I recently chatted with Peter K. Steinberg about his research for co-editing The Letters of Sylvia Plath with Karen V. Kukil (Faber, 2017). For someone like me whose laptop files are a shambles to say the least, I am always in awe of Peter’s ability to be a really organised scholar. I asked him about the actual research process – how do you even begin to approach a project as vast as this one, and when it’s underway how do you keep track of it all?
Peter, how did you go about actually tracking down all of these Plath letters?
David Trinidad [another Plath scholar] and I were keeping separate lists of letters unbeknownst to each other. This was realized sometime around late 2010 and we shared them. I believe at the time the totals came to about 800 letters from various archives. He had worked extensively with the letters at the Lilly Library, particularly from September 1961 to February 1963, which contains mainly letters from Plath to her family. When I saw the list, I realized fully, for perhaps the first time, how incomplete Letters Home was and how unfamiliar I was with Plath’s letters. This motivated me to get a better handle on the extent and volume of letters that there were.
In early 2011, David and I were encouraged to write a proposal to edit the letters of Sylvia Plath and for this we transcribed a few representative letters: one to Helga Huws and two to her mother. Though we submitted the proposal, for some reason we never heard anything. However, while we were waiting I had started transcribing all the letters that I did have copies of from various libraries such as Smith, Indiana, University College Dublin, and the University of Washington, St. Louis, to name a few. As time went on, I wrote to other libraries that listed they held Plath materials in their archive and got copies when they could be provided. If I couldn’t get copies I’d try to travel there or enlist friends to do so.
Time passed and around October 2012 Karen Kukil was approached by Faber to edit the letters. She initially brought me on as the lead transcriber for the project and somehow this metamorphosed into being a co-editor and then the lead co-editor. It is my great lament that we could not get David Trinidad on board as well but he provided so much assistance and support that his particular contributions have not gone unacknowledged. I went through phases of writing to places that held archives of people Plath knew, or that I suspected she wrote to. I then went after the periodicals that she submitted her work to. Reading her diaries, other letters, and journals provided another resource for names to try to track down. The majority of this seems to have been wasted efforts as the results were largely negative. However, from time to time, new letters or a cache of letters did turn up.
The numbers of letters began to grow. From the initial list of 800 or so in 2010, the next milestone I have is 970 letters as of January 2013. Eventually I made a spreadsheet of letters in order to better track what was out there, what I had transcribed, and what was a mystery or still outstanding. I added in those from Letters Home, and then a list of all the other letters at the Lilly Library that weren’t in Letters Home. Before I knew it the total was approaching 1300. In the end, we had 1,380. Of course there are (or were) more. But I would be doing a disservice if I didn’t stop here and say, “Find out more in These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath by Gail Crowther and Peter K. Steinberg, to be published by Fonthill Media in 2017.”
What format did you see them in – originals/pdfs/scans/photographs and how did differing formats alter the experience of reading them?
I saw the letters in a variety of formats. All of those you stated above. Nothing can compare to seeing and working with the originals as you get the full view of the color of the paper, the annotations in a variety of pens and pencils, rips, cancelled text, etc. Scans and color photographs are extremely helpful and useful, but do fall short in conveying some information that working with the originals provides. For letters that I had only a black and white copy of, I kept a list of hard to make out things and would blitzkrieg archivists with requests for clarification, or keep it on file for an in-person visit. Also, seeing the letters in person (or in color if a surrogate, at least) provided helpful information in dating letters for which a dateline was absent. In many of Plath’s postcards home from camp and Smith, the letters were undated. For example, Plath would write “Tuesday” because that was all she needed to write. But for the editor working on a comprehensive documentary edition of letters, that didn’t pass muster. And so seeing the postmark either in person, with the aid of a magnifying glass, or blowing up the image in Photoshop enabled me to discern the postmark date (and location) and then verify that date against a perpetual calendar. In Letters Home many of the dates are assigned from the postmark date, which is often the day after Plath wrote it. So this edition of letters that Karen and I produced will allow scholars and readers to know properly and exactly when a letter was written.
What is the process of transcribing a letter – what do you actually have to do?
The first thing I did, or tried to do, was date the letter as exactly as possible and determine to whom it was addressed. In the archives world this is called gaining “intellectual control” over the thing. I came up with a file naming scheme that aimed to keep things tidy and in order. The first part of the file was a date written in a way that would allow them to always sort in chronological order: 1951_03_05. Then I’d have sender and addressee: Sylvia_Plath_to_Ann_Davidow-Goodman. This would be followed by the library or archive from which it originated: _Smith. So the file reads: 1951_03_05_Sylvia_Plath_to_Ann_Davidow-Goodman_Smith. If there were multiple letters written to the same person on the same day, and there often was, I’d add a _#1 or _#2 or _#3 and so on after the date: 1947_07_06_#2_Sylvia_Plath_to_Aurelia_Plath_Lilly. Uncertain dates I added a _circa: 1955_12_18_circa_Sylvia_Plath_to_Mallory_Wober_Kings_College_Cambridge, and so on. This would allow something still to sort roughly where it belonged so that when I put the book together everything should be in order.
