When Anne Sexton signed Erica Jong's copy of Live or Die, her inscription's "Yes! Yes!" shared the exuberance she brought to the margins of her copy of Franz Kafka's Selected Short Stories (in Sexton's library at the Ransom Center). The similarity suggests a consistency in her textual inscriptions in addition to her excitement for the passage she noted in Kafka, her book Live or Die, and the person for whom she was signing it. In light of Jong's forthcoming Fear of Dying, returning to its predecessor, Fear of Flying (1973), reminds us of its chapter alluding to Sylvia Plath's "Daddy" and inclusion of the final two lines of Sexton's poem "Housewife" (1961) as an epigraph to another chapter. Jong's files at Columbia University's Rare Book and Manuscript Library contain clippings and the manuscripts of Jong's own article about Sexton. Jong's Sexton collection traces of responses to Sexton's poetry following her death, including invitations to My Own Stranger: A New Play Adapted from the Writings of Anne Sexton (1980) and correspondence related to the publication of Sexton's Self-Portrait in Letters (1977) and Diane Middlebrook's Anne Sexton: A Biography (1992). Working with Jong's collection, we can observe some of the material contexts of Sexton's reception and Jong's engagement with them, including her own marking of passages in articles.
The items that Jong collected reflect the world in which Sexton's texts were interpreted. The cover of the November 11, 1981 issue of The New Republic below with its cartoon of Einstein appears to run counter to the title of Helen Vendler's review of Sexton's Complete Poems in the issue, "Malevolent Flippancy." Vendler's title suggests a degree of agency combined with a disregard for the approach to research that the weary Einstein evokes. But the cover's question, "Could Einstein pass an IQ test?" asks whether these tests would detect Einstein's genius. There is a degree of unpredictability then linking the tests, Einstein, and Sexton.
Amanda Golden is an Associate Professor of English at New York Institute of Technology. She is the author of Annotating Modernism: Marginalia and Pedagogy from Virginia Woolf to the Confessional Poets (Routledge, 2020) and editor of This Business of Words: Reassessing Anne Sexton (UP of Florida, 2016). Her research and teaching interests include American and British literature from the nineteenth century to the present, modernism, poetry and poetics, literary archives, composition, and the digital humanities.