Inside Spencer: The KSRL Blog

Pulitzer Pride: Gwendolyn Brooks in the Kansas Collection

April 8th, 2020

You are a very dear person indeed to think of me and the word Pulitzer within the same moment. I was amazed to read your letter. It must be every verse-writer’s dream to be considered, some day, for such an honor – but, to say nothing of other poets, this has been a ROBERT FROST year.

–Letter from Gwendolyn Brooks to Van Allen Bradley, April 21, 1950, Call #: RH MS 152:A:1

This year marks the 70th anniversary of Gwendolyn Brooks’s 1950 Pulitzer Prize win for her volume of poetry Annie Allen (1949). Illinois justly claims Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000) as one of the state’s most-celebrated literary citizens. Her first collection of verse, A Street in Bronzeville (1945), offered portraits of life in Chicago’s South Side, where Brooks grew up and lived, and she would return to that setting across many of her works. She also served as Illinois’s poet laureate from 1968 until her death in 2000. However, Kansans are quick to remember that Brooks also had ties to the sunflower state. She was born in Topeka in 1917, before she moved a month later with her Kansan parents two states to the east. Spencer Research Library’s Kansas Collection holds first editions of many of Brooks’s books, particularly her early ones, and although her papers reside at the University of California Berkeley and the University of Illinois, Spencer houses a small but significant collection of the poet’s correspondence with Van Allen Bradley (1913-1984). Bradley served as literary editor of the Chicago Daily News, and Brooks occasionally wrote book reviews for the newspaper. Though her relationship with it wasn’t as longstanding or deep as with the Chicago Defender, the influential African American newspaper that combated segregation and racial injustice, several of the letters with Bradley in Spencer’s collection offer insight into her 1950 Pulitzer win. 

Dust Jacket of Annie Allen by Gwendolyn Brooks. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1949.
Brooks, Gwendolyn. Annie Allen. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1949. Image courtesy of The Pulitzer Prizes website. Kenneth Spencer Research Library copy at call #: RH B1594.

On April 19, 1950, Van Allen Bradley wrote to Brooks, 

I have just tried to call you at the South Side Community Art Center [where Brooks worked as a part-time director’s assistant] but got no answer there. 

What prompted it was this –

The Saturday Review asked for my Pulitzer choices, and it occurred to me that you are going to win the Pulitzer prize for poetry.  Nice thought, isn’t it!  Seriously, I hope you do – and I have you as my choice.

But what I am writing about is this –

Suppose you were to win it: We’d want to carry a story about you, who you are, what you have written, etc. etc.  A profile no less.  And I’d like to write the piece. I wonder if you can supply me – at the earliest moment possible – with the relevant detail: all facts, a biography in brief, your likes and dislikes, your life, your family, etc. etc. […]

Carbon copy of lettter from letter from Van Allen Bradley to Gwendolyn Brooks, April 19, 1950, speculating that she may win the Pulitzer prize and requesting that she send biographical information for a profile
Carbon copy of letter from Van Allen Bradley to Gwendolyn Brooks, April 19, 1950, speculating about her possible Pulitzer win. Gwendolyn Brooks Correspondence Collection. Call #: RH MS 152 A1. Click image to enlarge.

Bradley’s Pulitzer speculation was not the first awards attention directed at poems from Brooks’s second collection. In November of 1949, Brooks had closed a letter to Bradley with good news. “Guess what:” she wrote, “I won a prize from Poetry Magazine this month – The Eunice Tietjens Memorial Prize of one hundred dollars!” The award honored “a poem or a group of poems by an American citizen published in Poetry,” and Brooks had won it for “Four poems” published in the magazine’s March issue (three sonnets from the sequence “The Children of the Poor” and the poem “A Light and Diplomatic Bird,” all also included in Annie Allen).

Even with that win under her belt, Brooks’s response to Bradley’s Pulitzer speculation was modest. In the remark quoted at the beginning of this post, she ventured that the prize would go instead to Robert Frost. “I’ll never forget that with all of the other poets to choose from, you voted for me,” she wrote to Bradley, “Thank you; thank you!” 

