10 March 2017

The Harriet Rosenstein Sylvia Plath Archive

Western Massachusetts bookseller, Ken Lopez, is selling a major collection of Sylvia Plath materials. The Harriet Rosenstein Sylvia Plath Archive is listed on his website with a sale price of $875,000. A hefty sum for, frankly, a hefty amount of important Plath and Plath-related documents. The news has me feeling like a kind outside of candy store. I can see inside, but cannot get it.

The highlight of the collections are the letters and other papers that originated with Plath's "psychiatrist" Dr Ruth Beuscher Barnhouse. Included here are 14 letters from Plath to Beuscher (as was her then surname), from 18 February 1960 to 4 February 1963. Lopez estimates the 45 pages of letters consists of "about 18,000 words". In addition to the letters, there are files related to Plath's treatment at McLean Hospital from 1953-1954. Normally off-limits, these documents may reveal quite a bit about Plath's decision to attempt suicide in 1953, as well as perhaps divulge other biographical information about a period that is generally skinny on information.

Lopez's description of the collection and inventory leaves a little to be desired. He writes, "In an interview given less than a year before her death in 1999, Ruth Barnhouse claimed that she had 'burned the dozens of letters she received from Plath while she lived in England.' This was not true."  However, Lopez's claim is not, itself, true. Plath likely wrote at least 11 letters from circa 27 September 1954 to circa 21 May 1956. The evidence of these letters exists in two places: Plath's own letters to her mother, and her pocket calendars held by the Lilly Library, Indiana University at Bloomington. Plath used these pocket calendars to track many things: dates, meals, cultural events, school obligations and letters sent (actual and/or intended). The pocket calendars end around December 1956, so who knows how many additional letters were sent from Cambridge, Northampton, and even Boston between then and December 1959.

The letters from Plath to Beuscher are undoubtedly going to be some serious, heavy, and emotional reading. The experiences Plath endured and the nature of the trust between herself and the recipient means that these letters will represent a style of writing that has no parallel. However it must also be remembered that the very nature of the relationship between Plath and Beuscher has been severely criticized. Some of the letters listed in the inventory will be included in the two-volume Letters of Sylvia Plath. However, some are new. In addition to the Ruth Beuscher letters, the letters to Elizabeth and David Compton, Suzette and Helder Macedo, David Freeman, some Melvin Woody, and Shirley and Perry Norton, would be new to the editors (me and Karen V. Kukil). There are also many letters to and from Harriet Rosenstein.

Another aspect of this archive that is tantalyzing are the interview notes, audio tapes, and correspondence Rosenstein accumulated in the early 1970s as she was at work on her unrealized biography of Sylvia Plath. Consider that these were obtained within a decade of Plath's death before so much time elapsed and memories were jumbled or forgotten. Lopez astutely writes, Rosenstein "was able to interview many people who knew Plath in widely different capacities, many of whom are no longer living and whose knowledge of Plath and views about her or her work may or may not have been preserved over time by some other means." It is conceivable that personal stories and anecdotes obtained by Rosenstein about Plath will clash with information presented in later biographies. I think in particular of Jillian Becker's papers which is impressive in its size and includes many interviews, letters, a chronology of Plath's last week and a copy of the coroner's report which has since been destroyed as part of regular records disposal p.

A notable absence is Eddie Cohen, but otherwise there are the "usual" suspects such as Marcia Brown Stern, Elizabeth Sigmund, Clarissa Roche, etc. The people from Devon would be really wonderful to "hear", and, as well, Patrcia O'Neil Pratson on Plath's first suicide attempt. Present also are some of the more peripheral acquaintances such as Iko Meshoulam, Christopher Levenson, and Plath's London neighbors. You have to wonder what W.S. Merwin said, considering he was not among those recorded! Those audio tapes need to be digitized for preservation purposes!

I would love the opportunity to go through everything to correct some mistakes in Lopez's inventory. We have to hope that these materials find their way to a research library. And, as well, that the letters are made available to be included in the forthcoming Letters of Sylvia Plath. It may be advantageous for them to know which letters are in the book and which (other than the obvious ones) are not.

In the scan above from Lopez's web page, we can see a portion the blue aerogramme containing the postmark. This must be a scan of Plath's last letter to Dr. Beuscher, which Plath dated 4 February 1963. Plath wrote a few other letters that day. The letters to Aurelia Plath and Marcia Brown Stern are also blue aerogrammes and were postmarked 5 February 1963 at 1:45 pm from London NW1. Beneath each postmark is the letter B. The letter from Plath to Father Michael Carey was sent to Oxford, and the envelope was not apparently retained. But the postmark in the above letter is for 12:45 on 8 February 1963 and also with the letter B in London NW1. Why did Plath hold on to this letter for four days before mailing it? Was it posted at the same time on the 8th as her "last letter" to Ted Hughes? Or, did Plath write it after the 4th and misdate it? It is possible some of the contents of the letter may answer this.

All links accessed 9 March 2017.


Anonymous said...

I don't understand this part of the post: Lopez's description of the collection and inventory leaves a little to be desired. He writes, "In an interview given less than a year before her death in 1999, Ruth Barnhouse claimed that she had 'burned the dozens of letters she received from Plath while she lived in England.' This was not true." However, Lopez's claim is not, itself, true.

