If you look at Sylvia Plath’s copy of German in Review held in the archives at Smith College, you will immediately notice a striking feature about it. The cover has been defaced with two stab marks and has been hit with such force that the indentations reach through to page 44 of the volume. Apart from this, the book is in rather good condition given its age and the distance it has travelled. On 2 October 1956 while living in Whitstead, Newnham College, Cambridge, Plath wrote to her mother in Wellesley, Massachusetts asking her to post this book across the Atlantic as once again she was going to try and learn German.
This ongoing, and frankly agonising, battle with the German language lasted for all of Plath’s life. While on the one hand she felt an affinity with what she called her ‘father-mother’ tongue, on the other she was simply unable to grasp the grammatical structure and sentence construction of the language. Her journals and letters are full of her torment. How much she wanted to learn and understand German while berating herself for being too ‘dense’ or ‘lazy.’ Page after page she urges herself to study and read, yet it seems one of the few areas in life that Plath simply could not comprehend.
These efforts even seemed to feature in her romantic life, with a 4 August 1954 letter to her boyfriend Gordon Lameyer saying, ‘thinking back, of how dear you were to agonize through all the german with me…’ More dramatically to her mother on 5 October 1954, she claims ‘I am going to learn German or perish in the process…’ Even in March 1962, less than two months after giving birth to her son, Nicholas, she is once again urging herself on and her latest efforts appear on her Letts wall calendar for German study and reading.
This item, then, in Smith archives, the German in Review, violently stabbed twice on the cover raises all sorts of questions. Did it accidentally get damaged the many times it moved around the world between different apartments and houses?
I do not think so.
When you handle it and turn the first forty or so pages, you can easily see the damage is deliberate. Somebody has taken a sharp object and punctured the cover and the opening pages. Was it Plath? Did she finally release her frustration by stabbing her grammar book? And if so, when? Did she record doing this in her ‘missing’ journals? We simply do not know. But this archival object is disquieting. One can’t help but feel that there is a story attached to it that eludes us. It is unsettling and a little sad. And another silent archive story, waiting to be told.
This month’s ‘From the archives’ blog post is a guest piece from Peter K. Steinberg who shares some of the research methods he used while compiling the footnotes for The Letters of Sylvia Plath and he questions what actually is an archive? What can we class as an archival document?
The Archival Stretch
Peter K. Steinberg
One of the aspects most enticing about Sylvia Plath is her archive. Remembering my first visit to Smith College in May 1998, I saw for the first time that I knew nothing about the poet and writer. Happy I had been with Collected Poems, Letters Home, and the [abridged] Journals.[i] But that first visit opened new metaphorical doors. More realistically, it opened new works, new photographs, and so much more. But Smith is a small piece of the confusing puzzle with some pieces here and some pieces located quite a bit farther away.[ii]
However much we try to grasp what these traditional archives hold, we must also remember they are massively incomplete. Neither Plath nor, more alarmingly, her mother saved every scrap of paper generated. We know of absences. There are some infamous ones. For example, where is Plath’s note saying she was going for a long walk (or hike) from 24 August 1953? Where is the telegram Ted Hughes sent to Plath’s aunt Dorothy Benotti announcing her death? Perhaps still with the Plath family? Perhaps understandably not retained for the emotional pain they undoubtedly recall.
In These Ghostly Archives, Gail and I introduced our notion of the ‘living archive’. I will not go into that here, but certainly do encourage you to read about it there. With this post, however, I hope to stretch further, still, what we consider the Plath archive. In this instance I want to discuss the admittedly more tangential, ephemeral ‘things’ that Plath encountered. In my work as a co-editor of the Letters of Sylvia Plath, identifying text that warranted explanation as well as the writing of the footnotes fell nearly exclusively to me. I made use of so many of Plath’s own documents but these told me, and subsequently you, only so much. So as a matter of routine I would need to seek other materials such as magazines, books, newspapers, and more such as student, departmental, and corporate files in many archives to obtain as much contextual information I could for the footnotes. And it is this material that I think stretches the Sylvia Plath archive just a bit farther.
On 7 November 1955, Plath writes to her mother, ‘Also went out to dinner at the Union (the one place in Cambridge where women are not allowed unless escorted: the debate club) and saw a rather good repertory production of my favorite “I Am a Camera” (which you remember we saw with Mrs. Cantor and the Braggs, I think) which made me want to turn immediately to writing again’ (Letters, Volume 1: 1003). It was the first mention of I am a Camera but though written in 1955, sent me back to 1953. I found a reference in Plath’s 1953 calendar where on 4 April it reads, ‘Chinatown – rice & sweet & sour pork / “I am a Camera” – Cantors Mrs Bragg’s’.
