20 December 2013

Sylvia Plath 2013: Year in Review

How do you summarize 2013 for Sylvia Plath? I think the word I would choose would be inundated. Do I mean that negatively? Heck no. But it was a big, busy year. Longer feeling than its 365 days.

Three major biographies were published: American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath by Carl Rollyson; Mad Girl's Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life before Ted by Andrew Wilson; and Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953 by Elizabeth Winder. And, several re-issues and new editions of her own books, as well as dozens upon dozens, if not hundreds, of newspapers and online articles were written about her. A new publication, too, saw the light of day in Sylvia Plath: Drawings (Faber, September; and Harper, November). And then there is by far the larger media that is basically rubbish name-drops that get picked up and distributed… but those are easily enough ignored and forgotten. Early in the year I started tracking the bigger articles and made a page on this blog that I thought would be temporary -- and indeed it is. I will be taking it down in a week but do not fret, I plan "post" them as their own blog post so that for the record they will still be all together. Throughout the year there have been little pockets of Sylvia Plath celebrations and events. No officially organized symposium took place (in some ways you could count October 2012's Plath Symposium as a related event), but in February, Maeve O'Brien (aka theplathdiaries) hosted an event in Northern Ireland called "Sylvia Plath: A 50-Year Retrospective; and Plath's own version of Ariel was read in May at the South Bank Centre in London. Maeve's Retrospective was broadcast live which was wonderful; to be able to look and listen in on the papers given that day was quite special.

In January, The Guardian book group selected The Bell Jar as its discussion book of the month and early on pitted Elizabeth Sigmund against Olwyn Hughes and got massive ratings, I am sure. January 14th was the 50th anniversary of the novel's publication and it started the year on fire and quickly deteriorated into the same old arguments. Faber also released their odiously-covered 50th Anniversary edition of The Bell Jar which further brought attention in the bad way to Sylvia Plath. But is any of this surprising? Hardly! Negative attention is attention nonetheless and likely does more for book sales than positive attention. This is part of the reason why Plath still sells, it is as much if not more the controversy and sensationalism as it is the work itself. So, alas, in January I quickly got tired and bored and fed up with seeing news stories of Plath… Had, I think, among the best guest blog posts ever by Cath Morgan, too, which has had, to date, in excess of 1020 hits.

February brought the 50th anniversary of Plath's death. There were some decent stories that came out of this that look retrospectively at Plath's life and work. These trickled into March. In February, Christine S. Fagan of Roger Williams University in Bristol, Rhode Island mounted a wonderful exhibit "The Bell Jar at 50" which was curated by Amanda Ferrara with the assistance of Karen V. Kukil. My favorite post this month, which I think was a neat little find, was on "Plath's Teen-Age Triumph."

March was a big month for me "professionally" as I travelled to England and met up with the glamorous Gail Crowther and then drove to Plymouth University to give a preview of our paper "These Ghostly Archives 5: Reanimating the Past." Introduced by Robin Peel, we had a great crowd and it was a fascinating experience to give the paper with Gail live and in-person rather than just sending emails and attachments back and forth across the Atlantic. We also visited North Tawton and Heptonstall, saw some brand new Plath-related sites, met for a dinner and an afternoon tea with Elizabeth Sigmund (Um, HIGHLIGHT OF MY LIFE) and her husband, conducted research for the first time in the British Library (meeting Helen Melody, who processed the the Ted Hughes papers); gained admittance into 3 Chalcot Square; and did a Plath tour and pub crawl (including The French House, formerly known as York Minster Pub, on Dean Street, Soho, where Plath signed the contract for The Colossus in February 1960) in London with Cath Morgan and her main man Stephen. Gail took me to the actual, physical spot in Devon where "Ariel" and "Sheep in Fog" were set and being there opened up the two poems to me in ways that words could never express.

April and May were largely spent preparing to publish and then depart from Plath Profiles; but there was a major auction of Plath materials from the collection of Roy Davids. The worksheet for Plath's beautiful, late poem "Sheep in Fog" were sold for £37,250 (US$ 59,830). In May, also, I posted on Plath's hair part and photographs of her, which is something that had been bothering me with images of Plath for some time.

