“Author to Author” Exhibit Features SHC Literary Correspondence

Examples of correspondence among some of the South’s best-known authors will be on display in the Southern Historical Collection on the fourth floor of UNC’s Wilson Library from Aug. 18 through Sept. 30.

The free, public exhibit, Author to Author: Literary Letters from the Southern Historical Collection, illuminates ties within the community of Southern writers during much of the twentieth century.

William Faulkner with arm around Milton Ab Abernethy, publisher of Contempo, in Chapel Hill, 1931. North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives.
William Faulkner with arm around Milton "Ab" Abernethy, publisher of Contempo, in Chapel Hill, 1931. North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives.

On view will be original letters by authors including Clyde Edgerton, Gail Godwin, Langston Hughes and Erskine Caldwell. Photographs from the Southern Historical Collection (SHC) will also be included.

The letters show how the authors built and maintained community by writing to one another, even as many of them moved far from the South.  The correspondence also reveals the support and motivation—and sometimes friendly competition—that the writers provided to one another.

The exhibit also highlights the complex relationships and strong personalities of the figures involved. A 1932 “cease and desist” letter from William Faulkner instructs the Chapel Hill literary magazine Contempo not to list Faulkner as an associate publisher; a photograph from the same period shows Faulkner hugging Contempo‘s publisher, Milton “Ab” Abernethy.

Author to Author adds depth to the larger Wilson Library exhibit Four from between the Wars: Paul Green, Thomas Wolfe, Robert Ruark, and Walker Percy, on view in the Melba Remig Saltarelli Exhibit Room on the third floor of Wilson Library through Sept. 30.

Both exhibits complement the North Carolina Literary Festival, hosted by the Library on the UNC campus Sept. 10-13.


Author to Author:
Literary Letters from the Southern Historical Collection

Fourth floor of Wilson Library
Aug. 18-Sept. 30, 2009
Free and open to the public
Exhibit information: Biff Hollingsworth, (919) 962-1345
In conjunction with the North Carolina Literary Festival, Sept. 10-13, 2009

Langston Hughes in Chapel Hill, December 1931

December 1931: Langston Hughes (left) and Anthony Buttitta standing on Franklin Street in downtown Chapel Hill. From Contempo Records (#4408), Southern Historical Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill.
December 1931: Langston Hughes (left) and Contempo co-publisher Anthony Buttitta standing on Franklin Street in downtown Chapel Hill. From Contempo Records (#4408), Southern Historical Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill.

Chapel Hill has seen its share of notable visitors throughout its history. Some of these notables have been welcomed to town with open arms, others…not so much. In December 1931, writer Langston Hughes received one of these colder varieties of welcomes to the Hill.

Hughes had been invited to Chapel Hill by Milton “Ab” Abernethy, one of the publishers of a short-lived journal of literary and social commentary called Contempo, based in Chapel Hill. Abernethy, an avowed communist who, before settling in Chapel Hill, had been expelled from State College (now North Carolina State University) for publishing some rabble-rousing words about the college administration, is quite an intriguing figure in his own right – perhaps we’ll add more about Abernethy in a later post.

Although only lasting from 1931-1934, Contempo was able to build a strong reputation among critics for expanding the boundaries of literary work in the 1930s and was able to attract submissions from the likes of William Faulkner, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Sherwood Anderson, Erskine Caldwell, Hilda Doolittle (H.D.), e.e. cummings, William Carlos Williams, and many other luminaries of the day.

[The Southern Historical Collection is proud to be the home of a 720 item collection of Contempo Records (#4408) which includes letters to and from authors, typescripts of literary works, photographs, clippings and other items. The photograph above-left comes from this SHC collection.]

Throughout October and November 1931, Abernethy and Hughes corresponded to discuss including some of Hughes’ work in the December 1 issue of Contempo. The publishers had decided that this December issue would be a special issue on the events surrounding the case of the Scottsboro Boys – a special issue that would include opinion pieces on the case from those in the literary community, as well as poems and other works in response to the Scottsboro case. Hughes submitted several items to Abernethy for publication, including: a poem called “Christ in Alabama,” an accompanying drawing called “Black Christ” by artist Zell Ingram of Cleveland, Ohio, as well as an essay he called, “Southern Gentlemen, White Prostitutes, Mill-Owners, and Negroes.”

These titles alone would have caused a stir in the American South of the 1930s, but the content was also quite daring. The essay began with the sentence, “If the 9 Scottsboro boys die, the South ought to be ashamed of itself — but the 12 million Negroes in America ought to be more ashamed than the South.” The poem, “Christ in Alabama,” was even more pointed. Click here to view an image of the front page of the December 1931 issue of Contempo.

The publication of the Scottsboro issue of Contempo was timed to appear several days before Hughes was to visit Chapel Hill for a public reading. Citizens of the town of Chapel Hill were incensed. UNC President Frank Porter Graham and Chapel Hill town officials received a flood of letters denouncing Hughes as “sacrilegious” and calling for his engagement to be canceled (to put it softly). Graham did not interfere and the reading went on as planned.

Later, during Graham’s hard-fought 1950 Democratic primary in the campaign for U.S. Senate, the Hughes case was used quite effectively by Graham’s opponent, Willis Smith, as an example of Graham’s longstanding left-leaning (read: Communist) tendencies.

There is more of this story to discover in several of the SHC’s collections, as well as in various resources in the North Carolina Collection. There are letters and clippings relating to Hughes’ visit in the Guy Benton Johnson Papers, the aforementioned angry letters written to Frank Porter Graham in the Frank Porter Graham Papers, and other items. This is definitely an episode in Chapel Hill’s past that deserves further scholarly treatment – and it just so happens that we’ve got the raw material for said treatment right here in the SHC stacks!