“The trouble was, I had been inadequate all along, I simply hadn’t thought about it.” In Sylvia Plath’s only completed novel, “The Bell Jar,” the heroine is a barely-disguised mirror of Plath herself, depicting faults, suicide attempts, fears, and all. Her works cut straight to the marrow with a frankness and potency few writers could ever hope to master.
Her life was an enigma, even to those who knew her best, anxiety and depression plaguing her until the day she died. But the tragedy of her death is not the pinnacle of her achievements. Rather it is the endnote of an otherwise captivating story of resilience, passion, and genius.
At least, these are the impressions the Sylvia Plath exhibit “Out of the Ash I Rise” inspire in those who experience it. The exhibit commemorates the life and accomplishments of Plath on the 50th anniversary of her death. As director, Betty Hurley explains, “Our exhibit follows her precocious childhood, her rise to the level of literary icon in the United States and England, and her continued literary legacy after she committed suicide at the age of thirty.”
When you enter the Literary Guild of Lancaster, there is an immediate atmosphere of calmness and warmth. The exhibit begins on the first floor with two adjoining shadowbox tables displaying some of the highlights of Plath’s life and career. Continuing further into the building, you find a room ensconced in shelves teeming with old books. In the center is a table with a selection of some of Plath’s artwork. Few people are aware of the fact that not only was Plath a singularly gifted writer, but she was also a particularly talented artist, using mediums such as pastel, pencil, and tempera.
There is a 30-minute documentary featuring Plath’s mother, colleagues, and friends, even Plath herself, which will play on a loop during the First Friday exhibit on December 6th. It is also available for viewing by individual tours, though it is suggested that the exhibit be experienced in two parts as the tour and the documentary make for an intellectually and emotionally exhaustive undertaking.
The second floor features the pith of the exhibit – an extensive look at Plath’s life from childhood to posthumous publications and awards. The outline of her life is spread across the spacious walls of the room, spanning a period of a little more than 30 years in almost as many frames. Each frame represents an era in Plath’s life, including information about her parents and siblings, obsessions with perfection in her collegiate studies, various romantic flings, her tumultuous marriage to Ted Hughes, and, ultimately, her death.
While many college students have read at least one work of Plath’s, it would not be a stretch to assume that most do not know the person behind the pen. In spite of this, Plath connects to the student demographic perhaps most of all. In school, Plath drove herself to achieve greatness, a standard she rarely felt she reached, but continued pushing regardless of her perceived failures. She struggled with anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, dissatisfaction, and confusion. Her hopes and aspirations were often mired in self-doubt and uncertainty, her life and future a mystery even to her.
And that is the heart of what the exhibit conveys – Sylvia Plath is more than you think you know. She was a daughter, a sister, an ingénue, an artist, a student, a writer, a lover, a wife, a mother, but most of all she was a person. She struggled, she loved, she created, and in the midst of incredible internal strife, she left the world with a legacy not forgotten even 50 years after her death.
“Out of the Ash I Rise” will be open First Friday on December 6th from 5 pm – 9 pm, and will include light fare and refreshments. Admission is free. In addition, individuals or school classes are welcome by appointment leading up to the First Friday reception. The Literary Guild of Lancaster is located at 113 N. Lime Street in Lancaster City.