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 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 https://www.loc.gov/item/94838388/.  Brooks’s reading includes poems from Annie Allen starting 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. https://www.pulitzer.org/article/frost-williams-no-gwendolyn-brooks

[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. https://www.pulitzer.org/article/frost-williams-no-gwendolyn-brooks

[iii] Remarks by Alfred Kreymborg quoted in ibid.

Home for Thanksgiving

November 21st, 2017

Happy (early) Thanksgiving, everyone! We hope you all get the chance to enjoy a relaxing few days with your loved ones over the holiday! Please remember that the Spencer Research Library will be closed from Thursday to Sunday this week.

We invite you to take a moment and reflect on this thoughtful and introspective poem by award-winning poet, Linda Pastan. Entitled Home for Thanksgiving, the poem comes from her book, Setting the Table.

Poem "Home For Thanksgiving" by Linda Pastan

Cover of Linda Pastan's Setting the Table: Poems

“Home for Thanksgiving” by Linda Pastan from her collection, Setting the Table: Poems. Washington, D.C. ; San Francisco: Dryad Press, [©1980]. Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas. Call #: C9301. Click images to enlarge.

Emily Beran
Public Services

Rainer Maria Rilke

December 5th, 2016

Rainer Maria Rilke is one of the most beloved German-language poets of the twentieth century. So in honor of his 141st birthday yesterday, we’re highlighting some of our amazing books by Rilke from Spencer Library’s Special Collections.

Duineser Elegien (English: Duino Elegies), which is considered one of his masterpieces, was begun in 1912 at Duino Castle near Trieste, Italy. The inscription by Rilke pictured below was probably created as he was beginning to write these poems.

Inscription by Rainer Maria Rilke, "Herrn Justizrath Löwenfeld in dankbarer Erinnerung...Schloss Duino...Januar 1912” located on the front page from volume 1 of his work, Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge, Leipzig : Insel-Verlag, 1910. Special Collections, call number: Rilke X18.
Inscription by Rainer Maria Rilke: “Herrn Justizrath Löwenfeld in dankbarer Erinnerung…Schloss Duino…Januar 1912”
located on the front page from volume 1 of his work, Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge, Leipzig: Insel-Verlag, 1910. Special Collections, call number: Rilke X18. Click image to enlarge.

The first edition of Duineser Elegien was published in 1923 in Leipzig. Here is Spencer Library’s copy of this first edition printed on handmade paper with the beginning of “Die Erste Elegie” (English: “The First Elegy”).

Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duineser Elegien, Leipzig: im Insel-Verlag, 1923: cover. Special Collections, call number: Rilke Z50.   Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duineser Elegien, Leipzig: im Insel-Verlag, 1923: title page with unicorn watermark. Special Collections, call number: Rilke Z50.
Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duineser Elegien, Leipzig: im Insel-Verlag, 1923: “Die Erste Elegie”. Special Collections, call number: Rilke Z50.   Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duineser Elegien, Leipzig: im Insel-Verlag, 1923: back page stating that this is the first edition, copy 48 of 300 printed on handmade paper. Special Collections, call number: Rilke Z50.
Pictured from top left to bottom right: Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duineser Elegien, Leipzig: Im Insel-Verlag, 1923: cover, title page with unicorn watermark (below and the the right of Leipzig), “Die Erste Elegie” and back page stating that this is the first edition and copy 48 of 300 printed on handmade paper. Special Collections, call number: Rilke Z50. Click images to enlarge.

Rilke’s works were translated into English, helping to bring his poetry to an international audience. Here is the beginning of “The First Elegy” from Duino Elegies translated into English by J.B. Leishman and Stephen Spender and published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press in 1939.

Rilke’s Duino Elegies, with part of the “The First Elegy” in the original German with the English translation by J.B. Leishman and Stephen Spender placed side by side. Special Collections, call number: Rilke Y26.

Rilke’s Duino Elegies, beginning of “The First Elegy” with German and English translation
by J.B. Leishman and Stephen Spender placed side by side.
Special Collections, call number: Rilke Y26. Click image to enlarge.

Mindy Babarskis
Reference Specialist
Public Services

Tramping on Mount Oread: Poet Harry Kemp

April 21st, 2015

How many freshmen can boast that their arrival on campus was covered by the national press? Though neither a star athlete nor the child of a public figure, poet Harry Kemp (1883-1960) won this distinction through his knack for self-promotion. Kemp’s unconventional arrival at KU by boxcar in January of 1906 launched him from anonymity to the front page of the New York Tribune —  “TO COLLEGE UNDER FREIGHT CAR / Student Leaves New-York with 3 cents–Working Way at University of Kansas. Another headline in the Kansas City Star proclaimed Kemp a “Tramp Poet,” and the moniker stuck (though he was known as the vagabond poet and hobo poet as well). During his six years of studies at KU, Kemp immersed himself in books, built a reputation as a poet and writer, and befriended nearby William Allen White, the newsman and “Sage of Emporia.”

