Sterling A(llen) Brown 1901–
Black American poet, essayist, and critic.
Brown is an important figure of the Black Renaissance. His poetic reputation rests largely on two collections, Southern Road and The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown, published in 1932 and 1980, respectively. For his themes and style, Brown draws upon the black folk tradition: he weaves elements of ballads, folk songs, spirituals, work songs, and the blues into narrative poems which relate the black man's struggle to endure with humor and grace. A member of the English faculty at Howard University since 1929, Brown has played a significant role in black literary criticism as a teacher, editor, and reviewer.
(See also CLC, Vol. 1 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88.)
[Sterling A. Brown] has been instrumental in bringing about the more propitious era in which the Negro artist now finds himself, and in doing that he has achieved a place in the list of young American poets. Mr. Brown's work is not only fine, it is also unique. He began writing just after the Negro poets had generally discarded conventionalized dialect, with its minstrel traditions of Negro life (traditions that had but slight relation, often no relation at all, to actual Negro life) with its artificial and false sentiment, its exaggerated geniality and optimism. He infused his poetry with genuine characteristic flavor by adopting as his medium the common, racy, living speech of the Negro in certain phases of real life. For his raw material he dug down into the deep mine of Negro folk poetry. He found the unfailing sources from which sprang the Negro folk epics and ballads such as "Stagolee," "John Henry," "Casey Jones," "Long Gone John" and others. (p. xxxvi)
[But he] has made more than mere transcriptions of folk poetry, and he has done more than bring to it mere artistry; he has deepened its meanings and multiplied its implications. He has actually absorbed the spirit of his material, made it his own; and without diluting its primitive frankness and raciness, truly re-expressed it with artistry and magnified power. In a word, he has taken this raw material and worked it into original and authentic poetry. In such poems...
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WILLIAM ROSE BENÉT
Brown is of the "Younger Group" of negro writers. I myself think his work [in Southern Road] has distinctly more originality and power than that of Countée Cullen, and more range than that of Langston Hughes….
The fact that Brown is so good a narrative poet has inclined me toward him because of my particular interest in narrative verse. When he handles dialect he does so with precision and great effectiveness. A prime example of this is the colloquy between "Old Man Buzzard" and young Fred. Brown can also command real pathos and grimness. His Sam Smiley, the buck dancer, was taught by the whites in the Great War to rip up bellies with a bayonet. When he came back from the war and found that a rich white man had ruined his girl, he retaliated by killing him. But the poem ends in no breakdown into sentimentality….
"Strong Men," with its text from a poem of Carl Sandburg's, is powerfully racial; "Memphis Blues," on the second section, with its vision of Memphis on fire, has a stirring rhythm; "Children of the Mississippi" holds all the menace of the river floods. The poet can strike out original simile, as in "Tornado Blues,"… and the three poems about Slim Greer relate humorous negro fables with inimitable unction….
Of the younger negro poets, I consider Sterling A. Brown to be the most versatile and the least derivative.
William Rose Benét, "Round about Parnassus," in The Saturday Review of Literature (copyright © 1932 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. VIII, No. 43, May 14, 1932, p. 732.∗
On every page [of Sterling Brown's "Southern Road"] there is "race," but it is "race" neither arrogant nor servile. There is pathos, infinite pathos; but everywhere there is dignity that respects itself. There is neither moaning nor sentimentalizing, but a frank facing of reality. Moreover, there is everywhere art; such a firm touch of artistry as is only seldom found among poets of whatever descent. Bitterness is not lacking; but it is the bitterness of all men, not merely of the Negro people, such bitterness as one will find voiced again and again from the earliest poetry of the Hebrews down to the present day….
Not a few of the many poems in this interesting and impressive collection are in dialect, but it is a carefully studied euphonic reproduction of pronunciations—there is no taint of music-hall convention. And there is also gayety here and there in the pages, albeit on the whole gayety restrained. Altogether, "Southern Road" is a book the importance of which is considerable. It not only indicates how far the Negro artist has progressed since the years when he began to find his voice, but it proves that the Negro artist is abundantly capable of making an original and genuine contribution to American literature. And that the poems are well worth reading for their own sake, without ulterior considerations, goes without saying. We sincerely hope that "Southern Road" receives wide welcome.
"A Notable New Book of Negro Poetry," in The New York Times (© 1932 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 15, 1932, p. 13.
