Lure of Sylvia Plath
Monday Night: March 3
: 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
-- Sylvia Plath
There it is in her own words. Sylvia Plath '55, Smith
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
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."
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.
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
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."
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
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."
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."
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."
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.
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
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
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
* The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia
Plath, 1950–1962. Edited by Karen V. Kukil. New York:
Anchor Books, 2000.