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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Anne Spencer

Born Annie Bethel Scales in Bramwell, West Virginia, Anne Spencer was educated at the Virginia Seminary in Lynchburg. Selected to deliver the major student address at the commencement on May 8, 1899, Annie, for her uplifting oration, merited widespread acclaim and respect. Accompanying a gift—a four-volume set of Emerson—that Dr. Richard H. Bolling, head of the Negro Baptist Publishing Board of Nashville, had given Annie was a maxim: “Take what you have and make what you want.” This advice she treasured, and it evolved through the years as her personal philosophy. Two years later, Annie married Edward Spencer, a former classmate, and they settled in Lynchburg.

Annie was intensely interested in the world about her, yet remained apart from active society, except when cultivating literary friends and visitors such as W.E.B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, Walter White, and others. She also corresponded with Carl Van Vechten and H.L. Mencken. Yet, under certain conditions, Spencer was an initiator, organizer, and a fighter for human rights. She helped mobilize black citizens to oppose political and civil injustices in the Lynchburg community. An independent thinker and doer, she assumed the pen name Anne Spencer by which her poetry is identified. Having read Emerson’s works closely throughout her life, she asserted, “Do your ‘own thing’ is right out of is not new.” During her mid-life, she became the librarian at the Dunbar High School to supplement her family’s income when her children reached college age.

She began writing poetry before the Harlem Renaissance, but her poetry first appeared during this period, notably in Countee Cullen’s Caroling Dusk (1927). Spencer’s verse is somewhat conventional and, like much of the poetry of William Stanley Braithwaite and Cullen, is nonracial in theme. She admitted that she possessed “no civilized articulation for the things she hated.” Spencer develops vibrant images to communicate a uniquely private experience that becomes profound, reflecting her sensibility to a moral code that man evidences, her fidelity to exoticism as a romantic component, her innate love of nature, her search for the ideal while acknowledging reality, and her dual treatment of the imagination involving both character and reader.

Spencer never had a volume of her own poems published. She was content to probe and pursue her private musings, often, however, interacting or collaborating with other writers who sought her views and valued her editorial comments. Through several decades her creativity has been respected and admired, for her poems have appeared in nearly every anthology of African American literature; moreover, she created new poems and revised previous compositions until her final year: her poem titled “1975” was composed in 1974. Spencer’s poetry of affirmation will endure, appealing to all who seek insights concerning humankind’s relationship to the past, present, and future.

Evelyn H. Roberts
St. Louis Community College at Meramec

In the Heath Anthology
Lines to Nasturtium (1926)
Substitution (1927)
For Jim, Easter Eve (1949)

Other Works

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Anne Spencer
A collection of Spencer's poetry.

Perspectives in American Literature
A bibliography of primary and secondary texts.

Secondary Sources

J. Lee Greene, Time's Unfading Garden: Anne Spencer's Life and Poetry, 1977