This still was not everything. For the footnotes I always tried to provide the locations of places Plath visited, largely, in part, because this information is interesting to me; and as an editor, I felt I had the obligation to take as much work off the readers’ shoulders. This instance required finding out both where Plath saw the performances: at the Arts Theatre in Cambridge (via Cambridge Review) and at the Wilbur Theatre in Boston (via Boston Globe).
The folder that I kept of this supporting documentation contains to 551 files. I still refer to them to this day even though the project is done. I am not a camera, but I am curious: do you consider these kinds of documents to be a part of the Plath archive? Or, is it a stretch?
[i] Actually, that is a patently false statement as I was completely dissatisfied with Letters Home.
[ii] I try to keep an up-to-date list of Plath’s archives on my website. To this end, in September or October, I am going to publish a Google Spreadsheet called the ‘Sylvia Plath Archival Documents Hub’ that lists the location of all of Plath’s creative works (poetry and prose), letters, and photographs. The goal is to have, in one place, textual access to each retained document in those genres. It will be flexible, and in time I hope to add more content to it. Documents like the journals are not in there as they are held in just a couple of places.
All sorts of documents and artefacts exist in the Sylvia Plath archives; handwritten and typed manuscripts, novel drafts, personal items, clothing, drawings and sketches, furniture, music books, student notes, and journals. One particular type of archival item that is often overlooked is the photograph. Perhaps this is because studying somebody’s portrait invites a completely different type of gaze and provides a different type of knowledge. It is unlikely to reveal anything about Sylvia Plath’s development as a writer. Yet images can be – and are – active in the social process of understanding Plath in her broader historical moment and can act as visual shortcuts to understanding her cultural context.
Sometimes it can be the accidental details – fashion, location, and purpose of the image that reveal essential information. For a second we visually enter her social and cultural world and inhabit her having-been-there-ness. For this reason, I tend to ‘read’ portraits as fairly important documents, partly because they can offer us what Roland Barthes calls ‘historical grammar’ but also his belief that iconography is cultural. In other words, when Barthes explored how meaning gets into an image, he concluded that objects are often used as accepted inducers which promote an association of ideas. When I first encountered this argument from Barthes I struggled to grasp what he meant and how it linked to cultural knowledge. He believed that objects, or the posing of objects in a photograph, do not possess power, but rather possess meaning.
Using this as a theoretical framework to read portraits of Plath in the archives uncovered a new way of understanding her. And the first time I truly understood Barthes’ idea was when I saw the portrait of Plath and Hughes taken by David Bailey for Vogue magazine in 1961.
This shot was taken inside their flat at 3 Chalcot Square, Primrose Hill. They are sitting side by side and behind Hughes is a bookcase (association of bookcase = intellectual, says Barthes). But then interestingly, Hughes is sitting holding a book in his lap (successful writer association) and Plath is holding…a teddy bear. How do we read the accepted inducers here? By this time Plath was a mother, but she was also a successful writer. Did motherhood somehow visually take over? Joint portraits taken of Plath and Hughes in Boston a couple of years earlier tell a different story – both are presented with books, papers.
How do we read a photograph? According to Barthes ‘it depends on the reader’s knowledge just as though it were a matter of real language [langue], intelligible only if one has learned the signs.’ Of course we bring our own imagination, our own personal context to the reading of an image but equally captured within the four sides of a frame is a frozen moment – melancholic by its very preservation, and by implication, its inevitable passing away. Perhaps we respond to the accepted inducers and create our own association of ideas? And surely the purpose of the photograph is crucial – is it professional or personal? I am not sure I have answers to these questions, yet I do believe that the photograph is a powerful archival document.
Two of the major Sylvia Plath archives at Smith College and Lilly Library, Indiana University hold portraits of Plath – some professionally taken, others family snapshots.
In the same way a handwritten poetry manuscript with ink stains and smears and coffee cup circles allows Plath’s traces to flare out of an archive folder, so too does a portrait. The immediacy of the visual is perfectly described by Barthes; ‘A sort of umbilical cord links the body of the photographed thing to my gaze…’ Ultimately, this can be poignant but often, like all other archival artefacts, it can be about re-animation, the bringing back of the having-been.
‘Cameras in short were clocks for seeing…For me the noise of time is not sad.’ (Barthes)
Roland Barthes (1977) Image Music Text Fontana Press: London.
