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Senate House Library acquires rare poetry collection by trailblazing Harlem poet Langston Hughes


Senate House Library has acquired a rare copy of a poetry collection by trailblazing African-American writer (James Mercer) Langston Hughes.

Signed copy of Shakespeare in Harlem signed by the author

Senate House Library has acquired a rare copy of a poetry collection by trailblazing African-American writer (James Mercer) Langston Hughes. The book, “Shakespeare in Harlem,” is one of only five that are believed to exist in the UK, and the only one to be personally signed by the author.

Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was writer and key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, the African American cultural movement spanning the early decades of the twentieth century. As well as poems he wrote novels, short stories, essays and plays, and is thought to be the first African-American in the US to make a living solely from his writing.

Shakespeare in Harlem, which was published in 1942 by Alfred A. Knopf, is a collection which focusses on jazz and blues, Harlem life, and African American experiences. The introduction to the collection states that the poems are "Blues, ballads, and reels to be read aloud, crooned, shouted, recited, and sung. Some with gestures, some not - as you like. None with a far-away voice". The book is illustrated by Edward McKnight Kauffer, who was a prolific commercial artist known for designing posters for Transport for London and the General Post Office, and for his book jacket illustrations. 

The book is unique in being signed personally by Hughes to his friend D.G. (Geoffrey) Bridson, dated January 28th 1944, New York. Bridson was a writer and key figure in the early history of the BBC, beginning work there as a Feature Programmes Assistant in 1935. Bridson and Hughes met in New York during the Second World War and became friends. This friendship led to collaboration twenty years later in 1964, when Hughes and Bridson co-edited a BBC radio series for the Third Programme about African American culture and politics. 

The book was purchased from the endowment generously given to the Library by Sir Louis Sterling (1879-1958) to add to his collection of first and fine editions of literature in English, which was donated in 1954. The Sterling Library now includes over 7,000 volumes of poetry, prose, and drama. It includes early editions of Shakespeare, manuscripts in the hand of Byron and Tennyson and fine private press works.  

Head of Modern Collections Richard Espley said:

“Langston Hughes was a wonderful and important writer, so it’s fantastic that a collection he not only wrote but also signed has been acquired by the University. The fact that the book was purchased with funding we received almost seventy years ago demonstrates the enduring impact of such a legacy.”

The book is available to read by request free of charge in the Library's Special Collections Reading Room. The Special Collections are open to all and visits can be arranged with the reading room team by emailing Senate House Library.