From the archives: The Archival Stretch

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.


From the archives: The Noise of Time

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.

bailey portrait

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)

Work cited

Roland Barthes (1977) Image Music Text Fontana Press: London.

From the Archives: Unexpected Stories

“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. table and screen 1

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.

Deckchair 1

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.

From the archives: All the untold 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.

lipstick 3
Photograph courtesy of Peter K. Steinberg

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.

From the archives: The Lares and Penates of a Writer’s Life

I do not trust the spirit. It escapes like steam

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.

silk top

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.

(Photographs © Kevin Cummins 2018)

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?


From the archives: The Living Archive – Jillian Becker’s House

‘Past, present and future give the house different dynamisms which often interfere, at times opposing, at other stimulating one another.’ Gaston Bachelard ([1958] 1994: 6)

mc exterior 1
Jillian Becker’s house, Islington.

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)

dining room
Dining room

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.’

The garden

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.’

bedroom 1

bedroom 2
The bedrooms where Plath and her children stayed 7-10 February

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 .


Books cited:

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.

From the Archives: Sylvia Plath’s Death Certificate

Almost all of my favourite pieces from the Sylvia Plath archives are connected to her work – poetry manuscripts, short stories, The Bell Jar drafts, and journal entries. These all give a clear insight into her creative processes and poetical imagination. However when Aurelia Schober Plath and Ted Hughes sold Plath’s items to a number of archives, they also included plenty of biographical material – her address book, her bank book, bills, financial lists. I suspect they perhaps understood the importance in years to come of being able to place her accurately within her social, cultural, and historical context. Sometimes reading this stuff can be uncomfortable, can feel a little intrusive, and certainly there are items and stories that should not be published yet. But like everybody else who has lived and died, Plath also has an official biographical trail – birth and death certificates, those documents that we can all access about anyone. This post is about the official record of Plath’s death in the archives, and as you can see some of the mistakes that can easily be made in recording the details of someone’s life.

The following features a contribution written by Peter K. Steinberg with some additional details added by me at the end.

PKS: Gail’s monthly feature of a Sylvia Plath archival document I think is a wonderful idea. It’s an engagement with files that one might not normally visit or that one might have even forgotten they had! The other day I was going through some of the files on my computer and I came across two ‘certified’ copies of Plath’s death certificate.  One was published, in minute facsimile fashion, in Linda Wagner-Martin’s Sylvia Plath: A Biography.  But these two copies that I have images of came from two different places. The first from Smith College is a copy that was made on 27 September 1973. The second comes from my own files from an online order to the General Records Office in London on 22 August 2005.

The copy held by Smith was handwritten from the original and has a rather embarrassing error. In the “Cause of Death” column, it ends “did kill himself”.


The 2005 copy from the GRO has some computer generated metadata at the top; however, the rest of the certificate is a true facsimile of the original.


The death certificate was made official at Plath’s inquest on 15 February 1963, 55 years ago, when it was signed by George M. McEwan and it was officially registered the following day by Alice K. Kimmance.

Sylvia Plath was laid to rest in Heptonstall on 18 February 1963. Since we’ve mixed our archives already, combining a document at Smith with a document from the General Register Office, let’s add at least one more archive into the mix.

On 30 April 1963, Hilda Farrar, Ted Hughes’ aunt, sent Aurelia Schober Plath a letter. Farrar wrote about a visit she and William Hughes made to Plath’s grave a week earlier. Mr. Hughes tidied up the grave and Farrar commented that the gravesite would not receive a headstone until the ground settled some. Aurelia Schober Plath notes: ‘(They waited seven years! asp)’, meaning that Plath did not receive a headstone until circa 1970.


GC: Reading Peter’s comments about Plath’s death in official documents and letters reminded me that I had a copy of the public details of Plath’s death and effects that were published sometime around May 1963. The document was contained in a book which was scanned in an online ancestry archive. Again we have an embarrassing error; ‘Plath’ becomes ‘Platch’ and the place of death is listed as University College Hospital. We know that Plath died in 23 Fitzroy Road and her death certificate states ‘dead on arrival’ at the hospital, though perhaps this is where she was officially declared dead. It is not quite clear. The entry shows that Ted Hughes was the sole beneficiary of her effects which amounted to £2147 4s. 2d. Converted into today’s value that amounts to £42,081. 20.

SP will entry

As the anniversary of Plath’s death approaches, I always like to remember just how much she achieved and left behind in her thirty years; poems, letters, journals, novels, short stories, drawings, teaching notes, reading books, hand-painted furniture, a radio play. And luckily, for us, the archives are seething with it all. At this time of year I also like to remember her words from ‘Context’:

“I am not worried that poems reach relatively few people. As it is they go surprisingly far – among strangers, around the world, even. Farther than the words of a classroom teacher or the prescriptions of a doctor; if they are very lucky, farther than a lifetime.”


[Quote from ‘Context’ taken from Plath, Sylvia, Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams London: Faber & Faber, 1988: 93]

From the archives: Sylvia Plath’s names

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)]

The Letters of Sylvia Plath: A Conversation

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 [] 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:




The Biography of Material Culture: Dusty Springfield’s Dress

‘A crucial area of thought in all the social sciences at present is the relationship between people and things.’ (Gosden and Marshall)

Handling peoples’ clothes in an archive or a museum, particularly clothes that belonged to dead people, can be a powerful experience. They are not simply empty, discarded pieces of material, but rather retain their meaning and impressions depending on the person they once belonged to. Gosden and Marshall refer to this as the ‘cultural biography of objects’ – in that material culture can form its own value and create its own life story depending upon who once owned it and the life processes that it may have passed through. For me, clothing also offers some link to the physicality of a person, especially if they are now gone.

In the old Cunard building in Liverpool, the British Music Experience has on display in a glass cabinet some dresses that belonged to Dusty Springfield. One is full length and turquoise; the second is short, pink, and silk. It is odd seeing these dresses suspended on headless mannequins when they are so familiar to anyone who has seen them featuring in footage of Dusty performing. I was particularly drawn to the turquoise dress which was rather plain apart from the beaded neck and hemline.


The sleeves feature turquoise bows set amongst flowers and crystals and elaborate hemming. It falls, from an empire neckline, straight to the floor. Despite being especially designed for Dusty there was a curious homemade feel about the dress. Information to the side of the display claimed that Dusty always wanted attention drawn to her face when she was on TV and so often the necklines and bodices of her dresses would be embellished to draw the eye upwards. While it was possible to see the material and dimensions of the dress, it was not possible to see how the dress moved. I started to look for footage and pictures of Dusty wearing the dress and managed to find some, though it is brief and grainy, further highlighting the somewhat spectral nature of her absence. In some ways that is the melancholy of clothes in a museum, they serve to highlight that the owner is not there. I was surprised how fluid the dress looked, how loose the beading was, and its shimmery-ness, despite the film being black and white.

Footage taken from

Yet as a cultural object, the dress contains a history. It has survived and outlived Dusty herself. It is a link to the past, but the dress now also has a significance and life of its own. There is an immediacy about it too – unlike a flat photograph, a three-dimensional object can evoke and invoke the physical in different ways. We see the dress and think of Dusty. The past and the present become drawn together and with an object preserved in a museum there is a certain amount of security about its future too. I like the play of presence and absence. I also like objects, even when – perhaps especially when – they are melancholy objects.


The British Music Experience, Cunard Building, Liverpool L3 1DS