknowledging that the collection is small, she rightly illustrates how these papers "[correspond] to the larger archives of its creators held in other libraries and archives" (102). She asks important archival questions about the conversations that take place on either side of the page: "Did the awareness of the potential value [of their papers] inspire Plath to insert herself further into Hughes' archives? Or, as Plath's fame grew after her death, did he insert himself in her papers to present a picture of himself as poet, husband, father, executor?" In some instances one might be able to determine which came first, but in others it could be virtually impossible.

The illustrations in the book from the Plath-Hughes point of view are wonderful. They show the vibrancy of their manuscripts and typescripts, as well as the chilling realities, such as an unfinished letter from Ted Hughes to David and Assia Wevill. The letter is undated but from the evidence could be assigned to circa 27 June 1962 for Hughes mentions having been in London "yesterday" and seeing the film Last Year at Marienbad (Criterion). Plath and Hughes had traveled to London on 26 June for BBC appointments and other things, and as Mrs. Plath was at Court Green there was little reason to rush back. Last Year played at the International Film Theatre, Bayswater,

I really enjoyed Fronts of Modernity and I hope if you download a copy, or are lucky enough to have the physical book to hold, that you do too.

All links accessed 10 November 2016.

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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.