One feature I love about archival material is being able to see the creative process in action. Poetry drafts, deleted lines, strike-throughs, and discarded ideas. Seeing what Plath rejected is almost as enlightening as what she believed would work. She was undoubtedly one of her own best critics.

One really lovely item in the Smith College Archive is a list of names that Plath gathered with the intention of using them in her fiction. This seems to be a task that she engaged with during 1957-1958 when she was teaching at Smith College and unable to really clear time to write for herself.

On Tuesday 14 January 1958, she wrote in her journal: ‘Name list of queer good names (cf. last page)’ (2000: 312). Here she is possibly describing the two loose pages of name suggestions now held in the Mortimer Rare Book Room. (The previous page in her journal where she invites a comparison is agonising over names and story episodes). Typed neatly on pink Smith College memorandum paper, the list seems to be based on actual names. Although the sheets are undated it seems likely that they originate from her teaching year since typed at the top of the first page is ‘NAMES: (real: Smith Catalogue).’ If this was Plath’s source then people in the Smith catalogue had some spectacular names; Persis Pottinger, Carlotta Wolverton, Nancy Skallerup, Gloria Terwilliger and Blossom Willinger. I’m not aware that any of these full ‘queer good names’ made it into Plath’s fiction – although two first names both spring out – Ariel and Esther.

What is fascinating is to see Plath as a writer noting and drafting ideas, even if they ultimately came to nothing. And as ever with archival traces, those little details that get left behind: the rust at the top and bottom of the first page from a paper clip Plath used to keep the pages together.

 

[Journal quote taken from Plath, Sylvia, Journals of Sylvia Plath (ed.), Karen V. Kukil (London: Faber & Faber, 2000)]

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