«These Ghostly Archives 4: Looking for New England Gail Crowther & Peter K. Steinberg We never know what we will truly find in an archive, no matter ...»
Plath Profiles 11
These Ghostly Archives 4: Looking for New England
Gail Crowther & Peter K. Steinberg
We never know what we will truly find in an archive, no matter how many visits. And, perhaps it
is with fresh eyes, that new materials will be found. This paper concludes with the hope that such
a thing will come true, as Peter plans a return trip to Smith College and to other newly learnedof archives and Gail prepares to sail to America for her very first visit… (Crowther & Steinberg, "These Ghostly Archives 3," 137) An archive, we are told, is a collection of historical records, or the physical place in which they are located. Certainly, the nature of archives is that they house original documents, often unpublished, unique and singular in their existence. Over the last three papers published in Plath Profiles, we have attempted to show the experience of working in an archive and the type of intellectual and emotional engagement that takes place during research. We have shared with you some of our more startling finds, and conversely, kept some of the more personal finds out of publication. In "These Ghostly Archives 3," we discussed the discovery of several never before seen photographs of Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes and their home at Court Green. We also published, for the first time, a picture of the elms in Devon that inspired much of Plath's later poetry. In this paper, we aim to shift the focus State-side to Plath's country of birth, and in particular, to the Smith College Sylvia Plath Collection housed in the Rare Book Room in the Neilson Library. However, we will also be uncovering some business correspondence between Plath and The New Yorker which has never been mentioned in a publication before now and looking in more detail at what we might deem the more "personal" items that can be stored in an archive. In this case, for example, Sylvia Plath's prom dress. This study is a definite contrast in our conversations as we highlight ways in which the archive can be both personal and professional. While this may sound a little disjointed, we feel that it is artificial to assume these two aspects can be kept entirely separate anyway; a point we raised in our first paper "These Ghostly Archives."1 Note, for example, in this paper, the fascinating and multi-faceted picture we can draw of Plath by presenting you with her submission list and business correspondence This paper can be found in Plath Profiles 2 http://www.iun.edu/~nwadmin/plath/vol2/Crowther_Steinberg.pdf.
Crowther & Steinberg 12 with The New Yorker in 1962 alongside annotations from her personal library and her leisure reading that she was carrying out simultaneously. This illustrates how important – or necessary – it is to visit each of the Plath archives: only then can a fuller image of her be woven together.2 Often throughout this paper, it is you as reader who is invited to make these links, to draw the dates together and to think about how the personal may wield on the professional, how Plath operated and organized her day-to-day life.
We would also like to introduce to you the notion that the boundaries which contain the contents of an archive can at times become a little blurry. In fact, sometimes, especially when dealing with Plath and Smith College, it can feel like the archive is everywhere – not just simply papers and the place that contains them, but literally a living archive reflecting history on the ground. In this case, we could even say that the archive is "a dynamic space," both preserving itself and working with contemporary changes taking place around it. As we will discuss later in this paper, discovering Plath's old dormitory room in Lawrence House, Smith College was a curious mix of the old and the new. Of course there have been historical changes since the 1950s, but what was startling was the way in which traces of the past, and things and places that Plath would have seen, were still there. Furthermore, these places and objects which we might regard as somehow existing outside of our usual understanding of the archive (such as a room or a prom dress) worked intertextually with documents housed in the actual physical archive. So, when Plath wrote letters describing the room, the dress, it was this experience, of standing in an unchanged room while simultaneously reading Plath's description of the room, that led to the disintegration of the archive boundaries for us. Suddenly, the archive seemed everywhere, and as a consequence, more ghostly than ever.
GC: There are actually very few accounts of archival work in print; the sensations of working with old documents and the experience of anticipation. Carolyn Steedman in Dust, is one of the few writers who presents to us the complete archival experience as it were, the journey there, staying in hotels, how researchers gather in a morning outside the archive. The journey to carry out my latest archival research at Smith College was spectacular by anyone's standards. I sailed across the Atlantic. There is now only one See "Sylvia Plath Archival Materials" (http://www.sylviaplath.inf/collections.html) on Peter's website for a list of libraries and archives holding Plath manuscripts.
