Study Guide

Sterling Allen Brown

Sterling Allen Brown Essay - Critical Essays

Brown, Sterling Allen

Introduction

Sterling Allen Brown 1901-1989

American poet, folklorist, editor, critic, and essayist.

The following entry provides information on Brown's life and works from 1934 through 1999.

An important American poet and critic, Brown was one of the first writers to infuse his poetry with black folklore. In his first collection, Southern Road (1932), he wove elements of ballads, spirituals, work songs, and the blues into narrative poems generally written in a southern black dialect. Although Brown published little poetry after this collection, many critics believe that his work was significant in the development of black writing.

Biographical Information

Brown was born in Washington, D.C., on May 1, 1901. His father, Sterling Nelson Brown, taught in the department of religion at Howard University and was pastor of Washington's historic Lincoln Temple Congregational Church. Among the minister's associates were black leaders Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, senators B. K. Bruce and John R. Lynch, sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois, and cultural critic Alain Locke. Brown was inspired by his acquaintance with these men to study black history and the importance of black life in America. After he graduated from Williams College in 1922, Brown enrolled at Harvard University and received a master's degree in English in 1923. After graduation Brown taught in the rural South—despite his contemporaries' attempts to dissuade him. It was during this time he gathered the material for Southern Road, which was published in 1932. He accepted a teaching position at Howard University, where he would remain for forty years. Despite the success of Southern Road, his publisher rejected what would have been his second published volume of poetry, No Hiding Place, and declined to issue a second printing of Southern Road. These decisions had a devastating effect on Brown's reputation as a poet; because no new poems appeared, many of his admirers assumed that he had stopped writing. Brown subsequently turned his attention to teaching and to writing criticism, producing several major works on African-American studies. In 1971 Howard University granted Brown an honorary degree. A republication of Southern Road and a new volume of poetry, The Last Ride of Wild Bill and Eleven Narrative Poems (1975), followed. He died on January 13, 1989.

Major Works

Southern Road is Brown's best-known and most highly acclaimed volume of poetry. Viewed as a breakthrough for black poetry, it incorporates the dialect, music, folklore, and rhythms of rural African Americans in the South. In the poems in the collection, Brown focuses on farmers, preachers, prisoners, prostitutes, and itinerant workers who are at home in their surroundings and preoccupied with the business of survival. The volume includes poems such as “Sam Smiley,” in which a World War I veteran returns home to find his woman in prison for having killed the baby she conceived by a rich white man in Sam's absence. Sam is lynched for murdering the man. In poems “Memphis Blues” and “Ma Rainey,” he celebrates the strength and stoicism of the African American people. Brown looked humorously at race relations in other poems, particularly in a series featuring the character Slim Greer. In the poem “Slim in Atlanta,” the protagonist discovers that blacks are forbidden to laugh in public, and are lining up to laugh in the security of a telephone booth. Slim finds the situation so absurd that he jumps to the front of the line, seizes the telephone booth, and proceeds to laugh for four hours, much to the dismay of the three hundred blacks in line. Brown's later collection, The Last Ride of Wild Bill, focuses on tales of black heroism. In the title poem, Wild Bill defiantly battles a corrupt chief of police who is out to eliminate Bill's numbers business. Although Wild Bill eventually loses to the lawman, he is viewed as an enduring and courageous figure who refuses to be pushed around by the white man.

Critical Reception

Southern Road was a critical success, prompting James Weldon Johnson to change his mind about dialect poetry. Johnson, who had previously said that dialect verse could only depict humor and pathos, now saw a greater depth with Brown's poetry, which he praised in the introduction to Southern Road. Although critics often cite Brown as one of the most neglected poets of the twentieth century, they have also undertaken to correct that notion. In recent years several critical studies of Brown's poetry and career have appeared, and many critics note that he has now received the attention he lacked in his lifetime. Several commentators have praised his work as important to the development of African American poetry and perceive Brown to be a seminal figure in African American letters.

