Tolson, Melvin B.
Melvin B. Tolson 1898–1966
(Full name Melvin Beaunorus Tolson) American poet, journalist, and dramatist.
The following entry presents an overview of Tolson's career.
Tolson's highly allusive poetry celebrates the African-American spirit. Although his work eventually received scholarly study and praise, Tolson spent much of his career in a no-man's-land between the world of the white literati and that of African-American audiences. Much of his work is devoted to the unusual position of the African-American artist and his attempt to make his work relevant to a diverse audience.
Tolson was born in Moberly, Missouri, in 1898. His father was a Methodist minister; the influence of the oral history of preaching is evident in Tolson's later poetry. Tolson's family moved from parish to parish in Missouri and Iowa during his childhood. Tolson demonstrated an early interest in poetry, publishing his first poem, "The Wreck of the Titanic," in an Iowa newspaper in 1912, and continued to write poetry throughout high school. He attended Lincoln University and graduated in 1923, then moved to Marshall, Texas, where he taught English at Wiley College. While at Wiley, Tolson directed a number of dramatic productions, coached the school's debate team to an impressive success record, and became known as a gifted raconteur and orator. Tolson received a Rockefeller fellowship which allowed him to pursue a master's degree in comparative literature at Columbia University in the early 1930s. During this time he lived in Harlem and mixed closely with the writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Tolson composed A Gallery of Harlem Portraits based on his time in Harlem, but was unable to find a publisher for the work; it was published post-humously in 1979, almost forty years later. After returning to Wiley, Tolson began writing a column for the Washington Tribune in addition to his teaching and extracurricular activities. The column was called Caviar and Cabbage, and in it he discussed a variety of social issues. The columns, which ran from 1937 to 1944, were collected and published as a book of the same title in 1982. In 1940 Tolson wrote "Dark Symphony" for a poetry contest sponsored by the American Negro Exposition in Chicago. He won first prize, and after the poem appeared in Atlantic Monthly, a publisher approached Tolson about putting together a collection which he titled Rendezvous with America (1944). In 1947 Tolson left Wiley for Langston University, where he worked as professor of creative literature. Tolson was named Poet Laureate of the Republic of Liberia, for which he wrote Libretto for the Republic of Liberia (1953). At this time he also served four terms as mayor of Langston, Oklahoma. In the 1960s, Tolson retired from Langston University and occupied a chair in humanities at Tuskegee Institute, teaching only one class. Tolson won the National Institute of Arts and Letters Award in 1966. He was working on the second volume of his projected five-volume work, Harlem Gallery (1965), when he died in 1966.
Tolson's A Gallery of Harlem Portraits represents a cross-section of Harlem life in all of its diversity. The poems in Gallery also address the class divisions created by economic disparity. Tolson believed that class was more of an issue than race in the problem of inequality, but his work retains the hope that racial equality is a possibility when economic equality is addressed. He often uses the rhythm and language of blues music in his poetry. In Gallery, Tolson uses blues lyrics to introduce his poetic portraits. In Rendezvous with America, Tolson continues to celebrate diversity, but expands his setting from Harlem to include the entire country. In it he uses a variety of poetic forms, including sonnets and free verse. Tolson wrote Libretto for the Republic of Liberia to commemorate that nation's centennial, taking as his topic the whole of African history. Harlem Gallery: Book I, The Curator studies the dichotomies that exist in man's social roles. The central character, the Curator, has trouble fitting into any accepted notion of identity. He is neither black nor white, poor nor rich. He inhabits two different worlds, trying to bring the art of "high" culture to the poverty-stricken streets of Harlem. Although the action is filtered through the consciousness of the Curator, it revolves around three artists: the painter, John Laugart; the composer, Mister Starks; and the poet, Hideho Heights. Each of these artists struggles with his inner self as expressed through his art and public reaction to it. Two of the artists die and the third's death seems imminent. The Curator is left shaken about the way art affects the African-American artist, but the work ends with a recognition that dichotomies are a part of life.
Tolson's work, especially his early work, has not received much critical attention. Tolson himself insisted that he began as a mediocre poet and that he learned and developed a better technique through the years. Dolphin G. Thompson asserts that "in addition to mastering poetical techniques, he has initiated a style of dramatically lifting the Negro experience to classical grace." Tolson's poetry is highly allusive, and can be difficult to comprehend for the average reader. Many critics point to the difficulty of Tolson's poetry as the reason his work has been critically neglected. Reviewers often cite Walt Whitman as one of Tolson's influences. The most striking example is Tolson's own "Song of Myself," from his Rendezvous with America, but reviewers also point to Whitmanesque qualities in Libretto for the Republic of Liberia. Dan McCall notes, "In the Libretto Whitman continues to be abundantly influential … in the enormous catalogues, the wry asides, the self-conscious displays of learning, and the prose-paragraphs of the final section." Reviewers also mention the influence of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, some complaining that Tolson's work was overly imitative. Some reviewers faulted Libretto for its traditional structure, asserting that it should have been written in Negro dialect. Tolson addressed this issue in Harlem Gallery: Book I, The Curator, adding African-American dialect to the traditional style of his earlier poetry. Tolson's intentions as a writer reached beyond his life's experiences: As Robert M. Farnsworth remarked, "Tolson developed a poetic style which he hoped would enable him to project the needs and interests of black people into the imaginations of a still developing audience of the future."
