Ted Hughes’s archive opened at Emory University

In January 1975, Ted Hughes, the late Poet Laureate, was corresponding with the woman who had been his mother-in-law, Aurelia Plath. By this time Hughes had been married for five years to Carol Orchard, his second wife; Sylvia Plath’s suicide was 12 years behind him, the suicide of Assia Wevill, for whom he had left Plath, six years in the past. One might have thought that by this time he would have created a new life for himself and moved beyond the pain caused by the death of his children’s mother. It should be remembered, too, that when Wevill died she also killed her daughter, Shura.

But Hughes was Plath’s literary executor; at this time he was debating with her mother what to include in the volume that would become Plath’s Letters Home, published later that year.

Letters Home (a “corrective”, in Aurelia’s eyes, to the ghastly mother daughter relationship in Plath’s autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar) would show unrelentingly the sparkling, good-girl, straight-A student face that Plath was at pains to keep turned towards her mother. It also contained a portrait of Hughes as the marriage began to disintegrate – faithless, a deserter, the false “smiler” she excoriated in her journals. Hughes, understandably, wished to keep her venom from the public gaze.

“I don’t want to take the ginger out of these letters,” he wrote to Aurelia, “but I honestly don’t see why they should be a gallery of Sylvia’s impressions of my dark half, for other people to continue to superimpose on me. The Chinese proverb says: describe the good, and people will believe one eighth; describe the bad, and people will believe eight times as much and try to sell it.”

Try to sell it they did – and, to a large extent, succeeded.

Particularly in the United States, Hughes’s efforts to keep a public silence about his relationship with Plath while gradually editing and releasing her work resulted in his demonisation. Is it an irony, then, that his archive – 108 linear feet of papers, letters, poems and photographs dating from 1940 to 1997 – should find a final home at Emory University in Atlanta, where the above letter may now be found? Or is it, perhaps, a strange kind of justice?

Hughes’s literary standing in the United States is very different to his standing in Britain. Here his work is a staple of school syllabuses. I was born and educated to the age of 18 in New York, and during that time never had cause to read a single poem by Hughes, or hear his name mentioned other than as the (wicked) husband of the great American poet Sylvia Plath, whose work I certainly knew. This had little to do with Hughes’s “Englishness” and much to do with his perceived relationship to Plath, who in the years after her death became a feminist icon and martyr. His “breakthrough” book in the United States was Birthday Letters, his poetic account of his marriage to Plath, which was published only in the year before his death. It was a situation of which Hughes was well aware, as he wrote in a letter to Lucas Myers – an old Cambridge friend who was partly responsible for bringing Hughes and Plath together, and who is referred to several times in Birthday Letters – in February 1988, a letter now filed in the Emory archive. At the time he was involved “to some extent” in the production of Anne Stevenson’s biography of Plath, Bitter Fame.

“I think, by suppressing or trying to suppress, for my children’s sake, all accounts etc of Sylvia’s more difficult side, I have done everybody an ill-service. Myself especially, perhaps. Colluding at every step with Aurelia’s attempts to exonerate herself and sustain her dreams of the perfect daughter, I have known all along that I was in fact incriminating myself – but I’m needing all my philosophy now to tolerate the sentence which has, I see, been passed on me and which several generations of US students accept as history, in so far as they are aware of Sylvia and myself. It was certainly the end of – gradually arrived at, but now pretty irreversible I imagine – the fortunes of my verses and my reputation in the US, though I’m not sure any other course of action would have made any difference there.”

Thanks to the opening of the Emory archive, that may now change. As Diane Middlebrook, an American scholar at work in the archive on a book about Hughes and the development of his public persona, told The Times yesterday, the release of these papers (almost all of which are available for study; there is only a single trunk that must remain sealed for some years to come) is “bound to make it possible to look at him as a poet”. The weeks she has spent at Emory have been a revelation; Hughes often kept drafts of his letters, and his correspondence – with Peter Redgrove, Alan Sillitoe, Stephen Spender and Seamus Heaney, to name only a few – was prolific. “I would love to be around in 50 years’ time when Hughes’s collected letters are published,” Middlebrook said. “I think he’ll be remembered as one of the great letter writers of the 20th century. It’s clear he did a lot of thinking in his letters; often he’ll start off in a quite businesslike way, about something purely practical, and then stray into a long, thoughtful discussion of something else entirely.”

Middlebrook also mentions the impact of seeing how important the visual was to Hughes. In the exhibition mounted by Stephen Enniss, Emory’s Curator of Library Collections, to mark the opening of the archive, Hughes’s strong, slanted handwriting is on display; seeing it over and over in the archive “enables you to see the physical process of the work”, Middlebrook says. The archive also reveals his close collaboration with such artists as Leonard Baskin, at whose suggestion he began the cycle of poems that would become the powerful Crow, its publication complemented by Baskin’s work.

And there are images that reveal the earliest influences on Hughes’s writing. Hughes is not usually thought of as a war poet, but his father’s participation in the First World War shaped his life, and in his early collections poems such as The Casualty, Bayonet Charge, Six Young Men and Wilfred Owen’s Photographs are powerful evocations of the conflict that cast a shadow over the Yorkshire valleys of his youth, emptied of their young men. “I can never escape the impression that the whole region is in mourning for the First World War,” he would write. On display in the exhibition is a photograph from the Hughes family scrapbook of “The East Yorks moving up” – Hughes’s father’s regiment, taken in 1916. William Hughes was one of only 17 men from that regiment to return alive from the terrible battle of Gallipoli.

Yet in the first instance, at least, it is still the material that reveals his lifelong connection to Plath that will excite the most interest. What is most clearly visible, Enniss says, is how their literary enterprise – which occupied almost every one of their waking hours – was a joint one. They wrote on the backs of each other’s drafts, conscious of conserving expensive paper, and did each other’s secretarial work. In the past it has seemed that it was Plath exclusively who worked to get her husband’s poems published, typing his work and sending it out.

The first item pasted in a scrapbook of his work that she kept is a letter of acceptance for his poem Bawdry Embraced from Poetry magazine in Chicago; contributor’s notes have it as his “first professional publication” and the letter is written to Ted Hughes, “c/o S. Plath”. but there are also letters from Hughes to American editors about her work, written in her lifetime, and biographical notes composed by Hughes on Plath’s behalf. “He clearly supported her in ways large and small,” Enniss says, “in her writing and in the practical parcelling out of their days.”

An archive’s treasures are only slowly revealed, and it will be years before the wealth of material now catalogued at Emory truly comes to light. Elaine Feinstein – a poet, biographer and a friend of Hughes – is at work there now, producing what should be the first biography of the late Laureate; and I must confess to some frustration myself, having completed a book on Hughes’s work just as this material becomes available. Frustration, but sadness, too – as the opening of the archive was occasioned by Hughes’s untimely death nearly two years ago.

Hughes was a prolific artist and very private man: the papers at Emory begin to show the relationship between the two. There is another letter to Lucas Myers in the archive, written in the spring of 1956, not long after he had met Plath. In the letter he asks Myers to find a place for Plath to stay in London, so that the two of them can meet; but he is aware, too, of the gossips they both feared.

Hughes and Myers had once come and stood late at night under her Cambridge window, calling up to her and throwing soil-clods to try to wake her: “The two mixed: mud and my name; my name is mud,” she wrote ruefully in her journal. And so he closes his letter to Myers: “Don’t forget Sylvia – and discretion.”

That short sentence shadowed his life. The papers now available in the Emory Archive should bring Ted Hughes, the poet and the man, more fully into light.