The following piece is a conversation between Peter K. Steinberg and Gail Crowther about the research, transcription, and publication of The Letters of Sylvia Plath. Begun in July 2017 after some initial reaction to the UK and US covers of the Letters, the conversation continued throughout the rest of the summer as we continued to ponder what the publication may mean for Plath readers.
GC: The first time I handled an original letter written by Plath was years ago now and I can still remember the feel of the paper and seeing her signature in black ink. I was surprised that she wrote on such thin, flimsy paper. It was creamy-coloured and seemed more like tracing paper than something you would use for correspondence to the BBC. Other letters I saw were typed on clearly ripped in half pieces of paper – and then years later I saw letters written on the pink Smith College memorandum paper. Each letter looked different and letters to different people had different voices. She almost always played up her (already impressive) achievements to her mother; letters to her brother were hilarious; business letters firm and often wry. At the moment you are one of the few people in the world that has seen every letter included in volumes 1 and 2, and transcribed and proofed them for publication. That’s got to feel peculiar?
PKS: Peculiar, certainly, yes in some ways. Like you, I recall my first interactions with the Sylvia Plath archive. I was working at Smith with her journals, some letters, and poetry drafts and each one has its own distinctive characteristics. Like siblings, if you will. As such, each style of writing almost calls for its own way of being read and considered. At the same time, however, each forms a complementary part of a whole thing; kind of like movements in symphonies. What I really feel about these volumes of Plath’s letters though is a sense of privilege and entrustment.
GC: It’s obvious that this has had a massive impact on your life for about eight years now. You’ve been a Plath scholar for decades and published extensively, but why do you think Karen Kukil invited you to be co-editor on this particular book?
PKS: In January 2012 I had both taken and co-taught a course with Karen on ‘Editing Sylvia Plath’s Correspondence’ at Smith College. Later that year, when Karen was issued with an initial contract for the Letters, she asked me to be the lead transcriber. Of course I said yes, but I did so somewhat blindly as at the time I did not have a grasp on how large the project was. I knew of caches of letters from my researches and readings, but then that’s hardly indicative of what was truly out there. I had never made any concerted effort at tracking existing letters or finding new or unknown letters. I think Karen asked me to do this because I took her course, but also for the reasons you state, that I had been working on Plath for decades and had been published. Maybe also because she knew me and trusted me as a researcher and as a person; that my body of work to that point (2012) was something upon which she felt recommended me for the task.
GC: But co-editing must be quite challenging especially if you are not located in the same place and have to discuss over email/phone etc. Also you and Karen are holding down day jobs at the same time. What was the process by which you decided who did what? How was the workload divided up?
PKS: Yes, we do both have day jobs which meant mornings, lunches, nights and weekends for me were more or less (more!) dominated by transcription and all the rest. Thank goodness my wife was patient! I cannot remember really ever discussing who did what. My role was to transcribe so that’s what I did. That being said, the work was essentially divided into two categories: letters held by Smith College and letters not held by Smith College. Karen had students transcribe the Smith letters in the series of courses she taught and she took responsibility for finalizing them. So the non-Smith letters—which amounted to more than 1,250—were up to me.
GC: At some point though you moved from main transcriber to co-editor alongside Karen, how did that come about?
PKS: The sheer volume of the letters lead to an increasing role for me than just a transcriber. In addition to proofing and annotating, I amassed sets of supporting documents such as Plath’s early diaries, calendars, papers, creative works, scrapbooks, and the like to write the several thousand contextual footnotes. I sent out countless inquiries looking for more letters and in the process I located two caches of new letters that are now at Smith! I took on doing these as copies of the letters were sent to me before Smith took ownership. I guess as a result of this effort, my status was elevated from transcriber to that of co-editor. The day Karen insisted my name be first on the title page was one of those fairy-tale days that remains even now, hard to believe. Once the letters were finished, the final task was to assemble them all into a single document for review and submission.
GC: When I was working on Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year’s Turning with Elizabeth Sigmund, we obviously spent a lot of time talking about Plath. It was a privilege to work with Elizabeth who had real insight into Plath as a friend. However, Elizabeth was also a woman with great politics who understood how society and power structures operate and as a consequence of this, how narratives get constructed about people. She was hugely upset at the way that the Sylvia she knew had been portrayed over the years. One of the reasons that she asked me to write a brief biography of Plath’s year in Devon was because she felt it was important that it was written by a woman. She firmly believed that ultimately the best Plath biography will be written by a woman. The Letters of Sylvia Plath has two editors – you and Karen Kukil, do you think this book would have been better edited by two women?
