Go Beyond The Bell Jar

Our journey to IU to read Sylvia Plath’s diaries and see a lock of her hair.

In 2013, a friend and I drove from Indy to Bloomington just to get a glimpse of a lock of poet Sylvia Plath’s blond hair. We ended up spending hours at the Lilly Library poring through “The Bell Jar” author’s teenage and twenty-something diaries, reading sentences aloud to each other and taking notes on the things we wanted to remember. 

Plath, who was born on Oct. 27, 1932, would have turned 87 this year. More than 55 years after her suicide, in 1963, scholars, authors, and everyday fans still make pilgrimages to Indiana University to look through her diaries and calendars, writings and letters, typescript drafts of her poems and prose (many in multiple drafts), sketches, and scrapbooks.

You can see paper dolls wearing the costumes Plath, as a child, designed for them. Photos of her as a young woman in pearls, a soft white sweater, or holding a crystal ball in front of her face. There are letters about writing projects and day-to-day life that she and her husband, the poet Ted Hughes, wrote to friends and family; and newspaper clippings about the suicide attempt the “pretty and brilliant” Smith College student made in 1953, when she swallowed 40 sleeping pills and was found in the cellar of her mother’s home. (Her mother, Aurelia, a Boston University professor, told reporters that 20-year-old Sylvia had been despondent over writer’s block.)

But most fascinating, even more so than the hair: The more than 200 books from Plath’s personal library, many of which contain passages that she starred or underlined in ink, or notes that she scribbled in the margins.

Marginalia. From Sylvia Plath

In 1961, when Plath was still alive, the Lilly Library acquired a small collection of her poetry manuscripts. The more extensive holdings came from Plath’s mother, Aurelia, in 1977. Only two other institutions are major repositories for Plath memorabilia: The Mortimer Rare Book Collection at Smith College, and the Robert W. Woodruff Library at Emory University. 

And those are both much longer drives.

Plan your own Sylvia Plath pilgrimage: https://libraries.indiana.edu/lilly-library/sylvia-plath.