‘Annie Allen’ by Gwendolyn Brooks

Annie Allen (1949) was Gwendolyn Brooks‘s second poetry collection, published by Harper & Brothers on August 24, 1949, when she was 32 years old. Inspired by the epic poetry of Homer’s Iliad and Virgil’s Aeneid, it tells the story of a Black Chicago girl who grows into womanhood and motherhood. In 1950, Annie Allen won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, making Brooks the first African American to win a Pulitzer in any category.

In contrast to her debut collection, A Street in Bronzeville (1945), Annie Allen is more formal and technical. Many critics and scholars have found it difficult to understand, including Brooks’s biographer, Angela Jackson. The centerpiece of the collection is a 43-stanza heroic poem called “The Anniad,” a pun on Annie’s name and Virgil’s epic Aeniad — alongside three appendix poems, including “the sonnet-ballad.” Brooks herself wrote, “You can tell that it’s labored, a poem that’s very interested in the mysteries and magic of technique.”

The collection was originally titled Hester Allen, and the first poems Brooks sent to her editor Elizabeth Lawrence in 1948 “received mixed reviews among the staff at Harper,” according to Angela Jackson. As she had done with Richard Wright for Brooks’s debut collection, Lawrence sent these poems to Genevieve Taggard for an appraisal. Taggard panned the poems in the eight handwritten pages she sent back, calling them monotonous, obscure, and imitative. As a result, Harper paid Brooks a $100 advance, half of what she received for A Street in Bronzeville.

Elizabeth Lawrence was still impressed with most of the collection, though she did try to cut two poems that were critical of white people, “downtown vaudeville” and “I love those little booths at Benvenuti’s.”

When Annie Allen was published in August 1949 to rave reviews in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Defender, and elsewhere, more than 500 people came to a book launch at the University of Chicago to meet and celebrate Brooks. That fall, she read from the book at Howard University. The following spring, on May 1, 1950, Brooks was getting ready to take her nine-year-old son Hank to a movie when Jack Star, then a Chicago Sun-Times reporter, called to ask if she knew she’d won the Pulitzer Prize.

Table of Contents

Note: This listing comes from Brooks’s Selected Poems (1963). The original, 60-page edition of Annie Allen contained additional poems.

Notes from the Childhood and the Girlhood
the parents: people like our marriage Maxie and Andrew
Sunday chicken
old relative
the ballad of late Annie
throwing out the flowers
“do not be afraid of no”
“pygmies are pygmies still, though percht on Alps” —Edward Young

The Anniad

Appendix to The Anniad
leaves from a loose-leaf war diary
the sonnet-ballad

The Womanhood
the children of the poor
the ballad of the light-eyed little girl
the rites for Cousin Vit
I love those little booths at Benvenuti’s
Beverly Hills, Chicago
truth

Contemporary Reviews

“This is a tender, talented, lyrical little book, uneven, young, and fresh as poetry itself. The jacket… did not tell me to expect such sophistication of thought and phrase, such vitality. It did not explain that I would happen on such a poem as ‘The Anniad,’ which records the sad little journey of Annie… Not all the poems share the richness of this long one… When Miss Brooks writes of ‘old laughter in Africa’ or of ‘those little booths in Benvenuti’s’ where curious Aryans hide ‘while observing tropical truths,’ she is being a clever if somewhat trite social critic. But social critics are a dime a dozen and true poets, rare enough… ‘Anniad’ is unmatched by any of the other pieces, or so it seems to me. Full of insight and wisdom and pity, technically dazzling, it is a surprising accomplishment in combining storytelling with lyric elegance. The unevenness is, I hope very much, a fault of youth and editors. The ‘beauty-shoppe’ should never have been included; ‘high he hoisted me’ seems banal and sleazy stuff when one has already read of Annie… When Miss Brooks forgets her social conscience and her Guggenheim Scholarship and writers out of her heart, out of her rich and living background, our of her very real talent, then she induces almost unbearable excitement.”

—Phyllis McGinley, The New York Times, Sunday, January 22, 1950

Editions

  • First edition (1949), Harper & Brothers, New York. Copies are extremely hard to find and no full scan exists.
  • Portions of Annie Allen were republished in Selected Poems (1963), which is widely available, and in Blacks (1994).

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