08 October 2018

Sylvia Plath Collections: Treasures at the Pierpont Morgan Library

October is American Archives Month in the US, so let us look at the first of a few Sylvia Plath Collections I have been sitting on for years!

As with much else at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City, their Sylvia Plath holdings are remarkable. As of 14 March 2017, the catalog returns more than 100 records when searching all collections. Certain collections are not applicable, such as Medieval Images Only and Music Manuscripts and Books. But, of those  records there are treasures lurking any reasonable way you sort it.

The items discussed in this post were worked with one day in January 2017 and the excessive delay in posting about it was due to the embargo on anything to the with Plath's letters. My reason for the trip was to work with the letters from Plath to the Merwins and to William and Edith Hughes.

If you want limited editions and rare books, the Morgan Library has something for you to look at. They have several copies of the rare printing of A Winter Ship, including some proofs, an original letter from Ted Hughes to the Tragara Press owner Alan Anderson which includes a typescript copy of "A Winter Ship", and two original letters by Sylvia Plath to Anderson. It was good to find these as Smith College has photocopies but lacked the envelope on which Plath added a postscript. The postscript is fascinating as it was intended for Plath's mother and concerned her childhood friend Betsy Powley Wallingford. Plath sent a letter the same day to her mother and simply wrote the PS on the wrong envelope...  Other limited editions include Above the Oxbow, Fiesta Melons, and The Surgeon at 2 a.m. & other poems to list just a few.

The Morgan also has numerous publications in which Plath's works first appeared including several of The Phillipian from the mid-1940s. Additionally some late publications like London Magazine and The New Statesman, and much, much, more, of course.

Some of these holdings are in the general special collections and were purchased through normal collecting and via auction. This blog has featured a couple of their early poetry manuscripts (4 July 2007, 17 August 2007, and 23 September 2009) that were purchased in the 1982 Sotheby's auction (Lot 96). A great many form part of the Carter Burden Collection of American Literature.

Additionally, I worked with several of the holdings in the Burden Collection and thought it would be good to finally blog about them, to bring them into greater awareness, perhaps?

The first item is a first edition of The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1962), signed and inscribed by Lessing to Plath and Ted Hughes. Lessing's inscription reads simply,
To Ted and Sylvia
with love from
Doris (Lessing)
14th June 1962
This was a Thursday. Plath's mother was due to arrive for a visit the following week. There is no indication in Plath's 1962 Royal Letts Diary Tablet to indicate if Lessing visited them that day, which according to Plath's notes was a very busy day for errands and things. So it is a mystery to me… I can only think that Lessing posted it, she visited them, or someone brought it to them. Lessing was friendly with the Macedo's and knew Assia Wevill, so perhaps introductions were made through those contacts? The book shows evidence of being read and is mostly free of any reader marginalia. There are faint pencil marking on pages 20, 44, and 46.

While that is undeniably awesome. The main reason for my visit were the Plath items concerning Dido and W. S. Merwin which include five letters from Plath to the Merwins (one also contributed to by Ted Hughes), what I believe is a letter fragment from Ted Hughes, and Merwin's copy of Plath's The Colossus

First up, the book. I've worked with several other copies of The Colossus that Plath signed and inscribed to people such as Marcia Brown, so learning of a new copy and working with it was quite special. Plath signed and inscribed her copy of her first book to the Merwin's as follows:
For Dido and Bill
with love—
from Sylvia
October 27, 1960
The image here is not Merwin's copy.

Merwin signed his last name beneath Plath's inscription on the front free endpaper and made pencil markings on poems/pages:
"Departure" p. 19
"The Colossus" p. 20
"Lorelei" p. 22
"Black Rook in Rainy Weather" p. 42
"The Disquieting Muses" p. 58
"Moonrise" p. 66
"Frog Autumn" p. 70
"The Beekeeper's Daughter" p. 75
"The Burnt-out Spa" p. 78
"Who" p. 81
"Flute Notes from a Reedy Pond" p. 84-85
"The Stones" p. 86

The letters to the Merwins were ones I had been looking for for some time; and according to the catalog record the Morgan received them from Burden's heirs in 2013. I am unsure if that means they were visible in the catalog at that time but I guess what matters is that they were found. Each letter below has a link to the catalog record which provides some summary information.

