With one remarkable acquisition, the College’s collection of black poetry and literature has increased exponentially. Over the summer, the Chapin Library of Rare Books acquired the Breman Collection, which can be best described as a mass of writings, images and recordings relating to black poetry and literature of the last 150 years.
The library found and purchased the collection through a combination of serendipity and timely action. Darra Goldstein, professor of Russian, was staying with a friend in London when she happened to notice that a massive collection of black poetry was sitting in her bedroom. She contacted Bob Volz, custodian of the Chapin Library, who was at the time following the Munich Symphony Orchestra around Europe. Volz quickly left the continent, leaving the orchestra to its own fate and traveling to London. There, he holed himself up with the collection for three days before deciding to acquire it from Jill Norman, the widow of collector Paul Breman. To expedite shipping, the library arranged for the collection to occupy its own container (it was stuck in customs for weeks anyway). Transatlantic journey completed, it traveled by truck to Williamstown, where it will undergo indexing before being made available for use.
Breman, assembler extraordinaire of the literature hoard, was an antiquarian bookseller born in 1931 in the Netherlands. In the 1950s, while studying English at Amsterdam University, Breman became interested in jazz, which developed into an interest in the lyrics of jazz blues music. Curious to know where these lyrics came from, Breman discovered an entire black poetical tradition in the form of spirituals and slave songs. After some more poking about and asking questions, he discovered that this tradition still existed, living on in the work of black poets who were quietly but determinedly putting pen to paper in his day. And so, due to the kind of insatiable curiosity that we at the College pride ourselves on, Breman began to assemble his 4000-volume collection.
The collection will be organized into five main categories: “Poetry and Plays,” “Prose” (consisting mostly of fiction), “Studies” (works of scholarship on black literature), “Reference” (factual information) and “Recordings” (of both music and poetry). The works are almost exclusively of American and European origin, with poetry being an extremely strong element within the collection. According to Volz, it contains “not just a sampling – it’s almost the whole body of extant black poetry.” Breman collected numerous anthologies of poetry, which are often the only place that minor black poets were able to publish their works. In addition, many poets of the era who were unable to publish their work sent it to Breman. Thus, Breman preserved quality black poetry, either in manuscript form, or as one of 27 volumes that he published himself. Amidst the collection then, lies the fodder for hundreds of interesting new research projects and scholarly discoveries.
The collection includes many big names (Amiri Baraka, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks) and even more small ones (Johari Amini, May Miller, Julia Fields). It is full of obscure texts, such as what Volz describes as “strange European Hughes material” (tiny poetry pamphlets in translation), and a number of broadsides and leaflets. My favorite aspect of the collection is that most publications are full of extra-textual “goodies,” such as drawings, woodcuts or handwritten notes. The collection is not simply a group of texts – it is a multimedia exposition crammed with surprising and beautiful details. Thus a researcher looking for a specific poem might encounter a woodcut of the poet, a vibrant pen-and-ink drawing or a note from the collector along the way. Many of these visual details have yet to be unearthed or fully explored – the collection, then, is fertile ground for researchers from the art history department who are looking to complete a research paper or thesis.
Breman was known to many black poets as “that crazy white boy in Europe who takes us seriously.” He befriended many of them and made sure that their work was paid attention to and preserved. It is fitting, then, that the collection has ended up in an important rare books library, where it can finally undergo rigorous study by people who take it extremely seriously.