What we can learn from reading Sylvia Plath’s copy of ‘The Great Gatsby’



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Sylvia Plath stuck this bookplate into the front cover of her copy of ‘The Great Gatsby.’
Source, Author provided

Jeanne Britton, University of South Carolina

As a rare books curator, I get to interact with first editions of novels I love, illustrated versions of my favorite poets’ works, and lavish editions of historical engravings.

In 2015, I started using the University of South Carolina’s first edition of “Lyrical Ballads” in my survey of British literature courses. Written by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, this collection of poems is commonly thought to have launched British Romanticism.

I would bring the volume to class to discuss its visual appearance as a printed text. But each time I shared the volume with a new group of students, we found ourselves drawn to the comments written in the book’s margins by its early owner, John Peace.

Peace was, I learned, an acquaintance of Wordsworth. And some of his comments in the margins of one of the volume’s most well-known poems, “Tintern Abbey,” explore the poem’s themes of memory, place and return.

‘So thought I… and so have I found,’ John Peace writes, reacting to ‘Tintern Abbey.’
Source, Author provided

In this poem, Wordsworth describes his return to the Wye River valley after an absence of five years. He also recalls his memories of his first visit to the valley and looks forward to the memories this second visit will create.

“In this moment,” he writes, “there is life and food / For future years.”

When Peace responds to these lines, he describes a different kind of experience – visiting the poet in his home – in a similar way: “So thought I when my foot first step’t upon his threshold, and so have I found.”

It is a singular piece of literary history, and it’s one example of how the study of words written in the margins of historic texts – called “marginalia” – can illuminate the history of reading in new ways.

As prominent book historian Roger Chartier has noted, marginalia can reconstruct past reading experiences through the “sparse and multiple traces” ordinary readers left behind.

One particularly vivid example that is far from ordinary is Sylvia Plath’s copy of “The Great Gatsby.”

Reading ‘Gatsby’ with Sylvia Plath

Acquired by the University of South Carolina in 1994 from a former professor, the Matthew J. & Arlyn Bruccoli Collection of F. Scott Fitzgerald includes Fitzgerald’s personal ledger, a flask from his wife Zelda, and early drafts of his works.

It also includes an inexpensive 1949 edition of “The Great Gatsby.” Compared to other items in this collection, it might not seem like anything special.

But the book’s owner – and the words she wrote in its margins – are quite noteworthy.

The bookplate identifies Sylvia Plath as the owner of this copy, which she most likely read as an undergraduate at Smith College. Some marginal comments were probably notes she took during lectures about the novel. But others show the way Fitzgerald’s novel sparked her imagination and inspired her own work.

She wrote on almost every page, underlining passages in black and blue ink, drawing stars beside her favorites and occasionally writing notes – some quite arresting – in the margins.

Plath wrote “L’Ennui” – a French word that describes a feeling of listlessness and boredom – next to a description of the character Daisy’s world-weary view of life: “I’ve been everywhere and seen everything and done everything.” “L’Ennui” would become the title of a poem Plath is thought to have written shortly after reading this novel.

Sylvia Plath wrote ‘L’Ennui’ – the title of a future poem of hers – in the margins of ‘The Great Gatsby.’
Source, Author provided

Other notes are, in the context of Plath’s painful life and tragic suicide, haunting.

She writes that Daisy shows a “desire for a secure future” – a longing that seems to have struck a chord for Plath.

On another page, she hints at masculine aggression when she comments, as Gatsby watches the Buchanans from outside their home, “knight waiting outside – dragon goes to bed with the princess.” This was a motif that would reappear in her own life: In her recently published letters, Plath details the physical and emotional abuse her husband, the poet Ted Hughes, inflicted upon her in the months before her death.

Some of Plath’s notes are poignant, given what would transpire over the course of her life.
Source, Author provided

Sylvia Plath’s copy of “The Great Gatsby” speaks to the value of marginalia. As Makenzie Logue, a student of mine who is currently studying the volume, put it, preserving these notes means that you can “read The Great Gatsby with Sylvia Plath.”

Making marginalia accessible

In recent years, marginalia left by ordinary readers has become a subject of large-scale data collection efforts.

At the University of Virginia, English professor Andrew Stauffer leads a team that has made a book’s annotations, inscriptions and insertions discoverable as part of UVA’s online library catalog. Any user will be able to find such markings through a simple online search.

At the University of California, Los Angeles, librarians are developing ways to discover marginalia digitally – and quickly – across large digital collections.

