Impact

Poet Laureate's Papers

 With help from the University Library Annual Fund, the University of Illinois Rare Book and Manuscript Library acquired the literary archives of poet Gwendolyn E. Brooks last fall. Brooks, the first African-American to win a Pulitzer Prize, was 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revisions, correspondence, scrapbooks, clippings, and homemade chapbooks in which Brooks neatly handwrote her earliest (unpublished) poems. The Library Annual Fund supports the acquisition of books and materials each year.

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. Over her lifetime, she had more than 25 books published, including one book of fiction, “Maud Martha,” and several books of prose. Today, Brooks may be best known as the poet who wrote “We Real Cool,” a brief verse that has become a popular audio track on YouTube.

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. Brooks kept a meticulous record of everything she ate, and occasionally added verse fragments, grocery shopping lists and notes about news. To make a gift to the Library's annual fund, visit here.