Sterling Brown is the latest addition to a small group of authentic Negro poets. His best work [in Southern Road] is based upon whatever tradition the Negro folk song and the spiritual have to offer: vigorous, well defined rhythms that are most effective when read aloud. His "Odyssey of Big Boy," "Memphis Blues" and "Tin Roof Blues" are all good examples of his skill in reproducing the essential qualities of American Negro folk music—and, what is more, he has handled the usual Negro themes with honest originality. His work, however, suffers one serious handicap which arises from a liberal use of dialect spelling. This device, though it may be employed with the greatest sincerity and with an accurate ear, always seems artificial and "literary"; no doubt Mr. Brown has made his choice deliberately and is well aware of the limitations imposed by his medium. His lack of pretension and forthright use of realistic Negro material are admirable characteristics which will serve as a solid foundation for his future poetry and the work of others who follow him.
"Book Notes: 'Southern Road'," in The New Republic (© 1932 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. LXXI, No. 921, July 27, 1932, p. 297.
In a time when many Black people were equating a superficial respectability with real dignity, [Sterling Brown]—scholar, teacher, and poet—was demonstrating in his life and his work the profound dignity which the common man embodied in his everyday life—in his work, his struggles, his tragedies and his joys. He did it by making that life his own—by making his identification with the roots of the Black Experience in his deep and sensitive knowledge of Black folklore,—the proverbs, the dozens, the tales, the sermons, the spirituals and the blues. (p. 5)
It is this reordering of the Soul Experience of Black folks which is especially appealing about the work of Sterling Brown. It is this which makes him vital not only to this present time but to Black generations yet unborn…. (p. 6)
It is to Sterling Brown's eternal credit that he, with a handful of others, remained true to the Soul Wisdom of the race and transmitted it to generations of the young, as poet, as scholar, as consummate teacher. For those of us who were not privileged to study directly under him, there are his brilliant articles, his books, the reminiscences of his students and colleagues; but, above all, the archetypical figures of manhood with which he peopled his poems. (pp. 6-7)
[What] we call Soul is caught up and focused in [Brown]—in his robust humor, his sheer joy in living, his fair-mindedness. All of us can learn from him—especially the young who are to lead us. But his influence has already been great, sometimes direct, sometimes indirect and subtle, yet altogether pervasive enough to defy definition. He is, in a word, a Strong Man, who has enlarged our vision of ourselves. (p. 10)
Stephen E. Henderson, "A Strong Man Named Sterling Brown" (reprinted by permission of the author; copyright, 1970 by Stephen E. Henderson), in Black World, Vol. XIX, No. 11, September, 1970, pp. 5-12.
[Sterling A. Brown] realized that to express the souls of black folk, the artist has to divest himself of preconceived and false notions about black people, and create an art whose foundation is the ethos from which spring black life, history, culture and traditions. (p. 131)
[In an effort to build a self-conscious art upon folk-art, Brown] brought to Afro-American literature a quality that became one of its main currents: the ethos of black folk. (p. 132)
Early in his career as litterateur, he discovered that the representations of black peasants in most books were very different from the black peasants he had known and seen in Washington. Realizing that the images of black people...
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Brown's literary kingdom of Southern Road is real on two scores. It is real as art. Big Boy, the guitarist of the "saints," Frankie and Johnny, and a small host of others not named here, are vital creatures. They exist pleasurably and profitably merely as specters of the mind. But they exist also as significant and creditable transcriptions of historic reality. Thus Brown's Southern Road is real also as a repository of fact. His characters are real as America's folk Negroes were real, in the real times to which Sterling Brown attributed them; and hence they are real both as representatives of a valid New Negro-ness and as a criticism of American life. It is true, as noted earlier, that Brown began to piece together...
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As remarkable as many of the poems in [Southern Road] are, they can, like arresting but isolated portions of a vast canvas, be done full justice only when seen within the framework of the overall artistic conception. This is so because Sterling Brown, despite the impressive range of characterization and technique revealed in this volume, builds from a unified, integrated conception of reality. The happy effect of such architecture is that individual poems, however much they dazzle when read apart from others, gain new and deeper meaning, and a new resonance, when the entire volume is read.
Given the experiences of his people in America, it is especially worth noting that Brown has been able to...
