Review of “These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath”

Crowther, Gail, and Peter K. Steinberg. These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Fonthill Media, 2017. [191 p. ISBN 9781781555941. $24.95. Illustrations, bibliography, index.]

Gail Crowther and Peter K. Steinberg’s These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath positions itself as one of the few books to examine the intersection of Plath studies and archival studies, and the only one of those works to directly challenge the conventional boundaries of literary archives. Supported by detailed descriptions of research conducted over the last decade, Crowther and Steinberg reflect on the experience of studying Plath’s dispersed archives, held in dozens of repositories across the United States and the United Kingdom. The “haunting” potential of literary archives, a unifying concept throughout the book, is seen in ghostly vestiges of authorial presence, such as layered texts on carbon paper, objects partially out of the frames of photos, clothing that once enclosed now-absent bodies, one-sided correspondence, unrealized works, lost archives, locks of hair, coffee rings on manuscripts, recordings of Plath’s voice, and the feeling of her presence in spaces she once frequented. For Crowther and Steinberg, these traces haunt the present and the researcher, just as the researcher haunts the archives in pursuit of new sources and meanings.

These Ghostly Archives, much of it written like a memoir of archival research and characterized by a conversational, personal style, contains four chapters describing the authors’ uncovering of missing or lesser-known works by Plath and their use of archival material to illuminate aspects of her life and career. Three additional chapters work to expand the definition of literary archives to include material culture, in the form of Plath realia, and physical spaces, primarily Smith College (Plath’s alma mater and one-time employer) and Plath’s homes. The final chapter examines the phenomena of lost and privately held archives, the limitations they place on literary scholarship, and their implications for Crowther and Steinberg’s theory of pervasive, ghostly writers’ archives. The book is less a single argument developed over eight chapters than a collection of essays on related themes; indeed, versions of several chapters were previously published as articles in Plath Profiles Interdisciplinary Journal. While some chapters have a single author, others feature both authors’ voices in alternating passages, which highlights their complementary perspectives but can be jarring at times. Chapters on photographs, material culture, and private archives stand out as engaging and readable, aided by comparatively seamless narrative styles and well-chosen color plates.

While both Crowther and Steinberg have published extensively on Plath, their contributions to These Ghostly Archives reflect their respective areas of expertise. The chapters and sections by Crowther, an independent scholar of sociology (PhD, Lancaster University), tend to emphasize the analytical work and interpretive process involved in handling, comparing, and theorizing documents and objects. Steinberg (MLIS, Simmons College), a digital projects specialist at Massachusetts Historical Society and creator of A celebration, this is (an online resource for Plath readers and scholars, found at http://www.sylviaplath.info/), offers insight into how archives operate, the implications of archival practices for the literary scholar, and ways in which researchers and archivists can collaborate.

Beyond their observations about Plath’s biography and writing, which are outside the scope of this review, Crowther and Steinberg present valuable insights for readers interested in reconsidering their approach to literary research or simply following along on a Plathian treasure hunt. They gently introduce concepts like original order to readers who might be unfamiliar with archival research, and they emphasize the importance of teasing out intertextuality between documents held in different repositories and between documents and other types of records. They note the frequency of gaps in the archival record and advocate filling those gaps by drawing on all available sources. Literary manuscripts, personal papers, realia, personal libraries, and even the spaces in which a writer lived and worked can all be read as part of the writer’s archives or body of work, opening up new avenues for research.

These Ghostly Archives also contains useful insights for any archivists who, undeterred by the frequent appearance of archival clichés about dusty boxes and magical discoveries, are willing to vicariously experience the practical, intellectual, and emotional aspects of the research process from the perspective of passionate specialists. Archival professionals will benefit from seeing the archives brought to life in this way, rethinking how researchers use materials and make connections with sources outside the walls of the repository, and facilitating such work through flexibility and collaboration with researchers—who can often, as Steinberg persuasively demonstrates, provide valuable information for archivists to incorporate back into archival description and reference resources. Most importantly, Crowther and Steinberg challenge archival thinking that privileges certain types of value (e.g., informational and evidential value). Their call to preserve materials selected for other purposes aligns with the archival profession’s ongoing reflection on how archivists’ decisions and assumptions shape or limit the historical record.