Detail from the beginning of a letter from Gwendolyn Brooks to Van Allen Bradley, April 21, 1950, in which she thanks Bradley for recommending her for the Pulitzer but notes that "this has been a Robert Frost year."
The beginning of a letter from Gwendolyn Brooks to Van Allen Bradley, April 21, 1950. Gwendolyn Brooks Correspondence Collection. Call #: RH MS 152 A1. Click image to enlarge.

While 1949 had been a banner year for Frost—it saw the publication of his Complete Poems and his 75th birthday—the 1950 Pulitzer Advisory Committee was interested in celebrating fresh work rather than past glory. It marveled at the achievement of Frost’s career-spanning collection, but noted he had been awarded the Pulitzer four times previously for essentially the same poems. “A further ‘honor’ to Frost would be not only superfluous but so repetitious as to seem silly,” commented poet and committee member Louis Untermeyer.[i] In Annie Allen, however, the committee saw “a volume of great originality, real distinction and high value as a book, as well as poetry.”[ii] Committee member Alfred Kreymborg commended Brooks’s volume as introducing “further characters out of her South Side background, with Annie herself as the central figure with her peregrinations from childhood through girlhood to womanhood.” He singled out for particular praise The Anniad, “whose title” he wrote, “deftly parodies The Aeneid and whose intellectual sweep over common experience is not only brilliant but profound in its tragic and tragicomic implications.”[iii]

In spite of her assertion that it would be Frost’s year, Brooks nevertheless sent along a biography to Van Allen Bradley with her letter of April 21st. Ten days later, on May 1, 1950, she made history. Annie Allen took that year’s prize for poetry and Gwendolyn Brooks became the first African American writer to win a Pulitzer. “I am a very fortunate person, and can’t help but wonder what tragedy is about to befall me, as a sort of ‘compensation,'” she wrote to Bradley on May 6th.

Closing of letter dated May 6, 1950 from Gwendolyn Brooks to Van Allen Bradley following her Pulitzer win, discussing her sense of disbelief.
“I am just beginning to believe it really happened”: Closing of letter from Gwendolyn Brooks to Van Allen Bradley following her Pulitzer win, May 6, 1950. Gwendolyn Brooks Correspondence Collection. Call #: RH MS 152 A1. Click image to enlarge.

The brief two-page (auto)biography that Brooks sent to Bradley on the eve of her win is worth reading in its entirety. We encourage you to come in and examine it (alongside other Brooks materials) once the danger of coronavirus subsides and our reading room re-opens or to submit a remote reference request. Typed on South Side Community Art Center letterhead, Brooks begins her biography with a recognition of her familial ties to Kansas.

Detail from the beginning of a biography of Gwendolyn Brooks that Brooks enclosed with a letter to Van Allen Bradley dated, April 21, 1950, providing information about her birth and Kansas Roots
Kansas roots: The beginning of a biography Gwendolyn Brooks sent to Van Allen Bradley with her letter dated, April 21, 1950. Gwendolyn Brooks Correspondence Collection. Call#: RH MS 152 B3. Click image to enlarge.

After providing further biographical details and information on her family, schooling, career, past honors, and projected future publications, the thirty-three-year-old Brooks, with a mix of good humor and commitment, offers up a brief account of her literary start. She also provides, in response to Bradley’s request, her likes (“Country peace, fresh air, elbow room, affectionate friends, book-stores, music, modern art, looking at other people’s beautiful houses, strawberries in rich, cold cream, orange pie, apricot pie”) and dislikes (“cruelty and confusion”). She then concludes her biography with one final self-effacing but playful detail: “Date of death from shock: The day I win a Pulitzer prize.”

Detail from the end of a biography of Gwendolyn Brooks that Brooks enclosed with a letter dated, April 21, 1950, detailing her early literary life, likes and dislikes.
Likes and dislikes on the eve of the Pulitzer Prize: Detail from the end of the biography Brooks enclosed with her letter to Van Allen Bradley, April 21, 1950. Gwendolyn Brooks Correspondence Collection. Call#: RH MS 152 B3. Click image to enlarge.

