Readers ask about Alice Dunbar Nelson & Langston Hughes’ book
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    Auction Finds

    ‘Sweet Flypaper’ of Hughes & DeCarava

    I had thumbed quickly through the two long rows of African American-themed books on a table at auction this week, but nothing struck me. Until another auction-goer mentioned that he had set aside a copy of Langston Hughes’ “Sweet Flypaper of Life.”

    How had I missed that one? I checked out his book; it was a later edition. But the auction-goer mentioned that he had seen another copy on the table. So I started searching and found it among a group of paperbacks – about six of  them bundled in a rubber band with an absentee bidder’s number – that included works by Don L. Lee, Nikki Giovanni and speeches by Malcolm X.

    I instantly recognized the cover – a black and white picture by renowned photographer Roy DeCarava of the haunting eyes of a little black child. I’d seen the book on the web but had never come across it before. When I inspected it, I found that the first few pages were missing – the title page with the author’s name, publisher and date, along with the first page of the story itself.

    Darn. It was a 1955 first edition of the book, but there were too many important pages missing.

    The auction house was selling Sweet Flypaper as part of a large lot of books, albums and furniture from the estate of a Philadelphia artist named Earle A.T. Wilkie (I also found him listed as Earl). According to the auction house, Wilkie was a director at the Elwyn Institute, a local agency that serves people with disabilities.

    I was unfamiliar with Wilkie but I learned via Google that he was a sculptor. He was associated with a much-better-known artist named Ellen Powell Tiberino, who died in 1992 of cancer. Back in 1991, Wilkie was a member of an artist collective called the Rambla Group that included Powell, her muralist husband Joe and four other artists. The group held some exhibitions.

    Wilkie’s work “In search of a primeval past” was part of a juried exhibit by the Philadelphia School District and the Museum of the Philadelphia Civic Center in 1969. The 40-page catalog “Afro-American Artists 1800-1969” included more than 100 artists. The judges were artists Alvin Hollingsworth, Reginald Gammon and Louis Sloan. Wilkie also exhibited in 1988 at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.

    One of the auctioneers said that they hoped to be able to get some of his pieces for auction.

    Among Wilkie’s collection of books was a first-edition copy of Richard Wright’s “Native Son,” with the dust jacket (it had tears). I already have a copy. The albums were an eclectic mix (one long table had stacks and stacks of them) – from jazz to blues to classical to rock. So too was his collection of religious books (there were two tall carts of them).  

    For me, a first-edition copy of Sweet Flypaper would’ve been the coup. Hughes wrote the book in collaboration with DeCarava (who died in October). In a 1985 interview, DeCarava told of photographing the people of Harlem as part of a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1952. He later took the photographs to Hughes, who devised and wrote the story, and got the book published.

    Sweet Flypaper tells the sweet side of living in Harlem through the eyes of a fictional grandmother named Sister Mary Bradley. She introduces us to the members of her family, including her troubled grandson Rodney. It was first published in 1955, went out of print in 1977, was reprinted in the 1980s and may now be out of print, according to one website.

    “We’ve had so many books about how bad life is,” one site quoted Langston Hughes as saying. “Maybe it’s time to have one showing how good it is.”

    I wanted to purchase the book for my own collection. That’s why I was so excited to see it, as was this blogger (Heading East) who came across one for $3 in a used bookstore back in 2006. This little book – a thin paperback with 98 pages – combined the excellence of two talented people, one a writer and the other a photographer. Its richness appealed to us.

    Discovering a copy at auction, in a used bookstore or thrift store at an insanely cheap price would be a notable find. Used copies (first edition and reprints) on Amazon were selling for $147 to $600.  At the site Alibris, a New York bookstore was selling  a first-edition for $1,000.

    The bundle of books at the auction house sold for $75, with three people bidding, including a man who got annoyed as the auctioneer kept asking him to bid. He was in it for the long haul. As for me, I’ll keep looking. I’m sure it’ll turn up again.


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    1. RE: The Sweet Flypaper of Life
      Alot of people think the first few pages of the 1955 first edition softcover are missing but they are not. The story line starts on the front cover (see above pic – lower right hand corner) and then continues on page 3. The copyright page is the inside of the front cover. I own 5 copies of this title icluding a signed copy and they are all identical. When I came across the very first copy, I too thought it was missing a few pages until someone pointed out the unique set-up of this book. I sold that particular one for $225 to a gentleman in Paris : )
      ~ Best of Luck in the future. Enjoy!!

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