Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Guest-blog: The Sylvia Plath archives at Lilly Library, Indiana University Bloomington.

In this guest-blog post, Julia Gordon-Bramer gives a personal perspective on visiting the Sylvia Plath archives at Indiana University, Bloomington. Bramer also explores the evolving nature of archival footprints and imagines how Plath may have represented herself in the technologically modern world of today.

The Sylvia Plath archive at the Lilly Library, I have learned, is unlike most any other. Almost no one in history has had a personal curator as good as Aurelia Plath, who saved and filed every one of her daughter’s letters, greeting cards, photos, drawings, paintings, scrapbooks, newspaper and hair clippings. There is a strange sense of time working through the years of these files, smelling the musty paper, the thin wavery edges of brittle blue airmail stationery. At a big table in the library’s reading room, with its twenty-foot high paneled ceilings and a gentle, natural light, I studied the pile of Plath’s letters in my open folder. My iPhone intermittently trembled its silent vibrations against a blotter pad, waking me to the modern world with emails, voice mails and text messages: from clients seeking to arrange appointments for when I returned home, or family members and friends checking in. I thought about the impermanence and weirdness of our communications today. Could archives like this be kept of poets and writers in the transient, digital work-world of 2013?

The Lilly Library, University of Indiana at Bloomington.
If Sylvia Plath were living her same life in 2013, she would have likely word-processed away so many early versions of poems and stories. If she had grown up like me, her neat round manuscript might have deteriorated to a sloppier form from lack of use and typing everything (Once upon a time, I was complimented for my penmanship. No more). In the archives, I examined FBI-style blacked-out parts of her letters with a magnifying glass, transcribing what was underneath and realizing that today, this would be impossible. Someone would have simply highlighted that part and hit “delete.” Plath’s book annotations might never have happened, as she might have read eBooks on her iPad outdoors at Court Green while watching the children. All Plath’s work, and articles about and by her would be searchable, and many would be online publications entirely. The experience of holding the yellowing newsprint in one’s hand of her book review, or a review of one of her works or events, would be no more.

Plath’s live readings would be on YouTube, but then, I suppose they are now. There would be no Letters Home, as Plath would have called Aurelia and her brother Warren on her cell phone on a Friends & Family plan; or more likely, she would have Skyped, as Skype is free, personal, and lord knows that girl was thrifty. I envision Sylvia Plath on Facebook, with her status as “In a Relationship with [hyperlinked] Ted Hughes,” and soon after, posting “ Married ”; uploading cute photos she took on her phone of Frieda and Nick; her jars of honey from her own beehives; green apples from her orchard; and her new Bendix washer of which she was so proud. She might have sold rag rugs on Etsy. She might have posted design schemes she admired, and her tomato soup cake recipe on Pinterest.

Oh, but how fast it went wrong, from the start of 1962 to the end of it. From heavenly bliss to the carnage of war. I can imagine her on a tirade of angry Facebook statuses when she realized that her growing jealousy of Assia Wevill was actually warranted; and I imagine her falling apart when Ted and Assia have both unfriended her and gone to “It’s Complicated.”  In the same way that Plath tried to hold her head up at the London literary parties after the separation was legal, she would seethe over so-called friends leaving snide comments and double-tongued posts. As I read through her manic, angry letters in the archives, I imagined a barrage of hysterical Tweets:  Everything I’ve done is in spite of #TedHughes #gigolo #deserter #philanderer; or, @Assia @Olwyn @Dido You are all barren women, incapable of love. I imagine she might have written blazing angry blog entries instead of her journals, some public, some private; occasionally blowing it all away in moments of anger, or maybe clarity.

Organized as she was, she would have had a tracker for blog stats and monitored her new and repeat visitors. She would have watched her referring URLs. She would probably have addictively Googled for news and stalked Ted and Assia’s blogs and pages, telling herself it was less about picking at the wound, and more to find the truth to protect her children. I’m guessing that Sylvia Plath probably would have been blocked by more than a few people.

My archive work was harder on this, my third visit to the Lilly, than it had been before. I had made it my goal to read all of Plath’s letters, from start to finish. On my January visit I had left off in the middle of 1961. Now I was back: Frieda had already been born, they were scouting for houses, deeply in love, writing well and becoming more and more successful.  Sure, there were some bumps in the road: a miscarriage and appendicitis; an upset with the Merwins, and with Olwyn. Sure, I knew the end of the story, and what her in-laws and friends really thought of her. But as I read, I couldn’t help but get swallowed up into feeling it with her. I cringed at some of the nasty remarks Plath made, and remembered a few of my own that I still regret, words and deeds that hang like embarrassing weights and shadows around the edges of my memory. 

