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The Unraveling Archive
Essays on Sylvia Plath

Edited by Anita Helle

Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2006
277 pp. ,Cloth: $65.00; Paper, $24.95


Reviewed by Carol Bere


The Unraveling Archive is an important, necessary contribution to Plath studies. The eleven essays included in the collection, written by English and American scholars of different generations, according to the editor, Anita Helle, represent a significant transition in Plath studies toward “historiographic textual and material research,” and engage notions of culture, history, and memory. What makes these essays possible, in a sense, is the proliferation of Plath criticism, seminars, biographies, and primary source materials that have become available in recent years. Thus, the essays overall represent an opening out of Plath scholarship that builds on, occasionally refutes, and/or introduces  perceptive new approaches to understanding Plath’s work, including contextualized readings, considerations of source materials such as her art work, recordings of Plath reading her poetry, family photographs, and her creative partnership with Ted Hughes. More important, definitions of the Plath archive itself have been reconfigured. Where once Plath archival research might have been limited to (or read) primarily as manuscripts and letters of the substantial holdings of the Lilly Library at Indiana University, the Neilson Library at Smith College, and to a lesser extent, the Hughes archive at Emory University, today, the Plath archive can no longer be defined as a specific place, but rather continues to challenge received notions of the archive itself. There is also an inherent recognition in this collection that Plath knowledge is contingent: that there are probably more primary source materials that have not been donated or sold to the Plath collections; still other materials may be lost, while other source materials may become available, that will provide new ways of rethinking and/or expanding accepted or current readings of Plath’s work.

Moreover, contingency extends to the ways in which Plath has been “presented.”  As Jacqueline Rose suggested in her brilliant study, The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (1991): “In direct proportion to the extent that Plath writes of psychic conflict and subjectivity in the body of her writing, as theme, so the content of that writing is duplicated, can be rediscovered…in the frame that surrounds and most literally, most physically, constitutes her work—frame meaning here not her own enunciation but the editing, publication and presentation of her work.” Rose assumed that Plath studies should be considered in terms of a shifting, contingent archive, bits and pieces, fragments, and raised the critical questions: what is the body of Plath’s writing, and who speaks for Plath?

These are not insignificant questions. The history of the Plath (and Hughes) industry is complex: excellent and relatively objective scholarship often competes for public interest with work predicated on biased or not fully researched theses, meta-novels, movies, and even plays promoting questionable viewpoints. Learning to “read” the archival material, often across several frames, is necessary to further understanding of Plath and her work. Most but not all of the essays in the collection are relatively objective in their assessments. Cultural criticism, some of which is included in this collection—particularly from younger Plath scholars—can offer new insights, new ways of reading Plath’s work. And while contextualized readings are represented, one wishes that one (or more) of the essays actually used archival material to consider Plath’s poetry as poetry, to look at her evolving technique, to analyze the choices made in the various drafts of her poems—in short, to help us to understand how Plath developed into and came to be regarded as one of the most unique, accomplished poets of the later twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

The four essays in the first part of The Unraveling Archive in varying ways explore the ramifications of Rose’s questions, addressing actual editing/representation of her work, utilizing significant archival material from Plath’s early years (prior to l956) and later either not discussed previously or now considered from new perspectives. The Plath archive may be indeterminate, evolving, but as Tracy Brain assumes in her provocative essay, Plath’s manuscripts are essentially unstable. Scholars may look for stability in an archive, but Plath’s creative processes defied such expectations:  she often composed clusters of poems, avoided finality in her poetry, and revised continually. Ted Hughes may have been excoriated for his ordering of the Ariel poems, but the recent publication of the Restored Ariel was only the latest version of her poems, and had she lived, Brain rightly concludes, Plath may have made further revisions. Brain also suggests that Plath may have “intentionally misdated her manuscripts…to create an impression of concentrated intensity in her late manuscripts.” Some Plath purists may consider Brain’s theory heresy, but the misdating is possible; similarly, it is also possible to argue (as I have written elsewhere) that Hughes’s ordering of the Ariel poems produced a more powerful, complex collection than the manuscript that Plath left on her desk.

