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



File 20181204 34154 1i44dcg.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
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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Sylvia Plath’s new short story was never ‘lost’ – so why is the media saying it was ‘just discovered’?



File 20190124 196244 wsoh70.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Archivists put an immense amount of work into organizing, digitizing and maintaining repositories.
AP Photo/Matt Dunham

Bethany Anderson, University of Virginia

The recent publication of Sylvia Plath’s short story “Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom” has been met with much fanfare, with the media eager to highlight that the story had been “lost,” only to have recently been “found.”

The Boston Globe described the work as “recently discovered” in its headline. A Vox article evoked a scene of abandonment and deterioration – the story had “languished in her archives for decades.”

And a recent New Yorker article, “A Lost Story by Sylvia Plath Contains the Seeds of the Writer She Would Become,” noted that “not even the author’s estate had known the story existed until the critic and academic Judith Galzer-Raymo stumbled over it while doing research in Plath’s archives.”

But was Plath’s story really “lost”? For years, “Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom” has been preserved – and has been accessible to the public – at Indiana University’s Lilly Library, thanks to the work of archivists and other cultural stewards.

As an archivist, I bristle at this sort of misleading coverage, which is only the latest example of the media ignoring the work of archivists in order to highlight something found in archives as “newly discovered.”

What’s behind this media impulse and why do these mischaracterizations persist?

Archival tropes

I’ve become all too accustomed to seeing headlines about “long-lost” manuscripts that have been found.

For example, in 2012 two articles in The Atlantic debated whether a medical report relating to Abraham Lincoln’s assassination amounted to a “discovery.”

As another example, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported a “long-lost letter” by René Descartes that had “lain buried in the archives [at Haverford College] for more than a century.” The public also recently learned of letters from interned Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War that had been “long-forgotten in the bowels of Library and Archives Canada.” In all these examples, the documents were already preserved and accessible in archival repositories.

And on the rare occasions that archives are featured in the press or in popular culture, they’re usually characterized as old, secluded and dusty places.

For example, in 2013 The New York Times published an article titled “Leaving Cloister of Dusty Offices, Young Archivists Meet Like Minds.”

If the headline alone didn’t convey this sentiment, the text drove it home: The archivists, it read, had “long spent their careers cloistered, like the objects they protected.”

Any archivist reading this story knows that nothing could be further from the truth. In a letter to the editor, Helen W. Samuels, a former archivist at MIT, responded, “While I was delighted that your article focused attention on the talented archivists now employed by so many institutions, I was saddened that it perpetuated the outdated image of archivists as preservers of dusty, precious artifacts maintained in a cloistered environment.”

Innovators versus maintainers

For the record, “dusty” doesn’t characterize any of the repositories I’ve worked in or visited. For example, the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia is clean with an open layout, and its spaces are filled with natural light. Similarly, the University of Michigan’s William L. Clements Library spaces do not fit the “dusty” stereotype.

Perhaps the media finds these tropes appealing because they evoke the romance and mystery of unearthing, discovering and rescuing rare books, documents or artifacts, as if they’re hidden treasures. After all, who doesn’t want to feel like Indiana Jones? And by representing archives as dusty, cloistered places, the materials appear to be on the verge of disappearing into obscurity – that is, unless a researcher comes to the rescue.

Another reason these tropes persist could have to do with the way our society privileges innovators over maintainers. Maintainers, according to scholars Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel, are “those individuals whose work keeps ordinary existence going rather than introducing novel things.”

Archivists are maintainers: They perform the “ordinary” work of acquiring, appraising and arranging archival materials. They respond to the inquiries of students and researchers, and work to preserve materials for posterity.

As members of the archival community have pointed out, this sort of work is generally ignored and misunderstood. Instead, when it comes to stories about archival research, stories will focus on the “innovators” – the scholars who write about the rare manuscript or old letter and, in doing so, rescue these materials from obscurity.

In almost every case, these stories gloss over the fact that these items exist in publicly accessible collections and are described in finding aids and databases.

Giving credit where credit’s due

This is not to take anything away from the work of researchers. Archival research is a process that often involves an intense commitment of time and energy. A researcher can see value or significance in a letter or manuscript that might have otherwise gone unnoticed outside of the archives.

Much of the media coverage of ‘Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom’ describe it as a work that was ‘lost’ and then ‘found.’
Harper Collins

Nonetheless, while a researcher might be the first researcher to read a document, they may not be the first person to have encountered it – not when archivists, curators, librarians and other staff work with materials on a daily basis.

Interestingly, the researcher featured in The New Yorker article about the Plath short story doesn’t appear to have been the first scholar to have “discovered” that “lost” Sylvia Plath story. As Rebecca Baumann, Head of Public Services at the Lilly Library, noted, “Many people have written about [“Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom”] … There’s published scholarship that discusses [it].“

But that doesn’t always make for the best story.The Conversation

Bethany Anderson, University Archivist, University of Virginia

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

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



File 20181204 34154 1i44dcg.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
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.

Not My Review: Ariel by Sylvia Plath (1965)


The link below is to a book review of ‘Ariel,’ by Sylvia Plath.

For more visit:
http://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/may/23/arielsylvia-plath-100-best-nonfiction-books-robert-mccrum