CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The University of Illinois Rare Book and Manuscript Library has acquired the literary archives of Gwendolyn E. Brooks, the first African-American to win a Pulitzer Prize and the poet laureate of Illinois for the last 32 years of her life, until her death in 2000. The archives, which had been kept by Brooks’ daughter Nora Brooks Blakely, comprise more than 150 boxes stuffed with manuscripts, drafts, revisions, correspondence, scrapbooks, clippings, homemade chapbooks in which Brooks neatly handwrote her earliest (unpublished) poems, and heavy bronze awards ensconced in velvet-lined boxes collected later in her career.
Brooks kept a meticulous record of everything she ate, and occasionally added verse fragments, grocery shopping lists and notes about news. | Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
Valerie Hotchkiss, the director of the rare book library, said the archives provide a window into the writer’s creative process. “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,” Hotchkiss said. “It will be thrilling for students to see the author’s hand and to get insight into her creativity through her papers.”
Brooks was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1950 for “Annie Allen,” her second published book of verse (her first was the critically acclaimed “A Street in Bronzeville”), chronicling the musings of an African American girl as she grows into womanhood. The centerpiece, “The Anniad,” is a 43-stanza mock epic poem in which Brooks demonstrated her technical facility across the spectrum of poetic forms. Over her lifetime, she had more than 25 books published, including one book of fiction, “Maud Martha,” and several books of prose. Today, she may be best known as the poet who wrote “We Real Cool,” a brief verse that has become a popular audio track on YouTube.
Brooks received myriad honors. Among them: She was one of Mademoiselle magazine’s “Ten Young Women of the Year” in 1945; named Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 1985; received the Robert Frost Medal for lifetime achievement from the Poetry Society of America in 1989; and was awarded a National Medal of the Arts in 1995. However, Blakely said the appointment as poet laureate of Illinois in 1968 was one of the most significant to her mother.
“When Gov. Otto Kerner gave her the post, she asked him what she would have to do, and he said, ‘Your responsibilities will be commensurate with your pay,’ – which was nothing,” Blakely said. “So mama set about carving out a definition of what the poet laureate was.”
She established her own poetry-writing competition for Illinois schoolchildren, reading each entry herself and funding the cash prizes from her own pocket. When she visited schools as a guest speaker, she signed autographs for anyone who asked. “She read at a school one time that had about 400 students,” Blakely said, “and afterward, she stayed and signed autographs for every single one of the 400 children.”
Born about a year and a half after Brooks received the Pulitzer Prize, Blakely grew up regarding her mother as a woman with an important job, but someone who could joke about the 75 honorary degrees she received from colleges and universities around the world (Brooks attended junior college). “It drove her crazy when I called her ‘Doctor doctor doctor doctor doctor doctor doctor doctor …” Blakely said.
Brooks loved to watch soap operas, and never left home without an ample supply of Halls Honey Lemon cough drops and a big wad of tissues. (In the archives, her notebook of ideas for one of her most beloved poems, “The Life of Lincoln West,” contains a single tissue, used as a bookmark). She wrote at her bedside table or in the dining room, Blakely said, never with any set routine. “Her process was basically just kind of interwoven with our lives.”
Brooks was more disciplined about another type of writing: For the last 20 or 30 years of her life, she documented her daily food consumption in miniature spiral-bound notebooks, which Blakely included in the archives. “I think that’s one of the most surprising items overall in the archives,” Blakely said. “She was vigilant about tracking what she ate, and these became kind of like her life-books. There would be notes about something she had seen on television, an idea she had, grocery lists – all those different things pop up in the little notebooks.”
Dating back to the 1970s, the frequent mentions of brewers yeast, vitamins, dark cherries, blackstrap molasses and her homemade “greens juice” in these little books show that Brooks was health conscious, despite occasional lapses involving pints of ice cream.
Blakely, a Chicago public school teacher, said there’s a reason she chose to include these quirky mementos along with her mother’s literary papers.
“You want to know why I present her as 360 degrees of Gwendolyn Brooks? It’s not by accident,” Blakely said. “When I see kids learning about Zora Neale Hurston, for instance, they learn that she wrote ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ and that she was a famous folklorist. But I like to know about the innards of people. I think that makes them so much more real than just a name in a book and an assignment you have to do.”
Scholars hoping to research Brooks’ archives will need to exercise a bit of patience. Dennis Sears, a curatorial specialist at the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, said the task of processing all 150 boxes will require about 25 hours of work per cubic foot. It’s a job the library staff will enjoy.
“It will be a treasure trove for researchers,” Hotchkiss said.