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[As a college teacher, Sterling Brown] recalls that he learned as much about language from his students as they learned from him. He was fascinated by the talk and the songs of his students and their parents; they were intrigued by this lanky, athletic professor who took seriously the local lore. The students brought to class local champion singers and talkers…. Another brought Brown the first blues records he had ever heard.
Thus Brown began his collection of black folk songs and sayings. He realized that worksongs, ballads, blues, and spirituals were, at their best, poetical expressions of Afro-American life. And he became increasingly aware of black language as often ironic, understated and...
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Sterling Brown's poetry may profitably be studied, and his achievement precisely assessed, by implicating his work in the stylistics of the Afro-American culture in which it is saturated. There are, of course, aspects of the poetry which can properly be studied within other parameters…. But it is within the dimensions of Afro-American expressive culture that one may perceive most clearly the originality and subtlety of Brown's work.
Of the varied forms of Black expressive culture, music is indisputably the most dramatic, moving, and pervasive; and of the many forms which the music takes, the most typical, the most potently charged is the blues. At one end of the spectrum the blues are sensual...
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The practical lessons of poetic composition are widely displayed in [The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown], and though the content is moving, often focusing on characters locked in mortal struggle of life and limb in the name of those heroic values, dignity and equality and great sacrifice, Brown's consciousness and conscientiousness of craft and technique are experimental, innovative, and deepened in a wide body of formal undertakings in the nature and balance of the artistic act. His poems are made, born of vision and revision, as a sculptor chisels, and Brown does, or a painter paints; biography is not poetry, but poetry demands a life fully lived—the poem is the performance....
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[The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown] reveals Brown as a master and a presence indeed. Although he is not a lyricist of any distinction, and although his effective range is narrow, he is a first-rate narrative poet, an eloquent prophet of the folk, and certainly our finest author of Afro-American dialect. His bindlestiffs, criminals, ramblers, gamblers, and "bad niggers" grow out of an unself-consciously revolutionist folklore, which he is determined to make both explicit and heroic, and his characteristic note of protest may remind us that the bulk of his verse was composed during the 1930's. His anger, however, does not censor his ear, which is sensitive and hospitable, and he makes use of many other...
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[Most of the poems in Sterling Brown's "The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown" were composed in dialect and] had as their subjects distinctively black archetypal mythic characters as well as the black common man whose roots were rural and Southern. Mr. Brown called his poems "portraitures," close and vivid studies of a carefully delineated subject that suggested a strong sense of place.
These portraitures the poet renders in a style that emerged from several forms of folk discourse, a black vernacular that includes the blues and ballads, spirituals and worksongs. Indeed, Mr. Brown's ultimate referents are black music and mythology. His language, densely symbolic, ironical and naturally indirect,...
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Brown is a master humorist, balladeer, storyteller, sonneteer, folklorist, mythmaker, historian, dialectician, tragedian, satirist, sentimentalist, blues hound, caricaturist, and cartographer of cultural geography. His work is informed by great characters (in both senses of that term,) and it's his faith in the common man and woman, and not just in heroic figures like Nat Turner and John Henry and Ma Rainey, that comprises the heart of Brown's art. Indeed, it's his knack for fleshing out the extraordinary anecdote in the ordinary life, the brutally graceful phrase found in the most common vernacular, and the potential for artistic elegance inherent in folk forms that distinguishes Brown as a central American poet of...
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The verse of Sterling Brown does not stand up to comparison with the best of contemporary writing, including the best of contemporary Afro-American writing. The student of ethnic culture will, however, enjoy [The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown]. Brown is adept in his use of conventional verse forms, often drawing on the traditions of the blues, spirituals, and black folk-ballads. He displays an excellent ear for dialect, and unlike most literature in dialect, these poems are not written with the stereotypical attitudes about black people that one often finds. Brown used poetry not as an end in itself but as a vehicle for perpetuating the stories, legends, and songs of the Afro-American oral tradition. (p....
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Brown will not, in the long run, be forgotten, I believe. And this recognition of him, though coming late, is a good thing. What we have in [The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown] … is about 220 pages taken from books Brown published regularly during his long career. And the most striking attribute of almost all of this poetry is its evident derivation from a profound knowledge of Blues, Jazz, and Spirituals…. Black Artists have been listening and recreating their art out of this enormously powerful legacy of music and poetry through this whole century, long before it became fashionable to look for what are called "roots," as though so much of the history of families in this country were not one of...
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