The extensive literary manuscripts and archives of Gwendolyn E. Brooks (1917-2000), Illinois Poet Laureate and the first African American writer to win the Pulitzer Prize, are now part of the Rare Book & Manuscript Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
The archive, spans more than six decades, and includes some of Brooks’s earliest surviving poetry and prose written when she was a teenager, as well as early scrapbooks and clippings of pieces she published as a young woman in The Chicago Defender. In addition, the archive contains extensive correspondence, manuscripts, and informal jottings, annotations, and observations. The largest portion of Brooks’s archive documents her career after leaving mainstream commercial publishing to produce her works with small presses and black-owned imprints, including her own imprint The David Company.
Brooks preserved drafts and notes for her outgoing letters alongside the letters she received. The list of her regular correspondents includes a significant roster of mid-century African-American writers and poets. A lifelong Chicagoan, her circle also includes many important figures associated with that city.
Regarding the acquisition, Jubilee Professor Cary Nelson said the “opportunity to obtain the large and well-organized archive of the most distinguished African-American poet of the second half of the 20th century—and an Illinois native to boot—represents one of the most compelling opportunities the humanities are likely ever to confront at Illinois.”
“We collect authors’ archives in order to document and preserve the creative process,” said Rare Book & Manuscript Library Director Valerie Hotchkiss. “To have the papers of Gwendolyn Brooks, a compelling voice in American poetry, will help us better understand her poetry, its influences, and the times in which she lived. It will be thrilling for students to see the author’s hand and to get insight into her creativity through her papers.”
The extensive notebooks and various annotations found throughout the archive show the poet as an inveterate scribbler. Her jottings range from details of menus and shopping to observations of daily life and current events and turns of phrase that might be incorporated into poetry at some point. There are travel journals, diet journals, drafts of speeches and lectures, along with verse fragments and drafts of poems and letters. Hotchkiss notes, “It will be a treasure trove for researchers.”
The wealth of material that can be tapped for teaching within the University’s curriculum and beyond is also important to the mission of the Rare Book & Manuscript Library. It has a history of reaching out to primary and secondary schools, as it often does with its Sandburg archive. Hotchkiss believes “the connections that will be made with young people—from school children to college students—would have pleased the poet most.”
“Not only was Gwendolyn Brooks one of the indisputably great American poets of the 20th century, but she was the second recipient of the lifetime appointment as Poet Laureate of Illinois, following Carl Sandburg who was the first,” said Professor Emeritus of English Laurence Lieberman. “I can’t think of any other poetry acquisition that would honor the University of Illinois Library more.”
University Librarian and Dean of Libraries John Wilkin concluded, “The acquisition of this important archive will be celebrated with poetry readings, special events, and an exhibition in the near future.”
The acquisition of the Gwendolyn E. Brooks archives was made possible with the financial support of the Office of the University President, the Office of the Chancellor, the Library Friends, and the Library’s general materials allocation.