Inside the Milberg Gallery: In the Company of Good Books - Conversations on Books

The following is part of a series of inside looks at the current exhibition in Princeton University Library’s Ellen and Leonard Milberg Gallery in Firestone Library - “In the Company of Good Books: Shakespeare to Morrison.” 

Curated by Jennifer Garcon, Librarian for Modern and Contemporary Special Collections, Gabriel Swift, Librarian for American Collections, and Eric White, Scheide Librarian & Assistant University Librarian for Special Collections, Rare Books & Manuscripts, the exhibition celebrates the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s “First Folio” and showcases Princeton’s diverse collection of English literature and many of the writers and readers who brought life to English literature around the world.

The circulation of “good books” can shed light on a vibrant network of readers and their interaction, all traceable in the inscriptions, signatures, and markings left behind in the volumes they owned. Handwritten annotations sometimes preserve conversations between authors and readers, capture moments of inspiration, and document a work’s reception. In several of the exhibited books, the annotators were well-known writers–in the case of Samuel Richardson’s “Clarissa”– it is the author of the book who gets the last word, commenting on Lady Bradshaigh’s earlier annotations. Presentation copies hint at networks of authors, as is the case of the items from James Baldwin’s library.

Cover of James Baldwin's “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” New York, Knopf, 1953

James Baldwin (1947-1987). “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” New York, Knopf, 1953.

Once published, Baldwin’s first major work became an instant American classic. The protagonist, modeled after Baldwin, struggles to reconcile his sexual identity with his religious upbringing. Baldwin would later describe the writing experience as cathartic, saying it “is the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else.” This copy is inscribed to Peter Lemay, a close friend and Knopf editor, and his wife, Dorothy.

In the midst of a nascent civil rights movement, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000) released her debut novel, “Maud Martha,” while James Baldwin published “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” These two authors, both engaged with the question of African American advancement in American society, offered divergent perspectives: one as a queer male transatlantic exile in Paris and the other as a woman in the Midwest.

 "Attitude of the Southern Critical Public to Negro Literature"

Langston Hughes (1901-1967). Letter regarding Attitude of the Southern Critical Public to Negro Literature. Autographed typescript, 15 May 1934.

Hughes describes his reception by white audiences in Southern states on the eve of the publication of his first book, “The Ways of White Folks.” During the lecture, audience members confronted Hughes about his poem, “Christ in Alabama,” wherein he evokes the wrongful arrest and conviction of nine falsely accused Black youths in Scottsboro, Alabama. The Scottsboro case is largely recognized as a central flashpoint of the civil rights movement and influenced countless poems, novels, and critical essays.

Powerful annotations in red ink allow us to see Toni Morrison’s analysis of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin;” and Langston Hughes’s typescript letter reckons with his fraught reception by audiences in the still-segregated South.

This section provides windows into robust communities of readers, many of whom were also writers; its books ask us to consider how authors established relationships with one another through what they wrote and what they read.


The exhibition is open through December 10, 2023 at the Milberg Gallery in Firestone Library. Please visit the website to view the gallery’s opening hours and for information about public tours, related programming, and how to visit.

Discover more through the companion digital exhibition.

Published November 14, 2023.

Media Contact: Stephanie Oster, Library Publicity Manager