I would read the letter through one or many times to become familiar with it. This way I would be prepared for any tricky words. Also, if a page was missing, perhaps, from a photocopy or a scan I could approach the library or letter owner in advance of starting the grind of transcribing.
After all that, I’d create a word document with the exact same file name and begin transcribing the letters. I’d open the Word file and make it a half-screen on the right side of my laptop; and then I’d open the PDF or JPG and situate that on the left side of my screen and type away. I found this the easiest way to work as my eyes were relatively fixed in a small space as opposed to typing on the screen whilst having to look away to a sheet of paper lying flat on my desk. I never felt coordinated enough to do that and feared pulling a muscle or making myself dizzy.
I set myself certain goals (and rewards, i.e. chocolate). I’d try to do one letter a day, or several even if they were short. This process took a long time, even for the short postcards and notes. You check and check and re-check these things many times. And you try to make sure they are perfect. After the letter was transcribed and proofed, then came the really fun part of researching for annotations and notes. This was where I felt I could most contribute to the project. After all, Plath did all the work herself just by writing the letter. It was my duty/responsibility to dig as far and deep and down as I could to identify and explain the information she was relating in her correspondence. This had me constantly on Ancestry (with Gail’s help), looking at microfilm and online/digitized historical newspapers and magazines, reference books at various libraries, looking in biographies (really, as a last resort), and what was most fun, was reading the incoming letters Plath received and retained to footnote the letter she was responding to. This also required it’s own set of proofing and review; and very often also necessitated moving these footnotes around so that they would appear at something’s or someone’s first mention. It felt like I imagine someone monitoring traffic patterns in big dense cities feels like as they try to manoeuvre cars and people all over the place.
I maintained, until the very end, a separate file for each letter. For me it was easier to work on this as small individual units. The documents were full searchable using Windows Explorer, so it was always very easy to find the text of a letter as well as the next in a footnote. And as time went on, I started to learn, by heart, which periods of time – if not which letter exactly – something was mentioned in. Then, using Word, I combined the individual files into one massive document which exceeded 3,300 pages, had more than 3,000 notes, and had nearly one million words.
What surprised you most about the letters?
This is a really difficult question because I’m going to have to try to answer it without giving away too much information (content-wise) about the letters themselves. The volume of letters surprised me. 1,380 (known/seen) letters is a quite a lot. Seeing many of them in person was fascinating as I got familiar first with her handwriting and then her typewriting and I started to notice small idiosyncratic things she did. It seemed that Plath and an inability to not write letters. She was constantly writing her family and friends and the voice in the letters is so charming and interesting. The letters are far better than what was printed in Letters Home; that’s an unfair representation of who Plath was. She gave her full attention to the recipient so that whoever it was must’ve felt the complete dedication of her time, energy, and personality. Similarly, I gained a sense of how close she was to certain people and this is certainly something that could be revisionary from the way many have interpreted her letters before.
How long have you been working on this project?
As I mentioned above, the work kind of started in late 2010 and early 2011 but slowly and quite officially. From 2011 to 2014 saw the greatest amount of transcribing taking places and then the least two or so years was spent in proofing, annotating, and happily getting more letters. So while the project was a very long one, in some ways the extended duration was beneficial as we got about 100 or so more letters this way to several different people and this therefore widens our appreciation of her epistolary output. And the work isn’t even done yet! Since the book as with the publisher now there will be more work to do when the time comes such as reading the entire manuscript again, making last minute changes and updates, doing the pagination for the index and the like. And maybe more than this, too, if it is necessary. My attitude was always “Whatever it takes” and “I can rest when it’s done”. As much as I want a break from it, I still find myself occasionally looking for the odd bits of information for the contextual footnotes that had eluded before we submitted the manuscript. And, too, I keep looking for new letters. Not that I’m hopeful that we could get them in – it may be too late for all that – but because I know there are some (many) out there.
What sort of advice can you offer researchers who are about to embark on a project of this scale, because it was such a mammoth undertaking?!
My advice for any researchers about to embark on a project would be to be as logical and methodical and ruthless as possible. To come up with a reasonable working process; gather people you trust around you who can help; never be afraid to ask for help or information; buy ibuprofen for joint pain and carpel tunnel syndrome. Keep a list of outstanding queries that you have made to libraries and other reference sources because it’s easy to send out 12 emails and then forget about them. This way you can stay on top of things, follow-up with people in a timely fashion, and also periodically check for new information as it (information) is always becoming available. When it comes to the work, though, decide as early on in the process as you can what information you will include about the letter as metadata in each letter’s header. Look at other published volumes of letters to get ideas on styling. As much as you can try to understand the scope and scale and to take this into consideration when developing your plan to achieve the work. Ascertain in advance or when the contract is being discussed what the publisher has in mind for size, deadline and the like because no one wants surprises. Create personal goals and deadlines for accomplishing work in a given day or a week and most importantly stick to it. I took virtually no time off throughout the project but other people may not be as robotic, “dedicated”, or as driven as I was.
See Peter’s blog http://sylviaplathinfo.blogspot.co.uk/
And website http://www.sylviaplath.info/