Sylvia Plath’s Manuscripts – finding treasure at the Lilly Library

The Lilly Library in Bloomington first purchased writings from Sylvia Plath in 1960, quite simply because they wrote and asked her.

Over the years, they acquired many more items, and the collection now contains 94 poems, as well as 3,324 examples of correspondence, writing, and memorabilia, including paper dolls, her suitcase and personal books, and even her ponytail!

The University of Indiana seems an odd guardian of the manuscripts of a writer linked more famously with Massachusetts and England. The first part of the collection was donated by Sylvia herself, but the bulk came from her mother Aurelia in 1977, including juvenelia, and private letters and diaries.

I’ve been telling people for decades that ‘Sylvia Plath saved my life.’ It isn’t the dramatic teen angst claim it sounds, but literally true. A young, severely depressed and suicidal Cheryl was gifted the Bell Jar, and then sought out Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, Ariel and The Colossus. They absorbed me long enough till the crisis passed. Luckily, I’m a slow reader.

And so my love for Sylvia’s work extends to love for her as a person also, and a debt of gratitude to a kindred spirit who saved me, despite losing her own battle long before I was born. Those of us who have been there are a kind of family, and we try to make it for each other.

Therefore, this trip, which has been a time of soul-searching, resetting, and assessing the practicalities of starting a new life, is the perfect time to make my way to Bloomington and see the real life pages that captured her words. It’s more than I ever dreamed of.

The library is undergoing renovation right now, so it’s good to contact ahead of time. The staff were kind and helpful from the start, reserved me a reading room for a whole day, and reserved the boxes I wanted to see. There are many, but they offered me ten boxes and the whole day to view them.

I don’t need to tell you how exciting it was to handle her notes and poems, so many on the pink Smith College paper she obviously saved reams of, and to see the original correspondence from Letters Home that I have practically memorized over the years!

Similarly, her journals list her essays and reading from Cambridge, and it is all here, page after page of flawless copy in her neat writing.

One particular treasure is a tiny, tiny notebook, filled only with the study of frogs.

We accidently searched through the work almost chronologically, despite choosing boxes almost at random. Our time ended with letters from Plath’s final months, when she was living alone with her children. The swirling hand belies her anger at Ted and the uncertainty she found herself in. It was an upsetting, yet fitting place to end.

Sadly, it was a short visit this time, but I would love to return and spend far longer digging through the gems of Sylvia’s sparkling life.

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