Report on Visit to Sylvia Plath Archive at Smith College

IMG_2172In early January 2014, I spent two full days at the Sylvia Plath archives in the Mortimer Rare Book Room at Smith College doing research for my senior thesis. My senior thesis comprises a meta-analysis of the critical reception of Plath and her works as well as a textual analysis of the way in which Plath writes (her)self – her “I” – into her work. In this critique of literary critique, I am working with and against the biographical treatment of this writer to assess how one reads the work through the filter of her death. To do this analysis, I used feminist, literary, and psychoanalytic theory in addition to research materials from the Archives at Smith College. Specifically, newspaper and magazine reviews were fundamental to my research as these writings on Plath’s work reveal the extent to which the biographical impulse continues to shape Plath’s literary legacy. At the Archives, I had the remarkable opportunity to read Plath’s original journals and poetry manuscripts, correspondence letters, senior thesis, book collection, and the aforementioned newspaper clippings of both American and British reviews of her works. Traces of my trip to the Archives are scattered throughout my thesis from images of Plath’s original work to first person accounts of the very experience of thumbing through the meticulous records of Plath’s life in words. The writing process was heavily influenced by this closeness and proximity to Plath’s original work and as a result of my Archival research I had a greater personal and intellectual investment in the project.

I had allotted two full days in the Archives with a detailed agenda, but quickly found that I could have easily spent weeks lingering over the Plath materials. I worked steadily each day, arriving at the Archive when it opened and staying with the research until closing, often with only a few short breaks. I was entirely immersed in the Plath materials and it became apparent during that visit how truly dedicated I was to my senior thesis. My final version was 160 pages with an Introduction, Coda, and three chapters pertaining to The Bell Jar, Ariel, and The Unabridged Journals respectively. The process of writing a thesis was absolutely thrilling and I hope to continue with my studies in PhD programs in the areas of Women’s Studies, English, or Literature.

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“We’re so young”

Screen shot 2014-04-09 at 3.02.58 AMThis piece was originally published at The (Duke) Chronicle where I am writing a biweekly column for the Spring 2014 Editorial Pages.

“We’re so young”

I vividly remember sitting at the kitchen counter two years ago on that afternoon in the last week of May. Sleep deprivation from a grueling finals week had thankfully given way to the lazier days of mindlessly scrolling, clicking and reading. I was relieved to be done. Sophomore year was now over and the residual aftershocks of my year of the “Why?” were slowly settling in as my new normal.

I had just gotten back from watching my older brother graduate from Columbia. It was a lovely graduation with white chairs arranged in hundreds of neat rows on the lawn. Thousands of graduates from all the different schools in the university were clad in Columbia blue robes. There were speeches followed by one last celebratory wave of applause. The grads flipped the tassels on those silly little caps and then rushed off to find their families in the busy streets of Manhattan. I gave my older brother a big hug. My “regular dysfunctional” family smiled in a bunch of pictures. Snapshots. Memories. Milestones. And a week later, there I was at home, sitting in that chair at the kitchen counter mindlessly scrolling, clicking, and reading.

There was this essay circulating at the time, as all viral essays are wont to do. This one was no exception. Everyone was reading it. Posting and reposting. Pictures of this girl in a mustard yellow peacoat began cropping up one after the other on my newsfeed with a link to her essay, “The Opposite of Loneliness.” At first glance, it seemed like any soon-to-be college graduate’s last word, a senior’s last column of inspired musings and nostalgic anecdotes. In a sense, it was perhaps exactly that. It was Marina Keegan, a Yale senior, putting language to the acute sense of fear that makes our shifting and restless twenty-something lives seem so permanent. Her essay is absolutely striking. Stunning, really. It’s sharp and on point. She writes in just a few hundreds of words what’s so energizing and suffocating about trying to figure it all out.

“We’re so young. We’re so young,” Marina writes, “We’re twenty-two years old. We have so much time.”

