This book might be for you if you fall into one of two camps: Either you have more than a passing interest in the work and life of Sylvia Plath, or you have more than a passing interest in how archives, particularly literary archives, come to be and what challenges they face. As it turns out, I'm in the former camp, but also found out that learning about archive research and sleuthing itself can be very interesting.
When I thought of "archives," I thought of things like boxes of papers, letters, drafts of literary works, photos, etc. that are settled in places like Smith College and the Lilly Library. In fact, while Crowther and Steinberg researched through the archives, they even found two previously unknown poems of Plath's. Of course, that's correct, but it's a limited interpretation. As authors Crowther and Steinberg detail in this slim but fascinating book, archives are many things, including physical locations that Plath lived at or visited at one time or another (including little Cornucopia, WI); it's items of her clothing, or the cradle she painted for her babies, or the large elm desk her brother and then-husband Ted Hughes built for her.
It's also things like her hair. Yes, her actual hair--not removed from her after her death. Her mother had apparently cut her hair at various points and kept it. (I'm surprised my parents, the functional hoarders, didn't do something like that with me; they did keep all my baby teeth, believe it or not. And no, I did not keep those after they were "gifted" to me.) At first glance, you wouldn't be the first to wonder why things like clothes and hair would be considered literary artifacts. But they are, both in the sense that they were things Plath wrote about, especially in her journals and letters, and in the sense that they help those of us who never met her in real life grasp her physical being, much the same way that a visit to Haworth Parsonage to see the couch Emily Bronte died on and one of Charlotte's dresses give some context to what's only imagined otherwise.
For me, the last two chapters were perhaps the most interesting. Towards the end of her life, Plath edited an anthology of contemporary-to-her American poets. Researching her research and comparing/contrasting her selections against her own work of the time is really enlightening.
The final chapter talks about private and lost archives. Private is a fairly clear concept; there are many people who are Plath fans who have acquired items they keep under wraps. There are also likely things that have been stolen over the years, and obviously thieves aren't going to be likely to publicize that. (In a creepy aside, Plath's daughter Frieda Hughes has written about how her father found people had come to his home--likely on his invitation--and sneaked around to find books where Plath had written her name inside, and cut out the signature. I mean, c'mon, people.)
More intriguing, and what really gets hard-core Plath fans in a stir (yes, that's me) is what's gone missing: Her two last journals and a partial (possibly nearly full) manuscript of a second novel called Double Exposure. Hughes said that he destroyed the last two journals, but there are conflicting accounts of that, including some comments by his sister, Olwyn. Same with the novel. Where did it go? Is the novel and/or the missing journals possibly still in Ted Hughes' archives, the part that is sealed until the next decade? At the time of her death, he had already made money selling his own writings for archive projects, so he had to know how valuable they would be. Would he really have destroyed them, or simply put them where they couldn't be read during his lifetime?
And where did many missing letters go? And other paraphernalia that at one time was known to have existed, but for all practical purposes has disappeared. It's the most ghostly of these ghostly chapters.
Again, a great read if you're a Plath fan and/or interested in the background of archives.