Print-outs of transcriptions
of letters by Sylvia Plath,
arranged by year, 1951-1963
As we hit the summer, things Plath began to slow down some. I spent the large majority of the summer -- from May until well, now -- transcribing all of Sylvia Plath's letters (to her mother as well as to many others) for a forthcoming volume of Plath's letters that I am working on with Karen V. Kukil (more details on this project later, I'm sure). I had largely always ignored Plath's unedited letters to her mother, and certainly had done so on visits to the Lilly Library where the largest number of these are held because of all the other wonderful documents the Lilly Library holds occupied by time and interest. However, working with them as closely as I did was truly eye-opening. Not only about what a great letter writer Plath was and how much detail exists about her in these epistles, but also how terribly edited Letters Home is. I hardly recognized the version of Plath (the person portrayed and her voice) between the edited and the original letters. I also noticed that an alarming number of letters in Letters Home are misdated, and that in many Plath's own words were changed … so if you have ever quoted from Letters Home, chances are you may have been quoting the editors and NOT Plath. #Shameful. All of this work would not have been possible without the time and gracious assistance of, in no particular order, David Trinidad, Gail Crowther, Karen V. Kukil, and Frieda Hughes.

In part, working on this project led me to go hunting for more Plath letters and archival materials and it was around this time that I decided to spend hour upon hour working on blog posts that will highlight not only places that hold Plath materials, but to discuss to the extent that I could what the letters themselves contain. Each new letter I read broadened my appreciation for Plath: not just as a poet but as a motivated and enterprising young woman. I say young woman because although she considered turning 30 to put her in the echelon of the aged, 30 is as we know still quite young. Anyway, I corresponded with a lot of wonderful archivists and librarians in the US and UK and further abroad and was able to find many new archives that hold Plath materials. Sadly, though, not every query was successful. If you are reading this and you have an original letter written by Sylvia Plath, please do get in touch with me.

The summer of 2013 saw three separate exhibits of Sylvia Plath at Smith College. One featured some of Plath's poems about flowers, another on The Bell Jar and a third on Plath and Chaucer. In Spain, Elena Rebollo Cortés mounted her own exhibit on 50 years of covers of The Bell Jar.

In August, I posted on having found even more articles on Plath's disappearance and suicide attempt in 1953 and highlighted the digital archives of The Townsman of Wellesley. This is a wonderful resource for learning about the happenings in Wellesley; sifting through those newspapers from the 1940s and 1950s gives one a portrait of the town that may help contextual aspects of Plath's upbringing.

In September, Faber published Sylvia Plath: Drawings (my review) which is a wonderful little book. Plath's drawings are delightful to look at, and reading the previously unpublished letter from Plath to Ted Hughes from early in their marriage was a real treat. This October was far quieter than October 2012, which saw many of the world's Plath scholars converge at Indiana University. It was a Plathnado. In October, I began posting on the various Plath archives that I have worked with either in person or through email queries and was surprised to see that there was enough material for two posts a week for more than three months! One archival collection seemingly spawned another or provided an at-first unlikely lead to another and it is this magic that makes an archive so crucial and never dull. I hope that you have all found these posts useful, interesting, informative, and inspiring. If you know of a collection not mentioned and not a part of the Archival materials page on my website A celebration, this is, please do let me know. The archival collections posts carried on through October and November into December and will even stretch into January 2014. The revelation of Plath's poem "Evolution" from Experiment Magazine (December 1950) was for me a highlight of this fall.

As I have done in the past, the above is a Sylvia Plath year in review through my eyes. There are others out there writing about Plath in ways far better than I could ever dream. Please do remember to stop in at The Plath Diaries as often as you can, Maeve's posts on Plath and the thesis-writing process are vital reading. We certainly wish her the best of luck as she completes her thesis. A Piece of Plathery slowed down, but is still a valuable resource that includes stunning photographs of Plath books. A new blog ignited my life earlier in the year too: Nick Smart's Will There Be Fire? Visit that too, please. Thank you all, too, for remembering about my main website for Sylvia Plath, A celebration, this is. I hope that even though the content is more static than the blog, that you find the site useful, relevant, and info-tastic.

My analytics tell me that between this blog and my website, there were 118,321 visits combined to both sites in the last year. This number astounds me. The seven most popular pages on my website were: the biography page, followed by Poetry Works, The Bell Jar, Prose Works, the thumbnail page for 1960-1963, the links page, and the Archival Materials page. The seven least visited pages are hardly worth mentioning...the low-life's!

In 2014, Amazon.co.uk lists that Faber will publish new editions of Plath's Journals, The Bell Jar, and Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams in early January; and we can look forward in the early months of the year to paperback releases of the 2013 biographies of Plath. And hopefully there will be additional publications to read, including journal articles, as well.

I could never make the contributions I may be making and maintain my level of enthusiasm and desire to succeed to be the gosh-darned best Plath scholar-blogger I can be without you and your readership and your visits and comments. Thank you -- well, thank most of you -- sincerely, for visiting the blog and being a virtual part of my life. I try always to present the best information I can, in a way that is timely, interesting and accurate.

