Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Unraveling the Literary Archive

Anita Helle, ed., The Unraveling Archive: Essays on Sylvia Plath (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007).

Helle introduces this volume by stating that it is intended to reflect recent scholarship on the tragic writer Plath, mostly building around archives and memory. The essays seek “to enlarge and enrich the contexts of Plath’s writing with the archive as its informing matrix, unraveling tangled connections backward to the middle decades of the twentieth century and forward to issues raised by contemporary literary and cultural criticism” (p. 1). Helle’s use of the phrase “archival matters” is interesting, noting that it “coincides with the turn toward historiographic textual and material research; there has been a growing recognition that much of what we thought we knew – and didn’t know – about Plath has gradually come to be part of a wider conversation about culture, history, and memory for which archival material and expanded definitions of the archive provide support” (p. 2).

These essays provide interesting peeks into the nature of literary archives. Tracy Brain comments on the fact that Plath manuscripts are spread around the world, “constructed posthumously and piecemeal – even haphazardly – from materials that have been donated or sold by those who are willing to part with them; but many more materials are not there and have instead been lost or discarded or retained in private hands” (p. 19). Brain argues that this is part of the indeterminacy of the Plath writings, and the challenges posed to those studying her work. This scholar also suggests that Plath deliberately misdated and rearranged her literary manuscripts in order to create a certain impression about how her work had evolved and how it had been composed.

Other essays by these literary scholars peek into the meaning of the archive as conceived by writers such as Plath and as reconceptualized by scholars following their leads. Robin Peel’s essay on Plath’s political education builds on her early personal papers held by the Lilly Library: “This archive includes small personal diaries Plath kept as a young girl, hard-backed notebooks in which Plath made notes for her Smith courses, secretarial-type notepads on which she made journalist notes from talks given by visiting speakers, and her own copies of college textbooks, some of which are annotated very heavily in bold ink in the manner characteristic of students eager to learn” (p. 40). Kathleen Connors writes about research in the Plath materials in the Lilly and Smith Archives to gain an understanding of Plath’s interest in the visual arts (especially her diaries with sketches). Kate Moses investigates recordings of Plath reading her poetry and other writings. Anita Helle provides an analysis of photographic images of Plath and their possible connections to Plath’s writings, how the images of the places she lived and worked were shaped into the memories of the places she wrote about in her poems and essays. Lynda K. Bundtzen considers the destruction of some of Plath’s journals and other manuscripts by Ted Hughes and Plath herself, musing on her poem entitled “Burning the Letters.”


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