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?
In recent weeks a new collection of Plath material was advertised for sale, owned by Harriet Rosenstein, an early Plath biographer. The archive consists of Rosenstein’s research notes, recordings of people she interviewed for her book, and unseen photographs of Plath (provenance as yet unknown). However, other material included in the sale were the coroner’s report from Plath’s inquest, medical notes from Plath’s stay in McLean Hospital after her first suicide attempt in 1953, and letters written to her therapist, Dr Ruth Beuscher, between the years 1960 – 1963. The hospital notes were stolen by Beuscher from McLean who eventually handed them onto Rosenstein.
In recent days the British media have picked up on some of the content of these letters (which were previously thought destroyed), namely allegations of domestic abuse by Ted Hughes. Some articles link one instance of this happening to just two days before Plath miscarried their child in 1961. There are so many issues to consider here that it leaves one a little bewildered.
However, what this media attention has highlighted, yet again, is the extent to which Plath is a cultural figure who unnerves and challenges. There are issues about conflict, access, and privacy. Should somebody be allowed to sell hospital notes that were stolen? Should readers be able to access the private correspondence between a therapist and her patient? Do the dead have any rights at all? What consideration do we have to give to surviving family members and those drawn into Plath’s story? How soon is too soon to publish personal letters and journals? Should they even be published at all? These are ethical questions that constantly trouble scholars and readers of Plath, and there are no easy answers.
Perhaps first of all it may be helpful to unpack the media framing of this new material which has certainly inflamed the situation. Knowledge that there was physical violence in the Plath/Hughes marriage is not new at all. In fact it is already there in her published journals, mostly graphically when she describes a fight on her last day teaching at Smith College in 1958 (pages 386-392). But also prior to the marriage too after a night spent together in London in March 1956 (p. 552). For those of us who have been privileged enough to work in the archives there is more evidence. The University of Maryland holds the papers of Plath’s American editor Fran McCullough. In her notes she recounts a visit to Devon in the mid-1970s when she found herself showing Ted Hughes a manuscript of Letters Home and observing his reaction to reading it. According to McCullough, he left the room, upset, and then later drove her out for dinner and made the claim that Plath had a ‘demonic side’ like ‘black electricity’ that would explode. McCullough writes: “He said he used to try slapping her out of her rages but it was no good. And once she turned into his slap and got a black eye and went to Drs and told him that Ted beat her regularly. But then as it began to heal she decided it looked dramatic and began to mascara the other eye to match.” There is a lot of information to unravel here, but what we do have is a direct admission from Hughes that he hit Plath and then his subsequent justification and negotiation about how he dealt with that (for example, blaming Plath herself for ‘turning’ into his slap and apparently ‘liking’ the look of her black eye). While the ethical dimensions of domestic violence are straightforward (it’s wrong and unacceptable), the details of personal relationships are not. By this I do not mean to negate the power an abuser has over the person they abuse, or that the violence within the Plath/Hughes marriage did not cause Plath considerable distress. Of course it must have done. But in 1961, as today, women find themselves situated in a cultural and historical moment that does not care about them. They exist and struggle within a society and within institutions that make escaping such relationships difficult to say the least. That a man may physically abuse a woman is one demonstration of power, but it would be a lot less powerful if women found it easier to escape. Structurally nothing is on their side to walk away. In this sense testimony becomes important and women’s voices need to be heard. In 1961, Plath would have become a single parent living in a rented flat in London with no stable job or income. In 1962 when the marriage finally did break down and she was then left the single mother of two children, she was upset that the villagers in Devon speculated she had never been married in the first place because she received so much mail addressed to Sylvia Plath, not Mrs Hughes. Yet it was exactly these structures and attitudes that Plath attacked in her writing. Her journals are a long consideration of societal double standards. The Bell Jar depicts vividly and with razor-sharp commentary on what it was like to be a young woman negotiating life in 1950s America. Plath’s Ariel poems, a direct response to her disintegrating marriage, bristle with resistance to, and fury about, physical, psychological, and emotional abuse. Plath was not silent. She has never been silent, though at times she has been silenced.
