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News & Events for the Smith College Community
Research & Inquiry August 26, 2015

A New Portrait of Plath: Alumna’s Typewriter Among Items in Smithsonian Exhibit

Typewriter that belonged to Sylvia Plath
A Royal manual typewriter that Sylvia Plath '55 used when she was a student at Smith.

While showing students some items this summer from the college’s Sylvia Plath Collection, Karen Kukil discovered that they were stumped by one object in particular.

A manual typewriter—the same one Plath ’55 used while she was at Smith—was mystifying to many high school participants in the “Hidden Lives” women’s history summer program.

“Some of them had never seen a manual typewriter before,” explained Kukil, the college’s associate curator for special collections. “They were not really sure how it worked.”

To demonstrate, Kukil inserted a sheaf of the pink writing paper Plath favored into the machine, then showed students how to strike the keys to type the poem onto the paper.

Plath’s green Royal typewriter is destined to be seen by many other members of the computer keyboard generation. The portable machine is among more than 40 artifacts from Smith’s Plath collection that will be exhibited at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Kukil and Dorothy Moss ’95—who is associate curator of painting and sculpture at the National Portrait Gallery—are overseeing the One Life: Sylvia Plath” exhibit scheduled to open there in the summer of 2017. The show is the first visual biography of Plath to be staged in an art and history museum.

Kukil and Moss have been sifting through more than 3,000 items in Smith’s Sylvia Plath collection for journals, self-portraits, book covers and other objects that will help illuminate the writer’s sense of identity.

About two-thirds of the items in the exhibit will come from Smith’s collection. The remainder will be drawn from private collections and from Indiana University’s Lilly Library.

While most previous shows about Plath have focused on her battles with depression and her suicide at age 30, Kukil said the new exhibit aims to offer a more complete view of the acclaimed author of The Bell Jar.

“We actually want it to have a more upbeat feel,” said Kukil, who has more than two decades of experience working with Plath scholars. “For example, there’s a poem Plath wrote about her son called ‘Balloons’ that’s just lovely. We’re thinking about ending the show with that.”

Where does the typewriter fit in?

Moss said the portable machine is another way of helping Smithsonian viewers experience Plath.

“To imagine the sound of the keys striking the paper through an inked ribbon adds an aural dimension,” Moss said. “Through touch, scent and sound, objects used frequently by a person can stand in for that person. In this way, I like to think of her typewriter as a kind of portrait of Plath.”

Other items in the exhibit will evoke the writer’s growing up years. They include Plath’s Girl Scout uniform from Smith’s Historic Clothing Collection, her ponytail, which was cut and saved by her mother, and numerous journal entries and drawings.

The Smithsonian exhibit will also explore Plath’s activities as a wife and mother, and will include numerous items that are being shown for the first time, Kukil said.

For example, an enormous plank of elm wood that served as Plath’s desk will be displayed along with a page from an original draft of her poem, “Elm.”

“I’ve always wanted to pair those two items,” Kukil said, with a smile.

Smith students, faculty members  and staff will have opportunities to learn more about the Plath exhibit in the lead up to the opening in 2017.

Kukil will be giving a talk on the Plath exhibit next month to students in a Smith archives concentration class, and she plans to offer a similar presentation to the campus community sometime later this fall.

An essay on the exhibit by Smith senior Katie Mikulka was posted August 10 on the National Portrait Gallery’s “facetoface” blog. (Hint: Look for the photo of Plath’s typewriter.)