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updated: 2/22/2013 10:54 AM

Plath a draw for IU library 50 years after death

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Associated Press

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Two years before poet Sylvia Plath died, the director of Indiana University's Lilly Library purchased some of her papers for $352.66, equivalent to about $2,700 today. Those 94 items, and the several others that the IU archive later acquired, comprise one of the library's most popular collections.

Even 50 years after the author's suicide -- she died on Feb. 11, 1963 -- Plath remains a pivotal figure, a feminist icon to many. Her novel "The Bell Jar" and her poetry appear on college syllabi nationwide.

And for many, the emotions and angst expressed within still capture the experience in which one's gender too often limits one's options.

"When I teach "The Bell Jar" to women undergraduates, I think they really identify with Esther (the protagonist) at the level that Esther is a character who's conflicted between the narrative that society gives her and her own desires," Janet Badia, director of women's studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, told The Indianapolis Star . "Twenty years ago, I identified with Esther in that way and I think that women are still struggling with those questions."

Perhaps that's why people still come to Bloomington to look at the Plath manuscript collections, which include works by her husband, poet Ted Hughes, and mother Aurelia Plath. Last year about 140 people used the materials, said Cherry Williams, curator of manuscripts at the Lilly Library. The materials are available to the public but it is recommended that visitors contact the library beforehand.

While Plath had no personal ties to Indiana University, her work fits within the library's extensive holding of materials from 20th century American authors. Smith College, where she studied, contains a significant collection of her papers as well.

The Lilly Library, however, has a treasure trove of Plath's juvenila, including childhood diaries and greeting cards and even a lock of her hair. There's also a collection of paper dolls she designed with pages of costumes.

The amount of material that the Plath women saved and then sold surprised Williams when she came to the library.

"I was struck by the fact that both Sylvia and her mom seemed to feel that she was destined for something, that she was destined to be remarkable," Williams said.

The Lilly Library collection also reveals how meticulous a poet Plath was, said Karen Kovacik, director of creative writing at IUPUI's School of Liberal Arts.

When Kovacik and her students explored the collection, they noticed that she slashed certain words from earlier drafts, in some cases full stanzas.

"I think everyone sees her as this sloppy confessional writer who just wrote things in a white heat and never revised, but in fact she revised a lot and was really quite painstaking," said Kovacik, who is the state's poet laureate.

Still, today, Plath may be best known for killing herself just as she was becoming one of the clarion voices of the budding feminist movement.

Viewing her that way would be a mistake, however, Kovacik added.

"Plath is so much more than her death," she said. "When people glom onto Plath because of her death, I always feel a bit of regret at that."

If Plath had not taken her own life, it's not clear how the rest of her life would have played out, Badia said. She might have followed a similar trajectory to her contemporary Adrienne Rich, who by the 1970s had divorced her husband, came out as lesbian and went on to be a prominent and prolific feminist writer.

Eight days after Plath died, Betty Friedan's "Feminist Mystique" was published, ushering in a new era for women.

"What if she had a chance to read that book," Badia said, "how might she have been impacted by it if she had had that sense that there are other women struggling with these issues. ... At the very least she might have found a community of women who shared her concerns."

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