10 March 2020

CFP: Edited Collection: A Self to Recover: Negotiating Sylvia Plath and Disability

The following Call for Papers is by Maria Rovito, a Graduate Assistant and PhD student in American Studies at Penn State University. ~pks


As the author Sylvia Plath exists within the Anglophone canon as the quintessential "madwoman" and tragic figure of mental illness and suicidality, new theoretical arguments must be made in order to unpack the question of illness within Plath's life and work. Although we view Plath as a woman with mental illness, we do not view her as a woman who was disabled, and who experienced other corporeal impairments beside her psychic pain. Not only this, but Plath has been unfairly pathologized by previous and current scholars, who only seek to analyze her poetry and writing using a medical analysis. This has influenced not only the cultural understandings of Plath, but how students treat her work as well. Ultimately, these practices have harmed both Plath as a cultural figure and the disabled Plath reader who is traumatized by these readings. Previous accounts of Plath scholarship that have focused on her mental illness include Edward Butscher's Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness (1976), arguing that Plath "suffered" from narcissism, a split personality, and psychosis. David Holbrook's Sylvia Plath: Poetry and Existence (1976) also medicalizes Plath's work and pathologizes her, as Holbrook states that Plath was a "schizoid." Anne Stevenson's biography of Plath, Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath (1989), argued that Plath dealt with paranoia, violent mood swings, a split personality and hysteria. Although these previous accounts of Plath and her work have unfairly pathologized her, this trend of medicalizing Plath still exist today.

Disability studies scholars have rejected this medicalized terminology and thinking, and have attempted to bring attention to this practice of pathologization in their work. As the disability studies scholar Michael Bérubé states, disability studies limits itself when it is only concerned with searching for diagnoses within authors and literary characters: it "need not and should not predicate its existence as a practice of criticism by reading a literary text in one hand and the DSM-5 in the other" (20). Moving beyond this tradition of pathologizing Plath, Plath scholars must seek to integrate these disabled perspectives in their work, and challenge the medical authority that influenced Plath's life, work, and cultural legacy.

New research within the intersections of Plath scholarship and disability studies can help us (re)imagine the questions of illness, disability, and impairment that permeates Plath's poetry, letters, journals, and novel. Ultimately, this collection will serve as a collaborative account where Plath's work can be critically investigated by disability, crip, and Mad studies scholars, and where discourses within disability studies can enter the Plath canon of scholarship. This is much needed within both Plath studies and disability studies, and this collection will serve as a starting point for many students, junior, and established Plath and disability studies scholars. Pieces may focus on a range of topics, including:


  • Plath and the asylum
  • Plath and electroshock therapy
  • Plath and madness/mental illness/mental disability
  • Plath and self-identifying as disabled
  • Plath and psychiatric consumers/survivors/ex-patients (C/S/X)
  • Plath and physical embodiment
  • Plath and eating disorders
  • Plath and menstruation
  • The figure of Plath as a "madwoman"
  • The issue of suicidality in the Plath canon


Bringing together disability studies scholars, Plath scholars, and disabled Plath readers, this collection will move beyond previous medicalized and pathologizing readings of Plath, and consider how disability studies can aid our understanding of Plath and her work.

Proposals should include author's name, a brief biographical statement, and a 500-word abstract. Please send these materials to Maria Rovito (mrr354@psu.edu) and Jessica Mason (jlmason1@buffalo.edu).

Proposals due: July 16th, 2020.

Conditional acceptances: July 31st, 2020.

Manuscripts due: December 31st, 2020.

Works Cited

Bérubé, Michael. The Secret Life of Stories: From Don Quixote to Harry Potter, How Understanding Intellectual Disability Transforms the Way We Read. New York and London: NYU Press, 2018. Print.

Butscher, Edward. Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness. Tucson, AZ: Schaffner Press, Inc., 1976. Print.

Holbrook, David. Sylvia Plath: Poetry and Existence. London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 1976. Print.

Stevenson, Anne. Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989. Print.

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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.

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