Thursday, 10 January 2013

Plath curiosities...

After the Plath conference at Indiana, I stayed on for a few days to look through the Sylvia Plath archives held in the Lilly Library. Plath has two major literary archives, at Smith College and Indiana University at Bloomington. Emory University holds a fair collection of Plath material also, and of course there are a smattering of curiosities popping up in college libraries from UCD to New York Public library. I have tried to see as many archival depositories as possible through my Ph.D. journey. View the complete list of material over at A Celebration, This Is.

I thought I would share two photographs taken at the Lilly Library, Indiana University. Unfortunately the Plath archives held there are strictly not to be photographed. However, on the first day of the Plath conference, staff from the archives brought out what is probably considered the #1 Plath curiosity... two large locks of her hair.

In order to imagine the size of these locks of hair, in the second photograph, the page beside the box is A4 sized. These were significant amounts. It is perhaps "sick" to report that those who wish to see Plath's hair can also touch it. I know this sounds weird. I thought I would feel weird too, but when I touched her hair, it made Plath real for me. And how unbelievable that I - a generally unremarkable person from the middle of nowhere, Ireland - should be able to touch the hair of one of the greatest literary geniuses ever to have lived? It was a very moving experience and I thought I should at least share the images, for curiosity's sake at least!

In addition to Plath, Indiana University holds the hair of Edgar Allen Poe and Simón Bolívar. Famous locks of hair can also be found at Yale, who house tresses belonging to Napoleon, Robert Louis Stevenson, Dickens, Keats and Lord Byron. Oxford has a ring containing even more of Keats's hair. So while it is not unusual for hair to be archived, perhaps this need to preserve bits of human bodies says more about us as voyeurs rather than storing objects for scholarly use.

I suppose it's a question for museum and gallery curators: is everything belonging to a writer/artist/etc of value and worthy of storage? It's a difficult question really because something like human hair actually had a lot of value in certain artistic movements. So while it is perhaps arguable that locks of hair from the Victorian era have "value" because of the prominent feature hair had in the pre-Raphaelite imagination, the same rule doesn't exactly transfer to Plath, or indeed, Napoleon.

Personally, I'm undecided about the value of personal belongings in archives. What I will say is that I feel very connected to Plath, having touched her hair, read correspondences, love-notes to Ted Hughes, felt petals that were kept between book leaves, scoured her private diaries. Has this enhanced my Ph.D. study? It's hard to say. I feel I "know" Plath, which sometimes interrupts with how I write about her academically, if I'm honest. But at the same time, the close knowledge I have of the inner workings of her life, the jokes she liked and so on, the more I feel I can locate her influences and inspirations. Viewing Plath's archives open up your whole perception of who she was as an individual. More than the facts of her wikipedia article... Rather, looking at personal items has helped me define Plath as a vibrant, vivacious, intellectual and witty person. I think that has definitely helped my work, and will hopefully make my thesis something heartfelt, academic and noteworthy.


Peter K Steinberg said...
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Peter K Steinberg said...

Wonderful, fantastic, remarkable post. I feel much the same as you about the hair. It puts certain images (such as "And dried plates with my dense hair") from her poetry into perspective. I like feeling "closer" to Plath through the use of her archives, I find each separate visit - even when I look at the same materials - I gain more and more information about this subject of study. And, each subsequent visit I bring more research history and knowledge with me, which often provides a deeper insight even to the most (now) familiar of items and materials.

Thanks again, lovely wonderful brilliant post.


Alice in East Washington said...

I agree with Peter. J

laura said...

really interesting to read your thoughts on this maeve! random question but have you any idea how the hair ended up in the archive?

Rehan said...
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The Plath Diaries said...

Hey Laura! The hair was cut when Plath was 12/13-ish, so it isn't her "adult" hair. If so, that would probably have ended up at Smith, along with the rest of Plath's adult archives.

Everything at Indiana was donated by Aurelia Plath - there are little cut-out dolls from Plath's childhood etc as well, so a few things from the early years. I imagine Aurelia just packed everything up and sent it all. She had declining health in her later years and I would imagine was glad to know that a University would care for these precious items.