21 December 2020

"Merciless churn": Sylvia Plath Year in Review 2020

2020 started off with an absolute Sylvia Plath bang with the news that Emory University purchased the Harriet Rosenstein papers related to Sylvia Plath. A few of us knew about it in late 2019, but when the collection would open for research was unclear. Well, they were opened up first thing. I hired Emily Banks, a graduate student at Emory, to take photographs of the papers. Throughout January and into very early February, Emily sent me daily files and it was kind of a mad flurry new information. It resulted in a streak of blog posts that I hope conveyed what it was like for me to read the files and try to process all the information. The best way to see these posts would be to look at the January and, respectively, February blog archives. 

There are other blog posts in there, too. For example, I was privileged to join Janet Badia, Heather Clark, and Julie Goodspeed-Chadwick in Seattle for an MLA conference panel on Plath studies and Assia Wevill. It was great fun, though our panel was effectively screwed because it was at a bad time of day. I posted my talk, "The Indefatigable Sylvia Plath", and small versions of the slides on the blog. Later, I interviewed Gail Crowther about her forthcoming book on Plath and Anne Sexton and wrote on Plath's funeral. In very early March, we had a guest post on a slim file of Plath materials held by Newnham College written by Di Beddow. Absolutely lovely! 

And then the world kind of stopped.

But Sylvia Plath and the blog did not. Because Sylvia Plath is like "the hooves of the horses". Sylvia Plath has a "merciless churn." In fact, at 83 posts this year, it was the busiest blog year since 2013. How do you like that?

After a very important blog post appeared in early April about men who may need a... boost, Gail Crowther and I launched an idea to hold some talks via Zoom. So we organized a series of three Zoomposiums that featured a total of 30 Plath scholars. They were recorded and made available via this blog's YouTube channel. We were so thrilled by the response to them: thank you again and again to all participants: both speakers and viewers. To prepare for them, we did a series of pre-talks to test out the technology and, in general, the interest. I did a talk on the Letters of Sylvia Plath and this was followed by Gail and I reading the first chapter of These Ghostly Archives.

In May there was another guest post, this one by Eirin Holberg which was a very interesting update and response to a previous blog post on John Malcolm Brinnan and Bill Read's The Modern Poets (1963). And then, in June, there were blog posts on what Plath did in New York City on 18 June 1953, two posts on Plath's Bell Jar, and the first of three (that continued into July) which looked at postcards Plath sent her mother from France in June and July 1961. 

For no particular reason, I took most of August off, but still did three posts. One of which was about a good number of new articles that appeared on Plath's disappearance in August 1953; including one in Canada. This takes my search for Sylvia Plath into the realm of the international! In August and September there were two posts regarding the Letters of Sylvia Plath and how I spent some of the downtime this spring organizing my Plath stuff. As well as a post on Plath's marginalia. 

In late September, I learned that because of the pandemic, Emory University was allowing remote access to the digitized Harriet Rosenstein interview tapes, so I spent more than four weeks straight listening and re-listening to the interviews. And I listened to them off and on throughout November and into this month. 

In October, this blog was particularly active as it tends to be each year in this month. It is Plath's birth month after all... Heather Clark's Red Comet led to a flurry of book reviews and a virtual book tour and I was even privileged to speak with her on the 23rd of the month in an event hosted by Politics and Prose, an independent bookstore in Washington, D.C. The day following, the recently formed Sylvia Plath Society hosted a Zoom birthday party with four panels of speakers. 

Things began to wind down as they always do in November and December. On the 9th and 16th of November I did a couple of posts on the Rosenstein audio tapes, digitized by Emory, that I hope users will find useful. And in December... That is this month! I meant to post on some ex-libris books at Yale in March but time and the post itself slipped through my hands like so much water until December. Prior to that I showed off a view of Chalcot Square from inside Plath's flat at number 3. It is the view she mentioned in her story "Day of Success". And recently Amy C. Rea contributed a review of Heather Clark's Red Comet.

New books about Plath this year were Carl Rollyson's The Last Days of Sylvia Plath; Dave Haslam's slim My Second Home: Sylvia Plath in Paris, 1956; and Heather Clark's monumental-colossal-gargantuan-Brobdingnagian Red Comet: The Last Days of Sylvia Plath. Granta Publications reissued Janet Malcom's The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, too, in April. In later November, Susan E. Schwartz published The Absent Father Effect on Daughters which features a chapter on Plath. Congrats to all!