Rendezvous with America (poetry) 1944
Libretto for the Republic of Liberia (poetry) 1953
Harlem Gallery: Book One, The Curator (poetry) 1965
A Gallery of Harlem Portraits (poetry) 1979
Caviar and Cabbage: Selected Columns by Melvin B. Tolson from the Washington Tribune, 1937–1944 (articles) 1982
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SOURCE: "The Heart of Blackness—M. B. Tolson's Poetry," in New Letters, Vol. 39, No. 3, March, 1973, pp. 63-76.
[In the following essay, Basler recommends Tolson's poetry for a general readership as opposed to an exclusively African-American audience.]
What American poet will symbolize and represent our milieu to readers in the future, as Shakespeare represents the Elizabethan, Milton the Puritan, or, to come closer, Whitman the Civil War era? Will it be Eliot? Pound? Sandburg? Frost? William Carlos Williams? Time may tell, perhaps is already telling, that although they spoke to us in a special voice, none knew us in our latitudinal-longitudinal complexity, or used quite our whole language with the love and imagination of a master. Will it be one of the younger generation of Roberts—Lowell, Duncan, Creeley, or—? I think not.
Even in our current concern with ecology, Eliot's The Waste Land seems something less than symbolic or representative of our age, though better than any other poem it suggests the spiritual vacuum of what has seemed to some the fading of the Christian era. Pound's Cantos, while brilliantly projecting the intellectual disillusion and aesthetic discord of a civilization gone rationally mad, are at best a schizoid satire, to be read obliquely. Sandburg's The People, Yes, like all his poetic work, so subtly musical and complex in the pagan...
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SOURCE: "Preface to Melvin B. Tolson's Caviar and Cabbage Columns," in New Letters, Summer, 1981, pp. 101-02.
[In the following essay, Farnsworth discusses Tolson's Caviar and Cabbage columns.]
Melvin B. Tolson's last two books of poetry, The Libretto for the Liberian Republic and Harlem Gallery won him deservedly strong critical acclaim. But those who know his work only by these rewarding, but bristlingly demanding, major poems are cut off from the roots of his writing experience.
From November 13, 1937, until June 24, 1944, Tolson wrote a weekly column, Caviar and Cabbage, for the Washington Tribune. These years included the closing years of the great depression and the United States' entry into World War II. These two events were a major influence on Tolson's writing career, and they also strongly influenced the terms by which black Americans then defined their cultural role in national and international communities. The social ravages of the great depression during the thirties increasingly caused black leaders and intellectuals to stress class rather than race as the determining factor in the plight of black people. The events of World War II made the linkage between racism and colonialism publicly visible. Black Americans increasingly recognized that the drama of their lives was being played on an international, not just a national,...
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SOURCE: "What Can a Poet Do? Langston Hughes and M. B. Tolson," in New Letters, Vol. 48, No. 1, Fall, 1981, pp. 19-29.
[In the following essay, Farnsworth traces Tolson's relationship with fellow poet Langston Hughes.]
The academic year 1931–1932 was in retrospect probably the most crucial year of Melvin B. Tolson's writing career. He was thirty-four years old. He had a wife and four children. He had been teaching in the English Department of Wiley College since 1923. And he had been writing poetry and fiction at least since the age of fourteen when he published a poem about the wreck of the Titanic in a local newspaper in Oskaloosa, Iowa. The poetry and fiction which can be gleaned from Tolson's high school and college publications and a later story which appeared in a Wiley College yearbook all lend credence to the self-evaluation Tolson wrote late in the 1930's: "In 1932 I was a Negro poet writing Anglo-Saxon sonnets. As a graduate student in an Eastern university, I moved in a world of twilight haunted by the ghosts of a dead classicism."
In 1931–1932 Tolson, with the aid of a Rockefeller fellowship, was able to arrange for his family to live with his parents in Kansas City, while he moved to Harlem to enroll at Columbia University in a Master's program in Comparative Literature. For his M.A. he wrote a thesis on "The Harlem Group of Negro Writers." Living in Harlem, coming into...
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SOURCE: "Point and Counterpoint in Harlem Gallery," in CLA Journal, Vol. XXVII, No. 2, December, 1983, pp. 152-68.