This silencing has been justified in a number of ways – issues of privacy and taste, consideration for those who her words may affect. Female anger makes certain people uncomfortable. Critics refer to Plath as ‘shrill’ and ‘hysterical’ – gendered language to say the least. However, in my research, one of the overwhelming positive features that readers gain from Plath is her openness about her personal experiences. The genius of Plath is that she used this to universalise, so reading a Plath poem is not like reading a diary entry, but it is about emotions that at some stage may affect us all, situations that we may all experience. Plath is a source of strength for many of her readers. One response to this could well be, just because Plath gave us these poems, does it give us the right to read her personal correspondence? It’s a powerful question and raises many issues about access, privacy, and rights. First, the archive tells us that Plath certainly had an eye for publishing her own letters at some stage in the future. We can’t fully know which letters and how many, but the evidence is there. Second, once someone is dead, then that decision falls elsewhere. With Letters Home, it was Plath’s mother; with the first edited Journals it was Ted Hughes, and with the unabridged Journals, Plath’s children Frieda and Nicholas. The forthcoming complete Letters to be published in two volumes by Faber necessarily has the support of Frieda Hughes (she owns The Estate of Sylvia Plath, the letters could not be published without her sanction). So, as scholars and readers, can we be guided by this? If Plath’s daughter supports the publishing of her mother’s letters should we feel okay to read them? It is a slippery path to negotiate and I do not know what the answer is, or even if there is one. Readers may remain divided about this. As a researcher who has spent many weeks in Plath archives, there are times when I have felt very uncomfortable. It can feel invasive. I wonder what Plath would make of it all. I constantly unearth things that I would not dream of publishing. Some stories feel too soon, others too disruptive for people who are still alive. But they are my own ethical boundaries. Luckily, however, archives are permanent. The material is not going anywhere and so the stories can be told at any time.
As a female cultural figure, Plath troubles and agitates. This makes her powerful because she undermines those very structures that seek to put her down or silence her. When Plath is presented as just another ‘crazy woman’ she shows up societal stigma and disdain towards mental illness/health. When she is written off as a miserable, doomed, suicidal poet, she exposes all the ways in which structures, such as masculinity, patriarchy, and misogyny, try to depoliticise or write-off any female voice of resistance. That Plath ultimately killed herself does not negate any of her power. We cannot judge a life lived on a decision she made in her final day(s). That is unfair and does her a great disservice. But we can listen to her – and that is not always easy. What voice should we listen to? What voice of hers do we have a right to listen to? In some ways it feels like a mire of sticky ethical quicksand, but that is no reason to back away from it. For therein lies the beauty of Plath – she forces us to face up to these issues, unflinchingly. And in a world that badly needs female voices of resistance, that can be no bad thing.
Last week I spent a few hours in The British Library exploring some newly released Plath materials from the Ted Hughes collection. Peter K. Steinberg had alerted me that material which had previously been withheld from public viewing was now available. It was described as:
HUGHES, Ted (1930-1998). Autograph Manuscript drafts for an apparently unachieved poem, five of the pages being on the versos of carbon typescript fragments of prose pieces by Sylvia Plath, undated. Autograph Manuscript draft of ‘Crow sees a movie’, undated. Creation dates: Undated
With no idea what these prose fragments might be I requested the relevant files (RP 9674) to read in the Rare Manuscripts Room. On my way to The British Library I walked across Tooting Common and saw daffodils everywhere, which seemed to be a good Plathian omen.
It was the first real hot day of the year and the courtyard of the library off Euston Road was full of researchers stretched out in the sun.
Entering the reading room still excites me, though I have been many times now. There’s something about the hush and the desks and the concentrated silence. The fragmented manuscripts were waiting for me when I arrived. Because they are loose pages, they were contained in a thick brown envelope and had to be viewed in a large padded box. The reading room was unusually quiet.
Sometimes the archives don’t always give you what you want and this was one of those occasions. When I opened the envelope I immediately realised that I was dealing with photocopied sheets, not original documents. The five Plath typescripts were four fragmented pages of ‘Sweetie Pie And The Gutter Men’ (pages 11, 13, 16, 17). There were no discernible differences to the version published in Johnny Panic. The final page was a fragment of a piece called ‘Two Fat Girls on Beacon Hill’. This is Plath’s clinical eye taking in and describing in uncomfortable detail a young woman sitting reading on the Embankment of Beacon Hill (Plath’s body shaming here is something else). This is page 3 of whatever Plath was working on; page 2 is held at Emory University. It has a laboured unfinished feel about it, like an exercise rather than a creative piece. Although it is undated, it most likely originates from the writing year Plath spent in Boston in 1958-1959. Since during this time she was struck with legendary writer’s block, I wonder if this was one way of her attempting to get some words down on the page. Periodically she tried to set herself a target number each day to break the mental block. It’s not her best prose anyway, but it is still fascinating to see her play with language and observe daily rituals and interactions.