And as the years passed, Kemp continued to make headlines, including as the “other man” in Upton Sinclair’s divorce and for attempting  in 1913 to “tramp” to England as a stowaway aboard a steamer, something that earned him a brief stay in a British jail and further celebrity on both sides of the pond. Of course, Kemp garnered attention for his literary output as well. He published books of verse–including The Cry of Youth (1914), Chanteys and Ballads (1920), and Don Juan’s Note-book (1929)–and a bestselling semi-fictionalized memoir, Tramping on Life: An Autobiographical Narrative (1922), in which KU appears as “Laurel University” in “Laurel, Kansas.” Kemp livened up already the already lively literary circles of Greenwich Village and was associated with the Provincetown Players, electing ultimately to settle in Cape Cod.

Potrait of the KU Scoop Club, 1909, featuring Harry Kemp. Photograph of Harry Kemp circa the 1950s

Youth and Old Age: Harry Kemp (middle row, second from left) with fellow members of the Scoop Club
(for news reporters) in the 1909 Jayhawker yearbook, Call #: LD 2697.J3 1909,
and in a photograph from the the 1950s, Personal Papers of Harry Kemp. Call #: PP 75, Box 3.
Click images to enlarge.

Though Louis Untermeyer had once spoken of Kemp alongside Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsay, and Edgar Lee Masters, by the end of his life, the Tramp Poet’s reputation had already begun to fade. Nevertheless, Kemp continued to write and elevate his eccentricities to an art.  From his shack in Provincetown, Massachusetts, he would sign his poems (and sometimes even compose them) with a seagull feather.  In honor National Poetry Month, we remember today one of the most eccentric and free-spirited poets to emerge from KU, Harry Kemp, and share three of his poems below.

Harry Kemp's "Kansas" from Sunflowers: A Book of Kansas Poems (1914)

Kemp, Harry. “Kansas” in Sunflowers: A Book of Kansas Poems. Willard Wattles, Editor.
Lawrence, KS:  World Company, 1914. Call #: KAC C71. Click image to enlarge.

Cover of Kemp's Chantey's and Ballads (1920) "The Humming Bird" by Harry Kemp from Chanteys and Ballads (1920)

Kemp, Harry. “The Humming Bird,” from Chanteys and Ballads, Sea-chanteys, Tramp-ballads and Other
Ballads and Poems
. New York, Brentano’s [c1920]. Call #: PP 75, Box 1. Click images to enlarge.

Typescript poem ("Eight Lines, for the New Year") by Harry Kemp, with manuscript inscription.

Kemp, Harry.  “Eight Lines, For the New Year (Human Trust),” undated.
Personal Papers of Harry Kemp. Call # PP 75, Box 3. Click Image to enlarge.

For more on Harry Kemp, his poetry, and his wild life, see William Brevda’s Harry Kemp, the Last Bohemian or drop by Spencer and begin exploring his personal papers.

Elspeth Healey
Special Collections Librarian

 

Collection Snapshot: Amiri Baraka (1934-2014)

January 18th, 2014

Last week, the poet, playwright, and critic Amiri Baraka died at the age of 79. Baraka (who was born Everett Leroy Jones and published as LeRoi Jones until the late sixties) was a founder of the Black Arts Movement.  As his New York Times obituary suggests, his career took many turns and was punctuated by both accolades and controversy, but there can be little doubt that he was a significant figure for post-WWII American literary culture.  The Kenneth Spencer Research Library houses over 45 items by or containing contributions from Amiri Baraka, with more than double that amount in the KU Libraries circulating collections. Spencer’s holdings include several scarce or ephemeral items, such as an advance proof of his important study Blues People: Negro Music in White America (1963),  a 1965 fundraising letter for the Black Arts Repertory Theater/school of Harlem, the illustrated broadside A Traffic of Love (1967), and the 13-page mimeograph edition of his play Slave Ship, An Historical Pageant (ca. 1967).

 

Photograph of the covers of all eight issues of Yugen (1958-1962)

Yugen, edited by LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) and Hettie Cohen. Nos. 1-8 (1958-1962). Call Number: Ser C170. Click image to enlarge.

 Among our earliest holdings for Baraka is a complete run of the journal Yugen (1958-1962), which he edited with his first wife, Hettie Cohen.  Only eight issues of the magazine were published, and it included contributions from writers such as William Burroughs, Robert Creeley, Diane DiPrima, Allen Ginsberg, and Gary Snyder. Spencer’s holdings are strongest for the first decade and a half of Baraka’s career, from the late 1950s to the early 1970s, during which time he was associated first with the Beats and then the Black Arts Movement.

Elspeth Healey
Special Collections Librarian