“The archive: if we want to know what this will have meant, we will only know tomorrow.” Jacques Derrida
Derrida is playful with time and the archives. Toying with the notion that there is ultimately something rather inscrutable about them, he suggests that searching for meaning is a task that we may never quite complete. This seems appropriate for the messy experience of working in an archive – moving between past, present, and future; knowledge gathering but equally raising more questions, leaving more gaps.
All the untold stories.
But whatever those gaps or silences may be, visiting a traditional archive is an intentional act. Often researchers have studied a finding aid beforehand and have a good idea what it is they want to work with. This intentionality brings a certain air of expectation with it. Sometimes it’s possible to guess or speculate about what might be there, but whatever the case, we know something will be there.
What is quite a different experience is when intentionality is removed and you are happily going about your business and bump into artefacts that you were not expecting to see. And Sylvia Plath pops up in some of the most curious places.
On a recent visit to the Ocean Liners exhibition at the V & A Museum in London, I was prepared to see items from the glamorous, and sometimes tragic, history of transatlantic travel. And there were lots of these. A dark flannel suit worn by Marlene Dietrich on one of her many crossings, a deckchair found floating in the ocean after the Titantic had gone down, and a diamond tiara rescued from a stricken liner. Closing the exhibition, bobbing on a virtual glassy square of black sea, was the largest surviving piece of the Titanic — a wooden door frame showing the point at which the ship had split in half.
I was of course aware that Plath had sailed across the Atlantic three times. Firstly in 1955 when she came to England to study on a Fulbright Scholarship at Cambridge University, then sailing back to America to teach at Smith College in 1957, before finally returning to England in late 1959. One of these crossings is described in meticulous detail here in Sylvia Plath and the SS United States – the food, the weather, other passengers, filling hours reading and eating. The ship was then the fastest transatlantic ocean liner – able to cover the distance from New York to Southampton in three and a half days. Now, the ship sits in a dry dock, stripped bare and rusting, with conservation groups struggling to raise money to restore it.
It was unexpected then as I was wandering around the V & A exhibition to encounter artefacts removed from the SS United States. A cocktail table, a lamp, a deckchair, glass screens, and an ostentatious wall sculpture. All of these items would have accompanied Plath as she crossed the Atlantic and each item brought the past firmly into the present. I talk about traces often, but that is because they seem to be everywhere. And I love the intangibility of them, how they play with imagination, and are steeped in told and untold stories.
The glass panels designed by Charles Gilbert, etched with coral reef scenes, were hung on the walls of the ballroom. No combustible materials were used on the SS United States, so fireproof products such as glass and metal were used instead. A cocktail table also found in the ballroom had a design based on the five-bladed propellers of the ship. The interior furniture of the liner was designed by an all-women firm owned by Dorothy Marckwald.
A wall sculpture gracing the first class grand staircase depicted an American symbol of the bald eagle, designed by Austin M. Purves, Jr. and was one of two hundred sculptures on board depicting a variety of plants and flowers from across all American states. A table lamp, more reminiscent of a black nautical lantern, threw out three-tiered layers of light and was another Dorothy Marckwald design.
An aluminium, plastic, and nylon deckchair provided a practical fold-away piece of furniture – though on Plath’s December 1959 crossing one suspects it did not get much use.
Finding unexpected artefacts linked to Plath in this way delightfully reanimates a specific cultural moment. These items bear traces of the past, alluding to forgotten stories and histories. Fragments from another time emerge in a different context allowing us to re-order and re-assign new associations, new meanings as well as new and unexpected stories.
One feature I love about archives is their maddening elusivity; for while they are a source of knowledge, equally they leave gaps and silences. For me this is part of their appeal and why they can ignite a researcher’s imagination. A missing letter or manuscript can lead to years of sleuthing and searching. Information deliberately removed, leads to speculation and suspicion.
These silences can be contained within a document already held in an archive. For example, Plath’s 1962 Letts Calendar in Smith College archives is a rich source of information. But there are two pages missing, deliberately torn out. The first is the September week that Plath spent in Ireland with the poet Richard Murphy. The second is the October week Ted Hughes returned to Court Green to pack his things and leave permanently. If you examine the calendar carefully you can see, on the pages that are left beneath these missing weeks, quite aggressive strike-throughs, though what is being struck through is not visible. Did Plath remove these pages, or somebody else? Why? Likely we will never know.