Principal Works

Southern Road 1932

The Last Ride of Wild Bill and Eleven Narrative Poems 1975

*The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown 1980

Outline for the Study of the Poetry of American Negroes (criticism) 1931

The Negro in American Fiction (criticism) 1937

Negro Poetry and Drama (criticism) 1938

A Son's Return: Selected Essays of Sterling A. Brown (essays) 1996

*This work includes many of the poems in Brown's unpublished No Hiding Place.

Criticism

E. Clay (essay date June 1934)

SOURCE: Clay, E. “Sterling Brown: American Peoples' Poet.” International Literature 8, no. 2 (June 1934): 117-22.

[In the following essay, Clay assesses Brown's contribution to African American poetry.]

Somewhere a long time ago, I ran across this apt couplet in an old poem, “The Singer:”

Thus in his manhood, clean, superb and strong
To him was born the priceless gift of song.

That fits Sterling Brown exactly: Brown is a singer, a rhapsodos, a singer of his people. The Greek rhapsodos was a reciter of the epic also. Epic poetry is usually great poetry and requires mighty subject matter. There is vast, unmined material for epic poetry in the Negro race and one hopes fervently that Sterling Brown will fulfill the fine echoed prophecy of Stephen Vincent Benet in his John Brown's Body:

Oh, blackskinned epic, epic with the black spear
I cannot sing you, having too white a heart
And yet some day a poet will rise to sing you
And sing you with such truth and mellowness. …

Yes, that is the kind of poet Brown is, a poet who, we hope, is conscious that his is at last the task of singing the Negro as he is and not as he has been written about or sung. And the fecundity with which he endows his explicit characterizations ensures his poetry a well placed niche in the American poetic scene.

Sterling Brown has never written for any special group, black or white. He has no pandering, truculent desire to appeal to the genteel diversion and tradition. That is his real value. He has created new values, or rather transvalued old dog-eared ones. In his indigenous, of-the-earth poetry, there is never any lachrymose piddling. The darts he sends find their destination almost anywhere:

They cooped you in their kitchens,
They penned you in their factories,
They gave you the jobs they were too good for
They tried to guarantee happiness to themselves
By shunting dirt and misery to you.

There are others writing poetry similar to this, but as will be shown, Brown's poetry has somehow struck a newer note in Negro poetry. We have been waiting for this note a long time—a divergence of our racial stream performed by a poet who has his gaze riveted upon the social panorama—a poet whose social sensitivity enables him to draw in his poetry those psychologic, historic and sociologic ideologies so peculiar to American Negro life. He has tried to see his Negro life whole and this in itself is significant. He has sterilized Negro art forms and purged them of their decadent white-washed effusions. He has returned to the dialect form—for much the same reasons as Synge and McKay—and he uses it with a truly novel effect.

There had to arise some day a poet who would be conscious of the social maladjustments of the Negro scene, who could drink in the kaleidoscope of rich and varied living with thirsty attention. Toomer has enriched our poetic vaults with his unforgettable characterizations of Southern life as he saw it. But here we have a poet who has given us the cross-section, country and city, North, South, East and West. None are missing from his canvas, Big Boy, Jack Johnson, Sporting Beasley, Slim Greer, dicties, dudes, Bessie “gaunt of flesh and painted,” Ma Rainy, Harlem street-walkers, John Henry, Jewish cabaret owners, convicts, Hardrock Gene, Mississippi and Father Missouri “children,” Hambone, the whole gamut is on his page.

To be worthwhile today, an artist must have his roots in the social soil, he must have something new. And Brown's poetry startles us because we see in it a razing of washed-out nostrums into fresh components, a creation of new social values into the alembic of social reality. His poetry makes for discovery because it is socially significant, because his poetic gaze is fixed upon that part of humanity who feel, suffer and produce. He does not romanticize or idealize those he portrays. These people are real to him:

These folks knew then the hints of fear
For all their loafings on the levee
Unperturbably spendthrifts of time.

