For 30 years, Edward Miller, a 57-year-old retired court reporter, had tucked away his late father's files on a family friend, papers that included handwritten notes signed "Lang." Finally, at the suggestion of his wife, Miller pulled the old briefcase full of files from the closet and took it to the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif.
Sue Hodson, curator of literary manuscripts, took one look and got goose bumps. The Millers, who live in Altadena, Calif., had a small but rich cache of letters, manuscripts and other material by Langston Hughes, one of the 20th century's most beloved and important black voices.
At a time of resurging interest in the poet and writer, who died in 1967, the Huntington recently acquired the "phenomenal little collection" from the Millers for an undisclosed price, Hodson said. The 40-piece collection includes Hughes' pocket diary from an overseas trip in 1932 and a two-page undated poem, written in pencil on frayed newsprint with marked-out corrections.
The size of the Huntington cache pales in comparison with the Hughes archive at Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, which has 14,000 folders of material, the largest trove of the poet's memorabilia anywhere. But Hughes scholars, none of whom had known about the Millers' collection or examined it, noted that even small collections can yield a gem, such as a revealing letter or draft of a manuscript.
"Any acquisition like that is significant," said Arnold Rampersad, author of the definitive two-volume biography "The Life of Langston Hughes."
Until Hughes experts review the Huntington's cache, it's hard to say how significant the material is, although Hodson said it "contains very important literary and biographical material for Hughes." Independent literary appraiser Robert Allen, who reviewed the Huntington's acquisition, called the Hughes papers "an exciting and historically telling archive" and said the 1932 pocket diary was "the crowning piece. ... This small but substance-heavy notebook, hitherto unknown to scholars and students, epitomized Langston Hughes' vivid passion for social justice."
Experts said they were excited simply by the prospect of analyzing fresh material that, they say, could inspire a new generation of scholars to study the poet. Scholars are interested particularly in material from the 1930s - a decade in Hughes' life that is relatively undocumented - and his ties to California intellectuals, including Edward Miller's prominent father, former Los Angeles Municipal Court Judge Loren Miller, who was the poet's West Coast attorney and agent.
The bulk of the Huntington's material is from 1932 to 1934, a time when Hughes, who already was leaning to the left, became even more politically charged. "That period for me, the 1930s, are some of the more interesting years for what Hughes was doing," said Christopher C. De Santis, an associate professor at Illinois State University and author of "The Collected Works of Langston Hughes, Volume 10: Fight for Freedom and Other Writings on Civil Rights." "He wrote so much during the 1930s that was extremely passionate and extremely committed to the working classes."
During that period, Hughes traveled to several countries, including the Soviet Union, where he was accompanied by Loren Miller and others.
His travel inspired some of his most radical writing, leading, in 1953, to his appearance before Sen. Joseph McCarthy's subcommittee on political subversives, when he was forced to defend his politics.
Rampersad, a Stanford University professor, had not known of the existence of the handwritten diary that Hughes kept while traveling in China and Japan in his early 30s. In the diary, Hughes recorded the same details of child labor conditions in Shanghai that he wrote of in the second volume of his autobiography, "I Wonder as I Wander," published in 1956. "That's an (academic) article right there," Rampersad said of the diary. "Something like that is very valuable."
Hughes' down-to-earth writing style was not always appreciated by literary critics of the day. But he still is known for poems such as "Mother to Son," "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" and other works that are lyrical and accessible, infused with the voice and rhythm of jazz. His fans range from rappers to readers of the Academy of American Poets' Web site who, in 2001, voted him America's favorite poet.
This year, Hughes has been feted in centennial celebrations nationwide, marking his birth in 1902. A series of community activities, including an international symposium at Kansas University, marked the occasion in Lawrence, where Hughes spent part of his childhood. In February the U.S. Postal Service issued a Langston Hughes stamp, and in 2001 the University of Missouri Press began publishing 17 volumes of his collected works, including novels, short stories, essays and plays on politics, social justice and black culture.
Edward Miller's family knew the private side of Hughes, who in the '20s emerged as a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance's flourishing artistic scene. In the early '30s, Hughes, who lived on and off in San Francisco and Carmel, Calif., occasionally visited Southern California. On those trips, he would drop by to see Edward Miller's parents.
Before he became a judge, Loren Miller was an attorney who took on major civil-rights cases, filing briefs, for instance, in the Brown vs. Board of Education school-desegregation case alongside his friend Thurgood Marshall.
Edward Miller, a small boy at the time of Hughes' visits, doesn't recall much about the poet. But his 70-year-old cousin, attorney Halvor Thomas Miller Jr., remembers having to stand in front of Hughes and recite the writer's poetry. "He was kind of a soft person, very pleasant, thoughtful ... happy," Halvor Miller said.
Hughes often brought along signed copies of his books, the sort of memento Edward Miller expected to find in his parents' belongings after the deaths of his father in 1967 and his mother three years later. But when Miller sifted through his father's files, he got a surprise. He had no idea that his father had so many files on Hughes.
For years, he and his wife, Angela Miller, stored the papers, showing the collection to few people outside the family. Occasionally, their two children, Brandon, 15, and Noelle, 13, would bring Hughes' letters to school for book reports.
About two years ago, after Edward Miller became concerned about the condition of the Hughes papers, Angela Miller began contacting institutions to see if there would be interest in acquiring the cache. The Millers wanted to keep the collection together and on the West Coast, where their family and their descendants could get to the papers easily.
"There's no doubt we know how amazing the material was and is," said Angela Miller, 47, a special-education assistant. "This is a good time to put it where people can see it."
After the Millers met with Hodson, they worked with a literary appraiser she recommended to organize and catalog the papers. By the time they got back to Hodson, her budget had been frozen in the aftermath of Sept. 11, and the deal stalled until this summer, when the acquisition was finalized.
Edward Miller said it wasn't hard to pass the cache on to the Huntington. "Actually, it was kind of a load off my shoulders to have it in an institution where it would be well-preserved and taken care of, and the paper wouldn't break down and fall apart," he said.
Still, Miller was touched when he discovered the correspondence between Hughes and his father, letters that revealed the depth of their friendship. "I was kind of thrilled," he said. "It made it very personal."
In March 1933, for instance, Hughes, who never married, wrote to Loren Miller from Moscow after hearing of his engagement. (Edward Miller's mother, Juanita Miller, later was director of state social welfare for Los Angeles County.) The note is typed with dark letters, made with firm keystrokes: "Dear Loren, You lucky guy - marrying a grand girl like Juanita. ... Jesus, I'm glad. ... Getting married to someone you love ought to be a much better thing than writing novels or seeing the world - or making revolutions."
At the Huntington, the Hughes collection is expected to have huge public appeal, Hodson noted. Four items are on display in the library's main exhibition hall through Jan. 1, including a couple of letters from Hughes to Loren Miller. (Yale's Beinecke library has 10 letters from Miller to Hughes, but no copies of any letters Hughes wrote to his Los Angeles friend, according to the collection's archivist, Tim Young.)
In one of the letters on display, dated Aug. 21, 1930, Hughes thanked Miller for praising his just-published first novel, "Not Without Laughter," and expressed his frustration with racial stereotypes: "Dear Loren, Thanks for your swell letter about the book. There are a lot of things wrong with it but I learned a great deal writing it, so maybe the next one will be better. I hope so. ... I wish I, or somebody, could write a novel in which each character wouldn't be taken as a 'type-class' character; that there'd be some way of keeping them from being considered as representatives of the whole race or any one section of the race. For Christ's sake, can't Negroes, even in books, be just individuals - if they want to be?"