The first letter they have is misdated and at the time of writing my long email with evidence of the correct date has not yet encouraged them to revise the catalog record. They have it dated 28 February 1960. However, since there is a mention of a sleeping Frieda, that is an impossibility! The letter was actually written on 24 June 1960.

The second letter, 7 March 1961, is toward the end of Plath's hospitalization for her appendicitis.

The third letter, circa 30 July 1961, is after their visit to France and Yorkshire.

The fourth letter, 8 November 1962, discusses the breakdown of their friendship after the breakdown of Plath's marriage, among other topics.

There are two other letters. The first is a partial letter from Hughes to Merwin that they have as being part of the circa 30 July 1961 letter mentioned above. There are clearly two different letters. The earlier one is from just after their return to London after visiting Yorkshire with Plath and Plath's mother and is before they agreed to buy Court Green. The second letter is from after their move to Court Green as it mentions sub-letting their flat to the Wevill's and some other business such as Plath's editing of American Poetry Now. As with the first, misdated letter mentioned above, my recommendations to modified the catalog record have not seen any action yet.

The other letter is a carbon of a letter from Merwin to Plath dated 5 November 1962.It was to this letter that Plath responded in her 8 November letter mentioned above.

There is also a stray letter from Plath to her in-laws William and Edith Hughes dated 9 October 1961, a month or so after her move to Court Green.

So a wealth of Plath related archival materials in the form of poems, manuscripts, typescripts, books, periodicals, and more. It was brilliant to get to work with these papers, to visit the reading room again, and spend a day in New York City. If you are ever in or near New York City, please do drop by the Morgan: but write well in advance, admission to the reading room is by appointment/approval only.

All links accessed 14 March 2017


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your post very much, thank u, and thank u for the company u made me with it during lunch time, salmon sandwich tasted better than ever today ;-)
Related to Doris Lessing I think (well,I hope!)I found something that maybe may (hopefully!)help u about the meeting between Doris Lessing and SP & TH; maybe there is no indication in Plath's 1962 Royal Letts Diary Tablet to indicate if Lessing visited them that day,because it seems they DID MEET but it was on a different/on another date.
I copy and paste here down what I found out from the only result ever existing on the web I do hope it can be of help (this is the source:

"On 14 January 1963 Ted was was a guest with Sylvia Plath at a party to launch The Bell Jar.
Seeing that the Macedos had a wide acquaintance, Sylvia asked to be introduced to as many new people as possible.
Helder Macedo took her to meet Doris Lessing, but Lessing drew back from the desperation she sensed underneath Sylvia's animation.

That's the ONLY result I found on the internet.
It's not much but I do hope it's a least something it can help u.

My lunch break now is over, I must log off.
Thank u for company with this post, have a great Monday xo


Anonymous said...

P.s. forgot to say! I know that what I found out doesn't explain how and when Doris Lessing gave her book to SP & TH, but at least we found out when and where they met for the first time :-) xo Alina

Peter K Steinberg said...

Thank you for your comments, Alina, and for posting the link to the Feinstein biography of Ted Hughes about the Macedo's role in introducing Plath to Lessing.

Annika said...

I'd be interested in knowing more details about Merwin's November -62 letter to Plath - can you say anything about that? Is there anything to add to the summary the Morgan has posted? How long was the letter? The summary makes it sound rather short, but her response is quite long.

About Lessing - doesn't the inscription show that Plath and Hughes met or were in contact with Lessing before 1963, though? Perhaps Feinstein missed something or perhaps Macedo wasn't aware that they had already met before?

Best wishes,

Peter K Steinberg said...

Annika my friend! Hi there. Definitely. It's the speculation game -- and who doesn't love this game however annoying or unprofessional it is -- but I suspect that after her weekend visit to Court Green in May 1962, that Assia Wevill worked some networking with the Macedo's to have Lessing send Plath and Hughes the book. I say this because as far as I know they never met before then. It's pure guess, but plausible? ~pks

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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.