(“Children of the Mississippi”1)

He does have faith in them and the humanity they typify. He is glad they can laugh and sing even if

They bought off some of your leaders
You stumbled as blind men will. …
They coaxed you, unwontedly, soft voiced
You followed a way
Then laughed as usual
They heard the laugh and wondered
Uncomfortable
Unadmitting a deeper terror

(“Strong Men”)

Do any escape this fear? Not many, for Brown writes of them all with amazing fidelity, of Long Gone who

Aint never caught you wrong,
But it jes aint nachal
Fo' to stay here long

of Big Boy who

Done shocked de co'n in Marylan'
In Georgia done cut cane
Done planted rice in South Caline

of Maumee Sal, Maumee Ruth, elders, deacons, of handsome Daniel who became a pimp, of Lulu and Jim who “found religion in a chubby baby boy,” of Georgie Grimes who murdered his woman, of wise old men and women, of those who must abide by the uncontrollable Father Missouri and Ole Man Mississippi, of those who are victims of destructive tornadoes, and of those unfortunate children who do not know what is to be their lot in a capitalistic society:

They have forgotten
What had to be endured

He portrays with equal warmth the lot of the sharecroppers who

Buy one rusty mule
We stays in debt
Until we're dead.

He knows well the problems of debt slavery, economic injustice, trials by prejudice, wage slavery, discrimination, segregation, slums, peonage, starvation and he scalpels them all with broad swathes.

Sterling Brown is a product of the Negro upper middle class. This bourgeois heritage has not deterred him in laying bare the surface superfluities of Negro “society.” His environment has been the parsonage of educated parents, Williams College, Harvard and university teaching. He has been able to pierce through the...

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Sterling Stuckey (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: Stuckey, Sterling. Introduction to The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown, selected by Michael S. Harper, pp. 3-15. New York: Harper & Row, 1980.

[In the following essay, which was originally published in 1974, Stuckey considers the critical reaction to Brown's poetry.]

Unlike the others, the poet had not introduced himself. He had simply said, “Ma Rainey,” and continued in a way that indicated an unusual affinity between author and poem, between voice and word. It seemed the most natural and impressive delivery I had ever heard:

I talked to a fellow, an' the fellow say,
“She jes' catch hold of us, some kindaway.
She sang Backwater...

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Clyde Taylor (essay date March-April 1981)

SOURCE: Taylor, Clyde. “The Human Image in Sterling Brown's Poetry.” The Black Scholar 12, no. 2 (March-April 1981): 13-20.

[In the following essay, Taylor offers an appreciation of Brown's work, contending that the poet's significance “is that he planted foundations beneath modern black verse, and in so doing, provided the core of identity of imaginative Afro-American writing.”]

          So if we go down
          Have to go down
We go like you, brother,
          ‘Nachal’ men. …

—“Strange Legacies”

The failure to recognize the central place of Sterling Brown as one of its most necessary innovators is an...

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Vera M. Kutzinski (essay date spring 1982)

SOURCE: Kutzinski, Vera M. “The Distant Closeness of Dancing Doubles: Sterling Brown and William Carlos Williams.” Black American Literature Forum 16, no. 1 (spring 1982): 19-25.

[In the following essay, Kutzinski compares Southern Road and William Carlos Williams's Paterson in order to derive insights into the definition of American poetry.]

I call to the mysterious one who yet
Shall walk the wet sands by the edge of the stream
And look most like me, being indeed my double,
And prove of all imaginable things
The most unlike, being my anti-self,
And, standing by these characters, disclose
All that I seek. …

—W. B. Yeats, “Ego...

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John F. Callahan (essay date 20 December 1982)

SOURCE: Callahan, John F. “In the Afro-American Grain.” The New Republic 187, no. 24 (December 20, 1982): 25-8.

[In the following essay, Callahan asserts that Brown's emphasis on African American oral tradition and dialect is central to his poetic achievement.]

On May 1, 1901—the same year W. E. B. DuBois wrote his prophetic line: “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line”—Sterling Brown was born in a house then near and now part of the Howard University campus. His father was Sterling Nelson Brown, minister of Lincoln Temple Congregational Church, professor of religion at Howard, and for a time member of the District of...