Other less dramatic untold stories can emerge unexpectedly while working through material. One of my favourites is the preserved, pressed rose petal against a Smith College envelope. It is almost hearted-shaped and has darkened and dried to a deep reddish-black over the years. What is the significance of this? Why did Plath keep it?
Or the smudge of lipstick on the corner of a gift from Seventeen magazine. While the card remains in pristine condition, did Plath accidentally smear her lipstick one day? Or is this a later addition by a clumsy researcher? Or her mother? Exactly whose traces are we looking at here? Elizabeth Hallam and Jenny Hockey believe that material objects which persist beyond biological death can destabilise object/subject boundaries; “material objects can become extensions of the body and therefore of personhood.” It is perhaps especially spectral when a subject imposes itself on a object in this fashion leaving a visible, tangible trace.
Likewise, the back of an envelope in Lilly Library has two full lipstick imprints over instructions written in Aurelia Schober Plath’s handwriting on how to find her daughter who had been admitted to Massachusetts General Hospital in August 1953 following a suicide attempt. An odd juxtaposition. Which came first, the lipstick or the writing? We do not know who these lip imprints belong to, or when/why the envelope was used as a sort of cosmetic blotting paper. Bearing traces of the past, the envelope offers its forgotten history.
Many of these moments surface in the archives; from a file, from an envelope, or the ragged remnants of a torn-out page. All of the untold stories, big and little, important and insignificant, offer up their mysteries. And this is the power of archives; the stories waiting to be told, and the stories that will remain untold.
Work referred to:
Elizabeth Hallam & Jenny Hockey (2001) Death, Memory and Material Culture Berg: Oxford, New York. Quotation taken from page 43.
In dreams, through mouth-hole or eye-hole. I can’t stop it.
One day it won’t come back. Things aren’t like that.
They stay, their little particular lustres
Warmed by much handling. They almost purr.
From ‘Last Words’
‘Things’ can have all sorts of different values: financial, cultural, usage, social, personal. Sometimes the most fascinating items in a literary archive are personal possessions and things. Not because they can necessarily tell us about creative output or how a poem was formed or a novel conceived, but because they place the writer in a particular moment, surrounded by a particular set of personal possessions. At Smith College, we can see the final manuscript of Ariel which Plath left in her Fitzroy Road flat, London, at the time of her death. But we can also see hanging on the wall in the archive there, the large elm plank desk upon which she wrote Ariel; the desk that held her pile of manuscripts and her pens and pencils in a pale blue Victorian Jubilee mug inscribed with the year 1897. The desk tells its own story – rescued from its original purpose to form the lid of a coffin, it was sanded smooth by Ted Hughes and Warren Plath in September 1961 to become Plath’s large writing table, kept in her study at Court Green, Devon. After her death, the table was moved to the kitchen and then sold to Smith College in 1984. Things have stories too.
Walking into the preview room at Bonhams, London last month the day before the large sale of Plath and Hughes items, meant walking into a room teeming with stories. They were all there jostling to be told. The large red rug, much sought after, with shops in London and Exeter and Plymouth scoured until Plath found the right one she wanted for her living room. Her ecstatic delight when it covered the ‘dirty-ish’ floorboards keeping out the grim cold of a Devon winter.
The blue satin top she wore for dinner sailing across the Atlantic back to England in 1959 when she was pregnant and seasick, featuring again in her journals on New Year’s Eve in 1961 meeting her new neighbours in Devon for the first time. Her proof copy of The Bell Jar that arrived during the grim autumn months when she was living alone in Devon, but wrote to her brother that it made her laugh, and that was no small thing given how awful she was feeling.
Her personal copy of The Bell Jar inscribed with her final London address and a dark inky star to indicate its importance. Her watches that we see glinting out from photographs over the years that she wore on her wrist at Smith, or drinking cocktails in New York City. Her dragon pendant that appears in so many photographs taken in Boston and London that looks quite heavy and substantial, but is actually quite light and flimsy. Her green typewriter, each key creating The Bell Jar.
The chairs she sat on, the earrings she wore, the dull glint of a copper hair band, and the poignancy of an auction lot containing a missing earring. Manuscripts, books, wallets, a driving license, an underlined thesaurus, and an annotated cookery book. The lares and penates of Plath’s life, as she called them. Each item a cultural phenomenon in its own right, owning its biography from having been handled and used by her.
Stories from the past leap into the present, particular lusters, all together for one last time. The traces and imprints somehow filling a physical absence. And the stories continue as these things move to new owners, new biographies – will they be used? Stored? Sold on? What will happen to them now? Will they accumulate new histories? What will their future stories be?
