By Jacqueline Marino.
No one stumbles upon the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award collection at the Cleveland Public Library. The books are shelved in three locked cabinets of the Treasure Room, a drum-tight chamber in Special Collections that also houses four other collections, including 1001 Arabian Nights published in more than 60 languages and the Robin Hood Tales.
The Treasure Room is a place most patrons never see, the only place where you can find all the winning volumes of Cleveland’s venerated book prize.
Every September, Kelly Ross Brown, the librarian who maintains the collection, receives a few requests to see it . This is the time of year when jury chair Henry Louis Gates, Jr., arrives in Cleveland to present the winning authors with up to $10,000 each.
But most of the time, the Anisfield-Wolf corner of the Treasure Room remains unoccupied.
Celebrated as the only book award in America focused on issues of racism and diversity, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award was created in 1934, when Cleveland and the rest of America were in the throes of Jim Crow. This was two decades before Brown vs. Board of Education declared school segregation unconstitutional, fueling the nascent Civil Rights Movement.
Its winner’s circle is as profound as Pulitzer’s: Martin Luther King, Jr., won the award in 1959, four years before giving his “I Have a Dream” speech. Langston Hughes won it for Simple Takes a Wife. John Hersey won it for The Wall. John Howard Griffin for Black Like Me. Zadie Smith for On Beauty. Malcolm X has won it. Alex Haley has won it, as have Jonathan Kozol, Junot Díaz and Toni Morrison. In all, 216 works have won this singular award that speaks to both an author’s literary skill and ability to convey a message of social justice.
Yet, for the majority of the award’s 78-year history, most Clevelanders — and many in the literary world — have not known this prize even existed.
And many still don’t. [blocktext align=”left”]We’re not usually portrayed as smart folks known for our passion for literature or social justice, and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award spotlights both. [/blocktext]
As Ross Brown worked to unlock one of the cabinets, sunlight streamed in through a high window, warming the quiet space. I looked for the 2013 winners, particularly the one I had just read, Laird Hunt’s Kind One, a fictional work about slavery that illuminates a rarely discussed truth: Oppressed people can and do oppress other people when given the opportunity.
Another group soon gathered outside the door, and I was asked to leave. In addition to housing the winners of Cleveland’s esteemed book award, the Treasure Room has become a nice spot to hold meetings.
Very few turkeys
In popular culture, Clevelanders are suffering sports fans, weather-beaten cynics and victims of bizarrely sadistic criminals (Ariel Castro, Anthony Sowell, the Torso Murderer). We’re not usually portrayed as smart folks known for our passion for literature or social justice, and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award spotlights both. It awards exemplary writing, the kind that pushes you into self-examination. It is a call to reflection and discomfort, to discussions you didn’t intend to bring up and can’t stop thinking about after you do.
“Before anyone had heard of Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes or Nadine Gordimer, all had won Anisfield-Wolf prizes for their work,” says Karen Long, the consultant who manages the award for The Cleveland Foundation. “While there have been a few turkeys, most of these books have set the table for the conversations our children will be having in the 21st Century.”
Despite being a substantial literary prize, for most of its history the award resembled the modesty of its founder, Edith Anisfield Wolf, (1889-1963), a Cleveland poet and philanthropist known for several books of poetry and many charitable activities. Described in a 1954 Plain Dealer article as “Cleveland’s publicity-shy philanthropist,” she nonetheless appeared in a number of articles for her civic work. She was active in the Women’s City Club, the Association for Crippled and Disabled, and the Cleveland Branch of the American Society of Pen Women. She was also a board member of the Cleveland Public Library, whose collection includes copies of her correspondence regarding donations: a curtain for an auditorium here, printing costs for a manuscript there.
Wolf was approachable but discerning. One article called her “a generous but shrewd businesswoman who can spot a ‘phony’ every time.”
On an average day in 1943, she could be found working in her victory garden at her home on East Boulevard, where her father had amassed one of the most valuable private libraries in the city, or in her office in the Union Commerce Building, where she wrote her poetry and “homey” articles for women’s magazines. In her poetry and her good works, Wolf championed equality and humanity. This one was chosen to accompany a list of the award winners:
Countries are such funny things
With language, law, tariff, borders;
Immigration, customs, orders;
Army, navy, patrol on wings;
When we’ve all the wide world
To live in as brothers-
Our hug-ed prejudice unfurled
To understand each others’
Wolf was the only child of John Anisfield, a Jewish immigrant who came to Cleveland from Vienna as a teenager and worked his way up in the garment industry to start his own business, The John Anisfield Company. By the early 1900s, it employed 700 people . A 1929 obituary says he became “one of the best-known clothing manufacturers of the country.”
Anisfield retired in 1923 to devote all his time to philanthropy. He had been president of Mount Sinai Hospital, known for treating patients of all religions and races.He established a camp for poor children and a society that made loans without interest.
“He accepted the leadership of every charitable undertaking he could and gave unsparingly of his time and money to the promotion of better living, especially among members of his own race, the Jews,” his obit reads.[blocktext align=”right”]“I think that the Award and the soul behind it has not been sufficiently publicized,” Zora Neale Hurston wrote to Wolf.[/blocktext]
Young Edith began sharing her father’s interest in social causes at age 12. “He encouraged her to come into his office every Saturday to help him administer his philanthropic interests,” saysMary Louise Hahn, who managed the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards from 1995 until this year and has researched Wolf’s life.
Quietly building steam
In 1934, after long talks with her friend, Amy Loveman, an editor at the Saturday Review of Literature, Wolf established The John Anisfield Award to reflect her family’s dedication to social justice. There is little about the early decades of the award in the library file or at the Cleveland Foundation, which began administering the award after Wolf’s death in 1963.
Ross Brown recently turned up a 1959 Florida State University master’s thesis by V. Leslie Thomson that chronicled the development and examined the significance of the award-winning books. Thomson corresponded with Wolf and quotes an unpublished paper by another author, Western Reserve University library student Fay P. Armstrong, who had access to Wolf’s personal files.In her paper, written in 1951, Armstrong compiled the first complete list of award-winning books.
According to Armstrong, the first John Anisfield Award was to be given to “a sound and significant book published either in the United States or abroad in the previous twelve months on a subject of race relations in the contemporary world.”
The first jurors were Henry Seidel Canby, editor of the Saturday Review of Literature; Henry Pratt Fairchild, sociology professor at New York University; and Donald Young of the Social Service Research Council. The award went to Harold F. Gosnell for Negro Politicians: The Rise of Negro Politics in Chicago. The prize was $1,000, a substantial amount at that time.
In 1941, after the award was given to Louis Adamic’s From Many Lands, a work the judges described as close to fiction, they recommended a second award be given for creative literature. In a letter to Wolf, Canby explained “the so-called scholarly award would lend importance and dignity to the creative literary book, which being in all probability more popular would in turn help to carry the more serious work.”
When the new award was announced in 1942, it was made clear that the creative work “must perform an outstanding service in clarifying the problems of racial relations, whether it be in the area of fiction, drama, poetry, biography or autobiography.” The total award amount increased to $2,000 and was not necessarily split equally between the two winners, according to Thomson.
Over time, the jury included some of the most recognized names in literature and the humanities, including author Pearl Buck, historian Oscar Handlin, novelist Lillian Smith and poet Gwendolyn Brooks. For decades, the jury was chaired by Princeton anthropologist Ashley Montagu.
After the death of her husband, the lawyer Eugene Everett Wolf, in 1944, Edith Anisfield Wolf added his name to the award.