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Cyrus Colter Papers

Finding Aid: Cyrus Colter Papers
Repository: Chicago Public Library, Carter G. Woodson Regional Library, Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature

Beach Umbrella was Cyrus Colter's first book, published in 1970, when he was sixty years old. A collection of short stories, Beach Umbrella was selected by Kurt Vonnegut to receive the first ever University of Iowa Award for Short Fiction, launching Colter's writing career. In the years that followed, Colter published an expanded volume of short stories called The Amoralists and Other Tales (1988) as well as five novels: The Rivers of Eros (1972), The Hippodrome (1973), Night Studies (1979), A Chocolate Soldier (1988), and City of Light (1993). In 1990, Colter's name was engraved on the frieze of the new Illinois State Public Library, alongside such esteemed writers as Ernest Hemingway, Saul Bellow and Gwendolyn Brooks. Colter's lifetime achievements were honored with the first ever TriQuarterly Award in 1991, and in 1998 he was inducted into the Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent.

The Cyrus Colter Papers consist mainly of material pertaining to Colter's forty-year career as a writer and educator at the Harsh Collection. A smaller body of material pertains to Colter's prior military, legal and political careers. The collection contains multiple versions of hand-annotated manuscripts of Chocolate Soldier and City of Light, as well as two versions of Rivers of Eros, an early version of Hippodrome, drafts of several short stories, one poem, and two reviews. There are also numerous photographs documenting Colter's life as a soldier in WWII, as a lawyer on the South Side of Chicago during the Chicago Renaissance, as the second ever African-American member of the Illinois Commerce Commission, and as a writer.

Selected Artifacts

Portraits of Ethel Bassett and J.A. Colter, Cyrus Colter's mother and father, Noblesville, IN, undated. Colter's mother died when he was six years old, and his father worked variously as an insurance salesman, actor, musician, and finally as the regional director of the Central Indiana division of the NAACP. Cyrus and Imogene Colter, ca. 1946. Colter enlisted in the army in 1942 and married Imogene, a teacher and graduate of Northwestern University, in 1943.  He returned from World War II in 1946, having risen to the rank of captain. Cyrus and Imogene Colter at Nelson Algren's house, Chicago 1972.  Although Colter did not begin writing until 1970, he was close with many members of the Chicago Literary Renaissance (ca. 1930-1950), and his writing was said to have far more in common with theirs than it did with that of later writers, such as the members of the Black Arts Movement (ca. 1960-1975). Cyrus Colter and Gwendolyn Brooks at the Illinois State Library Dedication Ceremony, Springfield, IL, 20 June 1990.  Colter and Brooks were among many Illinois-based or -born authors whose names were engraved upon the new state library in 1990. Early draft of 'Breakfast Burning,' published as part of 'Four from Imogene Poems,' in TriQuarterly 82, Fall 1991.  This poem, one of very few that Colter ever wrote, was written after the death of Colter's wife in 1984. Cyrus and Imogene married in 1943, and she served as his primary reader, editor and supporter until her death. Manuscript page from City of Light, published in 1993.  This page shows the extensive handwritten edits that Colter made to his typed manuscripts, including, here, the novel's title being changed to City of Light from Queen Saturn's Last Child.  City of Light was composed during the onset of Colter's Alzheimer's disease, which meant that the manuscripts were in a state of disarray, and many changes made were later forgotten.

Images and credits.