The Keeper of Women’s Stories

On her desk, Karen Kukil keeps a picture of herself running with determination, a rugby ball in her hands. It reminds her of the focus and endurance she displayed during the ten years she played for the Hartford Wild Roses, a learned fortitude she’s brought to her career as an archivist.

Karen Kukil playing rugby with the Hartford Wild Roses in the 1970s.

While one might not think of feminist activism as sitting in a library, slogging through innumerable manuscripts, Kukil has proven her commitment to the promotion of women’s voices in dedicating her career to making their stories visible and accessible. Notably, Kukil edited Sylvia Plath’s unabridged Journals, and this October released the first volume of Plath’s Letters spanning the years 1940 to 1956. Plath, a poet and novelist famous for her works Ariel and The Bell Jar, was a student at Smith College, where much of her collected papers and ephemera now live. Since 1990, Kukil has overseen Plath’s archive as the Associate Curator of Special Collections in Smith College’s Mortimer Rare Book Room and the Sophia Smith Collection of Women’s History Archives.

Visiting the Smith College archives is an experience unlike any other—while many archives require scholars to have a research affiliation, an invitation and a list of pre-selected manuscripts to view, Kukil and her colleagues eagerly welcome students, scholars and curious passerby to view the wonders of the special collections—which include over 20,000 feet of manuscripts and 50,000 rare books. In addition to manuscripts and books, the special collections also contain ephemera such as Sylvia Plath’s typewriter, a necklace containing a fragment of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ashes, Robert Browning’s writing desk and political buttons collected by reproductive justice activist Loretta J. Ross. Among its prized collections are the papers of Plath and famed feminist writer Virginia Woolf. These papers include handwritten drafts of poetry, journals, drawings and letters. Interacting with the physical objects and papers that writers themselves touched can tell readers so much more about their subject.

As Kukil explains, “…objects are documents. You glean information from the original documents that you cannot learn any other way. For example, the various colored papers and watermarks that Virginia Woolf selected to write her letters convey information. On one provocative letter to Lytton Strachey, she even used toilet paper.”

Karen Kukil, associate curator of special collections at Smith College, surveys twelve letters from Sylvia Plath that were recently donated to the college. (Photo credit Isabella Casini)

While there is certainly no substitute for holding such historical artifacts in one’s own hands, Kukil has worked painstakingly to describe the manuscripts in detail and to preserve Plath’s own spelling and punctuation for those without the resources to visit the archives personally. Kukil believes that even seemingly trivial details may offer insight into the author’s psyche. Spelling of words, for example, may reveal at the time of writing whether Plath thought of herself as more American or was moving towards her adopted British identity. Footnotes help the reader understand historical context, people in Plath’s life and other details that only a scholar dedicated to Plath’s work would otherwise know.

Kukil’s work in publishing Plath’s journals and letters in book form has made the author’s writing accessible to audiences the world over. In addition to her editing work, Kukil has presented her research internationally and has hosted conferences at Smith. She co-curated a recent exhibition at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery and even helped facilitate Plath’s image appearing on a U.S. postage stamp. She has taught classes on analyzing manuscripts and rare books and has mentored many students and scholars.

Peter Steinberg, noted Plath Scholar and the co-editor of Plath’s Letters, credits Kukil’s welcoming attitude and “expert and nurturing” influence in his decision to leave his job at a bank and pursue his dreams of archival research. Today, Plath’s work, including those volumes edited by Kukil, has been translated into at least 32 languages.

Plath typing in Yorkshire, 1956. Courtesy of Special Collections, Smith College.

In pop culture, Plath is often reduced to a one-dimensional trope about mental illness due to her 1963 suicide at the mere age of 30. However, through her work, Kukil reveals Plath as a multi-faceted and multi-talented character. “[Plath’s] letters,” Kukil explains, “reveal an ambitious writer, a well-read intellectual, a dedicated wife and mother and a sensual woman with a highly developed sense of humor.” Indeed, by making Plath’s work available for mass consumption, Kukil promotes Plath as more than just a “suicide writer”—and gives voice to her intelligence, humor and passion.

While Plath’s work has been at the forefront of Kukil’s career, she’s also worked with the collections of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, Virginia Woolf, Lola Ridge, Willa Cather and Gloria Steinem—women she describes as “[living] every moment with their pores wide open and who were able to convey their unique perspective to generations of readers in some of the most honest and breathtaking poetry and prose of the twentieth century.” In promoting women’s voices by preserving and making accessible these archives, Kukil lets women access their history and inspires generations of writers, scholars and activists to come.

Aubrey Menarndt writes and researches on women’s equality, governance issues and transparency. She is a Luce Scholar and holds degrees from the University of Oxford and Smith College. She has lived and worked throughout the former Soviet region and is now based in West Africa. Follow her @AubreyMenarndt.

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Comments

  1. Rosetta Marantz Cohen says:

    Kukil has done absolutely extraordinary work editing the letters. The current exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery on Plath’s life (curated by another Smithie, Dorothy Moss) is also marvelous.

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