PKS: Oh, I really miss Elizabeth. I am not sure how to answer this question without insulting anyone or coming off as a complete egotist. I believe, firmly, anyone could have transcribed these letters. With all due respect to Elizabeth, it is limiting to judge the work a person does or should be able to do based on their gender. I would only ever ask to be judged on my work. In this case, I believe Elizabeth was always pleased with me and my perspectives. While I think anyone with eyes and fingers could have completed the transcriptions, I do believe—based on my history in working with Plath’s papers—I was one of a very small number of people (including both women and men) that could have handled the extensive annotations. I felt I had both the specific background and the resources to do them properly. While I failed to do everything I wanted with this project, I am nonetheless very happy with the effort and dedication I contributed into the making of The Letters of Sylvia Plath.
GC: I agree. The extent and scope of the accompanying contextual notes and annotations in the Letters required extensive pre-existing knowledge – and you’re one of the few people with that. But I think what Elizabeth meant in terms of biography was that a woman’s lived experience might best be understood by another woman who has to inhabit the same power structures that Plath did. In other words there would be an experiential aspect necessarily excluded from masculine understanding and the more privileged position men hold. Furthermore, I do think it is fair to say isn’t it that generally female writers often get treated differently to male writers? If we take the cover of the UK edition of the Letters book by Faber we see Plath depicted in, as she called it, “a neat two-piece white Jantzen bathing suit”. If we do the usual comparison with Hughes, his Collected Letters show him sitting in a chair by a river, writing in a notebook. If we look at Faber’s edition of T.S. Eliot’s volumes of letters he is shown staring boldly at the camera. Anne Sexton on the cover of her Selected Poems is shown in a swimming pool. There is a huge difference in the way these writers are portrayed on the cover of their books and gender plays a massive part in this. I don’t mean to go down the simplistic line of “women always get shown like this and men do not”. Neither do I want to start finding examples of men in bathing suits or underwear to underscore my point (there are plenty of Joe Orton for example on posthumous editions of his books). It seems to me such comparisons rather miss the point. There are however lots of pictures of Plath during the years covered in Volume 1 that show her sitting writing or typing or reading or staring in her bold unflinching fashion at the camera. So why do you think designers would choose the picture that they did? And in comparison, the US edition has gone with a completely different cover.
PKS: I agree there is difference in the way female and male writers have been depicted and Plath herself has an interesting marketing history as Tracy Brain discussed in her ‘Packaging Sylvia Plath’ section of The Other Sylvia Plath (2001). Marketing and advertising decisions cannot be easy ones to make and likely go through a number of different stages and channels before being finalized. And this is the way it works for the publishing houses in any country, which I think explains the difference between covers for the UK and US edition of Plath’s letters. We provided a number of photographs of Plath that fit the time period represented in the volume. Selection was then made and approved by people at the publishers and the Plath Estate.
As for Sexton, one might be able to argue that cover image pays homage to several of her poems, for example, ‘The Nude Swim’ and the more famous ‘Music Swims Back To Me’ and more generally her love of swimming (she used a grant she was awarded in 1961 to install a swimming pool at her house). That’s hardly addressing your point, but I think in some ways may help to explain why this photograph of Plath was used.
The photograph gracing the Faber cover is actually a well-known, well-published, and already iconic photograph of Sylvia Plath. I believe it was first published, although in black and white, in Letters Home in 1975. And it has probably been reprinted in any number of books and articles about Plath since then. A colorized version was used in 1980s and a 1990s paperback editions [http://www.sylviaplath.info/thumbsbooks.html#johnnypanic] of Faber’s Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams. However, the main difference between then and now is that it is now in full, original color, the way Lameyer took the original when he and Plath visited Chatham, Massachusetts on 24 July 1954. I cannot state with authority why this particular photograph was chosen over the others. Aesthetically I conjecture the image worked best for their design team and it offers ample space for text to appear. The red lettering matches Faber’s most recent cover of the Journals, and any reader of Plath should appreciate the colour red from how Plath used it in her life: from her clothing to her lipstick to her poetry.
Plath’s smile is radiant. She is captured here at the beach, in the sun, less than one calendar year after her first suicide attempt, resplendent in life, enjoying a day-trip to the beach with Gordon Lameyer, and away from the rigors of Harvard Summer School. She is at the ocean, just down from Nauset, which she loved more than anything and from which she drew so much energy and inspiration. It is so Plath. That being said, just about every photograph of Plath would find its reflection in any of the letters. I feel that this particular photograph of Sylvia Plath complements the Sylvia Plath that readers will find when they read her letters, and let’s face it, all the negative comments were made before the book was published. I can’t help but think of the command made by many parents to their children: ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’. Doing so is disrespectful and in a sense silences her. It draws attention away from Plath’s own words which is where the focus of her readers should be and where the direction of discussions should lead.
