Archival Research on African American Literature and Authors

The Manuscripts Division’s most important archival holdings for African American literature are the Toni Morrison Papers (C01491), the major portion of which are now open for research. But there are other relevant archival collections, chiefly in the archives of American publishing houses and literary magazines, and of American and British literary agenices. The most substantial for research are the author files for Richard Wright (1908-60), dating from 1938 to 1957, found in Selected Records of Harper & Brothers (C0103). These files include editorial and business correspondence with Wright, his agent Paul R. Reynolds, the publishing house’s editors, and promotional staff; reader’s reports; and review media relating to books published over several decades: Uncle Tom’s Children (1938), Native Son (1940), Black Boy (1945), The Outsider (1953), Black Power (1954), and Pagan Spain (1957), as well as books for which Wright supplied introductions. The Harper & Brothers files are complemented by the Wright files of the British literary agency Victor Gollancz Ltd. (C1467), which include correspondence, contracts, and readers’ reports for Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Native Son, Black Boy, and American Hunger (1978). There are also Wright letters and photographs of 1946-49 in the Sylvia Beach Papers (C0108), as well as Wright’s novella The Man Who Lived Underground; and letters of 1945-56 in the author files of Story Magazine and Story Press (C0104).

Several other Harlem Renaissance authors are represented in holdings. For Langston Hughes (1902-67), the Manuscripts Division has occasional letters and photos in the Sylvia Beach Papers and Carl Van Doren Papers (C0072), and in the New Review Correspondence of Samuel Parker (C0111), the Archives of Charles Scribner’s Sons (C0101), and the Archives of the John Day Company (C0123). Posthumous files (1968-72) pertaining to his books are found in the Archives of Harold Ober Associates (C0129), through their British affiliate Hughes Massie Ltd. Additional items are in the Franklin Books Program archives at Mudd Library. The Archives of Charles Scribner’s Sons has author files for Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960), including 100-plus items, 1947-63, of which 25 are letters by Hurston, mostly pertaining to her novel Seraph on the Suwanee (1948). Some additional Hurston material is found in the Story archives. For the African American poet and editor Kathleen Tankersley Young (1903-33), the Manuscripts Division has correspondence with New York book designer and printer Lew Ney and his wife Ruth Widen, 1928-32 (C1273). Young was editor of Modern Editions Press and Blues: A Magazine of New Rythms during the Harlem Renaissance.

The Manuscripts Division has a folder of letters (1901-5) from the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) to Harrison Smith Morris, editor of Lippincott’s Magazine, in the Harrison Smith Morris Papers (C0003); as well as correspondence of the African American historian Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950), with fellow historian Charles H. Wesley, 1925-50 (C1310). Woodson was the founder of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History and in his writing called attention to W.E.B. Dubois and the Harlem Renaissance. Also in the Manuscripts Division are the correspondence files of the New York Urban League, 1922-79 (C0869). Three letters of 1905-6 about W.E.B DuBois’s Souls of Black Folk are found in correspondence between the Chicago publisher A. C. McClurg & Company and the London literary agent Charles Francis Cazenove (C1553). Also of interest is a small collection of papers of George Padmore (1903-59), a journalist born in Trinidad, including correspondence with Henry Lee Moon (1901-85), editor of the Amsterdam News (C1247).

Ralph Ellison (1914-1994) and Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000) are the best-documented African American authors of the post-war generation in the Manuscripts Division. Ellison materials are primarily found in the archives of the Quarterly Review of Literature [QRL] (C0862). This literary magazine was edited from 1943 to the 1990s by the American poet Ted Weiss, who taught at Princeton, 1967-87. QRL‘s issue files include correspondence with Ralph Ellison, as well as corrected typescripts, and proofs of his second, posthumously published novel Juneteenth. Includes the following. (1) “The Roof, the Steeple and the People,” QRL, vol. 10, no. 3 (1959-60), relating to the nicoleodeon excursion. There are also proofs in box 6, folder 2, and a corrected typescript in box 6, folder 3; (2) “Juneteenth,” QRL, vol. 13, no 3-4 (1965), in box 8, folder 4; (3) “Night-Talk,” QRL, vol. 16 (1972), a movie-going episode in Atlanta, with an edited revision, box 11, folder 4. There are a few Ellison letters in the archives of The Hudson Review and in the recently acquired papers of Joseph Frank (1918-2013), Professor of Comparative Literature, who received a 3-page letter from Ellison in 1964, in which he explains the obscurity of the “pink hospital scene” in his novel Invisible Man by describing how he cut out a 225-page section from the middle of book. Gwendolyn Brooks is documented by 14 folders for the years 1944-58 in the Selected Records of Harper & Brothers (C0103), as well as additional materials in other collections. Recently, the Manuscripts Division acquired a sound recording and transcription of an interview that Playboy Magazine‘s articles editor James Goode conducted with James Baldwin (1924-87) in 1967 and Alex Haley (1921-92) edited and shortened for publication the following year (C1557).

Beyond African American authors, the Manuscripts Division holds some literary collections relating to the Afro-Carribean experiences. The best example is in the papers of the contemporary American author Madison Smartt Bell (C0771), Princeton Class of 1979, including manuscripts, corrected typescripts, and proofs for his trilogy about Toussaint Louverture and other leaders of the Haitian Revolution. The first novel was All Souls Rising (1995), which was a finalist for the 1995 National Book Award and the 1996 PEN Faulkner Award, and won the 1996 Anisfield-Wolf Award for the best book of the year. The novel was continued in Master of the Crossroads (2002) and The Stone Builder Refused (2004). Providing context for Bell’s writing is his correspondence with his publishers, agents, and friends. The Manuscripts Division also holds the correspondence of Professor Léon-François Hoffmann with the Haitian poet René Depestre, 1984-2003 (C1103).

Archival, printed, and audiovisual materials about African American literature and history can be found in the various divisions and collections of the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. For general information about holdings, please contact Public Services, at

Harper & Brothers author files for Richard Wright's The Outsider.
Harper & Brothers files for Richard Wright’s
The Outsider.