Plath Profiles 13 transatlantic ocean liner in service, the Queen Mary 2 owned by Cunard which sails from Southampton in England to New York. The crossing takes seven days and is truly wonderful. Although this choice of transport came about mostly due to a pathological fear of flying, the Plathian elements were not lost on me. For of course, on the occasions that Plath did travel between England and America, this is exactly how she travelled. In the 1950s, the liners would have been smaller and the crossing would have taken nearer to ten days. Accessing the archive documents for these crossings reveals that in September 1955 Plath crossed from New York to Southampton on the Queen Elizabeth. When she returned to America two years later in June 1957, she also travelled on the same ship. Finally, when Plath and Hughes returned to England for the last time, it was aboard the SS United States in December 1959. We even know from existing documentation which lists the passenger manifest for these crossings that they travelled in what was deemed "Tourist Class."3 Sailing across an expanse of ocean like the Atlantic can be rather hypnotic; the swell and the sway. The infinite blueness of it all inspires daydreaming and as I travelled, I read Plath and, of course, wondered how she filled those ocean days. Knowing that the archives at Smith College were ahead of me, allowed plenty of time for me to browse the finding aid and attempt to plan exactly what it was I wanted to see. So in the early hours of a July morning, I sailed into New York City which was shrouded in a cool mist with the Statue of Liberty rising out of the dawn gloom, greenly.
PKS: Arriving in New York hours after Gail, I wait in the hotel for her to arrive as, oddly, disembarking the ship lasts longer than a train ride from Boston. In the hour before her timid knock on my hotel room door, I recalled my previous visit to New York four months earlier in March 2011 and the visit I made to the New York Public Library to browse "The New Yorker Records, c. 1924-1984." In all my previous reading, I could not recall any mention of Plath's letters to The New Yorker as a source for information. The collection was a gift from The New Yorker in 1991, and its comprehensive finding aid was compiled and written between 1994 and 1996.4 When searched, the finding aid yields fourteen instances in which Plath was named. In previous papers, Gail and I Ancestry.com holds, among other documents, passenger manifests for Transatlantic crossings.
http://www.nypl.org/sites/default/files/archivalcollections/pdf/nyorker.pdf Crowther & Steinberg 14 highlighted the mastery of Plath's correspondence with the BBC and how her business correspondence is an undervalued source of information. As I sat in the reading room and anticipated the arrival of the archival boxes, I wondered nervously if this correspondence would live up to those of her BBC letters.
Generally, I feel that Plath may have begun submitting poems, stories, and drawings to The New Yorker before she was ready for them. Plath sent her villanelle "Doomsday" and another poem to The New Yorker in February 1953 (Letters Home 103). It was rejected by March 9 with a note written in pencil that read, "Although we were impressed by many things in 'Doomsday,' I'm sorry to say the final vote went against it, as well as the other poem" (106). Plath called the rejection "tantalizingly sad" and said that coming "so blasted close" is "almost worse than missing out altogether" (106). Rather than being down about it, she immediately packaged off "a third villanelle," her attitude being: "The worst they can do is reject it" (106).5 This is a practice Plath maintained for the next decade. In Cambridge, England, on January 28, 1956, Plath wrote in her Journals, "And I depend too desperately on getting my poems … accepted by the New Yorker" (199). She did, just over two years later. On June 25, 1958, Plath she starred twice this day in a journal entry (397). And this is where The New Yorker archive begins: Howard Moss' acceptance letter dated June 24, 1958 and Plath's response on June 26, 1958.
GC: As Peter was exploring Plath correspondence with The New Yorker, we were both also experiencing New York itself in a uniquely Plathian manner. In the summer of 1953, Plath hit New York City to spend a month working as a "Guest Editor" for Mademoiselle. Although we have to take care not to read The Bell Jar as being transparently autobiographical, we can also clearly see inspired places and events if we examine scenes from the novel against journal fragments and letters that exist from this time. One journal fragment that was typed by Plath, very likely in the Mademoiselle offices at 575 Madison Avenue, survives at Smith College.6 It is on the verso of white "Street & Smith Inter Office Memorandum," the publishing company stationary for the They did.