Using the methods developed at the University of Virginia, my colleague Michael Weisenburg and I have organized searches for historical markings in library books at the University of South Carolina. Student workers and library staff have enhanced records for annotated volumes in the school’s online catalog.

While digital technology has made marginalia more accessible, digital reading has made the actual habit of writing in books much less common.

What would Sylvia Plath and John Peace have done if they had a Kindle? Would they have still left traces of their reactions to the texts – so valuable to scholars today – behind?The Conversation

Jeanne Britton, Curator, Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, University of South Carolina

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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With a limited on-screen presence, autistic characters have emerged in another medium: fan fiction


Jonathan Alexander, University of California, Irvine and Rebecca Black, University of California, Irvine

In one Harry Potter fan fiction story, Hermione Granger anxiously awaits the results from a recent test.

It isn’t her performance on an exam in a potions course that she’s concerned about. Instead, the higher-ups at Hogwarts had ordered she undergo some psychological tests. They had noticed how quickly she talked, along with her nervous tics.

Hermione eventually sees the results: “I stared at my parents, blinking my eyes. I knew the results would be here today, but I didn’t think the outcome would be like this. Asperger, the paper said.”

In this piece of fan fiction, Hermione Granger has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

As scholars of fan fiction and young adult literature, we started noticing how some fan fiction authors were incorporating autism into their stories – sometimes through new characters and other times by rewriting existing ones.

Since then we’ve been collecting and analyzing fan fictions in which young writers have created characters with autism.

These amateur writers seem to be eager to create the kinds of characters they aren’t regularly seeing in the media. The Harry Potter universe, in particular, has emerged as a popular setting.

The importance of autistic characters

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 1 in 59 children is diagnosed with autism, a word that covers a spectrum of conditions that psychologists refer to as autism spectrum disorder.

How autism manifests can vary greatly from person to person. Some experience significant disability, while others experience milder forms of cognitive difference and social discomfort.

But one thing is clear: Diagnoses have increased in the past 20 years, with the National Autism Association identifying autism as the “fastest growing development disorder.”

At the same time – outside of a couple of notable examples, like Dustin Hoffman’s character in “Rain Man” and Julia from “Sesame Street” – there continues to be a dearth of autistic characters in books, television shows and films.

Yet these media portrayals are extremely important: Accurate portrayals of autism can help people understand the complexities of this condition. Nonexistent depictions – not to mention misleading ones – foster misinformation and bias.

In 2015, Sonya Freeman Loftis, an assistant professor of English at Morehouse College, published “Imagining Autism: Fiction and Stereotypes on the Spectrum,” one of the few academic studies to take up the representation of autism in fiction.

Loftis critiques stereotypical depictions of autism in a range of fictional narratives, such as the character of Lennie in Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” a figure whose disability is linked to sexual violence.

But she also points out that positive representations of autism spectrum disorder can actually highlight some of the strengths that those with autism possess: attention to detail, high levels of concentration, forthrightness, dedication and strong memory skills.

Activists and scholars like Loftis have argued that people diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder should be more justly and accurately understood as “neurodiverse”: If neurological faculties exist on a continuum, theirs could simply be thought of as “different” from the statistical norm.

Young writers take the lead

If major studios and publishing companies express little interest in telling stories about people with autism, who can fill the void?

Fan fictions and other forms of do-it-yourself media-making are an outlet for people to explore issues that are often missing from mass market and popular entertainment.

Some of the most famous examples from fan fiction take place in the Star Trek universe, particularly those that imagine a gay relationship between Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. In doing so, fans were able to integrate queer plots and themes into Gene Roddenberry’s science fiction universe at a time when few gay relationships were appearing on TV.

Given the paucity of mass media representation of autism, we wondered if young people might be using fan fiction to explore this complex topic.

Beginning in 2016 – and working with University of California, Irvine graduate student Vicky Chen – we started analyzing the writings that have appeared on a hugely popular fan fiction clearinghouse.

After selecting for categories such as “neurodiverse” and “differabilities,” we noticed that a number of stories set in the Harry Potter universe seemed to have autistic or neurodiverse characters. We collected and coded these stories, and are set to publish our findings in a forthcoming essay in the Journal of Literacy Research.

Most of the stories were written by young people who have siblings, relatives or friends with autism spectrum disorder. We concluded that, while some of these characters occasionally slip into stereotypes, most of them affirm the ability of people with autism spectrum disorder to confront bigotry and speak about their own conditions.