[In the following essay, Schroeder discusses Tolson's Harlem Gallery and asserts that "the character of the Curator and the central dilemma in which he is placed provide a perfect vehicle for an examination of social divisions and conflicting roles."]
Although first published in 1965, Melvin B. Tolson's highly allusive poem Harlem Gallery has yet to attract much critical recognition. With the exception of an unpublished dissertation, a rather general critical biography, a handful of reviews, and some widely scattered articles, the poem has been virtually ignored; as Robert M. Farnsworth has recently expressed it, "Critics and scholars have been ducking the challenge of his [Tolson's] work for years." The reasons for this neglect of a modern masterpiece undoubtedly stem from the difficulties of the poem itself; the density of its allusions and the erudite perplexities of its language. Until a much-needed annotated edition of the poem is published, however, we can begin to penetrate its ornate facade by isolating important clusters of imagery and significant movements in its narrative structure, thereby locating the focal points for subsequent critical investigations of its provocative thematic complexities.
In a brief note on T. S. Eliot, Tolson himself...
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SOURCE: "Three Artists in Melvin B. Tolson's Harlem Gallery," in Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 18, No. 3, Fall, 1984, pp. 122-27.
[In the following essay, Hansell analyzes the roles of the three artists in Tolson's Harlem Gallery.]
The first and final chapters of Melvin B. Tolson's Harlem Gallery, "Alpha" and "Omega," serve many purposes, the most important of which is to introduce or recapitulate aesthetic principles exemplified and developed throughout the poem. My summary here of the crucial chapters is designed to serve as the introduction to a study of three characters, John Laugart, Hideho Heights, and Mister Starks, each of whom is an artist and contributes substantially to the dramatic embodiment of the aesthetic principles underlying the volume.
Beginning my study of three major characters with the discursive, ode-like chapters seems appropriate also because Tolson's poem opens with several chapters that focus on subjects, race and art in particular, which later become the subjects of dramatic exchanges among a number of characters. The three artists portrayed in the poem itself create the kinds of works which illustrate the new art announced in "Alpha": Laugart in painting; Starks in music, classical and popular; and Heights in poetry. There is, however, some overlapping. Mister Starks, for example, is also a poet, and his "Harlem Vignettes" is made up of...
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SOURCE: "Telling It Like It I-S 'IS': Narrative Techniques in Melvin Tolson's 'Harlem Gallery,'" in New England Review and Bread Loaf Quarterly, Vol. VIII, No. 1, Autumn, 1985, pp. 109-17.
[In the following review, Dove traces Tolson's Harlem Gallery and its reception among African-American intellectuals.]
When Melvin B. Tolson published part I of his projected epic poem, Harlem Gallery, in 1965, critical response was immediate and controversial. Whereas the mainstream literati (read: white) were enthusiastic, proclaiming Tolson's piece as the lyrical successor of The Waste Land, The Bridge, and Paterson, proponents of the rapidly solidifying Black Aesthetic were less impressed. Part of the controversy was sparked by Karl Shapiro's well-meaning Foreword. "Tolson writes and thinks in Negro," Shapiro pronounced, prompting poet and essayist Sarah Webster Fabio to remark:
Melvin Tolson's language is most certainly not "Negro" to any significant degree. The weight of that vast, bizarre, pseudo-literary diction is to be placed back into the American mainstream where it rightfully and wrongmindedly belongs.
Shapiro describes Gallery as "a narrative work so fantastically stylized that the mind balks at comparisons." Divided into 24 sections corresponding to the letters in the Greek alphabet, Harlem...
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SOURCE: "Evolution of Style in the Poetry of Melvin B. Tolson," in Black American Poets Between Worlds, 1940–1960, edited by R. Baxter Miller, University of Tennessee Press, 1986, pp. 1-18.
[In the following essay, Russell analyzes the progression of Tolson's thought and style throughout his career.]
The consideration of Melvin Tolson's evolving style concerns the maturation of his thought. Here I concentrate on his epic form and his developing perspective. I shall first generalize about his worldview and then trace the development of the hero figure, for both processes set into relief the stylistic growth. The examination includes less the discussion of metrics and figurative language than the concern for poetics in the deepest sense.
Tolson writes: "A great preacher is a great artist. Words are his tubes of paint. Verse, his brush." These sentences go far to explain the poetics of the speaker. He does not belong to that stream of Anglo-American poetry which is purely lyric, expressing directly and mellifluously the poet's own emotions. He concerns himself, on the contrary, with social issues as the barebones of life. His style comes closer to oratorical rhetoric than to song, and his poem is generally public rather than confessional.
The son of a "fighting preacher"—"I used to watch my Dad in the pulpit and feel proud …"—Tolson was himself a great speaker and...
