April Evening Program
US postage stamp, 2012
For nearly 50 years, between 1944 and 1993, Gwendolyn Brooks stayed in consistent contact with Elizabeth Lawrence, her longtime editor at the publishing firm Harper & Brothers. These epistolary threads contradict the critical consensus that, when Brooks left Harper’s to publish with the independent Black publishers in 1967, she cut her ties with her “white” firm irrevocably. This presentation explores the rich and rarely considered archival trove of two under-known literary histories. First, how did these two women—one, white, and a powerful editor at one of America’s longest-standing, most prestigious publishers; the other, a rising young Black poet-mother from Chicago—manage to sustain such a fruitful literary alliance? Second, how did Brooks develop as an experimental poet with a mainstream commercial firm?
Brooks’ correspondence with Lawrence sheds light on how the women managed to bond within the notoriously patriarchal corporate culture of mid-20th century US publishing. Crucially, these letters also reveal how their spirited quarrels about Annie Allen (1949) shaped that collection into its innovative and Pulitzer Prize-winning form. Read along these grains, their correspondence demonstrates how the editorial confidence each held for the other urged Brooks to “not be afraid to say no”—or, that is, to assert the aesthetic independence that would define her later poetry published by Black independent firms (Broadside Press and Third World Press) during the late 1960s through the 1980s.
Jacqueline Goldsby is Chair of the Department of African American Studies; and Professor, Departments of English, American Studies, and African American Studies, Yale University. Dr. Goldsby’s first book is A Spectacular Secret: Lynching in American Life and Literature, (University of Chicago Press, 2006). Other works are in progress.
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