It seems likely to have been written directly from the offices on June 19, 1953, as Plath writes of busy phones ringing and Mademoiselle staffers planning to leave for the country over the long weekend which took place on that date.
Plath Profiles 15
Of course, Mademoiselle is no longer in publication (its last issue being November 2001) and as the above photograph shows, the building is used for a number of different purposes now. It seemed impossible to escape from the realisation that in so much as the living archive can seemingly be everywhere, it has a much more elusive nature than the permanent, fixed building that houses documents. In this case, New York City felt much changed from the 1950s, not just in size and pace, but in the many traces that have been obliterated. The Barbizon Hotel where Plath stayed for the duration of June is now an exclusive apartment block. One building in which Plath attended a fashion show has been knocked down and replaced with an open space and water feature. In an unpublished letter to Myron Lotz written on June 13, 1953, Plath recounts a Guest Editors Dinner Dance and party on the rooftop at the St Regis Hotel (right). She speaks of the sunset and rosy glow across the city and two bands; one that sank into the floor as another rose upwards, each playing the same song so no break in the music was discernable. It was here on the rooftop terrace that Crowther & Steinberg 16 she had her photograph taken, cocktail glass in hand.7 The St Regis still stands, a beautiful stone building (see above). The foyer is unchanged from the 1950s. The Regis Roof is still an exclusive party space and restaurant, but the rooftop terrace, alas, is now closed, due to fear of suicides.
PKS: Plath's experiences in New York in June 1953 contributed to the exhaustion of a very busy junior year at Smith College that, by the end of the summer, culminated in her first suicide attempt. Needless to say, I think Plath was more a fan of The New Yorker than of New York. The New Yorker records contain nineteen letters from Sylvia Plath to various editors and staff on the magazine. Howard Moss received the majority at thirteen letters; but Plath also writes one letter to William Maxwell, four letters to Rachel MacKenzie, and one letter to Robert Hemenway.8 In addition to this, in the Plath files there are letters regarding Sylvia Plath by W. S. Merwin, Peter Davison, Olwyn Hughes, and Aurelia Plath, to name a few.
The nature of "business" correspondence often means that there is less "personality" than one might find in more general epistolary communications with family and friends. However, Plath's business correspondence – especially in these New Yorker letters – shows her unique and unconquerable drive to create and publish. From her first acceptance in the famous magazine, Plath was compliant to the editor's wishes, but also quite firm and resilient if a suggestion violated her vision for her poetry's structure, meaning, or message. Responding to Howard Moss' first acceptance letter for "Mussel-Hunter at Rock Harbor" on June 26, Plath lectures Moss on her idiomatic intentions of the poems last lines, "…this relic saved / face, to face the bald-faced sun" as well as defends her crab imagery (Collected Poems 97). Plath also suggests that Moss publish the poem that summer in order to have the acknowledgement ready for a manuscript she intends to submit to a publisher in the fall.9 While Plath may have This photograph can be viewed on page 54 of the August 1953 issue of Mademoiselle. The caption to the photograph reads: "On the St. Regis Roof, Anne [Shawber], Sylvia and dates hold before-dinner confab." This image is also referred to in The Bell Jar (1963) as a photograph that is pointed out to Esther by Joan and DeeDee, although Esther denies it is her in the image (Chapter 17, page 219).
See Appendix 1, pages 49-53 of this paper, for a complete list of letters to, from, and regarding Plath held in The New Yorker records.
The poem appeared in the August 9, 1958 issue of The New Yorker on page 22. August was a month of firsts for Plath, as her first published poem appeared in the Boston Herald on August 10, 1941; and her first published artwork "Funny Faces" appeared in the same newspaper on August 2, 1942.