(The entire section is 3153 words.)

John S. Wright (essay date spring 1989)

SOURCE: Wright, John S. “The New Negro Poet and the Nachal Man: Sterling Brown's Folk Odyssey.” Black American Literature Forum 23, no. 1 (spring 1989): 95-105.

[In the following essay, Wright explores the impact of African American folklore on Brown's career and finds him uniquely qualified to provide an understanding of the work of Walter “Leadbelly” Boyd, the infamous African American Depression-era blues singer.]

In 1936, the year Sterling Brown and John Lomax joined forces supervising the collection of oral slave narratives for the Federal Writers' Project (see Mangione 257-63), Lomax and his son Alan published the first extended study of an American...

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Gary Smith (essay date June 1989)

SOURCE: Smith, Gary. “The Literary Ballads of Sterling A. Brown.” CLA Journal 32, no. 4 (June 1989): pp. 393-409.

[In the following essay, Smith discusses the “complexity of Brown's artistic vision” and views the poet's major achievement as the restoration and recreation of African American folk literature.]

Sterling Brown, more reflective, a closer student of folk-life, and above all a bolder and more detached observer, has gone deeper still, and has found certain basic, more sober and more persistent qualities of Negro thought and feeling; and so has reached a sort of common denominator between the old and the new Negro. Underneath the...

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Stephen E. Henderson (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Henderson, Stephen E. “Sterling Brown: 1901-1989.” In African American Writers, edited by Lea Baechler and A. Walton Litz, pp. 45-55. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1991.

[In the following essay, Henderson offers an overview of Brown's life and career.]

Sterling Allen Brown, a pioneering and gifted poet, a seminal scholar, a brilliant critic, a master teacher, and mentor to hundreds, is generally acknowledged as the dean of African American literature. He was born in Washington, D.C., on 1 May 1901, the youngest of the six children (and the only son) of Rev. Sterling Nelson Brown, minister of Lincoln Temple Congregational Church and professor of...

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Angela E. Chamblee (essay date March 1993)

SOURCE: Chamblee, Angela E. “Slim's Heaven and Hell.” CLA Journal 36, no. 3 (March 1993): 339-42.

[In the following essay, Chamblee elucidates Brown's conception of Heaven and Hell in his poem “Slim in Hell.”]

There are many definitions of the word heaven. Heaven can be the repository of the ideals of all that is good in life. Heaven can be the stars in the sky. There can be heaven on earth, and the kingdom of heaven can be within.

Hell too can be on earth, and Hell can be in one's mind. In Sterling Brown's poem “Slim in Hell,” Heaven is not a solemn, ethereal place, nor is Hell exclusively an abode of torture and pain. Both Heaven...

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Mark A. Sanders (essay date December 1994)

SOURCE: Sanders, Mark A. “The Ballad, the Hero, and the Ride: A Reading of Sterling A. Brown's The Last Ride of Wild Bill.CLA Journal 38, no. 2 (December 1994): 162-82.

[In the following essay, Sanders perceives The Last Ride of Wild Bill as a collection of ballads that focus on the fundamental nature of heroism.]

In 1975 one of the most aggressive proponents of the Black Arts Movement (BAM), Broadside Press, published The Last Ride of Wild Bill and Eleven Narrative Poems, Sterling A. Brown's final collection. As he points out in his preface, Dudley Randall had been requesting, for some time, permission from Brown to reissue much of his...

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Michael Tomasek Manson (essay date spring 1996)

SOURCE: Manson, Michael Tomasek. “Sterling Brown and the ‘Vestiges’ of the Blues: The Role of Race in English Verse Structure.” MELUS 21, no. 1 (spring 1996): 21-40.

[In the following essay, Manson analyzes the verse structure of Brown's “Challenge” and explores the role of race in the poem.]

Although poets continue to discuss the significance of particular poetic forms or verse schemes, literary critics less frequently examine the constitutive nature of such structures.1 We usually comment on large structures like the sonnet or small ones like metrical variations only in order to drive home a point that originated elsewhere, in some other...