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SOURCE: "Masks, Margins, and African American Modernism: Melvin Tolson's Harlem Gallery," in PMLA, Vol. 105, No. 1, January, 1990, pp. 57-69.
[In the following essay, Bérubé discusses Tolson's work in relation to African-American modernism.]
Harlem Gallery has been alternately celebrated and castigated for its formal difficulty—when, that is, it has been read at all. Yet although the poem is as formidable as any hypertextual text produced by the throes of modernism—saving Finnegans Wake—there seems something amiss in the idea that its difficulty should be a significant issue in itself; surely, by now, allusive, elliptical poetry should not be grounds for controversy. Still, even if the grounds are questionable, they are by no means powerless. Readers have apparently found the poem so generally inaccessible that publishers have followed suit and rendered it literally inaccessible, for even in the midst of the current revolution in African American letters, Harlem Gallery has quietly gone out of print.
More to the point, however, Tolson's poetic technique has been controversial, appropriately or not, insofar as it has been taken as evidence of Tolson's wrongheaded emulation of T. S. Eliot. And on this count, to be sure, some of the confusion can be traced directly to Tolson: he himself spoke repeatedly of Eliot's poetry as if it were somehow...
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SOURCE: "The Poetry of Melvin B. Tolson (1898–1966)," in World Literature Today, Vol. 64, No. 3, Summer, 1990, pp. 395-400.
[In the following essay, Tolson discusses his father's career and major works.]
"Black Crispus Attucks taught / Us how to die / Before white Patrick Henry's bugle breath / Uttered the vertical / Transmitting cry: / 'Yea give me liberty or give me death.'" These words still reverberate in this sixty-sixth year of the celebration by African Americans of "Black History Month." They express the importance that the struggle against socioeconomic and cultural racism held for Melvin B. Tolson in his lifetime and in the work he left to what he called "the vertical audience," that of the ages. This poet, orator, teacher of English and American literatures, grammarian, small-town mayor, theater founder and director, debate coach was born on 6 February 1898 in Moberly, Missouri, the son and nephew of Methodist preachers. The family moved frequently in Missouri and Iowa to the different churches his studiously intellectual but autodidact father pastored.
Tolson often said that in his earliest youth he was dedicated to the palette. However, he was permanently deterred from this path by his mother's encounter with a bohemianly attired painter who, attracted by the boy's ability, spoke of taking him to Paris! Thomas Whitbread refers to this encounter in his poetic tribute "In...
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SOURCE: "Melvin B. Tolson and the Deterritorialization of Modernism," in African American Review, Vol. 26, No. 2, Summer, 1992, pp. 241-55.
[In the following essay, Nielsen states that Tolson's works "are an assault upon Anglo-American modernism's territorial designs, but they have been little read."]
"In 1932 I was a Negro poet writing Anglo-Saxon sonnets as a graduate student in an Eastern University"—these are the words that Melvin B. Tolson chose to describe himself as he had been at the outset of his odyssey as an artist, a description which, while recalling the formal beginnings of other modernist poets such as William Carlos Williams, resonates yet more profoundly with Frederick Douglass's recollections of his first interlinear strides towards freedom and a style of his own. But the interlinear tracings of both Douglass and Tolson soon began to diverge radically from their models. Not merely glosses, or even really copying, the writing between the lines of Frederick Douglass and Melvin B. Tolson is a repetition elsewhere of the model which eventually displaces the model; it is a rewriting which comes to read itself as prior to the lines of the master. Both Douglass and Tolson run the risk of being flogged for marring the highly prized lines of Master Thomas, and yet each in the end has succeeded in writing "other lines" which challenge the territorial claims of the master text of Western...
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Bérubé, Michael. "Avant-Gardes and De-Author-izations: Harlem Gallery and the Cultural Contradictions of Modernism." Callaloo No. 38 12, No. 1 (Winter 1989): 192-215.
Discusses Tolson's Harlem Gallery and its relationship to modernism.
Farnsworth, Robert M. "Tribute to Tolson." New Letters 46, No. 3 (Spring 1980): 125-27.
Reviews Dan McCall's The Man Says Yes and explains how the novel is loosely based on Tolson's life.
Fussiner, Howard R. "A Mature Voice Speaks." Phylon XV, No. 1 (1954): 96-7.
A review in which Fussiner praises Tolson's Libretto for the Republic of Liberia.
Hillyer, Robert. "Among the New Volumes of Verse." The New York Times Book Review (10 December 1944): 29.
Asserts that, "On the whole, [Tolson's] Rendezvous With America is an admirable collection."
Mootry, Maria K. "'The Step of Iron Feet': Creative Practice in the War Sonnets of Melvin B. Tolson and Gwendolyn Brooks." Obsidian II: Black Literature in Review II, No. 3 (Winter 1987): 69-87.
Discusses both Tolson's and Gwendolyn Brooks's first collections...
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