20 May 2020

Doubletake: Sylvia Plath’s two different biographies in The Modern Poets (1963)

The following is a guest blog post by Eirin Holberg, a Norwegian archaeologist and writer. Thank you Eirin! ~pks

Two years ago on this day I read an interesting blog post on Sylvia Plath Info Blog about an anthology from 1963 I had not heard about before, containing two of Plath's poems. It was The Modern Poets: An American-British Anthology, edited by John Malcolm Brinnin and Bill Read, published by McGraw-Hill Book Company. The poems were "Black Rook in Rainy Weather" and "The Colossus". What interested me especially was that the anthology was released soon after her death, and that she may have been involved in the planning of it sometime during the last year of her life. It seemed like a fine selection of poetry, so I ordered an inexpensive copy of the same, hardback first edition described on the blog, a former library book from Stanford University Library, and a few weeks later it arrived in my mailbox in Norway.

It is a beautifully produced and broad collection of poets contemporary with Plath, presented in alphabetical order. They range from seniors of modern poetry like T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens and Marianne Moore to the younger, prominent figures as well as many up-and-coming poets of Plath's own generation, several of whom she knew well. The portraits taken especially for the book by Rollie McKenna are fascinating, very relaxed and natural, showing these writers as they would have looked when Plath met them. I also enjoyed reading the short biography of Plath next to her photo, describing her living in North Tawton with her husband and their two children.

It was not until I recently reread the blog post from May 2018 that I noticed something which puzzled me. Peter mentioned that the mini-biography of Plath included the detail that she died by suicide. I didn't recall having read this, and checked my copy to find out what I had missed and where it could be in the book. I couldn't find any mentioning of her death anywhere. In my copy Plath was still alive:

Sylvia Plath, born October 27, 1932, in Boston Massachusetts, lives in the village of North Tawton, Devonshire, with her husband, the English poet Ted Hughes, and their two children. She was educated at Smith College and at Newnham College, Cambridge, where she met her husband while she was spending a year abroad on a Fulbright fellowship.

I looked up the copy available at Archive.org, and found the text referred to in the blog post. It was on the same page, accompanying the same portrait. It told that she had died, and that it was a suicide:

Sylvia Plath, born October 1932, in Boston, Massachusetts, died in London in 1963 by suicide. She was married to the English poet Ted Hughes by whom she had two children. Her death abruptly ended a brief and brilliant career as a poet that began at Smith College and continued at Newnham College, Cambridge, where she met her husband while she was spending a year abroad on a Fulbright Fellowship.

Hughes' biography was different, too. The lines 3 and 4 in my copy says that he "lives with his wife, the American poet Sylvia Plath, in Devonshire". In the later version, these are replaced by two new lines, carefully chiseled to fit into the remaining text on the limited space above his portrait: "[he] was the husband of the late Sylvia Plath by whom he had two children".

How can two copies of the same, first edition of the book contain different texts? The first version was in ordinary sale as early as March 1963, according to a reviewer of the anthology on the website LibraryThing which mentions having inscribed the book as bought that month. The reference made to Plath's biography in this review fits with the earliest version. So, the book seems to have been released very soon after Plath's death, with the first version sent out to bookshops and libraries in March, if not earlier.

A probable explanation for the differing biographies would be that the first print was done in a limited number, as is often the practice, and when the editors were made aware of her death, they had time to make the changes before the next print. Usually, contributing authors are among the first to receive copies of a newly printed book. If Ted Hughes received his copy in May, two months later, it could mean that he never got the first version. Maybe the publisher delayed sending a copy to Hughes until the update had been made? The changes may even have been done in agreement with him. If so, the decision to mention that she died by her own hand could have been approved by him or done in accordance with his wish.

The explanation may be simple and logical, but I still find this fascinating. I look at the two, identical books before me: the same bright, orange binding, the same portrait on the same page and the biographies beginning the exact same way before parting. In one version she is dead; in the other she is still alive. It is like being presented with two alternative realities, mirroring the ambiguity and complexity of her life and her writing, her interest for and repeated use of mirrors and reflections, the double self and being in-between life and death. It is also a reminder of how quickly everything changed the last months of her life. In some strange way this small irregularity between the two books seems to hold exactly this moment of time, the unsettled space between what could have been and what was.

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Sebastian said...
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