Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Sylvia (and me) at Smith College.

This post will talk a little more about my recent research trip to view the Plath archives at Smith College, Northampton, Mass.

The two main institutions that hold Sylvia Plath archives are Smith College and Indiana University. Smith holds most of Plath's adult papers so for my studies, it was the most important place to visit. Nestled in the college town of Northampton, the all-girl institution has a beautiful campus with a very prestigous reputation. I was so excited and thrilled to be able to spend time at Smith. So many inspiring women attended University there: Betty Friedan, Margaret Mitchell and, of course Sylvia Plath herself! As a student who has attended Universities in the UK and in Ireland, it was also interesting to see how American Universities worked. I found there were a great many differences: for example, the whole town surrounding Smith seemed to have a very student-y "vibe". In a way, it felt like campus life was the major driving force of the town. While I was in the States, I also had the opportunity to explore Harvard and felt that it was very much the same as Smith, in terms of atmosphere.

What is special about Smith for Plath researchers like myself is the whole area is wrapped up in Plath. She studied there from 1950-55 and returned to teach in 1957-58. So you know that when you're walking along pavements or loitering outside the college cafe, Sylvia Plath probably did the same type of thing in years previous!

This "Plath mystique" seems to impact on not only visitors like myself, but residents of Northampton. Thurston Moore, of the band Sonic Youth lives in Northampton and says of Smith: "Sylvia Plath went to school there. It’s where she used to stay up all night listening to the screams from the mental institution a mile down the road and, according to legend, she used to make love with some of the local professors in the backyard of our house." While Thurston may be waxing a little romantic about mental hospital screams and romantic encounters with professors, it's true to say that you really feel connected to Plath when at Smith.

If we let our imaginations run riot, here are some of my photos of the Paradise Ponds on the Smith campus. Apparently all the girls would take their beaus down here and "neck" on a Friday night!



As you can see from my photographs, the weather was absolutely glorious - especially for late October! The ponds sit just opposite the Smith College botanical gardens which lead to the main campus, filled with beautiful buildings and studious students! Here are the gardens (and again, note the fantastic weather!):


The campus itself is filled with red-brick buildings such as Sage Hall. Apparently Ted Hughes gave a talk here in 1958. I was told he spoke on Greek tragedies but I could be wrong! Many thanks to Peter Steinberg for clarifying that "Hughes read the part of Creon Paul Roche's translation of Oedipus at Sage Hall on 21 May 1958. This was the famous episode recorded in Plath's journals when she wrote, "The minute I came in, he knew it, and I knew he knew it"... Another mention of Sage Hall in Plath's journals is on pages 310 (entry dated 22 January 1958), where it appears Plath viewed the film Citizen Kane." As you can see from the pictures, it really is a picturesque campus!



Finally, and the main reason I was at Smith in the first place - the library and Sylvia Plath archives. What I really feel contributes to Smith being such a special place is the wonderful archive staff. I had the privilege of spending time with the inspirational Karen Kukil. Karen not only did a fantastic job of editing The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (Faber & Faber: 2000) but she is also an expert in all things Plath. I enjoyed every moment of conversation with her, and with all of the fantastic library staff at the Mortimer Rare Book Room. Up until the last few days of my four-week stay, I was completely on my own - and the staff at Smith did everything they could to make me feel welcome. By the end of my time there, I just did not want to leave. Here's a picture of the Mortimer Rare Book Room and the wonderful Neilson Library (Plath archives on the 3rd floor!).


The beauty of the Smith College campus inspired me so much. I spent my days viewing Plath's fascinating archives - ranging from drafts of her poems, childhood artwork, correspondeces, journal entries and much more. Then when work was done at the archives, it was so overwhelmingly wonderful to walk the same paths that Plath did.. Sit on a bench and think of the legions of strong, independent, smart women that studied at the institution I was lucky enough to work in.

Researching at Smith College was just a dream come true. I look at these photographs and can hardly believe that I was there. That I was given the opportunity to even walk in the same shades as Sylvia Plath! The papers held in the College are endlessly fascinating and I would urge anyone who lives nearby (or even far away!) to try and get up to view them. It was amazing to be in an environment where Plath was not just recognised but respected and loved! To discuss her writing with other staff members and students who were interested in her literature and what I'm writing on was just a dream. I miss it intensely!