New books by Plath in 2020 were all but non-existent (in English) Barnes & Noble "Collectible Editions" of The Collected Poems and The Bell Jar in a single volume. There were several editions of Plath's work published for the first time or reissued in non-English languages. 

Over on A celebration, this is, I revamped both the bibliography and thumbnail gallery of covers of the translations of Sylvia Plath after years of unintended neglect. This page is particularly robust because of some help that I have received from Anna of Loving Sylvia Plath whose passion for translations is almost unmatched. Other book covers were added as they were found, both in translation and as well as in English. General other improvements and changes were made, too. 

Metrics! The blog had more than 35,000 visitors and the website had more than 21,000. The metrics are measured vastly differently than before so I have no idea what this means. The top pages his on A celebration, this is were: Biography, Synopses of stories in Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, the bibliography of articles about Plath, the poetry works page, and The Bell Jar page. 

Looking forward to 2021? After such a strange 2020, how could one not be? I know I am excited for 2021 because we will get to read Gail Crowther's Three-Martini Afternoons at the Ritz: The Rebellion of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton set to be published by Gallery Books (Simon & Schuster) on 21 April (May in the UK). This is Gail's fourth book. Just before this, on 2 March, is a book on The Barbizon by Paulina Bren. Later on in the year, in the autumn, LSU Press will be publishing a book co-edited by Julie Goodspeed-Chadwick and me: The Collected Writings of Assia Wevill. The Bloomsbury Handbook to Sylvia Plath may be out late in 2021. Very excited to see all these in print.

2020 was the year of Zoom. And, as well, it was the year of Harriet Rosenstein finally getting some kind of recognition for her early work on Plath. Much of it is to be commended, though her nearly fifty years of selfishness has delayed irreparably biographical study and understanding of Sylvia Plath.

Thank you all sincerely for visiting the website and the blog and for your interactions and support on Twitter and elsewhere. Thank you for your friendship and encouragement. I would like to ask that for any content which you may have enjoyed or benefited from, that you please consider sending me a tip via PayPal. There are expenses associated with the work I do on Plath and while it is something I love, it does have its expenses. Thank you for at least considering! All funds will be put towards making the website, the Sylvia Plath Info Blog, and Twitter better.

All links accessed on and after 12 October 2020.

16 December 2020

Amy C. Rea Reviews Heather Clark's Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath

Here’s a thing about me: I’m a voracious reader, but very rarely have a physically based emotional response to something I’m reading. I don’t laugh out loud, I don’t cry, both of which I do when watching movies. It’s not that I don’t find things funny or sad when I read, but apparently I need more of a visual cue.

So it’s telling that when I got to the end of Dr. Heather Clark’s new biography of Sylvia Plath, Red Comet, I cried. It’s not as if I didn’t know how the story ended. But the level of detail and analysis Clark brings to her study of Plath is so detailed, and her examination of those brutal last weeks so deeply explored, that it broke my heart.

Clark has done some tremendously important and much-needed work with this biography. It would be remiss of me not to note the aid she received from Peter K. Steinberg and the work he did compiling Plath’s Letters. Clark clearly spent a great deal of time studying these source materials, as well as others that were not available to other biographers. There’s meticulous research for endless small pieces of information that contribute to the bigger picture. She has countless quotes from people who knew Plath at every stage of life, including a haunting set of discussions of their reactions to her death.

Another aspect of the book that is so valuable is the careful line Clark keeps to in terms of presenting information with as little bias as possible. Presumably someone who has made the commitment of years and toil to write a book like this has interest and respect for the subject, and certainly Clark approaches Plath from a place of respect. But she doesn’t trip into being an apologist, or, as some biographies have done, canonize Plath while demonizing anyone who didn’t acknowledge that sainthood.

In fact, some of the most remarkable work in this book comes around her treatment of Plath’s mother, Aurelia Plath, and Plath’s husband, Ted Hughes. Biographers have long pointed to Plath being obsessed with the death of her father when she was young as a root of her mental illness. But Clark explores the relationship Plath had with her mother, the difficulties it may have caused, and yet also how Plath herself may have unfairly maligned her mother at times. She points to popular books of the time that were quick to blame mothers for everything wrong with children and how mothers became an easy target. At the same time, Clark notes that Aurelia’s favorite book was Little Women—a book famous for its borderline preachiness and constant recommendations of looking for silver linings and reminding people that the birds still go tweet tweet—and that she was furious that Plath died intestate, leaving her work in Ted’s hands.

