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Indiana University’s Lilly Library is fact-checking The New Yorker.
After the magazine published a story on its website Jan. 7 entitled “A Lost Story by Sylvia Plath Contains the Seeds of the Writer She Would Become,” the Lilly Library, a world-renowned repository for rare books and manuscripts on the Bloomington campus, was perplexed.
“(whispers) You know when materials are in libraries and archives, they are actually the opposite of ‘lost,’ ” Rebecca Baumann, the Head of Public Services at the Lilly Library, tweeted Jan. 8 from the @IULillyLibrary account.
It turns out the “lost” Plath story is publicly accessible in the library’s collections — and has been since 1977.
“Many people have written about this,” Baumann said. “There’s published scholarship that discusses this story.”
While the library acknowledges its more than 450,000 books, 8.5 million manuscripts, and 150,000 pieces of sheet music haven’t been completely explored, Baumann said the Plath story, “Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom,” is readily available.
“It’s open to the public; no IU affiliation required,” she said.
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J.K. Lilly Jr., the former president of Eli Lilly and Co., donated more than 20,000 rare books and 17,000 manuscripts to jump-start the Lilly Library, which was built in 1960. Some of those included the first printing of the Declaration of Independence, a First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays and the original manuscript of J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan.”
Plath wrote the “Mary Ventura” story in 1952, while she was a 20-year-old student at Smith College in Massachusetts. She submitted it to Mademoiselle magazine, which rejected it. She’d won the magazine’s fiction contest in 1951.
Baumann said the early story is a significant signpost in Plath’s development as a writer.
“I don’t know if it dramatically changes our understanding of how she wrote, but it’s interesting to see how a writer develops,” Baumann said. “We have several drafts of this story, in which both she and her professor commented on her work. You can see how she took those comments into account in later drafts.”
At one point, Baumann said, Plath’s instructor commented that a line she wrote was “too easy.” But Plath made a note to herself in the margin: “Trust your own judgment.”
“She was talking back,” Baumann said.
New Yorker staff writer Katy Waldman writes that the story “contains the seeds of the writer Plath would become.”
“There is a raw revulsion and disconnection in it,” Waldman wrote in the New Yorker piece.
The magazine claims 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.”
But many other people are aware of it, Baumann said.
“Lots of people did know that this story existed,” Baumann said. “Thousands of people have looked at our Plath collections since 1977, and hundreds — maybe thousands — have looked at this specific story.”
Plath’s protagonist, Mary Ventura, is named after one of Plath’s childhood friends. In the story, Ventura boards a train to the ninth kingdom, which an elderly woman describes to her as the place of “the frozen will,” from which “there is no going back.”
It is Plath’s father who insists she board the train over her protests at the beginning of the story, accusing her of “getting jittery.” As the train travels through the dark, sinister landscape, the other passengers don’t notice anything is amiss — similar, The New Yorker notes, to mental illness.
On the advice of a mysterious Lady Lazarus, whom The New Yorker calls a “fairy godmother” character, Mary pulls the emergency cord to stop the train. She dashes up a stairway into the sun and rises into heaven.
The New Yorker calls the ending “a heartbreaking vision of freedom,” but one which leaves “a dark imprint.” Reading the story, according to Waldman, “comes nearer to the experience of being trapped in a nightmare.”
“A man stamps your ticket, and it is so ghastly you must wake up,” she writes.
Plath committed suicide in 1963, after a long battle with clinical depression.
“She was a brilliant woman who struggled greatly with depression and an extremely abusive husband,” Baumann said. “She was telling the truth through her stories, and not enough people believed her.”
Fifty-six years after Plath’s death, “Mary Ventura” is finally getting its due. HarperCollins is publishing the 64-page story as a book Jan. 15. The sticker price is $9.99.
But while it may be “never before published,” as HarperCollins claims in its description, it isn’t “newly discovered.”
“The more accurate world would be ‘unpublished,’ ” Baumann said. “The phrase ‘lost’ is a little misleading, because, yes, it’s lost in that millions of people haven’t had access to it because it’s sitting on a shelf in a library in Indiana. But if you were to Google the title of the story, you’d hit upon our finding aid, and see that this story is at Indiana University.”
In addition to numerous Plath manuscripts, the library also has a number of items from Plath’s life on display in January and February as part of its “Cabinet of Curiosities” exhibit.
Those include a 10-inch-long, honey-colored ponytail of Plath’s hair, snipped by her mother, Aurelia, when Plath was 12 years old, and Plath’s baby book, both of which came from a London bookseller to whom her mother sold the items.
The exhibit, which opens Jan. 14, runs through the end of February. The library is open to the public 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday, and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday. It is closed on Sundays.
Email IndyStar reporter Sarah Bahr at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @smbahr14.
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