By extension, the stories promote an understanding of autism as something that isn’t scary or horrific.

In one story, for instance, the writer creates a new character, Albus Potter, the son of Harry Potter, who is autistic and newly enrolled in Hogwarts. In the story, Albus initially has difficulty forming relationships. But he ultimately finds friends in houses as diverse as Gryffindor and Slytherin.

His overprotective mother tries to shield him from ridicule by students and even some biased faculty. But she’s challenged by others, including her husband, who suggests that “Albus can do a great many things that people have said he couldn’t.”

The ‘magic’ of autism

Why the Harry Potter universe?

We reasoned that many of these young writers are still in school and likely huge fans of Harry Potter, so the choice of Hogwarts as a common setting isn’t surprising.

But many of the young authors also linked autism to a kind of “magic” or ability that could be understood at Hogwarts as special – even advantageous – in ways that “muggles,” or normal people, wouldn’t see. In all of the stories we analyzed, everyone with autism also has magical abilities.

In other cases, autism isn’t depicted as an impairment or a challenge to overcome. Instead, it simply appears as a “difference” – a portrayal that’s aligned with the goals of those who argue that autism should be thought of as a form of neurodiversity, not as an illness or disability.

Perhaps most significantly, this research points to the ways in which young people can craft complex representations of autism that the media shies away from.

We can’t say when positive representations of autism will move from fandom to the mainstream.

But until then, these young writers are quietly doing the work to help dispel stereotypes and generate understanding – perhaps even appreciation.The Conversation

Jonathan Alexander, Chancellor’s Professor of English and Gender & Sexuality Studies, University of California, Irvine and Rebecca Black, Associate Professor of Education, University of California, Irvine

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Ten great Australian beach reads set at the beach



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The beach is a common setting for Australian novels, which often capture its darker side.
boxer_bob/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Liz Ellison, CQUniversity Australia

Australians flock to the beach over the summer holidays: Bondi alone had 2.9 million visitors in 2017 – 2018. But while tourism campaigns often portray the beach as an idyllic, isolated haven, many of our beach stories depict it as a darker, more crowded and complex place.

Here are ten Australian beach stories (in no particular order) worth reading this summer.

Floundering by Romy Ash

Romy Ash’s debut novel Floundering, shortlisted for the 2013 Miles Franklin award, is a captivating, sometimes chilling story of two young boys who are taken, without warning, by their mother to a beachside caravan park.

Left to their own devices, the boys must make the most of their time by the beach without anything but their school bags and uniforms.

The un-named regional beach in this novel is uncomfortable, “a location of risk and danger” as author Robert Drewe once described it, and sometimes reveals the worst ways in which nature and humanity meet. It’s a refuge for people looking to escape from city life, a stark comparison to more urbanised beaches.

Puberty Blues by Kathy Lette and Gabrielle Carey

When I tell people that I research the Australian beach, often their first response is to ask if I’ve watched Puberty Blues. Perhaps Australia’s most iconic beach text, the book (first published in 1979) is the story of two friends growing up in beachside suburbs of Sydney. It was adapted for film by Bruce Beresford in 1981.

Both the book and film, with their characteristic colloquialisms and Australian slang, capture a sense of Australian coastal identity while revealing uncomfortable truths about gender, sex, and drugs for the teenagers they depict.

Australian stories about the beach are often male-centred and written by men. Puberty Blues is an important contribution to beach literature because of Debbie and Sue, its female protagonists, and their perspectives on a blokey world.

Time’s Long Ruin by Stephen Orr

In 1966, the three Beaumont children disappeared from Glenelg Beach near Adelaide. They were last seen in the company of a tall, blond man. Despite continued searching, even earlier this year, they have never been found.

Time’s Long Ruin (2010) is a fictionalised account of the disappearance of three children as told through the eyes of their young neighbour. Loosely based on the Beaumont story, Orr captures the dread of the aftermath for those left behind who knew and loved the children, the challenge of dealing with false leads and unreliable information, and the growing realisation that they will likely never be found.

The case of the Beaumont children had an enormous impact on Australian culture. My mother, who was a young girl when they disappeared, still recalls how her parents would worry about her momentarily being out of sight at the beach at this time.

Breath by Tim Winton

Breath, published in 2008, earned Tim Winton his fourth Miles Franklin award and was recently adapted into a film, directed by and starring Simon Baker.

