The following is a guest blog post by Peter K. Steinberg discussing the story behind our new book, These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath, published this month by Fonthill Media. You can read a companion piece by me on Peter’s website here: http://sylviaplathinfo.blogspot.co.uk/2017/05/these-ghostly-archives-power-politics.html
When I met Gail Crowther in 2007 at the Sylvia Plath 75th Year Symposium at Oxford, I never could have imagined the future work we would undertake which culminated in our recently published book of essays, These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath (Stroud: Fonthill, 2017).
The following year, Gail was in the throes of working on her PhD thesis (which itself became a book published earlier this year entitled The Haunted Reader and Sylvia Plath) and I was in the first year and webmaster and future co-editor of Plath Profiles. In the fall of 2008, Plath and her archives was a well-established passion. In addition to having made regular visits to Smith College and Indiana University, I was in the process of acquiring photocopies or scans of as many archival documents as I could. Poems, prose, photographs, letters – everything. In the US, it is largely easy to obtain copies. In the UK, however, I was often put in the situation of needing the Estate’s permission and these requests were seldom grants for various reasons.
So, since Gail was (and is) based in England, I sent an email to her asking if she could visit the BBC Written Archives Centre in Reading and transcribe the letters that they hold. Thus was borne a dual archives fever that swept us both up in its fury. Gail’s reaction to handling Plath documents for the first time in her emails to me was a passionate, emotional one. It was something I easily understood and recognized. Reading about her experience in an exchange of emails I felt as though I had been with her in the room. In my role as then-enthusiast for Plath Profiles, I asked her if she wanted to write something about it for the journal. It turns out that we both had a lot to say.
Over the next five years, Gail and I visited separately or in one case together, Smith, Indiana, the British Library, the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, the University of Maryland at College Park, and Cambridge University. We “visited” other archives too in a virtual sense, by reading catalog records and requesting copies. In those five years we produced five papers for the journal. Based on the feedback we received from readers, scholars, and friends, as well as our own belief that we had a strong foundation for a book, we decided to adapt the essays, write new ones, and try to find a publisher.
From when we started the series in 2008 through to publication, we found that at times writing was a challenge because it was not the case that we could dedicate 100% of our time to the essays and then the conversion to the book. Gail had other responsibilities like teaching, and oh, in the meantime, she co-wrote a book with the lovely, late Elizabeth Sigmund: Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year’s Turning. And in addition to my job, I was transcribing more than 1,200 of Plath’s letters and preparing them as co-editor with Karen V. Kukil for The Letters of Sylvia Plath. Not to mention of course other obligations. We all, I think, know how busy life is.
Gail had a vision for the layout of the book and took the original essays and cut them up. She identified which sections or stories had to go, which needed adding to, and which could be merged. Her work on this aspect of it was truly amazing. The good news is, though, that the original papers are still live, and can be accessed via the resources page (http://www.sylviaplath.info/resources.html) on my website for Sylvia Plath.
We largely merged the first two papers to make a more solid archival story. Additionally, we were able to infuse more recent archival experiences throughout the chapters, such as the finding of two lost Sylvia Plath poems. What we hope These Ghostly Archives shows, in part, is that one research trip to work with Plath’s papers can be insufficient to fully comprehend how the many pieces fit together in Plath’s life and her creative works. As more people write about Plath, and as more of her work is published and made available, the greater the need to revisit her archives. Taking aspects from the other three papers, we re-crafted our “conversations” to fit larger themes like unrealized collections, the archive at Smith College, photographs, and places. Gail and I both had ideas for separate chapters that we had been longing to write for years. The result was Gail’s “‘The body does not come into it at all’: Material culture of the dead” and my “‘What’s been happening in a lot of American poetry’: Sylvia Plath as editor and reviewer”. Running on the fumes of enthusiasm and adrenaline, we wrote a last chapter in a feat of masochism on lost archives. We felt it was important to consider these because what is more ghostly than an archive (or documents) that once existed, might still exist, or no longer exist?
By Elizabeth Sigmund and Gail Crowther, Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year’s Turning (Stroud: Fonthill Media, 2015) https://www.amazon.co.uk/Sylvia-Plath-Devon-Years-Turning/dp/1781554374/
By Gail Crowther, The Haunted Reader and Sylvia Plath (Stroud: Fonthill Media, 2017) https://www.amazon.co.uk/Haunted-Reader-Sylvia-Plath/dp/1781555478/
By Gail Crowther and Peter K. Steinberg, These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath (Stroud: Fonthill Media, 2017) https://www.amazon.co.uk/These-Ghostly-Archives-Unearthing-Sylvia/dp/178155594X/
The Letters of Sylvia Plath: Volume 1. Edited by Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil. London: Faber and Faber, 2017. (Available 5 October 2017) https://www.amazon.co.uk/Letters-Sylvia-Plath-1/dp/0571328997/
The Letters of Sylvia Plath: Volume 1. Edited by Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil. New York: HarperCollins, 2017. (Available 10 October 2017 for Kindle, and 17 October 2017 in hardback) https://www.amazon.com/Letters-Sylvia-Plath-Vol/dp/0062740431/”
All links accessed 15 and 20 March 2017.