Object Lesson: A Wordsmith's Wine Boxes

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A monthly feature highlighting the artifact collection of the University Archives.

The University Archives holds a set of three wooden wine boxes in its artifact room, but it is not the Savory & James Sherry or Freixenet Cava these cases once held that make these items relevant to our collection. After wine moved out, a group of literary manuscripts moved in. Specifically, these were the manuscripts of three novels by the late Northwestern Professor Leon Forrest.

Though not a household name, Forrest is considered by many to be one of the major literary figures of his generation. His four massive, dense, modernist novels explored questions of African-American history, culture, and identity. While dealing with major themes such as slavery, orphans, and storytelling across generations, Forrest kept his focus on vibrant and complex characters. (He is shown here signing copies of his books for the Archives in May of 1984.)

Forrest was a Chicago native born in 1937 and grew up on the South Side in a middle-class African-American neighborhood. After attending high school and junior college, Forrest was drafted into the army and spent his tour of duty in Germany. Upon his return he began to take classes at the University of Chicago and continued writing plays, as he had been doing for years. He made his living as a clerk and bartender at his parents' liquor store (which might be the source of the boxes) and later as a writer and editor at several South Side community newspapers.

Forrest taught English, creative writing, and African-American studies at Northwestern from 1973 until his death in 1997. He also served as chairman of the African-American Studies Department from 1985-1994.

He completed his first novel, There is a Tree More Ancient than Eden, in 1971. It was published in 1973 by Random House, helped along by the praise of Saul Bellow, and with a forward written by Ralph Ellison, who endorsed the work to Random House editor, Toni Morrison. In 1977 and 1984, Random House published Forrest's second and third novels, The Bloodworth Orphans and Two Wings to Veil my Face.

Shown here is part of one of the manuscripts (from Eden) that used to inhabit the boxes. When the texts moved to archival enclosures, we decided the original containers were unique enough to warrant retention. While most people are used to seeing only the final, bound product, these artifacts evoke the process and workaday labor that go into creating a novel. The Archives also has the manuscript to his fourth, and some say most ambitious, 1,100 page novel, Divine Days from 1992.

For many years Forrest was a friendly and approachable face on campus, always willing to strike up a conversation. Learn more about this fascinating scholar and writer by viewing the finding aid to his papers here, and by coming in to the Archives to explore the materials themselves.