It did not take me very long to transcribe the piece, two hours maximum. The provenance of these pages is unknown, as are the whereabouts of the originals. Almost always the archives can throw up such spaces. I packed away my notebook and pencils and walked out of the reading room into the dazzle of the courtyard and the sunshine.
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.
The following is a guest post by Jennifer Otter Bickerdike, author of Joy Devotion: The Importance of Ian Curtis and Fan Culture (2016) which is a collection of essays exploring the continuation of Ian Curtis as a significant cultural figure, and the various ways in which fandom can manifest itself. I’m pleased to have an essay in this collection called ‘The Unquiet Graves of Ian Curtis and Sylvia Plath’.
This Night Has Opened My Eyes
Jennifer Otter Bickerdike
I love my hometown of Santa Cruz, California more than anywhere else in the world. I am not saying this as a country bumpkin who has never left California, or the United States- there is some silly statistic of how many Americans do not even have a passport. I have traveled all around the world, to cities huge and villages tiny. I appreciate a lot of places, but there is only the singular best place on earth of Santa Cruz. It is the perfect mix for me of artists, beach culture, nature, pot smokers, tech start up want-to-bes, crystal healers and corporate culture. It is the perfect ying and yang of opposing forces, yet it works so beautifully. I left the Cruz when I was 18 to go to University, and I was homesick within a week of being away from it. I have yearned my entire life to go back there to live full time- or maybe, I have always hoped, to find another place that encapsulates those same Santa Cruz qualities. I thought I would never find it, or get that feeling again. Until I set foot in Manchester.
It is safe to say that I had ‘been’ to Manchester many, many times. I have been obsessed with all the bands from the city for three decades- since early pre-teen-hood, listening to New Order and the Smiths on repeat, usually on shitty taped over cassettes of my mother’s Juice Newton or Alice Cooper albums. You could sometimes hear the former recording between songs, a screech from Cooper or a croon from Newton. But these were my bands, and it did not matter what material had been on there before- these artists were the soundtrack to long summer nights cruising around the Cruz with a newly minted drivers license, to midnight clove cigarettes in college, to make out sessions with the cute guy from the apartment next door when I first moved to San Francisco after uni.
When I finally had the opportunity at the ripe old age of 33 to go to England- my first ever vacation as an adult!- the most important place for me to go was to Manchester. I remember stepping off the train that first night- I was HERE. I was overwhelmed at literally being able to walk the same streets once traipsed down by Joy Division, the Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses. I had a sweaty grip on Phil Gatenby’s Morrissey’s Manchester, a pre-Google tome which had a map and literal step by step directions to every place of relevance in the universe of the Smiths. Having also been equally enamored with Factory Records, I had my own even further DIY list of must see locations, such as the Hacienda, once the mythical epicenter of all Manchester nightlife, now outrageously overpriced footballer apartments. Top of the list, though, besides the legendary Salford Lad’s Club, was to go to Macclesfield and pay my respects at the grave of Ian Curtis. I remember looking it up- Macclesfield? Where the hell was that? Even my English friend who I was staying with had never heard of it.
Besides being too excited to sleep- so pumped up about actually being IN the ground zero for all of the music and artists I had loved for my entire life- I remember having that feeling. That Santa Cruz feeling. Of being totally at home, of the air, the architecture, the vibe, the intangible yet crucial thing that makes a place familiar and feel right. Santa Cruz is right on the Pacific Ocean, alternatively foggy and sunny, with a huge surf scene. Manchester has a ‘river the color of lead,’ red brick buildings and unrelenting gray, misty rain. Two places could barely be more diametrically opposed, even though they were on literal opposite sides of the globe. Yet they shared that magical, mystical feeling of possibility. I realize now how the two places had made me: Santa Cruz, the stomping grounds of my adolescence; and Manchester, the soundscape for my musical awakening.