Who was I, back then? I could see the insecurity and need to prove herself in that shaky twenty-eight and twenty-nine-year-old Plath that came off as a superiority trip, or outright bitchiness. I thought about how much she had changed from her twenty to thirty years, and how much I had changed from twenty to thirty years old, and then thirty to forty, and forty to my almost fifty today. I can hardly believe I am almost fifty, and I hate the lines on my face that look like quotation marks around my eye brows and my mouth. Yet I like who I am. Finally. Sylvia Plath never got old enough to see any lines but written ones.

Peter K Steinberg & Julia Gordon-Bramer at the Lilly Library.
Thanks to Amanda Golden for use of this image.
A person who often puts people down, a person (I hate to say it) like Sylvia was, is a person who doesn’t like who they are. We are not the same people from decade to decade, and we nearly always look back and wince about our past opinions, values, and sometimes actions. It is part of the human experience, I suppose. What might Sylvia Plath have learned about herself and others, had she lived? Who might she have become?

This last archive trip left me with the most disturbing feelings. When Plath and Hughes’ marriage was coming apart, the negativity of reading about it was intense, repetitive, and so full of darkness and fury that I had to take a break, walk out to my car, and dig up some Ibuprofen for a headache that would not relent. My neck and upper back muscles were in a knot of stress, and my eyes hurt to read. It had been a joy to do my Plath work prior to this. Now, the battles of my own first marriage and divorce haunted me as I empathized, remembering so many similar feelings. Maybe this is why Plath gets to so many of us: she has put words to the unspeakable.

I took a lunch break and walked around old-town Bloomington, Indiana, with its charming historic square, its big shady trees and lovely gardens. The day was gray, dark, and unusually cool, and reminded me a little of my recent trip to England, Plath country. On this day, the Bloomington town square was full of beggars. Old gray bearded men with signs saying, “Vet. Please help,” or “Disabled,” and younger men with signs that read, “Light work or any help appreciated.” There was a bored, snoozing mutt sleeping at the foot of one of them. There were too many poor souls to consider helping even one. How does one choose? I wondered what each of their stories was.  I wondered if some of them, like Plath, once had everything in place and once felt happy. I wondered how fast their lives fell apart, and if it were possible that this could happen to any of us. It shook me. I have never been happier than right now. I wouldn’t change a thing, like Sylvia Plath in Court Green in spring of 1962. How fast can we lose it? I treasure today, because tomorrow is not promised. And who would know, in this information age, if we existed at all?

Julia Gordon-Bramer’s forthcoming book, Fixed Stars Govern a Life: Decoding Sylvia Plath, vol. one, will be out on Stephen F. Austin State University Press in Spring 2014. You can find her digital traces at www.nighttimes.com, @jgordonbramer on Twitter, www.facebook.com/julia.gordonbramer1 on Facebook, www.prefirstdrafts.blogspot.com , and by email at wordgirl@nighttimes.com.


Anonymous said...

Interesting essay. I understand the power of tactile artifacts, but surely the digital age gives one access to much more information about people than ever before. If I were important enough for anyone to be interested in and handed my online accounts off to someone, they'd have access to thousands of personal photos, tens of thousands of emails, hundreds of blog posts and Facebook messages, Kindle reading notes, online reviews (and a somewhat embarrassing purchasing history), and a dropbox full of Word documents.

This information is easy to store, search, and share and provides a comprehensive picture of who I am. I don't understand the myth that one's personal artifacts are less permanent now that they're digital.

The Plath Diaries said...

- I would be inclined to agree with you, anonymous! In fact, my best friend and I often joke about the "Google chat" archives of the future ;) We are certainly moving towards a world where archives will be less physical documents, and more online.

Julio J. Hernández said...

Interesting, Julia!
We can add other new technologies, such as videos.
Probably, she would be filmed reading poetry and she would risk being filmed in bed by a sassy lover.

However, in my opinion, the most important changes would be on her writings on the new state of the world. Without sexual repression today: What would she say about the new super sexed habits? What about porn? What about current feminism? And also about the new political powers.

That is, we could expect more changes in her ideas than in her expression way.

Alexandra McCarthy said...

Thoroughly enjoyed this post! I never tire of learning more about Sylvia's life and writings, and I must say, I envy you that you get to dedicate yourself fully to the research of it! Crossing my fingers that one day I'll be able to do the same!

Anonymous said...

But it is important to remember that this guest post, which made for entertaining reading moreso than something educational, while grounded in the archive & the nature & inspiration & possibilities of archival research, is purely speculative & fantasy in nature & therefore kind of ridiculous. One might want to concentrate on Plath & her times rather than the fruitless & pointless what if's and what could've been's...

Nick Smart said...

Very interesting discussion going on. I guess the nature of archives is changing / has changed. Perhaps it is now the case that communications, such as emails or Tweets will be archived and available. Perhaps the difference is that it's hard to imagine that in the future we will have anything like the handwritten draft(s) of The Bell Jar. In word processed writing, as Julia mentioned, mistakes and revisions are obliterated.