As we mark National Poetry Month during a time of social distancing, we encourage you to explore Brooks and her Pulitzer-winning volume Annie Allen through some of the numerous resources available online:

  • Several poems by Gwendolyn Brooks, including “The Rites for Cousin Vit” from Annie Allen, are available online at Poetry Foundation.  There you’ll also find back issues of Poetry Magazine, including the March 1949 issue containing the four poems from Annie Allen that earned Brooks the Eunice Tietjens Memorial Prize.
  • Listen to Gwendolyn Brooks read her own poetry in a recording made on January 19, 1961 for the Library of Congress’ Archive of Recorded Poetry And Literature at  Brooks’s reading includes poems from Annie Allen starting at the 11:55 minute mark, including “The Rites for Cousin Vit” (at 19:24), as well as several of her other best-known poems, such as “Kitchenette Building” (at 0:34) from A Street in Bronzeville (1945) and “We Real Cool” (at 22:50) from The Bean Eaters (1960).
  • Finally, commemorate Brooks’s Pulitzer Prize win and her Kansas roots with this trading card produced in 2016 by the Kansas State Historical Society.

Elspeth Healey
Special Collections Librarian

[i] Remarks by Louis Untermeyer, quoted in a letter from Henry Seidel Canby to Dean Carl W. Ackerman, Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University, on behalf of the Pulitzer committee—Henry Seidel Canby, Alfred Kreymborg, and Louis Untermeyer, [1950]. Reproduced in “Frost? Williams? No, Gwendolyn Brooks.” The Pulitzer Prizes. Accessed 6 April 2020.

[ii] Letter from Henry Seidel Canby to Dean Carl W. Ackerman, Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University, on behalf of the Pulitzer committee—Henry Seidel Canby, Alfred Kreymborg, and Louis Untermeyer, [1950]. Reproduced in “Frost? Williams? No, Gwendolyn Brooks.” The Pulitzer Prizes. Accessed 6 April 2020.

[iii] Remarks by Alfred Kreymborg quoted in ibid.

Visit “Imagined Worlds: Writers and the Process of Speculative Fiction”

February 12th, 2020

Theodore Sturgeon, Isaac Asimov, Octavia E. Butler, Kurt Vonnegut, Ursula K. Le Guin, Ray Bradbury, Joanna Russ, William F. Wu, John Kessel, Mary Shelley, and KU’s own James E. Gunn and Kij Johnson are just a few of the writers featured in Spencer Research Library’s new exhibit, Imagined Worlds: Writers and the Process of Speculative Fiction.

Imagined Worlds: visible in this central case are a notebook of Kij Johnson’s containing story drafts (left), Theodore Sturgeon’s Royal Quiet De Luxe typewriter (center), and a letter from and a typescript by Octavia E. Butler (right).

While it’s true that all fiction is imagined (at least in part), writers working in the genres of science fiction and fantasy achieve their dramatic interest, pose their philosophic and scientific inquiries, and address social and political issues by playing with and re-configuring the confines of reality. In writing of other worlds, different times, alternate societies, new technologies, and fantastical circumstances, these writers can transfix readers and, in the words of Ursula K. Le Guin, offer a “convincing picture of alternative ways of doing and being, which can shake readers out of fixed mindsets, knock the blinkers off them.”

But how do they do it?

Imagined Worlds offers a peek behind the scenes to explore the messy, impassioned, deliberative, contentious, and inventive processes of speculative fiction (an umbrella term for those genres–including science fiction, fantasy, and horror–that diverge from reality and realism). Materials drawn from Spencer’s collections offer various points of entry into the writer’s experience. There are cases dedicated to:

  • conversations on the page (correspondence between authors)
  • influence and inspiration
  • from idea to book: the process of writing
  • page to screen (adaptation and writing for film and television)
  • the business of speculative fiction

There are also additional cases devoted to awards in speculative fiction and reading recommendations from KU faculty members, addressing SF books that have been significant to them. There are also paintings by two of the best-known science fiction and fantasy artists of the 1950s and 1960s, Ed Emshwiller and Frank Kelly Freas.

Imagined Worlds: a long view down the gallery space.
One of two cases containing faculty discussions of books that have been significant to them. From left to right: Vitaly Chernetsky (Slavic Languages and Literatures) on Stanisław Lem’s The Cyberiad, Anna Neill (English) on Edwin Abbott Abbott’s Flatland, Giselle Anatol (English) on Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower, and Paul Scott (French, Francophone, and Italian Studies) on Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles.
Worlds to visit: One of two exhibition cases containing faculty discussions of books that have been significant to them. Left to right: Vitaly Chernetsky (Slavic Languages and Literatures) on Stanisław Lem’s The Cyberiad, Anna Neill (English) on Edwin Abbott’s Flatland, Giselle Anatol (English) on Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower, and Paul Scott (French, Francophone, and Italian Studies) on Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles.

