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Library of Congress honors Philip Roth, Vladimir Nabokov, Countee Cullen b'days

Philip Roth, Vladimir Nabokov, and Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen will have birthday celebrations this spring at the Library of Congress, with free readings, discussions, and exhibits, the Library's Poetry and Literature Center announced Feb. 24.

Countee Cullen was one of the "brightest luminaries" of the Harlem Renaissance, says the Poetry Foundation. Library of Congress celebrates Cullen's birthday May 30, with free readings and exhibit from the Library's Countee Cullen Collection.
Carl Van Vechten photo of Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen in New York's Central Park, June 20, 1941.

Here's the lineup for the Library's annual literary birthday celebrations:

  • Philip Roth, Wednesday, March 19

Writers Sam Lipsyte and Howard Norman will read from Roth's work on his actual birthday, and the Library's Manuscript Division and the Rare Book and Special Collections Division will present materials from the Philip Roth Collection.

Roth is one of the most celebrated and controversial of America's living writers, ever since his debut "Goodbye, Columbus" that won the National Book Award in 1960, and followed by his inflammatory and hilarious "Portnoy's Complaint" in 1969.

Roth "retired" in 2012, after winning most of America's highest honors, at least once. At the White House, he received the National Humanities Medal in 2011 and also the National Medal of Arts in 1998; in 2002, the highest award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Gold Medal in Fiction; the Pulitzer Prize in 1997 for "American Pastoral"; and twice -- the National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

"Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books" by Claudia Roth Pierpont of "The New Yorker" has just been published.

  • Vladimir Nabokov, Tuesday, April 22

Writers Dinaw Mengestu and Azir Nafisi will read from Nabokov's work, and the Manuscript Division will present materials from the Vladimir Nabokov Collection.

Born April 23, 1899 in St. Petersburg, Russia, Nabokov and his family fled the Bolshevik Revolution for Germany, and later, during World War Two, fled Germany and France. He emigrated to the U.S. in 1940, and taught at Wellesley, Harvard, and Cornell.

In the afterword to his most famous book, "Lolita" (1955), he wrote modestly, "My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody's concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English..."

His other novels include "Pnin", "Pale Fire", "Ada", and the memoir, "Speak, Memory".

  • Countee Cullen, Friday, May 30

Poets Rowan Ricardo Phillips and Tim Siebles will read from Cullen's work, and the Manuscript Division will present materials from the Countee Cullen Collection.

Cullen (May 30, 1903-1946) was one of the "brightest luminaries" of the Harlem Renaissance, says the Poetry Foundation.

In 1925, Cullen won many literary prizes, graduated from New York University, was accepted into a master's program at Harvard, and published his first volume of poetry, "Color". In 1928, Cullen was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship to write poetry in France, and he married Nina Yolande DuBois, the daughter of W. E. B. DuBois.

"Probably more than any other writer of the Harlem Renaissance, Cullen carried out the intentions of black American intellectual leaders such as W. E. B. DuBois and James Weldon Johnson," the Poetry Foundation biography noted.

"A paradox exists between Cullen's philosophy and writing. While he argued that racial poetry was a detriment to the color-blindness he craved, he was at the same time so affronted by the racial injustice in America that his own best verse—indeed most of his verse—gave voice to racial protest," the bio continued.

In poems such as "Heritage" and "Atlantic City Waiter", Cullen "reflects the urge to reclaim African arts—a phenomenon called 'Negritude' that was one of the motifs of the Harlem Renaissance."

In the 1940s, he was "relatively successful as a dramatist". A dramatized version of his only novel became "St. Louis Woman", which survived controversy to premiere on Broadway in 1946. It featured songs by Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen such as "Come Rain, Come Shine".

Cullen died shortly before the premiere, and was to be "remembered primarily for the poems he had written in his twenties when he was one of Harlem's brightest luminaries."

All events will occur at noon in the Library's Whittall Pavilion on the ground level of the Thomas Jefferson Building, 10 First Street S.E., across from the U.S. Capitol building. No reservations are needed.

The Library's Rare Book and Special Collections Division,, holds more than 800,000 books, pamphlets, theater playbills, prints, posters, photographs, and medieval and Renaissance manuscripts, among other items.

More than 100 collections are maintained, including the personal libraries of Susan B. Anthony and Harry Houdini; author collections of Walt Whitman and Hans Christian Andersen; subject collections on gastronomy and cryptography; and generic collections such as dime novels and Bibles.

The Manuscript Division,, holds more than 66 million items, including the papers of 23 U.S. Presidents, from George Washington to Calvin Coolidge.

The Poetry and Literature Center,, fosters and enhances the public's appreciation of literature. The center administers the endowed poetry chair (the U.S. Poet Laureate), and coordinates an annual literary season of poetry, fiction and drama readings, performances, lectures and symposia.

The Library of Congress, America's oldest federal cultural institution -- the world's largest library -- holds more than 158 million items.

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