Happy holidays and Happy New Year to you all. See you next year.

All links accessed 7 November & 14 December 2013.

10 comments :

Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

Thanks, Peter. It was fun revisiting! How did you ever get into the French House? When Tom and I went this summer the lines were well out the door and down the road. Must have been something big going on. I was not up for the SoHo crowds! Happy holidays to you and to all the readers here.

A Piece of Plathery said...

Merry Christmas to all and thank you Peter for the recap, I always forget just how full each year is with Plath. Also, congratulations for the letters project, look forward to the final results, how exciting.

Anonymous said...

What a great summary of the year. Thanks Peter for all of your work. Your archiving is beyond compare and as ever it is a total privilege to work with you. Plymouth was a blast.
Happy holidays to all Plathies & blog readers,
Gail

Nick said...

That was a great summing up of the year, Peter. I really enjoyed remembering all the exciting things that happened- from Maeve's event, to your paper with Gail, to the Ariel reading in London. In spite of all the Google Alerts which told me about the latest superficial article about Plath in the press, this has been a good year to be (in my case, become) a Plath enthusiast. Thank you for being such a source of information and wisdom about her life and work.

The Plath Diaries said...

2013 felt like a busy year for Plath, but seeing it all written down like this just makes you realise how much really went on!

Very very exciting to hear a little more about your Letters work, Peter. It does worry me to think that certain dates are incorrect and words have been re-shaped to change Plath's voice.. what does this mean for how we have been reading the poems? It is vital and necessary for any editorial errors to be weeded out in favour of much-needed clarity, and with a team as eminent as the one you listed, I am hopeful and very excited about what new information your work will bring!

Thanks for your nice comments re: my blog and the Plath event in February. Honestly, if it wasn't for Sylvia Plath Info, I really think there would be little-to-no Plath community online whatsoever, so this great network of kindred spirits is entirely your doing! Thank you for your tireless work, all your support and wit during the year. It's been wonderful to get to know you and I am looking forward to what 2014 brings.

Have a great winter season,
Best wishes and thanks,
Maeve

Anonymous said...

I am absolutely elated to hear the news that an edition of SP's letters are in the works. In the absence of the last journals, these letters offer much needed insight into Plath's daily life from 1960-63, how she saw herself as an enterprising writer, an expat, a mother, etc.

I have to admit, rather sheepishly, that---having never seen the originals---I've always enjoyed reading and re-reading _Letters Home_ for the glimpses it offers into Plath's life during her final years---especially, her early accounts of Court Green, the description of her first (and last) Christmas there, her baking frenzy before the birth of Nicholas, etc.. I know that there was much editorial butchering and reshaping going on---so I am looking forward to hearing Plath in her words, finally!

Anonymous said...

Peter! Thank you for all your fine work this year (and every year) - its been a pleasure to read & reflect upon. Happy holidays to you & Courtney xo Kim

Peter K Steinberg said...

Julia, Plathery, Gail, Maeve, Anonymous, Kim, and Nick,

Thank you all for your comments. I hope that you all continue to visit the blog, contribute via comments or guest posts or what have you when the urge strikes, and that the content remains interesting and relevant. You've all said some pretty kind things (checks are in the mail) and I hope to justify them as we go in to 2014.

Julia, we closed the French House down, must've gotten there maybe 20 minutes or so before last call.

Maeve, I know what you mean about how the treatment of Plath's letters likely has implications on her other texts (and not just the texts but the order in which they were produced). Nancy Hargrove in The Journey Towards Ariel and Tracy Brain The Other Sylvia Plath approach these issues but little to nothing has actually done -- from an official estate & publisher perspective -- yet. Maybe this Letters project will spur something. Well, it gives us all something to look forward to!

~pks

BridgetAnna said...

love the description of Plath as a motivated and highly enterprising young woman--two attributes I'd never seen quite given to her as such, but so fitting nonetheless! thanks for all the hard work you do year in and year out, PKS. like Maeve said, it's highly likely that without your OWN motivation and enterprising, we would not have the Plath community as we know it today.
thanks again,
bridget

Omfug X said...

I was slightly worried that I might not live (I am 57) to see an unexpurgated volume of Plath's letters, I was also worried that Frieda might not allow it since she has been so protective of her father for so many years, but perhaps now that she is getting older her perspective has changed?

I have always found "Letters Home" appalling yet fascinating, but I want to see the real letters. As another poster said, in lieu of the last diaries (I especially regret the "missing" diary that covers the years that Plath became a mother) the letters will have to do for giving us an insight into what Plath was thinking at the time she was writing her powerful poems.

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