The books and manuscripts on display reflect Spencer Research Library’s historic strength in the science fiction of the 1930s-1960s, with the addition of materials from more recent collections of writers’ papers. Since the exhibition focuses primarily on correspondence and manuscripts, a slideshow in the exhibition gallery also shares over 50 covers of speculative fiction volumes from Spencer’s collections.

Cover of paperback edition of Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End (New York: Ballantine Books, ©1953). Call #: ASF B294, which features a man an an eye in a cosmos.   Cover of paperback UK edition of Nnedi Okorafor's Lagoon (2014), which features a figure in a wildlife filled ocean under a cityscape

Left: Clarke, Arthur C. Childhood’s End. New York: Ballantine Books, ©1953. Call #: ASF B294; Right: Okorafor, Nnedi. Lagoon. London: Hodder, 2014. Call #: ASF C1260

To give a sense of the exhibit, we share something we had we couldn’t quite fit, a memo from Star Trek creator and producer Gene Roddenberry to writer Theodore Sturgeon about Sturgeon’s script draft for “Shore Leave.” One of the more surreal episodes in Star Trek‘s original TV run (1966-1969), “Shore Leave” sees the thoughts of crew members come to life when they beam down to a planet for some rest and relaxation. Roddenberry’s memo suggests the collaborative process involved in making the episode, and it reveals the mix of frankness, humor, and knowing cynicism he employed in guiding his writers.

Image of the beginning of a Memo from Gene Roddenberry to Theodore Sturgeon regarding the Shore Leave episode of Star Trek
Beginning of a memo from Gene Roddenberry to Theodore Sturgeon regarding Sturgeon’s draft of the first act of the “Shore Leave” episode of Star Trek, June 8, 1966. Theodore Sturgeon Papers. Call #: MS 303, Box 5, folder 10

He balances praising Sturgeon for his successes, with addressing logistical matters—such as the necessity of breaking down the script shot by shot for the sake of the costume, casting, and special effects departments—and then pushes Sturgeon toward what he judges will connect best with viewers. “Wouldn’t your teaser be richer if just one person saw Alice and the rabbit, say McCoy?” Roddenberry asks, “When two people see it, you’ve got a witness. But the poor devil who sees it alone, he’s got trouble.”

Of course, writers like Sturgeon might also push back regarding script changes. During the shooting of “Shore Leave,” Sturgeon would complain about a scene in which the resurrected Dr. McCoy enters with a woman on each arm. This is a “first order vulgarism,” Sturgeon wrote to Roddenberry, arguing that it undercut the emotional development of McCoy’s relationship with the character of Tonia. Roddenberry’s own memo to Sturgeon ends with a serio-comic sign-off that highlights the blend of art and business that television entails: “You’re lovely, inventive, wonderful. Now be commercial.”

Image of the closing line of Gene Roddenberry's memo to Theodore Sturgeon, "You're lovely, inventive, wonderful. Now be commercial."
The closing line of a memo from Gene Roddenberry to Theodore Sturgeon concerning his script for the “Shore Leave” episode of Star Trek, June 8, 1966. Theodore Sturgeon Papers. Call #: MS 303, Box 5, folder 10

Founded in 1969 by a financial gift from a student who thought KU should be collecting science fiction, Spencer Research Library’s SF collections continue to be built largely by donation. Over the decades, they have grown appreciably thanks to the support of James E. Gunn (writer, critic, Professor Emeritus, and founder of KU’s Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction). He has not only donated books and periodicals, but has encouraged others to make gifts as well, including fellow writers, whose papers now reside at KU. These efforts have been continued in recent years by writers Chris McKitterick and Kij Johnson (the current Director and Associate Director of the Gunn Center, respectively). We hope to continue to grow our science fiction and fantasy collections to better reflect the diversity of voices writing in the field.

Imagined Worlds: Writers and the Process of Speculative Fiction is free and open to the public and will be on display in Spencer’s Gallery through July 31st, 2020. We invite you to visit and explore the forces at work as writers imagine worlds!