Are you saying he's incorrect about the number of letters?

Peter K Steinberg said...

Hello Anonymous. I am sorry for the confusion.

I see actually that I am in the wrong here. Beuscher included the "lived in England" detail that I overlooked. However, it may be, still, that Beuscher did destroyed the dozen or so letters she received from Plath from 1954 through possibly 1959 as those are currently neither in a known university archive nor in this Rosenstein collection.

Again, my apologies for misreading Lopez's text.

That being said, the inventory is inconsistently described. This is unfair of me because it isn't a finding aid such as you would get in an archive. I would have liked more formulaic and formatted description.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for replying, Peter! That makes sense. This seems like such an exciting trove of materials. I sincerely hope it's available to researchers soon.

Peter K Steinberg said...

Anonymous -- Couldn't agree more! I feel like this will really provide crucial insight and understanding into Plath's relationship with Beuscher and Hughes, and also with all the interview notes, a fresh look at Plath the person through the eyes of her contemporary friends, lovers, peers, etc. And as well the photographs will be of interest to many. Let us hope it sells fast! Thank you for reading the blog, for commenting, and putting up with my mistakes.


Tiffany McCunn said...

Since seeing your tweet last night, I haven't thought of much else- I even dreamt about it! This is huge. There's the unopened box/trunk, and the items lifted from Devon, but you always wonder what else will come through. Peter, you know more about how these things work-- will a library buy this archive? What do you think will happen to it?

Peter K Steinberg said...

Hello Tiffany -- I'm glad I'm in good company on this news taking over life. Thank you for your comment. I appreciate your confidence in me but I'm not really sure how much I do know about how these things work. "We've" known about these papers for about 15 months but weren't at liberty to make it public. Until now.

Well, it's going to take a big purse to get this collection. And I hope a university can gather the money through their budget and other means (donation from alumnae, etc.). I do wonder if a consortium of places might go in on it? Say, Smith, Emory and Indiana. And perhaps one can be designated to hold the papers and the others would get digital copies for researcher use? Another option would be for a very wealthy and charitable person to buy it and then donate/deposit the papers in a library.

Let's hope this sells quickly and to a public institution so that we can all benefit from the contents.


A Piece of Plathery said...

Ohhhhhhhhhhh I so wish to read all of this.

Peter K Steinberg said...

Mlle Plathery! I'm sure you have the $875k sitting around the house. Just make sure to invite me over! ~pks

Anonymous said...

Am curious why you have described Dr Ruth Beuscher as a "psychiatrist", like that, in speech marks. Wasn't she a psychiatrist? Maybe a doctor merely doing a stint in psychiatry?

These letters in particular would interest me. I'm aware that SP felt a certain amount of resentment of RB for not always sticking to pre-agreed times for sessions, for example, no minor thing in the world of psychotherapy and psychoanalysis. Was also surprised to read (can't remember where now) that RB on at least one occasion went to Sylvia and Ted's apartment in Boston and had tea with them there. (This, too, would be considered by most psychotherapists to be an unprofessional blurring of boundaries.)

In short, a fascinating relationship.

What a treasure trove all this is. It's wonderful that the early biographer (I believe the biography was never finished?) managed to interview people who do not feature in later books.

Peter K Steinberg said...

Hi Anonymous,

I put "psychiatrist" in quotes partially because I'm childish! And at the time she treated Plath in 1953, Ruth Beuscher was a resident in psychiatry and not a fully accredited psychiatrist. I also feel like Beuscher overstepped her bounds as a doctor. She abused her position in the doctor-patient relationship and I question the result of her "therapy". As such, Beuscher was unprofessional. But perhaps I'm unprofessional in being so juvenile. My own hang-ups notwithstanding, I couldn't agree more that this material is a rich source of information and agree also that the research materials on those subsequently forgotten from Plath's biography is a potential goldmine of information. One must lament, in some ways, that Rosenstein never completed her book on Plath because the evidence suggests she was exceedingly resourceful and thorough. I know her "Reconsidering Sylvia Plath" from Ms (September 1972) was a very well regarded piece of writing and exhibits certain qualities that could have proved illuminating for a full life expose.


anonymous said...

I see that the link no longer works and the collection is no longer listed on Lopez's site. Do you have any updates?

Peter K Steinberg said...

Hello Anonymous -- not sure if you're the same as above but am glad that you commented regardless. Yes, I'm aware the link is not working and the collection is removed. There may be news about why shortly; but at the present time I'm unable to provide any information on the collection's status. Hope you understand. ~pks

Anonymous said...

Thanks for responding! I understand and look forward to any updates when you're at liberty to provide them.

Amy in Texas said...

Interesting news today- I'm sure I'm not the only one waiting for your take on the new developments.
My mom (rare book dealer) told me years ago that it was just too soon to get our hands on all the Plath materials. "You have to wait for everyone to die," were her exact words. (Antiques dealers can be rather callous, but it's true.)
My question is, would not the letters from SP be under the copyright of her estate?
I also take with a grain of salt the preliminary allegations that the UK papers are shouting about- who has even seen these letters?
In anticipation,


Peter K Steinberg said...

Hello Amy! Thank you for your comment on this old post! I wish I could offer some commentary but at the moment I am not at liberty to do so. This is disappointing to me, as it may be also for you and others.


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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.