Not only do Crowther and Steinberg assert that the spaces where Plath worked influenced her writing and thus can provide scholarly insights; they also argue that visiting her homes—what they term her “living archive,” filled with traces of memory—is as relevant and important as reading documents held in repositories. Plath works well as a case study in the links between these two types of archives—a traditional archive consisting largely of text and images, and the collection of impressions and memories tied to a living archive—because she wrote extensively about her physical surroundings and frequently drew on her personal, domestic life in her writing. Occasionally, though, the book’s narrative descriptions of Plath’s houses crowd out a straightforward portrayal of what those houses can tell us about her literary works.

While Crowther and Steinberg’s reframing of literary archives is provocative and useful, the case made in These Ghostly Archives is not entirely persuasive. The argument could have been strengthened by a more solid grounding in existing archival scholarship on Plath to make clear what interventions were enabled by the authors’ broader definition of archives. Despite its fairly detailed bibliography, the book contains only a minimal literature review and occasional references to other Plath scholars’ work. The promised engagement with the discipline of archival studies is even more limited; invoking archival concepts and history in a more nuanced, accurate way and integrating a theoretical apparatus more fully into the text would have lent more support to the authors’ aim of theorizing the archival experience.

To equate living archives with traditional holdings is to challenge core archival principles. Because the book is not meant as a rigorous work of archival theory and will likely be read mostly by non-archivists, a limited treatment of the subject is appropriate. However, the book’s major argument about the boundaries of the archive would have been stronger had the authors acknowledged and grappled more directly with the extent to which their redefinition departs from characteristics and practices understood as essential to archives and records. For example, the traces found within living archives lack fixed content and structure, and there is no way to provide reliable, effective access to impressions not visible or legible in a consistent way. While the intangible remnants found in living archives might be of great value to a researcher, it is not at all clear that they are analogous to traditional archives, how researchers and their scholarship benefit from labeling them as archives, or whether Crowther and Steinberg’s treatment is substantially different from other ways in which literary scholars view writers’ homes.

Crowther and Steinberg touch on a wide variety of issues at the intersection of archival studies and Plath studies, many of which warrant more attention than a single, brief volume allows. An attempt to comprehensively trace the history of Plath’s archives—to tell how and why sets of materials ended up where they did—would be welcome, particularly as a lens on evolving approaches to collecting and preserving manuscripts and a model for finding out what fragmentary or dispersed materials exist and reconstructing a story across multiple repositories at a large scale. Also of value would be closer examinations of the nature and politics of access to Plath materials in the context of the living archive, as well as the role of class and race in the archival treatment of Plath-related materials and spaces, an issue Crowther and Steinberg acknowledge but do not explore.

These Ghostly Archives is, first and foremost, a book for Plath fans, who will likely be delighted by the chance to share in the experience of handling unique objects and documents and visiting important sites. Readers who lack extensive knowledge of the Plath oeuvre might find parts of the book difficult to follow, just as readers lacking experience with archival theory might encounter unfamiliar and unexplained terms and concepts; these challenges are exacerbated by the occasional confusing or inelegant sentence and several distracting typographical and editorial errors. But the detective stories, practical observations about research in literary archives, and glimpses of privately owned homes and objects will make many of the chapters compelling reading for students, literary researchers, and archives professionals, who will benefit from seeing scholars tell their own stories of using archives and, in the process, render their methodologies, decisions, and insights more visible.

Katherine Fisher
Digital Preservation & Social Change Collection Archivist
Special Collections & Archives
Georgia State University Library

 

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