Elspeth Healey
Special Collections Librarian

Meet the KSRL Staff: Elspeth Healey

July 23rd, 2019

This is the latest installment in a recurring series of posts introducing readers to the staff of Kenneth Spencer Research Library. Today’s profile features Elspeth Healey, who joined the Spencer Research Library in 2011 as a special collections librarian. 

Where are you from?
I was born in the U.S., but I grew up in Toronto, Canada. From time to time, I’ll have a student come up to me after a class session and say “where are you from?” I have lived in the U. S. since college–so more than half of my life–but sometimes that Canadian accent still shines through!

Elspeth Healey in Spencer Library's North Gallery

Elspeth Healey, Special Collections Librarian, in Spencer Research Library’s North Gallery. Click image to enlarge.

What does your job at Spencer entail?
With my colleague Karen Cook, I am one of two special collections librarians. My curatorial responsibilities include materials for the Americas, including Latin America, the United Kingdom, and Ireland. In addition to building Spencer’s collections by working with donors and booksellers, I collaborate with cataloging and conservation to make the library’s collections accessible, lead instruction sessions, engage in outreach (through events, blog posts, exhibitions, etc.), answer reference queries for researchers on and off site, and contribute to digital projects.

How did you come to work in special collections and archives?
As an undergraduate, I had worked in the preservation department of my university’s special collections library, making mylar wrappers, drop-spine boxes, and other protective enclosures. I was fascinated by the variety of books that would come across my work bench, from 20th century poetry and plays to 18th century mathematical treatises. Later, as I was researching my dissertation in English literature, I came to realize that the moments that excited me most were those spent conducting archival research. I was energized not only by the materials I examined that related to my specific project, but I also enjoyed encountering materials that related to the projects of friends and colleagues and would alert them to those materials. That is what this job is at its heart: helping to connect researchers (of all types) with the materials that have the potential to advance and transform their understanding of a particular question or subject. I applied to library school as I was finishing my dissertation, and attended a program where I had the opportunity to work 20-hours a week in a special collections library while taking the coursework for my MSIS (Master of Science in Information Studies) degree. I always advise those who want to enter the field that gaining hands-on experience working in a special collections library and archives is one of the most important things you can do in library school: it is what will help you secure a job following graduation, and it is what will enable you to determine if this is really what you want to do as a profession.

What is the strangest item you’ve come across in Spencer’s Collections?
There are so many strange and interesting things in Spencer’s collections. We have a three volume scrapbook containing rare ephemera for Astley’s Amphitheatre, which opened in London in the late 18th-century and was originally known for its equestrian spectacles and show riding. As it developed, it incorporated circus-type features alongside other types of performance, so it is often recognized as London’s first circus. The posters, flyers, clippings, and ephemera in the scrapbooks offer a fascinating record of its history, and we hope to feature them at greater length in a future blog post. Other unusual items that pop to mind include 1930s form rejection letters from a science fiction pulp magazine, early Don Quixote fan fiction, and locks of hair (a favorite 19th century keepsake). I love that each day I might come across some new intriguing item that I can then share with others.

Scrapbook page containing flyer for "The Amazing Exhibition of the little Conjuring Horse," Astley's New Entertainments.   Scrapbook page containing "Ducrow's First Appearance this Season" with picture of a man with one foot on the back of each of two horses, April 1831. Astley's Royal Amphitheatre

Image of scrapbook page containing a poster for Astley's Royal Amphitheatre, advertising a Grand Equestrian evening and events featuring Pablo Fanque, Young Hernandez, etc.  Poster for "Astley's on Thursday, November 6, 1845 ...Gala Night," with pictures of show riding along the exterior of the poster in Astley's Amphitheatre scrapbook, volume 3, p. 237

Posterbills for Astley’s performances and Astley’s Amphitheatre in Astley’s Amphitheatre scrapbooks. Posters shown are circa 1775-1847. Call Number: G126, volumes 1-3. Click on images to enlarge (it’s worth it!)

What part of your job do you like best?
See above! I relish connecting researchers–whether students, scholars, or members of the public–with materials that will open up new perspectives and avenues of inquiry.