Robin Peel marks out relatively new territory in his discussion of Plath’s political education, maintaining that Plath’s post-l960 experience involved a reassessment, revival, and restoration of a dormant political engagement, culminating in the Ariel sequence. Peel makes some speculative leaps in his argument, tends to credit her college influences a bit more than warranted, and does not always read American notions of democracy with any great understanding. Still, Peel has broken new ground in Plath studies, and opened the debate about Plath’s political convictions. Kathleen Connors’ also opens up new ways of interpreting Plath’s poetry in her discussion of the ways in which the impact of Plath’s interest and training in the visual arts influenced the visual aspects of her poetry. Two of Plath’s impressive black and white paintings done while a student at Smith College are included, which reinforce her ability and, perhaps, the seriousness of her enterprise at this early stage of her career.  Drawing on the Plath archives at Smith College and Indiana University, Kathleen Connors cross-references several artifacts in the archives, tracing Plath’s not insignificant artistic development, and demonstrating how “interdisciplinary and cross-textual artistic experiments contributed to the visual world of her poetry.” Connors makes a large but interesting supposition, namely, that Plath was earning more money from her poetry and fiction, and the fact that she received a grade of B in an art studio course at Smith may have tipped the balance in favor of a writing career. An open question is whether Plath thought she had more writing talent or enjoyed writing more than art?
Connors is particularly interesting in her analysis of the influence of Plath (and Hughes’s) stay at Yaddo, the beautiful estate and artist’s colony in l959. Referring to a journal entry by Plath, Connors suggests that “Edge,” perhaps Plath’s final poem, had its genesis at Yaddo, with its visual imagery of frost on the landscape, “dead” petals, and white statues, and in a comment that should keep Plath scholars busy for some time, implies that the connection between dead children and serpents in the poem, may actually not be autobiographical—as generally assumed—but may refer to the Trask family, founders of Yaddo, whose four children died young of diphtheria. Yet Plath was also strongly influenced by listening, by the sounds of poetry, and as is well-known, composed the Ariel poems to be read aloud. As Connors perceptively implies, it was Plath’s use of “emotionally charged” visual objects while creating poetry for aural impact, that resulted in such landmark poems as “Lady Lazarus” and “Daddy.” Sound, aural impressions, Plath’s voice recordings of her own poetry are also considered by Kate Moses as she explores this relatively uncharted territory of the Plath archive. Moses sets out in chronological and persuasive detail the considerable impact that “writing for radio and making spoken word recordings [had] on her poetic development.” Few of us can forget the impact of first hearing Plath read some of the Ariel poems. Moreover, anyone who has heard Plath’s early recordings can recognize the evolution in the recordings analyzed by Moses: from the early good student with precise diction and studied approach to the late recordings, of which Moses rightly concludes, Plath’s speaking voice registers a shift to the point where she  “seems to feel, to inhabit….” the poetry.

The seven essays in Part II of the collection set out new critical approaches, including readings from cultural and historical perspectives such as Ann Keniston’s ambitious analysis of the volatile issue of Plath and Holocaust memory. Keniston’s assumption that Plath’s so-called Holocaust poems “reveal Plath to be concerned not so much with capturing the essence of the Holocaust as with the ways it resists representation,” will probably generate its own controversy.  Well-known scholar and poet Sandra Gilbert offers a persuasive “on-site” re-reading of “Berck-Plage,” generally not considered one of Plath’s more powerful poems. Gilbert’s generous, attentive reading, reprinted from her  well-received study, Death’s Door: Modern Dying and the Ways We Grieve, makes a convincing case for the poem to be placed in the elegiac tradition—here, read some poems of T.S. Eliot and Robert Lowell—and suggests that Plath is not our representative poet “of suicidal extremism but rather of later-twentieth century mourning.” 