The HarperCollins cover could not be more different. Plath here is depicted standing up, holding library books, wearing a shocking number of layers of clothes. She stands in a field between Whitstead and Newnham College circa winter 1955-56. She appears strong here; confident, looking into the distance (and maybe wondering why she chose England over a warmer climate!).
Both images are Sylvia Plath. She is the woman who loved the beach and loved books; she was studious and intelligent, but relished downtime in the sun by the ocean.
GC: Ok I see what you mean about capturing a particular moment and a favourite place for Plath that represents her at that time. I guess I have conflicting feelings about it really. One criticism of this image is that it sexualizes Plath. While I don’t read this as a sexual image, (and like you I feel it represents a particular moment in her life) I still feel it needs to be placed in a wider context. That summer was an important one as she moved into recovery from her suicide attempt, the peroxide hair, feeling reborn etc. She writes so eloquently about it. What I like most about the picture is not only that it captures Plath as a young woman (before she became the poet we all know and love) but that we see her in an informal setting, relaxed at the beach. It’s good to move away from the usual gloomy picture of her that often accompanies books and articles. Photographs are so powerful and seeing a smiling, informal Plath seems to really reflect the content of some of those letters written by her younger self. However, another factor to consider here despite what we as readers may think or like or want is perhaps to try and consider what Plath might find appropriate, or indeed how she might want herself to be represented. If we look through her work it’s really hard to find a fixed concrete answer to that question. For example, she gives very open reasons for her ‘Platinum Summer’ look and equally when she got over that gave equally good reasons why she dyed her hair brunette again. But then years later while living in Boston (1958-1959), she decried her whole brunette look as ‘mousy’ and boring and lamented she couldn‘t afford a decent hair cut or colour. In 1962 she hated her overly long skirts and wanted a more updated, daring look. Perhaps the pertinent, yet unanswerable, question is what would the 84 year old Plath today think about the way in which she is represented? Because she changed her mind so much throughout her life, I think we simply cannot know with any certainty. And since we cannot get a definitive answer from the words Plath left behind, where does the final responsibility lie for Plath’s representation? With her Estate? These are difficult and pretty uncomfortable questions. All that said, I still think the representation of female writers is often different (and not in a good way). You do mention above though a sort of multi-faceted Plath, having fun on the beach at Cape Cod, bundled up with books in Cambridge, so do you feel the two volumes of letters show a fuller version of Plath’s voice than we have seen before?
PKS: Absolutely. I think there are an infinite number of ways to interpret Sylvia Plath because everyone who reads her is different. We each find something in Plath that reflects back on us. One gets, I feel, a much truer sense of her complexity, how she interacted with her correspondents – and by extension how she may have been to be around as a person. These letters will complement Plath’s unabridged Journals in new, interesting, and intersecting ways. Experiences she relates also directly tie-in with dozens of her creative writings, from poems, to stories, to novel(s). The Sylvia Plath present in these letters is quite a different one than was given to her readers in 1975 when Letters Home was published. We witness quite a comprehensive, but still incomplete, growth and development of the woman and the writer. We see, freshly, the startling nuances of her life. We see Sylvia Plath, both on the cover of the Faber edition and in the letters printed between the boards, in full colour.
GC: What I find exciting about the scope of this project is that we get to move through Plath’s life with her. So we can see the inconsistencies, we can see how she changed and developed, her plans that never happened, we see her changing her mind, changing her opinion, that normal general business of living that we all do – sometimes being hugely decisive, sometimes indecisive. In this sense do you think it is fair to say that there is no ‘authentic’ Plath, no ‘true self’ to uncover here, but rather like the rest of us, a woman going through her life in flux?
PKS: In a way yes, I do. Working so closely with Plath’s letters and all the other supporting material was really educational as I saw firsthand how ‘human’ Plath was. And I do believe it’s important to remember that she was just like many of us in many ways. Or, to put it another way, because most of her readers never knew her they naturally consider her as kind of other-worldly. We all interpret Plath differently and accept her writings—in any genre—with varying degrees of trust. But it is up to each of us on our own to determine who Sylvia Plath was. No one should dare have either the audacity or the arrogance to dictate how one reads, interprets, and appreciates Sylvia Plath.
This blog post appears simultaneously on the Sylvia Plath Info Blog: