Annotating Modernism: The Reading and Teaching Strategies of Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, and Anne Sexton

Golden, Amanda. Annotating Modernism: The Reading and Teaching Strategies of Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, and Anne Sexton. 2009. University of Washington, PhD dissertation.

Annotating Modernism argues that authors' libraries and teaching notes present an exemplary but overlooked resource for tracing the history and reception of Anglo-American modernism. Considering midcentury poets' marginalia and underlining in their personal copies of modernist texts, Annotating Modernism constructs a material narrative concerning Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, and Anne Sexton's engagement with the fiction and poetry of James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, W. B. Yeats, and others. This study departs from previous critical approaches to midcentury poets that focus on their confessional strategies, psychological subjects, and autobiographical content. The goal of this dissertation is to illustrate that modernism is not a discrete literary period, but a discourse that is the result of institutionally situated processes. The material histories in each chapter illustrate the extent to which modernism as a field of study took shape at midcentury. Paradoxically, one could argue that high modernism of the twenties is a product of the early years of the Cold War.

After an introduction addressing annotating strategies during the first half of the twentieth century, the chapters in this study consider three poets who each exemplify a different kind of relation to academia. The first chapter argues that Plath was an exemplary student of midcentury modernist criticism. Teaching Eliot and Joyce as an instructor at Smith College (1957 to 1958), she worked from the examples of her undergraduate mentors, particularly the critic Elizabeth Drew. The second chapter addresses Berryman as a textual scholar and teacher of modernism in humanities courses (1955 to 1972). After preparing an edition of Pound's Selected Poems (1948), Berryman developed a humanities pedagogy that was Poundian in its comprehensiveness. While critics are familiar with Sexton's transition “from housewife to poet,” the final chapter demonstrates the extent to which her negotiation of academic contexts informed her self-fashioning as a poet. Sexton's teaching notes for “Anne on Anne” (1972), a course on her own poetry, record the close reading strategies that resulted from her autodidactic career.

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