Which, of course, is another can of worms altogether. But following his conversations and letters around Plath and her work, it seems likely that we’re fortunate Plath did not name her mother as her literary executor—while Hughes certainly censored things, in the end, a lot of things that were vilifying of him were published, because he understood their worth. Clark is very clear about Hughes’ complexities and failings—she’s not suggesting that his behavior in the last year of Plath’s life was beyond reproach. But neither does she suggest that Plath was also beyond reproach. They were living, breathing, extremely complex people, reacting to situations, politics, and the times they lived in in complex, often unpredictable ways.

Clark examines Plath’s literary output with an eye to how early work predicted later success. She treats Plath’s early works, as well as her prose, with respect and thoughtful commentary. In doing so, she makes it clear that Plath may have had breakthroughs once her life with Ted began, but by no means should that early work be ignored or discounted.

Another valuable aspect of the book is her close examination of the time Plath spent at McLean, and the role of Dr. Beuscher. Clark says she was influenced by Hermione Lee’s foundational biography of Virginia Woolf, in which Lee did a deep dive into the various medications and treatments Woolf received and how we view those today. Clark in turn uncovered the fact that while McLean became a topnotch mental health facility, it wasn’t there yet during the time Plath spent there. Dr. Beuscher herself was at the very beginning of her career, and later admitted that she might not have used the best protocols in her treatment of Plath.

As new resources continue to be discovered, it seems likely that scholarly research and writing will continue. But Red Comet moves us far ahead of where we’ve been in terms of learning about Plath and her work. Yes, it’s a long book—and yet after hearing Clark talk on a Zoom event about how much longer the early drafts were, I’d love to see what was left out.

09 December 2020

Sylvia Plath's Ex-Libris at Yale

Yale University's Beinecke Library recently acquired four books from Sylvia Plath's library.

Three of the books originated in that big March 2018 auction held by Bonhams. Two are by R.S. Thomas:

Both have birthday inscriptions by Ted Hughes from October 1961. Please note a presentation copy from R. S. Thomas to Plath and Hughes is held by Emory.

The third is The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins (1949).

Another book now at Yale, and likely from the auction, is About Sylvia produced by Enid Mark, Plath's former classmate at Smith College.

The fourth book is The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas, formerly belonging to the late Elizabeth Sigmund. This book sold via Bonhams auction in June 2019. The winner was Peter Harrington Rare Books in London, who flipped it to Yale.

In sum, the Beinecke has a very strong collection of Sylvia Plath books. Each of these has been updated in Sylvia Plath's Library, hosted by LibraryThing.

The Beinecke catalog also lists Winter of Artifice: Three Novelettes by Anais Nin held in the Henry Miller papers as being inscribed to Sylvia & Ted. However, I am not sure this is Plath and Hughes and neither is the library as their surnames are in brackets with a question mark. The papers were part of the Roger Wagner collection. Does anyone know about this? When would Plath and Hughes have met Nin or received this volume?

All links accessed 3 March 2020 and 8-9 December 2020.

01 December 2020

A View from Sylvia Plath's "Day of Success"

Sylvia Plath wrote her short story "Day of Success" sometime in 1961. Most likely between February and August. She was living at the time in 3 Chalcot Square (based on the address on a typescript held by Smith College), the building that later thirty-nine years later was awarded a special English Heritage Blue Plaque. 

The seeds of the story had been fertilizing for some time as the story features a young married couple with a baby. The baby is six-months old. But it would be false, as I once did, to think that the story was composed circa October 1960 when Plath's daughter Frieda was that age. The story expertly merges events over several months, which is something Plath employed, also, in writing The Bell Jar. But it likely cannot have been written then because of a later scene in which Jacob Ross returns home very late from a business meeting with Denise Kaye to discuss a play of his. The even this may have been famously modeled from is the one where Ted Hughes returned home late from a meeting with Moira Dolan of the BBC. Hughes returned home to find his Shakespeare and manuscripts shredded to bits. Plath changed the ending to something much happier as this was a story written expressly for the women's magazine market. 

As time goes by and I think about this story, I think it may have been composed in late July or early August 1961 for the simple fact that it involves the couple, at the end, deciding to move out of the city into the deep country. Lots of people dislike reading Plath's creative works biographically, but I am not one of them. 

The typescript of the story, held by Smith College, has the Chalcot Square address typed in the top right. The typescript at Emory appears to be a copy, possibly typed after Plath's death.

In the story, Ellen Ross (possibly a name derived from her acquaintance with Eleanor Ross Taylor) stops for a moment to look out of her window at the square. 

from Bananas (1975)

I was privileged to see the inside of the flat on three occasions. This is the view she was seeing (photograph from 8 February 2014).

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