Nick Smart said...

That's a really unfair comment, Anonymous. I don't want to get into a dialogue with you about this, but to characterise speculation as ridiculous is just nasty and wrong. This was a fascinating speculative post from a bona fide researcher. No need to be unpleasant.

Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

Thanks everyone for giving real thought to my piece. If I could write it all over again, I might have emphasized that I was dwelling on the tangible remnants of Plath which we can hold in our hands. I had hoped to get that across with the details of the papers, etc.

In any case, all of us know that the Internet has opened us up to a whole new sort of drama that does indeed border onto the ridiculous.

I myself, even as a scholar, am perfectly OK with entertaining the ridiculous, the what ifs and what could have beens. Don't we all ask these questions about our own lives now and then? :-)

Anonymous said...

an importance of the internet and the archive in the modern society and era is how it enables us to access documentary evidence of the past...newspaper articles, magazines, online presentation of out of copyright materials and the like. thank you for the post and for making so many thought provoking thoughts.

The Plath Diaries said...

Personally, I try to steer away from fantasising how Plath's life may have been - the what if's/buts and maybes..

But for me, this guest post offers insight into the many types of people who are interested in the work of Plath. I was really struck by the argument Janet Badia put forward in Sylvia Plath and the Mythology of Women Readers where she defended the "oh, you are dark" types of Plath fans, the types of Plath fans who invest in fictional re-tellings of Plath's life... basically the type of Plath fans who have been much-maligned!

In broad terms, perhaps to overlook the fantasist elements of her oeuvre overlooks a large volume of her readers: and that's what these guest-posts aim to do - illustrate all the goings-on in the Plath world.

I am grateful to Julia for letting us into her imagination. :)

Anonymous said...

But the issue isnt how Plath's readers imaginations are interesting -- they aren't, especially in the case of Julio who exhibits his masochistic perversity -- the issue should be what the archives thus tell about Plath: how she lived created formed her poetical works prose pieces journals i too try to stear away from letting my imagination wonder and wander about those could have beens because there is no point to it. it didnt happen it wont have happened it cant have happened any other way than the way in which it did happen and this is what the archive proffers

thank you

The Plath Diaries said...

Oh come now, anonymous - a blog is an interactive platform where readers expect to see a bit of variety! If you scroll back to the posts where I visit Plath's archives, you'll see that I'm very clinical about the papers stored there.

For me, as someone who relentlessly puts Plath's biography onto the back pedal, I felt Julia's post added something a little different to my blog. Or at least would provide a talking point!

The post is prefaced with a short intro saying that this particular blog is Julia's thoughts on her experiences at the Plath archive. I do think that determining how Plath's readers perceive her reflects on critical trends, like Badia points out. While I actually agree with you, that the concentration should be on the work, if this blog is to truly reflect Plath and her fans, the fantastical must be considered.

Right Mind Matters said...

I very much enjoyed Julia's post and have thought the same thing myself; that is, how the future will not contain the precious written drafts of literary works, with all their corrections and doodles that tell us so much about the creative process. They contain the palpable "presence" of the author in a way that a printed page cannot, along with their personally written annotations on others' works they read.

I've begun reading Ted Hughes's Letters (Reid 2007) and now see Hughes in a different light: as a teenager, a son, a brother, a voracious reader, a devoted poet, as well as an analytical thinker, especially his early focus on left/right cerebral differences, which is my interest.

I just finished up to1961, so things haven't gotten nasty yet in the marriage. But he did make very critical generalizations about both America and the UK and many poets whom he judged worthless for one reason or another.

I'm Just saying, in support of Julia's thesis, how will the future amass non-existent physical letters, now emails that we regularly delete for more space?

Anonymous said...

Bramer's problem is that she is a poet first and a scholar second. That makes her more artistic, open-minded, and interesting than her academic peers.

Plath loved Hollywood and modernity. There is no question she would have participated in social media to advance her career and communicate with family. Anonymous must suffer from plath's superiority or just be incredibly dull or both. Bramer might want to hang with nicer kids on the other side of the playground.

Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

Hmmm... I'll take this as a compliment... I think?

While I do consider myself a "Poet first," I would like to emphasize that I do take my scholarship very seriously. Both are a part of me and I could not give up one side for the other. I am truly happy, though, that you find my perspective interesting.

It is a very large playground, and there are plenty of wide open corners in it to play. ;-)

Anonymous said...

The links of all the Plath Profiles arent working anymore, they are weeks now.What a shame!
I really would like to read them and Im so sorry I can't read them! Theres another link where I can find them?

The Plath Diaries said...

Hi there Anonymous - the links on PP al work fine for me today! Hopefully it was just a server problem.

Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

Anonymous may need to search Plath Profiles again. They redid the site a while back and old links are gone. Here is a link to the main page, where the current and archived volumes may be found: http://www.iun.edu/~nwadmin/plath/