How can five typewritten pieces of paper provide a glimpse into the mind of a great writer?
In the 1940s, the poet Langston Hughes was a major author who worked in many different literary forms, from poems and short stories to newspaper columns, essays, and songs. He was also a prominent public figure who produced commentaries on culture and race relations in the United States–one publisher later called him “the unchallenged spokesman of the American Negro.”
With that in mind, you can see why a poem from Hughes on the subject of the influential but controversial African American educator Booker T. Washington might be subject to scrutiny by the public. You can also speculate about why Hughes might put such a poem through a thorough revision process.
Four typewritten, marked-up drafts and a final copy of Hughes’ poem “Ballad of Booker T.” are available on the Library of Congress Web site, and allow students to follow the creative process as the poet makes changes to his work over the course of three days.
Teachers can have students:
- Compare the drafts and the final copy to find some of the edits that Hughes made as he revised the poem.
- How much changed between each version of the poem? Is there one draft that changes the poem most dramatically? Can students find any relationship between the dates on the drafts and the kind of changes in each version of the poem?
- Speculate about the reasons for the author’s edits. Can students identify any possible shifts in the poem’s attitude towards Booker T. Washington?
- Read an early draft and the final copy out loud. How have Hughes’ edits changed the way the poem sounds?
- Speculate about why Hughes might have written this poem when he did, twenty-five years after Washington’s death.
You can use the Library’s primary source analysis tool and teacher guides to help students analyze these typewritten pages in further depth.
Find historical background and teaching ideas in a post from Teaching with the Library of Congress: Booker T. Washington and the Atlanta Compromise.
Find photos of Langston Hughes from the Library’s online collections.
Get the printable version, which includes copies of the Library’s primary source analysis tools and guides.
How have you used authors’ rough drafts to help your students gain insight into the creative process?
This collection is excellent! I was reading an article of the Dutch poet Rutger Kopland about the birth of one of his poems; in this article [“Over het maken van ten gedicht”] he shows the reader from start to the end al the drafts of his poem, and he explains all the variations. I wondered whether there were more articles about the thinking process of the poet when a poem is becoming into existence. Your article is another fine example of this process of creation.
I think that these drafts are great, too. I’d love to see more literary manuscripts made available for students, teachers, and researchers.
In his comment here, Ton Langendorff asked if there are more articles about the thinking process of the poet when a poem comes into existence. Right now, two very good ones come to my mind. Edgar Allen Poe’s short essay “The Philosophy of Composition” offers, among other interesting discussions, an account of how he wrote “The Raven.”
Gottfried Benn’s denser discussion in Probleme der Lyrik likewise focuses on how poems are made. He famously argues that poems are generally do not emerge through sheer inspiration (they do not come into existence) but rather are created or crafted through the poet’s close attention to the poem’s words and structure: “Ein Gedicht entsteht überhaupt sehr selten – ein Gedicht wird gemacht.”.