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John Edgar Tidwell (essay date autumn 1997)

SOURCE: Tidwell, John Edgar. “Two Writers Sharing: Sterling A. Brown, Robert Frost, and ‘In Divés' Dive.’” African American Review 31, no. 3 (autumn 1997): 399-408.

[In the following essay, Tidwell considers the influence of Robert Frost's “In Divés' Dive” on Brown's verse.]

It is late at night and still I am losing,
But still I am steady and unaccusing.
As long as the Declaration guards
My right to be equal in number of cards,
It is nothing to me who runs the Dive.
Let's have a look at another five.

(Robert Frost, “In Divés' Dive”)

In the recent proliferation of conference papers,...

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Lorenzo Thomas (essay date autumn 1997)

SOURCE: Thomas, Lorenzo. “Authenticity and Elevation: Sterling Brown's Theory of the Blues.” African American Review 31, no. 3 (autumn 1997): 409-16.

[In the following essay, Thomas discusses Brown's incorporation of the blues tradition in his poetry, maintaining that he was able to “identify the authentic poetic voice of black America.”]

Every poet must confront a serious problem: how to reconcile one's private preoccupations with the need to make poetry that is both accessible and useful to others. A failure in this area does not, of course, prevent the production of poems. Indeed, some poems—like many of T. S. Eliot's—may be records of this struggle,...

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Charles H. Rowell (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Rowell, Charles H. “Sterling A. Brown and the Afro-American Folk Tradition.” In Harlem Renaissance Re-examined: A Revised and Expanded Edition, edited by Victor A. Kramer and Robert A. Russ, pp. 333-53. Troy, N.Y.: The Whitson Publishing Company, 1997.

[In the following essay, Rowell explores how Brown's studies of African American folk traditions and culture impacted his poetic work.]

One of the concerted efforts of the “New Negro” writers of the Twenties and Thirties was the attempt to reinterpret black life in America and thereby provide a more accurate, more objective, representation of black people than that popularized in the reactionary and...

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Edward Hirsch (essay date March-April 1999)

SOURCE: Hirsch, Edward. “Reverberations of a Work Song.” The American Poetry Review 28, no. 2 (March-April 1999): 43-7.

[In the following essay, Hirsch asserts that Brown “turned to folk forms like the blues, spirituals, and work songs to create an accurate, unsentimentalized, and dignified portrait of southern black life in the twentieth century.”]

In 1980 I was energized by the publication of Sterling Brown's Collected Poems, which brought together three important books of poems: Southern Road (1932), one of the key books of American and perhaps the key book of African American poetry in the 1930s; The Last Ride of Wild Bill (1975), a...

(The entire section is 4685 words.)

Elizabeth Davey (essay date summer 1999)

SOURCE: Davey, Elizabeth. “The Souths of Sterling A. Brown.” Southern Cultures 5, no. 2 (summer 1999): 20-45.

[In the following essay, Davey applauds Brown's attempts to present a fuller portrait of the African American experience in the South.]

It is evident that Negro folk culture is breaking up. Where Negro met only with Negro in the black belt the old beliefs strengthened. But when mud traps give way to gravel roads, and black tops and even concrete highways with buses and jalopies and trucks lumbering over them, the world comes closer. The churches and the schools, such as they are, struggle against some of the results of isolation, and the radio plays a part....

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Joanne V. Gabbin (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Gabbin, Joanne V. “The Poetry of Sterling A. Brown: A Study in Form and Meaning.” In African American Literary Criticism, 1773 to 2000, edited by Hazel Arnett Ervin, pp. 247-58. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1999.

[In the following essay, Gabbin assesses the influence of blues, spirituals, and work songs on Brown's poetry.]

With the same literary perspective used in recreating folk subjects and themes, [Sterling] Brown adopted the language and form of Black folklore. In his poetry the language of Black folk—the dialect, the idioms, the imagery, the style—retains its richness and verve. Likewise, the spirituals, blues, ballads, work songs, tall tales, and...

(The entire section is 4971 words.)