What are your favorite pastimes outside of work?
The usual things like reading, walking, movies, and travel, but I also love tracking down some of my favorite Canadian delicacies whenever I can: Nanaimo bars, butter tarts, poutine, and candy bars like Eat-more and Coffee Crisp. I’m still waiting for the day when they open a Tim Horton’s in Kansas… Lawrence certainly has much better (and less corporate) coffee and pastries, but some things just remind you of your youth…

What piece of advice would you offer a researcher walking into Spencer Research Library for the first time?
Not everything is in the online catalog. We aspire to get it all there one day, but every special collections library holds materials that haven’t quite made it into the catalog yet for one reason or another. Accordingly it’s always worth speaking to the librarian who oversees the subject area in which you are conducting research to see if there might be materials you that have missed.

The other piece of advice is to enjoy the research process. Sometimes the thing that you came to the library to examine won’t end up being the thing that really captures your intellect and imagination. Instead, it will be a folder of letters you might come across in the box next to the manuscript you were seeking to examine. This unanticipated discovery may lead your project in a new direction. Embrace the serendipity that archival research permits!


Elspeth Healey
Special Collections Librarian

Throwback Thursday: Snyder Book Collecting Contest Edition, Part II

January 31st, 2019

Each week we’ll be posting a photograph from University Archives that shows a scene from KU’s past. We’ve also scanned more than 34,800 images from KU’s University Archives and made them available online; be sure to check them out!

Book lovers, it’s that magical time of year! The competition for the 63rd Annual Snyder Book Collecting Contest is officially open. KU students should enter their collections by February 24, 2019 to win cash prizes as well as a gift card from contest co-sponsor Jayhawk Ink (more on the prizes below…).

Not only will the winners earn prizes, bragging rights, and a place in KU history, but they might even set themselves off on a future career. The picture below from the 1960 competition holds a special place in our hearts here at KU Libraries. The first place winner in that year’s contest was Ann Hyde (d. 2014), who would eventually go on to become Spencer Research Library’s longtime manuscripts librarian.

Ann Hyde (1960 Emily Taylor Book Collecting Contest winner), with second place winner E. Bruce Holmes (left), and KU libraries Assistant Director, Robert L. Quinsey (center)

Ann Hyde (right), 1960 winner of what was then called the Taylor Book Collection Contest,
with second place winner E. Bruce Holmes (left) and KU libraries Assistant Director
Robert L. Quinsey (center). University Archives Photos. Call Number: RG 32/40 1960:
University of Kansas Libraries: Book Contests (Photos). Click image to enlarge.

In recent years, Snyder Book Collecting Contest winners have achieved national recognition for their bibliophilia. First place winners in KU’s undergraduate and graduate divisions are eligible to enter the National Collegiate Book Collecting Contest. Since 2014, KU students have won prizes at the national level three (!) times, including last year’s graduate student winner Paul T. Schwennesen, who placed second in the 2018 national competition, with his collection “Borderlands — A Manifesto on Overlap.”

Picture of 2018 Graduate Student Category winner, Paul T. Schwennesen, with his collection titled "Borderlands — A Manifesto of Overlap."

Throwback to the recent past! Graduate student Paul T. Schwennesen
(Department of History) with his collection at the 2018 Snyder Book Collecting Contest.
Schwennesen placed first in the graduate student category and then took second place
at the national contest in Washington, DC. Image courtesy of KU Libraries. Click image to enlarge.

Want to join in the fun? Start reviewing your bookshelves and enter this year’s competition! Winners of the 2019 (63rd Annual) Snyder Book Collecting Contest will be selected in both the graduate and undergraduate divisions, with the following awards:

First Prize: $500
Second Prize: $350
Honorable Mention: $100

Each winner will also receive a gift card in the following amounts from contest co-sponsor Jayhawk Ink, a division of the KU Bookstore:

First Prize: $100
Second Prize: $50
Honorable Mention: $25

As noted above, the first place winners in each division may enter the National Collegiate Book Collecting Contest, which awards a top prize of $2,500.

To learn more about the Snyder Book Collecting Contest and how to enter, please visit the contest page on the KU Libraries website. There you will find the contest rules, a handy FAQ, as well as selected essays, bibliographies, and a sample collection to help you on your way.

Whether the subject of your collecting passion is Writings from the Black Revolution, Science Fiction as a Space for Feminist Discourse, Contemporary Theatre of the Southern Cone, or Vintage Textbooks of the Natural and Physical Sciences, start thinking (and writing!) about your collection. Contest entries are due by 11:59pm on Sunday, February 24, 2019.

