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Essay

Anne Sexton's Scrapbook

A look inside the young poet's life 16 years before she won the Pulitzer Prize.
Introduction
"It is August, 1948 and a young woman in a small New England town is preparing to leave home. She is nineteen years old and she is hopelessly, desperately in love." Jessica Helfand explains the story behind Anne Sexton's scrapbook.

Anne Sexton's Scrapbook.
Images reprinted with the permission of Sll/Sterling Lord Literistic, Inc. Copyright by Anne Sexton.


It is August, 1948 and a young woman in a small New England town is preparing to leave home. She is nineteen years old and she is hopelessly, desperately in love. Tonight, she is ready, and after weeks of clandestine planning, she is going to elope.

And everything is about to change.

Dreamily, she packs her suitcase, stowing her clothing, her makeshift trousseau, and her few personal belongings. She places her papers in an envelope, tucking a hatpin and a hairbrush into the smallest of purses. Clicking the suitcase shut, she checks her wristwatch, turning, at long last, to leave. But as she reaches the door, she stops short.

Hurrying to the desk in the corner of her bedroom, she pulls the drawer open with an impatient, forceful tug. And there it is, nestled between the handkerchiefs and the stationery with their soon-to-be-obsolete monograms: a long, lean box, still tightly wrapped in its shiny cellophane skin, which she quickly tears away.

She lifts off the lid to reveal a book—but this is no ordinary book. It is completely empty, page after page of blank, white space. There is nothing there, yet somehow it calls out to her, in that moment, with unspeakable promise.

It is a scrapbook. And it is hers.

In the days and months that follow, she will begin to save things, filling her scrapbook with the countless items that mark her passage into married life: the motel room key from her wedding night; the apology card that follows her first marital quarrel; even a set of miniature firecrackers from an Independence Day fete. She’ll add silhouetted cutouts—a drawing of a Campbell’s soup can, a photo of Rita Hayworth—and paste in laundry lists, gin rummy tallies and swizzle sticks, a program from an Ice Follies performance and ticket stubs from a Red Sox game. The book will grow thicker and thicker until a year from now, still riding the wave of newlywed bliss, the young bride will look at her masterpiece and grant it the title to which it can only then lay claim: Yes, We’ve Been Married Just a Year and This is Our Story.

Our story: crafted from the material remnants of a couple’s first year together. Our story: told through the countless pieces of ephemera that collectively frame a life. Our story: recorded through the eyes and ears and heart of a young bride who, between the recipes and the telegrams, begins ever so tentatively to write poetry—giddy rhyming couplets about love and enchantment, and later, about sadness and despair. To look at her scrapbook now, long after it has been retired from active duty, is to observe at once a deep uncertainty—of herself, of her identity—and a kind of remarkable clarity, an emerging vision pieced together quite literally from scraps of paper, shards of a life.

And through it all, because of it all, she writes. At turns funny and flirtatious, coy and cryptic, a young woman’s poetry begins to find form, and with it comes a poet’s voice: irrepressible and daring, a firestorm of pathos.

It would be another sixteen years before she would win the Pulitzer Prize, another quarter of a century before she would tragically take her own life. But that one perfect year, Anne Sexton had a story to tell. It was a happy story.

And she recorded it in her scrapbook.


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Jessica Helfand, excerpt from Scrapbooks: An American History, Copyright © 2008. Used by permission of Jessica Helfand and Yale University Press.

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Anne Sexton's Scrapbook

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