The publication in February of Birthday Letters, a new collection of poems by Ted Hughes, immediately placed Smith in the eye of a media frenzy. In the book, Hughes--Britain's poet laureate and the husband of the late poet and Smith graduate Sylvia Plath--writes for the first time of their troubled marriage. Plath committed suicide in 1963, soon after Hughes left her for another woman. Until Birthday Letters he had remained largely silent about their relationship. Once the book was published, reporters for The New York Times, Newsweek, the Voice of America, The Chronicle of Higher Education, the Associated Press, U.S. News and World Report and other publications rushed to arrange interviews with those familiar with Plath's life and work.
There are, of course, a number of Smith connections with Plath. She graduated from the college in 1955 and returned in 1957 to teach for a year. Materials from her Smith years are in the archives. The theatre department's historical clothing collection contains a Plath prom dress and Girl Scout uniform. The Mortimer Rare Book Room is the repository for a large collection of Plath material--drafts of the Ariel poems, some journals, letters, artwork, photographs and realia, including Plath's typewriter.
Plath scholar Susan Van Dyne of the women's studies program and the English department was a particular object of press attention. While Plath's work is not the sole focus of Van Dyne's writing and teaching, she has written extensively about the poet and her work. Van Dyne's Revising Life: Sylvia Plath's Ariel Poems, published by the University of North Carolina Press in 1993, examines 25 of the poems written at the end of Plath's life and reveals the startling complexity of their evolution from first draft to final form.
Among the first stories about Birthday Letters was one in The New York Times that concluded, "Judging from the early response, [the Hughes book] seems unlikely to quell the insatiable interest in the author's doomed marriage to Plath, whose suicide at the age of 30 turned her into a tragic feminist icon and cast him, in the eyes of many, as the executioner." The Times quoted Van Dyne as saying, "If he really wanted peace, he wouldn't have published this. I think it's going to stir everything up all over again." Later in the same article Van Dyne said that "the poems speak to me about how he needs to understand Plath's death. These poems are the fiction that Hughes as a survivor has needed to create over the last 35 years."
Now that she has had more time to read over the Hughes poems, Van Dyne has concluded that they are "remarkable, not so much for what they can tell us about who Plath 'really was' as for the literary contest they represent. Hughes' poems continue the dialogue begun when Plath composed some of her Ariel poems on the reverse of poems she'd typed for him. In Birthday Letters, Hughes takes titles from Plath's poems for his own and tries to reappropriate some of her most famous lines and images. He seems quite intent on having the last word on Plath not only as a woman but as a poet."
The photographs in the Rare Book Room's Sylvia Plath Collection have been almost as popular with the press as has Van Dyne: a romantic shot of Plath and Hughes returning from their honeymoon in Spain accompanied an article in the February 2 issue of The New Yorker and other photographs have appeared on The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, the Italian magazine Liberal and in Scholastic Magazine.
In a related development, Karen Kukil, assistant curator of rare books, got her timing just right when she decided to teach a course about Plath during January Interterm this year as the Plath news swirled about. The students who took the course found it quite eerie to be doing their own edits of Plath's Ariel poems and typing their own poems on Plath's typewriter just as the uproar about Hughes' book surfaced. -AES
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