Thursday, April 4, 2019

On Plath’s “New” Piece and the Ethics of Posthumous Publishing

Is the publication of "Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom" a cause for celebration or for concern over the late author's privacy?  ♦ 
When the archivist delivered the dark green folio box to my desk and placed a document stand in front of me, my year-long literary research project transformed from theory into tangible reality. As I moved the first composition book to the desk and slowly lifted the cover, I caught my breath as I realized I was opening the notebook in which Sylvia Plath had once written. Sitting in the Reading Room of Indiana University’s Lilly Library, holding manuscripts for texts I had spent much of the previous year studying, I was humbly reminded that Plath is not just a literary icon of suicide, mental health, and female “madness” to be scrutinized and dissected, but a real young woman, and one of many whose voice was so often suppressed, discredited, and disqualified. Holding her original writing reminded me that studying narratives such as Plath’s contributes to a cause much larger than that of literature alone.

Little did I know that six months later, in January 2019, both the US and the UK would print a previously unpublished short story that had been archived in one of the very folio boxes I had held that day at Lilly. “Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom” was first published by Faber & Faber as part of their Faber Stories series that will commemorate the company’s 90th anniversary all throughout 2019, and then subsequently by HarperCollins in the US. Plath first wrote the story for a class assignment during her junior year at Smith College in 1952. The story is told by first-person narrator Mary Ventura throughout her journey to board and ride a train to an unknown destination. She is befriended by a mysterious woman who hints at Mary’s pending fate and gives her instructions to escape, which Mary ultimately chooses to follow. Plath submitted the piece to, and was rejected by, Mademoiselle magazine, where she had previously won its writing prize and completed an internship, as described in her only novel, The Bell Jar.

Since the publication of “Mary Ventura,” the internet has been buzzing with reviews, debates, critique, and overall renewed interest in Plath’s life and writing. Perhaps the largest and most heated discussion has been around stories printed by The New Yorker (and others) that use language implying that “Mary Ventura” was lost or undiscovered and that it had only recently been unearthed. New Yorker staff writer Katy Waldman claimed that “not even the author’s estate had known the story existed until the critic and academic Judith Glazer-Raymo stumbled over it while doing research in Plath’s archives.” In response to Waldman, Indiana University Lilly librarians took to Twitter to clarify that they’ve housed a copy of the story since the ’70s and that it was clearly listed on their website and available for anyone to request to see.

While reading through the influx of attention Lilly has received as of late (at least in the English/literature communities I follow), I am reminded of the moment I felt as I was turning through files in the Reading Room, coming across Plath’s composition books from high school and her hand-drawn paper dolls, and wondering, Is this what she would have wanted? To have so much of her personal life available in public archives for anyone to see? I am reminded of this question now, in the wake of the publication of “Mary Ventura,” as a critical point of discussion for any posthumously published work. Similar questions were asked of posthumous works like Vladimir Nabokov’s The Original of Laura and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird sequel, Go Set A Watchman. In the case of “Mary Ventura,” I think it’s safe to assume that Plath would be all right with its publication, given that she submitted it to Mademoiselle for publication. But I have to believe that this wouldn’t necessarily be the case for the hundreds of letters and journal entries that her family released for publication.

Beyond the question of “discovery,” Plath scholars and superfans alike are still working to piece together the path to publication of “Mary Ventura.” Most of Plath’s writing has been published posthumously and only with the permission of her estate under the control of her ex-husband Ted Hughes, mother Aurelia Plath, and children Nicholas and Frieda. As I attempted to conduct the research project that brought me to the Plath archive in the first place, I found myself frustrated with her estate for not releasing all of her journals, particularly the ones immediately before her death. I felt that her mother and ex-husband had attempted to silence Plath from the grave and prevent her story from being told, and many scholars and journalists seem to agree. Parul Sehgal warns of similar dangers in her New York Times review of “Mary Ventura” and writes that readers’ interpretation of Plath “has proven wrong for the most elemental reasons. Our notion of Plath has grown, and will continue to, as more of her writing appears in print—as 'the silent woman' speaks in the restored version of 'Ariel,' her final poems first edited by Hughes, in her unexpurgated journals and two volumes of collected letters.” By selectively limiting what can and cannot be published, her estate filters and customizes the impression with which the world is left to remember her.

With “Mary Ventura” as the most recent impetus for discussion, I am left wondering how to reconcile these two forms of justice: freeing her voice to literally and metaphorically give silenced women a platform from which to be heard, or protecting what her wishes for privacy may or may not have been.

Without the ability to consult Plath herself, do we publish and read more of her private writing in the interest of bringing back her voice and painting the most complete possible picture of her life? Or do we respect her intimate documents as private and cease to seek out and publish more of these artifacts? I don’t have an answer, but as information both old and new becomes easier to find and collect, these are the questions that academic and casual readers alike will need to consider.

  • About the Author
    Ellen Stenstrom is a senior double major in English Literature and Creative Writing with minors in education and rhetoric/writing. She has completed research projects on mental illness in literature and narrative theory, and is particularly interested in experimental fiction and postmodernism, which she plans to pursue in graduate school this fall.

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