Elspeth Healey
Special Collections Librarian

How Well Do You Know Your Irish Fairies?

March 14th, 2018

With St. Patrick’s Day (March 17th) just around the corner, grocery stores and pubs are suddenly awash in four-leaf clovers, leprechauns, and other trappings of the commercial elements of the holiday.  But why fixate on leprechauns when the world of Irish fairy folk is so much broader?  How well do you know your Irish fairies?

Frontispiece and title page of W. B. Yeats' Irish Fairy and Folk Tales (1893), an editon of his 1888 Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, with 12 illustsrations by James Torrance.

Title page and frontispiece from Yeats’s Irish Fairy and Folk Tales (1893),
an illustrated edition of his earlier Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry (1888).
Call Number: Yeats Y191. Click to enlarge.

The Irish poet W. B. Yeats wrote more than once about Ireland’s different varieties of fairies. In 1888, when Yeats was in his early twenties, he edited a volume titled Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, which collected stories and poems by a variety of writers on the supernatural elements of Irish folklore. In organizing the book, he assembled its pieces under several headings, including “Ghosts,” “Giants,” and “Saints, Priests.” However, he accorded fairies a place of particular honor (as is their due in Irish folklore) by beginning the anthology with them and including several short section prefaces detailing their ways. When a few years later Yeats published the anthology Irish Fairy Tales (1892) for T. Fisher Unwin’s “Children’s Library Series,” he penned  an appendix offering a “Classification of Irish Fairies.”

It would be a mistake to confuse one’s Leprechauns with one’s Merrows, since fairies — or the “gentry” as they prefer to be called — are easily offended. Thus in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, we share a shortened version of Yeats’s classification below.

Yeats begins his schema by dividing Irish fairydom into two classes: the sociable (or “Trooping Fairies,” as he named them in Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry) and the solitary. Of these two varieties, he writes, “The first are in the main kindly, and the second are full of uncharitableness.”

The Sociable Fairies “go about in troops, and quarrel, and make love, much as men and women do.”  They are subdivided into two main types:

  1. The Sheoques (in Irish, Sidheog, “a little fairy”): Sheoques are land fairies, whom Yeats describes as “the spirits that haunt the sacred thornbushes and green raths.” While Sheoques are on the whole good, they have one “most malicious habit”: “They steal children and leave a withered fairy, a thousand or maybe two thousand years old, instead.”  If this isn’t enough to inspire terror in Yeats’s child readers, he continues nonchalantly, “Now and then one hears of some real injury being done a person by the land fairies, but then it is nearly always deserved.  They are said to have killed two people in the last six months in the County Down district where I am now staying.  But then these persons had torn up thorn bushes belonging to the Sheoques.” I suspect Yeats’s proviso comes as little comfort to anyone who counts yardwork or landscaping among their chores!
  2. The Merrows (in Irish, Moruadh, “a sea maid)”: These are water fairies. Yeats writes that Thomas Croker, the author of Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland (1825), suggests that “[t]he men among them […] have green teeth, green hair, pigs’ eyes, and red noses; but their women are beautiful and prefer handsome fishermen to their green-haired lovers.” Yeats, himself, is more skeptical and comments that he has never “heard tell of this grotesque appearance of the male Merrows” and judges it “probably a merely local Munster tradition.”

Title page for W. B. Yeats' Irish Fairy Tales (1892), with frontispiece illustration by Yeats's brother, Jack B. Yeats.

What type of fairy is that? Title page for W. B. Yeats’ Irish Fairy Tales (1892) with frontispiece illustration
by Yeats’s brother, Jack B. Yeats. Call Number: Yeats Y194. Click image to enlarge.