Now as the wife of an Englishman, the accent, the music, the exoticness of Manchester has lost some of its mystique compared to my first visit to the City Centre. But like my hometown of Santa Cruz, I will always love it, it will always be home, and I will always feel that zing of excitement when I am within her city limits.
Dr. Jennifer Otter Bickerdike is a media and music academic, specializing in fan culture, the cult of dead celebrity, pop culture and music. She has written and presented extensively on fandom and media, including The Guardian and has recently been featured on BBC Radio 4. Formerly a music excutive where she worked with acts including Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Rage Against the Machine, Dr. Dre and Gwen Stafani, she now lives in London and writes and lectures full-time. Her newly edited book, Joy Devotion: The Importance of Ian Curtis and Fan Culture is out July 15th on Headdress. For more information, go to jenniferotterbickerdike.com
We are pleased to announce that we have just signed a book contract with Fonthill Media for a co-authored publication, the working title of which is, These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath. The essays in the book are based on our ‘These Ghostly Archives’ series of papers which we published from 2009-2013. We have substantially revised several of the essays and written new conversational pieces, in addition to producing original solo chapters. We are contracted to submit the manuscript to Fonthill this summer and anticipate a 2017 release.
The topics in the book will cover a plethora of Plath finds in the archives, but will also reflect more generally on the experiential nature of working in archives, and how these spaces may be understood. We have become increasingly interested not only in the way power informs archives, but how archives are, rather paradoxically, quite fluid things – not just fixed repositories holding relics from the past.
We discuss tracking and tracing lost manuscripts and poems, finding new work in the most unexpected of places, the contrast between Plath’s professional and personal holdings, her hair and her clothes, and the largely ignored poetry anthology that Plath worked on throughout 1961 as she was concurrently editing The Bell Jar. These archival adventures occur on both sides of the Atlantic, and take us into a number of well known and lesser known archives.
We definitely have Derridean archive fever and we hope you will too!
Since the start of this year I have been thinking and writing about archives. I have also been reading about archives – journal articles by researchers and archivists, excellent collections of essays such as Carrie Smith and Lisa Stead’s The Boundaries of the Literary Archive and general theorising of the archive by Caroline Steedman in Dust. So what I have now is a messy head of ideas that need some kind of moulding.
There are two things of which I am certain. First, that archives are about power. There is power in terms of who gets to access archives. There is power in who gets an archive dedicated to them. There is power in what gets sold to an archive and what gets withheld. I also think there can be subversive power in an archive – a place for otherwise silent/silenced voices to be heard. The second thing of which I am certain is that archives are somewhat melancholic, or at least the objects contained in them can be melancholy objects. By this I mean often the artefacts are relics of the dead, and as such, we read them perhaps already knowing the end story of somebody’s life. In the Sylvia Plath archives at Smith College, we can see the cheque stub for the gas cooker which Plath purchased on 12 December 1962 for £16:5:0. In this sense sometimes the meaning of objects becomes re-negotiated.
What I often struggle to articulate is the actual experience of working in an archive. Peter K Steinberg and I tried to capture this unique feeling in our series of papers called ‘These Ghostly Archives’- those physical shocks and jolts you can feel handling certain things. In theory, academics are supposed to remain pretty detached from this stuff and not write about such emotions, a rule which I repeatedly break. The very first archive I visited was at Peter’s request – the BBC Written Archives at Reading in England. While I was sitting feeling completely overwhelmed handling original documents, seeing Plath’s signature for the first time, following stories of poems and submissions and recordings, someone sitting behind me was reading letters from George Orwell to the BBC. I invented a spurious reason to stand up and stretch my legs so I could saunter by and casually glance at these letters. Plath and Orwell both within my field of vision at the same time. No way am I not going to get over-excited.
It’s not just the manuscripts and letters that are so moving in an archive. At Smith College I loved the childhood bits and pieces that Aurelia Plath had preserved and passed on. Little Sylvia Plath was a delightfully creative child making cards and drawings and cartoons.
She seemed to appear often in the local newspaper which was a chance to view previously unseen photos
And as she matured, her personal library grew. It was fascinating to see her underlinings and comments, or images from certain books that ultimately inspired poems.
So while I try to sort out theoretical approaches to the archive, I don’t want to lose the experiential aspect. In a way that is the most important part because ultimately for me archives are about remembrance – re-vivification, restoration, dialogues with the dead.