The second book of poems by Gwendolyn Brooks, Annie Allen (1949) won the Eunice Tietjens Prize offered by Poetry Magazine and the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
The collection is dominated by a long narrative poem, “The Anniad”. Somewhat more complex than some of her earlier poems, “The Anniad” is an exercise in various poetic techniques, employing a diction associated more often with the epic form. The protagonist is not “heroic” in the usual sense of the term, but her ability to survive is just as “heroic” as any figure from classical literature.
The poem charts the changes in a young woman as she moves from her youthful dreams to the reality of married life in the ghetto. We see Annie Allen grow from childhood to womanhood in an atmosphere conditioned by poverty, racial discrimination, parental expectations, and unhappiness. Like Maud Martha, a later Brooks heroine, Annie Allen does not completely give in or give up. In fact, in some respects, Annie Allen is a mirror image of the later Maud Martha (1953); however, the latter is a prose narrative with poetic overtones, the former is poetry with prose overtones.
The action of “The Anniad” is simple. In order to get away from home, Annie wants to get married. There then follows a courtship, marriage, and separation because of war. When her husband returns, the marriage is weakened by Annie's expectations and his infidelity. They separate and temporarily reconcile. Eventually he deserts Annie for good.
Annie Allen is another one of Brooks's very ordinary, totally undistinguished characters. She is a product of an urban ghetto, the daughter of Andrew and Maxie Allen. Her parents are typical of those in the generation that actually believed the American dream could be realized, that people would be rewarded for hard work and goodness. Much of Annie's early life is devoted to trying to please her mother, who insists that Annie learn to count her blessings and be grateful for what she has, rather than spend energy longing for what she does not. On one level, of course, this is a realistic approach to life; however, it also represses dreams, hopes, and aspirations. If the external Annie is a nonadventurous, passive soul, the internalization of the character reveals one with an active imagination and ever-present dreams.
The simplicity of the narrative thread belies the complexity of form and interpretation. The poem records the numerous repressive forces that operate upon Annie and, in a measure, imprison her. There are, for example, the limitations that result from interracial discrimination and those that result from a sometimes intraracial prejudice relating to skin color. Like many other such women in similar predicaments, Annie longs to escape but does not really have the courage to do so.
The other poems in the volume are also marked by experimentation and unusual imagery. They differ from Brooks's earlier poetry primarily because she shifts from the reality of locale and the exactness of the surroundings to the reality of the mind. Although set in Chicago, Annie Allen is not really a collection of regional poems. Moreover, the volume reveals quite clearly what were to become the dominant themes in Brooks's poetry: the roles of women in an unfriendly urban environment and the moral issues that lead to distinctions between right and wrong.