Yeats next delineates nine subcategories of Solitary Fairies, whom he characterizes as “nearly all gloomy and terrible in some way”:

  1. The Lepricaun (in Irish, Leith bhrogan, “the one shoe maker”): Of this staple of St. Patrick’s Day, Yeats writes, “This creature is seen sitting under a hedge mending a shoe, and one who catches him can make him deliver up his crocks of gold, for he is a miser of great wealth; but if you take your eyes off him the creature vanishes like smoke.” Don’t expect to find him in outfitted in green, though. Yeats notes that according to McAnally, author of Irish Wonders (1888), the leprechaun wears “a red coat with seven buttons in each row, and a cocked-hat, on the point of which he sometimes spins like a top.”  One wonders if Yeats’s leprechaun might also be responsible for other types of mischief, such as the fact that Yeats spells his name “Lepracaun in Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry (1888) but “Lepricaun in Irish Fairy Tales (1892).
  2. The Cleuricaun (in Irish, Clobltair-cean): Yeats notes that some writers “consider this to be another name for the Lepricaun, given him when he has laid aside his shoe-making at night and goes on the spree.” These fairies’ enthusiasms include “robbing wine-cellars” and “riding sheep and shepherds’ dogs.”
  3. The Gonconer or Ganconagh (in Irish, Gean-canogh, i.e. love-talker):  A “creature of the Lepricaun type” who, unlike his industrious cobbler brethren, is idle. Yeats notes he “appears in lonely valleys, always with a pipe in his mouth, and spends his time in making love to shepherdesses and milkmaids.”

[Would Yeats have concurred that modern St. Patrick’s Day celebrants perhaps possesses a touch of the Clericaun and Gonconer in their (admittedly sociable) revelry?]

  1. The Far Darrig (in Irish, Fear Dearg, i.e. red man): This fairy is “the practical joker of the other world” whom Yeats deems a “lubberly wretch.” Like the Pooka (below), “he presides over evil dreams.”
  2. The Pooka (in Irish, Púca, “a word derived by some from poc, a he-goat)”: Yeats notes that this fairy usually takes the shape of “a horse, a bull, a goat, eagle, or ass” and “most likely never appeared in human form.” He is of the “family of the nightmare” and “[h]is delight is to get a rider, whom he rushes with through ditches and rivers and over mountains, and shakes off in the gray of morning.”
  3. The Dullahan: This fairy must be a relative of the headless horseman who appears in Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Yeats explains that he “has no head, or carries it under his arm,” and can be seen “driving a black coach called coach-a-bower (Ir. Coite-bodhar), drawn by headless horses.” If you hear his carriage rumble by, keep your door closed, for if you open it “a basin of blood is thrown in your face.”  As one might guess from such an unwelcome greeting, the Dullahan is “an omen of death to the houses where it pauses.”
  4. The Leanhaun Shee (in Irish, Leanhaunsidhe, i.e. fairy mistress ): Yeats writes, “This spirit seeks the love of men. If they refuse, she is their slave; if they consent, they are hers, and can only escape by finding one to take their place. Her lovers waste away, for she lives on their life.” He also refers to her as the “Gaelic muse” and asserts that many of the Gaelic poets have had a Leanhaun Shee, “for she gives inspiration to her slaves.”
  5. The Far Gorta (man of hunger): An emaciated fairy who “goes through the land in famine time, begging and bring good luck to the giver.”
  6. The Banshee (in Irish, Bean-sidhe, i.e. fairy woman): In addition to the Leprechaun, the Banshee is perhaps the other Irish fairy who will be familiar to American audiences. Yeats notes that like the Far Gorta (and unlike the other solitary fairies), the Banshee possesses a “generally good disposition.”  He suggests that perhaps she isn’t really a solitary fairy after all, “but a sociable fairy grown solitary through much sorrow.” The Banshee wails over the impending the death of “a member of some old Irish family.”  Yeats observes, “Sometimes she is an enemy of the house and screams with triumph, but more often a friend.”  In Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, Yeats remarks that the “keen [caoine], the funeral cry of the peasantry, is said to be an imitation of her cry.” If more than one Banshee arrives to wail, it is a sign the dying person “must have been very holy or very brave.”

Yeats closes his taxonomy by alluding to other varieties of fairies “of which too little is known to give them each a separate mention.” Among these are the Bo men fairies of County Down, whom Yeats suggests are “Scotch fairies imported by Scotch settlers.”  This last detail offers us some hope of encountering Irish fairies on American shores, for its seems that, like us, fairy folk can travel.

To read Yeats’s “Classification of Irish Fairies” in full click here to access the appendix in PDF form or visit Spencer Research Library’s reading room to explore further writings on the topic by Yeats, Lady Wilde, Thomas Crocker, Douglas Hyde, and others in Spencer’s Irish Collections.  Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Elspeth Healey
Special Collections Librarian