‘Past, present and future give the house different dynamisms which often interfere, at times opposing, at other stimulating one another.’ Gaston Bachelard ( 1994: 6)
The home is a powerful place. For Gaston Bachelard, people need houses to dream, in order to imagine. Houses are important vehicles for traces too, a strange domestic space in which time refracts creating a melding of past, present, and future. The idea of a tidy temporal chronology usually dissolves in a home as the past makes itself known in the present, and the future is never far away, yet remains that elusive moment that we never quite reach.
Houses are important types of archives too. They hold objects and memories and traces. Often of past or present inhabitants. In literary heritage, houses play an important role in allowing us to see where certain writers worked. The view from their window, their desk, gardens, carpets, inkwells, the everyday objects that clutter homes over time. Where I live in the North of England there are three main literary homes open to view: The Brontë Parsonage in Haworth, John Ruskin’s Brantwood on the shores of Coniston, and Wordsworth’s cottage in Grasmere. Writer’s homes often allow us some physical link to the writer despite the temporal distance.
What I enjoy about visiting homes is the experiential aspect of somehow wondering what influence the place may have had on the writer. Did it feature in their work? Can we look somewhat voyeuristically through their eyes and see how they transformed a place, a space into a poem or a story or a novel? Can we try to insert ourselves into that creative transformation?
In These Ghostly Archives, Peter K. Steinberg and I wrote in some depth about Plath’s domestic and creative spaces and tried to highlight the links between the two. But there are other places Plath stayed that may also have impacted on her poems. During the last weekend of her life, from Thursday 7 February until Sunday 10 February, Plath stayed with her friends Jillian and Gerry Becker in their home in Islington, London. Plath had been introduced to the Beckers by their mutual friend Suzette Macedo in late 1962. Although they had not known each other for very long, during the last few days of her life, it was the Beckers that Plath turned to when she struggled to cope alone in her Fitzroy Road flat.
In Giving Up: The Last Days of Sylvia Plath, Jillian Becker recalls this weekend stay and she offers some insight into how her home and the location and conversations that took place there fed into Plath’s imagination. What is especially poignant about Becker’s memoir is that it is as much about forgetting as remembering. The day before Plath died, they all ate a large Sunday roast dinner around the dining table in a room that was then wallpapered with red and gold stripes. One wall was taken up with framed Gibson Girl cartoons from Punch. Lingering over cold coffee cups for an hour they talked about ‘something’ that for Becker ‘has not left a trace of a memory.’ (p. 9)
Other snatches of conversation, Becker remembers well recalling one evening sitting looking out across the garden and quoting to Plath a Louis MacNeice poem: ‘The sunlight on the garden hardens and grows cold/ you cannot cage the minute within its nets of gold.’ They both spoke about how they liked the internal rhyme. Then they became pensive as twilight fell, darkening the room until only the glint of the silver teapot was visible. Becker believes it was this moment that Plath brought to mind when she wrote the lines of one of her final poems ‘Edge’: ‘…as petals/ Of a rose close when the garden/ Stiffens and odors bleed/ From the deep sweet throats of the night flower.’
Becker writes of feeding Plath chicken soup, large rump steaks, creamy mashed potatoes, and salad (‘Like most Jewish mothers I believed in the therapeutic powers of good food.’ (p. 4)) She describes sitting in a low Victorian grandmother chair at the side of Plath’s bed well into the early hours, comforting her through her distress, waiting until her pills took effect. It is hard not to see Becker’s presence in the poem ‘Kindness.’
When Plath insisted on leaving that Sunday evening, Becker stood in the porch way and waved until Plath was out of sight. She could not have known what was about to happen. Neither could she have known that her home would retain the traces of Plath who had stayed there, talking about poetry, thinking about poems. Becker left the house many years ago, other inhabitants have come and gone. Bachelard links poems and houses – he says both allow us to daydream, and that houses ‘cling’ to their inhabitants (p. 45). In this way they defy time and they defy space transforming into a sort of domestic archive where memories and stories are housed just as effectively as files and manuscripts are stored in a reading library.
‘A house that has been experienced,’ wrote Bachelard, ‘ is not an inert box. Inhabited space transcends geometrical space.’ (p. 47).
Maybe even people do, too .
Bachelard, Gaston, 1994. (1st published 1958). The Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon Press.
Becker, Jillian, 2003. Giving Up: The Last Days of Sylvia Plath. London: Ferrington.