What we have to remember is that we can still do anything. We can change our minds. We can start over. Get a post-bac or try writing for the first time. The notion that it’s too late to do anything is comical. It’s hilarious. We’re graduating college. We’re so young. We can’t, we MUST not lose this sense of possibility because in the end, it’s all we have.

Five days after Marina Keegan graduated magna cum laude from Yale University, and the day this essay appeared in the special commencement edition of her college daily, she was killed in a car accident.

All year, I’ve been working on my senior thesis, which critiques the way Sylvia Plath’s work has been filtered through her death. All year I’ve been mulling over the slippery interconnectedness between art and life, life and art. All year, I’ve been thinking about how a writer’s death impacts our reading of their words.

It’s undeniable that death affects us in profound ways, but for a writer, it has this lasting impact on how we ultimately approach their work. In some respects, it’s impossible not to register the sadness of a young writer’s death, but I like to think that I would have stumbled across Keegan’s remarkable essay because it was and is remarkable. And yet, in a devastating and very human way, I read it because it went viral in the days following her death.

That’s how we deal with tragedy. We pick it apart and obsess over this horrific thing that has happened. We try not to dwell on the sadness. We do. We try. But it creeps up here and there where once hopeful little gems now read, in retrospect, as so utterly tragic.

When she died, Marina was a 22-year-old writer about to begin her illustrious literary career with a job lined up at The New Yorker. She was already a gifted writer. The tragedy of her death is that she was robbed of realizing her own “sense of possibility.”

The tragedy is that Marina couldn’t live what she wrote.

Still, even as her passing was a devastating loss, it wasn’t her death that continues to make her writing so powerful. It’s the rawness of her words and of her heightened awareness for the present—right here, right now—that makes her writing exceptional.

When I read Marina’s essay two years ago, I was only halfway through college. I wasn’t graduating. I didn’t feel attached to Duke the way she expressed such gratitude for Yale. I hadn’t written much at that point—surely not enough to consider myself a writer. The truth is, I don’t know why it resonated so deeply for me or why I had such a strong, visceral reaction to the writing.

All I know is that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this piece of writing. I keep returning to it, every few months, or when I get an email alert with new (and old) readers responding to the essay in the comments. Every time I read Marina’s piece—line by line—I get chills, and a lump forms in my throat just like that afternoon in the last week of May two years ago after my brother’s college graduation.

Even though Marina was killed instantly at the scene, her mother managed to recover the hard drive and Marina’s writing from her shattered computer. This past weekend, Marina’s picture popped up on my newsfeed once again, but this time with an excerpted essay from her posthumous collection—The Opposite of Loneliness. The collection was just released yesterday.

Danielle Nelson is a Trinity senior. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Send Danielle a message on Twitter @elleeenel.

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Trust a little more, try a little less

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This piece was originally published at The (Duke) Chronicle where I am writing a biweekly column for the Spring 2014 Editorial Pages. Trust a little more, try a little less There were too many of us crowded around the table in that small little room. Chairs were crammed side-by-side, so close that there was barely any space […]

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Tweet, tweet

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This piece was originally published at The (Duke) Chronicle where I am writing a biweekly column for the Spring 2014 Editorial Pages. Tweet, tweet I once tweeted at Twitter asking them for a job at their company. Jezebel had just written a post about the tech company’s “woman” problem (no women on the board), so I naturally […]

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A little pearl of wisdom

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This piece was originally published at The (Duke) Chronicle where I am writing a biweekly column for the Spring 2014 Editorial Pages. A little pearl of wisdom Around this time two years ago, I was huddled up on the stairs behind Friedl with tears running down my cheeks, shaking uncontrollably. I remember calling my dad at work […]

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Revise, rewrite

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This piece was originally published at The (Duke) Chronicle where I am writing a biweekly column for the Spring 2014 Editorial Pages. Revise, rewrite I was sitting outside of a cafe in Los Angeles when I saw him out of the corner of my eye. Every step seemed so labored, and the wheels of his walker scuffed […]

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