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Black and white portrait of Arna Bontemps.
Arna Bontemps. Library of Congress.

We love discovering that authors in Special Collections also worked as librarians. Arna Bontemps (1902-1973), novelist and poet, also held a master’s degree in Library Science and worked as head librarian at Fisk University in Nashville Tennessee.

As part of his work at Fisk University, Bontemps collected the papers and works of Black American writers such as Charles Waddell Chesnutt, Langston Hughes, John Mercer Langston, Scott Joplin, and W.E.B. Du Bois. (Check out the history of Fisk’s Special Collections & Archives here.)

Special Collections has two books by Arna Bontemps, one of which hides another library connection beneath its covers. 

Cover of Sam Patch by Arna Bontemps. The book cover is light brown and features a boy leaping over the words "Sam Patch."
Sam Patch, the high, wide & handsome jumper by Arna Bontemps (1951)

Meet Sam Patch, the high, wide & handsome jumper by Arna Bontemps and Jack Conroy, published in 1951. As its title might suggest, Sam Patch is a children’s book in which the eponymous character competes against Hurricane Harry in a number of jumping contests. 

Here’s where the library connection comes in:

Photograph of the inside of Sam Patch by Arna Bontemps. The pages are yellow with what looks like circus characters mid-performance. There is a library book pocket from the Martha Canfield Memorial Free Library in Arlington, Vermont, stamped twice with the word "withdrawn."
Library pocket inside Sam Patch

You’ll notice that the library pocket pasted onto the brightly-colored endpapers reads: “Martha Canfield Memorial Free Library Arlington, Vermont.”

The Martha Canfield Memorial Free Library is named for Martha Canfield, aunt of the author and activist, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, who also spent much of her adult life in Vermont. 

Photograph of the title page of Sam Patch by Arna Bontemps. The title page features illustrations of two high-jumping figures and one figure standing on a platform reading "1951." On the opposite page is a handwritten note that reads: "For Dorothy Canfield Fisher, hoping she'll relish this preposterous tale of a contest between a yankee and a western superman. Jack Conroy, Chicago January 21, 1951."
Sam Patch inscription and title page

The inscription opposite the title page in our copy of Bontemps’ Sam Patch reads:

For Dorothy Canfield Fisher,

Hoping she’ll relish this preposterous tale of a contest between a Yankee and a western superman.

Jack Conroy

Chicago January 21, 1951

Conroy, Bontemps’ co-author, inscribed this note to the then approximately 72 year-old Fisher.

Bontemps and Conroy collaborated on another book in Special Collections: They Seek a City, published in 1945.

They Seek a City is a history of the migration of African Americans out of the South following the Civil War. 

Photograph of They Seek a City by Arna Bontemps and Jack Conroy.
They Seek a City by Arna Bontemps and Jack Conroy (1945)

Special Collections will continue to feature Black authors throughout February as we celebrate Black History Month. 

Check out our Instagram for more. 

Questions? Email specialcollections@middlebury.edu.

Special Collections acknowledges that Dorothy Canfield Fisher may have been involved in the eugenics movement in Vermont during the 1920s and 1930s. See the Vermont Department of Libraries’ 2019 statement on changing the name of the Dorothy Canfield Fisher Book Award. The award has been renamed the Vermont Golden Dome Book Award.

For more information on Arna Bontemps, visit the website for the Arna Bontemps African American Museum and Cultural Arts Center, located in Alexandria, Louisiana.