On the surface, this novel is about surfing. But it asks deep questions about masculinity, and boys’ attitudes towards sex, while capturing the feel of Australian coastal life in the 1970s.

Winton’s writings often engage with the ocean, the coast, and the beach – usually in West Australia, where he lives. His memoirs have revealed his love for the coastal landscape. As he writes in Land’s Edge (1993): “There is nowhere else I’d rather be, nothing else I’d rather be doing. I am at the beach looking west with the continent behind me as the sun tracks down to the sea. I have my bearings”.

The Empty Beach by Peter Corris

Peter Corris died in August, after publishing 102 novels. The Empty Beach (1983) was released early in his career and is the fourth novel featuring the private investigator Cliff Hardy – a homegrown, hard-boiled detective, firmly located in Sydney. It was adapted for film in 1985.

In this book, Hardy is investigating the disappearance of John Singer, missing and presumed dead. He begins his probe in the rough, working class Bondi of the early 1980s. Corris captures Bondi Beach through the eyes of his protagonist, depicting it as a seedy extension of the city.

Hassled by junkies, threatened by mobsters; Hardy spends much of the novel embroiled in the corrupt underbelly of Sydney’s criminal kingpins, never far from the now infamous shoreline.

The True Colour of the Sea, by Robert Drewe

Having lived in many coastal spots across the country, including Perth, Sydney, and Byron Bay, Robert Drewe’s stories regularly capture that very familiar, domestic sense of a beachside life.

Drewe’s The Bodysurfers (1987), a collection of short stories, became a bestseller.

His memoirs and short stories are all infused by the beach landscape, and this latest collection is no different.

As the narrator writes in Dr Pacific, the opening story in his new collection:
“One thing’s for sure – it’s my love of the ocean that keeps me going. You know what I call the ocean? Dr Pacific. All I need to keep me fit and healthy is my daily consultation with Dr Pacific.”

Atomic City by Sally Breen

Sally Breen lives and works on the Gold Coast, and that strip of high density development on the beach works its way into much of her writing.

With its high rise skyline under a big sky, Surfers Paradise has been called a “pleasure dome” by Frank Moorhouse. But Atomic City (published in 2013), set largely in the lofty apartment buildings and businesses that abut, and look out on, the beach, captures perfectly the grift and graft of this place.

Jade arrives on the Gold Coast to make herself over and get rich. Together with shady croupier “The Dealer” this is a beach tale of cons, scams and identity theft.

Not Meeting Mr Right by Anita Heiss

Prominent Australian Indigenous author Anita Heiss straddles both fiction and non-fiction, with her work often grounded in ideas around Indigenous identity. Her series of “chick lit” novels includes Not Meeting Mr Right (first published in 2007).

In the novel, Alice lives beachside in Coogee and regularly walks the coastal path between it and Bondi. A proudly single, Indigenous woman, Alice has a change of heart about marriage and decides to get serious about settling down – which means embarking on the rocky road towards finding love. In contrast to the challenges – including racism – she encounters along the way, the beach is a comfortably ordinary presence in this novel. However, Heiss also parodied the white Australian beach experience in an earlier book Sacred Cows (1996).

After January by Nick Earls

If you grew up in Brisbane when I did, there was a high chance you were reading a Nick Earls novel or seeing one adapted into a play. After January (first published in 1996) is one of Earls’ first works for young adult readers, and is set in the long break after finishing high school.

Alex is on holidays at Caloundra in his family’s beach house, a teenage boy uncomfortable in his skin but comfortable in the ocean. Although now more than 20 years old, this story still captures the uncertainty of burgeoning adulthood and the comfort the ocean can bring.

Bluebottle by Belinda Castles

For many Australians, the beach can be wrapped up in childhood memory. These memories can blend and blur. In my mind, my summers spent at the beach with my grandparents were never-ending, from the moment school finished until the day before I was set to return. In reality, we spent some time there, often weekends, and certainly never the entire school holidays.

Belinda Castles’ Bluebottle tells the story of the Bright family, and is filled with that uncomfortable tension that arises when we realise memory is fallible. Siblings Jack and Lou recount key moments from their childhood, starting with the disappearance of a local school girl and their father’s unpredictable purchase of a beachside property in Bilgola, Sydney. However, they learn that growing older can change perspectives on the past and, like the beach, it can be hard to tell what’s under the surface while the waves distort our view.The Conversation

Liz Ellison, Lecturer in Creative Industries, CQUniversity Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.