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The Perpetual Lure of Sylvia Plath

By Jan McCoy Ebbets

Monday Night: March 3 [1958]: Got a queer and most overpowering urge today to write, or typewrite, my whole novel on the pink, stiff, lovely-textured Smith memorandum pads of 100 sheets each.…Bought a rose bulb for the bedroom light today & have already robbed enough notebooks from the supply closet for one & 1/2 drafts of a 350 page novel.*
-- Sylvia Plath

There it is in her own words. Sylvia Plath '55, Smith College's most famous poet, helped herself to the pink memorandum stationery she found on the history department supply shelf in Seelye Hall while she was an instructor in the English department.

A visit to the Mortimer Rare Book Room in Neilson Library, where 4,000 pages of Plath's literary and personal papers are housed, will confirm that the original manuscript for Plath's autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, was indeed written on Smith's "lovely-textured" paper.

Now a new movie and the brisk sale of books about Plath and her husband, British poet Ted Hughes, are inspiring fresh scrutiny of the extensive Plath collection at Smith, the most popular literary holding of the college's Mortimer Rare Book Room. "A lot of scholars are intrigued," says Karen Kukil, associate curator of rare books at Smith and editor of the recently published The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath. "A variety of Plath scholars are doing research in the rare book room now, including a scholar from Bosnia."


Sylvia Plath posed with her typewriter in Yorkshire, England, in 1956. Plath wrote not only her novel The Bell Jar on Smith's pink memo paper but also successive drafts of her famous bee poems, top photo, including "Stings." Images courtesy Mortimer Rare Book Room.


Soon after a screening of the new BBC film Sylvia, starring Gwyneth Paltrow, was held for members of the Smith community in early November, Kukil found her e-mail mailbox jammed with requests -- scholars asking for more information about Plath, reporters wanting interviews or friends seeking her reaction to the film.

Of the film she is politely critical, lamenting the portrayal of Plath as dull, depressed and suicidal; Kukil describes Plath as a gifted writer -- lively, funny and brilliant. And costumers take note: "Sylvia rarely wore pink dresses; she preferred violent, fierce colors like black and red."

As a film postscript, Kukil hopes that Sylvia brings attention back to the poetry. "There is a timelessness about what she says in her poems," she says, "and it's why there is constant interest in her work."

Drafts of the novel The Bell Jar and successive drafts of the powerful Ariel poems, which were published posthumously, are at the heart of Smith's Plath collection. Most scholars call the Ariel poems Plath's best work and, as Kukil says, "one of the most important books of the 20th century....Smith is fortunate to have such a notable collection and a complete archive of a great writer." According to Kukil, the late Ruth Mortimer '53, longtime rare book curator at Smith, and former president Jill Ker Conway initiated the purchase of the Sylvia Plath Collection in 1981. "Ruth Mortimer knew Sylvia Plath when they were students together at Smith, and Jill Conway was in London when Plath read her Ariel poems on the BBC in 1962. Both felt there could be no better home for Plath's stunning manuscripts than Smith College."

Kukil and work-study student Shannon Hunt '04 are currently preparing an electronic catalog, known as a finding aid, so scholars may browse through the entire collection online. By May, Kukil says, Plath's literary manuscripts and perhaps her correspondence will be described online at asteria.fivecolleges.edu. Eventually, descriptions of Plath's personal papers and artwork will be added to the online database as well.

An English major with a focus on British and Irish poetry, Hunt is in her third and final year of working with the Plath collection. "I don't consider myself a Plathophile, but I'm very close to her work," she says. "In fact once I leave here, I will miss seeing Plath's pink drafts of the Ariel poems. I'll be jealous of anyone else who will be working with that collection in the future; I've got one of the best jobs on campus."

Hunt suggests that less attention be paid to the circumstances of Plath's death and more to her exhaustive work. "I feel like she was so much more than the poet who committed suicide. She probably suffered from manic depression but she had a full love for life. She was incredibly productive -- it's intimidating how much she wrote in such a short period of time."

Two new books based on the Plath-Hughes story began with research in the Mortimer Rare Book Room and hit the bookstores recently. Kate Moses, a journalist and author, wrote her first novel, Wintering: A Novel of Sylvia Plath, as a dramatization of the last few months of Plath's life when she was writing the Ariel poems. Scholar Diane Middlebrook began a research project at Smith on the creative partnership of Plath and Hughes and continued her research at Emory University in Georgia where the Hughes literary papers are housed. Her book Her Husband: Hughes and Plath, a Marriage focuses on Plath's marriage to Hughes and the intensity that shaped the work of both.

"[Middlebrook] confirms something I have always suspected," Kukil notes. "Poetry was the juice, the real passion in the Plath-Hughes relationship." Hughes's work can be revisited in the newly published Collected Poems, the first assembling of all his work in one volume. And there's more to come: a biography of Assia Wevill, the "other woman" in the Plath-Hughes marriage, and new editions of Plath's work, including a restored edition of Ariel.

Looking ahead to fall 2005, Kukil and Stephen Enniss, director of special collections and curator of the Hughes papers at Emory University, are collaborating on an exhibition at the Grolier Club of New York highlighting the creative writing that emerged from the productive Plath-Hughes marriage. Emory only recently opened its vast archive of Hughes' letters and journals.

Why students, writers, scholars and biographers continue to be fascinated with Plath, some 40 years after her death, and with Hughes, who died in 1998, continues to fuel the Plath-Hughes legend. "Perhaps it is because it has all the elements you need for a movie or novel or play. Even an opera has been composed about Plath. "It's a story with tragedy, romance, a doomed marriage and two talented, glamorous-looking people who were very passionate about their work," says Kukil. "We haven't heard the last of this story."

* The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950–1962. Edited by Karen V. Kukil. New York: Anchor Books, 2000.

 
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