Within the frame of Part II, Marsha Bryant also explores the notion of the “domestic surreal” in her analysis of the layout of a Plath poem and the accompanying journalistic material and advertisement in the Ladies Home Journal. The page in question comprises a continuation of a short story, Plath’s early sonnet, “Second Winter,” with lineation changed to conform to page requirements, and a half-page ad for a percolator. Bryant’s analysis is rather fanciful as she plays off the word “percolate” in other poems by Plath, and riffs on advertised notions of romance and domesticity symbolized in household appliances. Bryant may be correct, but advertising is contingency—a half-page ad for anything trumps the placement of fiction and poetry, complicating a reading across the separate frames.  In “The ‘Priestess and Her Cult’: Plath’s Confessional Poetics and the Mythology of Women Readers,” Janet Badia argues that contemporary cultural images, for example, the lead female characters in two recent films, reflect literary constructions of Plath’s readership that were first posited in the initial reception of her work (here, read mainly by male critics such as Irving Howe in his “seminal” essay, “Sylvia Plath: A Partial Disagreement,” l972). While innovative in some aspects, Badia’s essay is problematic in that she relies too heavily on generalizations, “selective” readings of critics such as the late Howe, to a lesser extent, contemporary critics such as Tracy Brain and Amy Rea to support her argument, and tends to ignore the fact that male critics such as A. Alvarez in the UK and M.L. Rosenthal in the U.S. had published Plath’s poetry early on, continued to reevaluate her work over the years, and hence contributed to the image of the “Plath reader.” The point is that, yes, Irving Howe’s criticism, had some impact, but that there were other critics at the time whose views were equally if not more influential than Howe’s one essay.

Anita Helle’s comprehensive, well-researched essay with accompanying photographs, “Reading Plath Photographs: In and Out of the Museum,” represents a major contribution to Plath scholarship, which can only be touched on briefly here. Most of the photos available to scholars have been drawn from family albums, cards, and letters. (Helle is evidently related to the Plath family and donated family photos in her mother’s possession to a research library.)  Plath’s photographs—or at least those available to scholars—raise significant questions, comments Helle, which are only beginning to be explored such as the kind of cultural work they propose, the borders along which they are arrayed, and the ways in which the photographs should be read. An important consideration, noted Helle, is that the renewed emphasis on Plath’s visual history and visual culture…means that Plath photographs are being increasingly thought of as part of the archives….” and the possibilities of reading her photographs as part of a matrix of text-image connections has multiplied.”  The memorable exhibit “ ‘No Other Appetite’: Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, and the Blood Jet of Poetry,” at the Grolier Club in New York in 2005, for example, includes rarely seen photographs of Plath and Hughes, alongside drafts and manuscripts of their work and invites us to consider the poets both individually and as partners in a collective enterprise. (For those unable to attend this impressive exhibit, I recommend locating a copy of the catalogue.)  And, as with the work of the late W.G. Sebald, whose writings were accompanied by a variety of black and white photographs, the exhibit at the Grolier powerfully conveyed the vitality of Plath and Hughes, as well as the presence of absence.

Finally, two excellent essays by well-known Plath scholars, Lynda Bundtzen and Diane Middlebrook, should lead readers back to their full length books. In an essay, “Poetic Arson and Sylvia Plath’s “Burning the Letters,” published ahead of her well-received study, The Other Ariel (2001), Bundtzen introduces the notion of “backtalking” following the findings in the Plath archive of Hughes’s work on the reverse side of some of Plath’s manuscript pages. Bundtzen makes the provocative suggestion, for example, that the frequently discussed poem, “Burning the Letters,” written at a time of marital discord in l962, “conveys the simultaneous entanglement of textual bodies and marital violence.”  (Scholars in the Hughes archive at Emory University can also find drafts of Plath poems and short stories on the back of some of his poetry manuscripts.)

Diane Middlebrook’s essay has been adapted from “Her Husband,” (2003), her highly regarded study of the creative partnership of Hughes and Plath. Middlebrook, who was one of the first writers to utilize what were then the recently purchased Hughes archives at Emory University, concentrates on Plath’s poem, “The Rabbit Catcher,” which generated its own publicity when it became the source of controversy in Hughes’s heated argument with Jacqueline Rose about her interpretation of the poem. Of particular interest, Middlebrook makes a new connection, suggesting that the poem is a response to D.H. Lawrence’s poems, “Rabbit Snared in the Night” and “Love on the Farm.” More incisive, perhaps, is Middlebrook’s comment that “The Rabbit Catcher” “is as much a poem about her dread of losing her love for Hughes as it is about her hostility to the literary masculinity she used to idealize.”  What this significant collection of essays conveys overall is greater understanding of the complexity and strength of the poet’s work, but also the recognition that these essays will not be last word in Plath scholarship. The archive continues to unravel.


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