William Braithwaite Essay - Critical Essays

Braithwaite, William


William Braithwaite 1878-1962

American poet, critic, and editor.

The following entry presents criticism from 1918 to 2001 on Braithwaite's life and works.

A minor African American poet who believed poetry should express universal concerns rather than race-based experience, Braithwaite is known less for his own verse than for his tireless promotion of American poetry in his annual Anthology of Magazine Verse, which he edited from 1913 through 1929.

Biographical Information

Braithwaite, the second of five children, was born in Boston on December 6, 1878, to William Smith Braithwaite, whose ancestors included a French nobleman and a British diplomat, and Emma de Wolfe, descended from American slaves. The elder Braithwaite was born in Demerara, Georgetown, British Guiana, where he attended Queen's College and went on to study medicine in London. He left before completing his studies and emigrated to Boston. Although the family was prosperous, the death of Braithwaite's father left the family heavily in debt, eventually forcing Braithwaite to leave school at the age of twelve. He found work as an apprentice typesetter in order to help support his family and according to his autobiography, discovered the poetry of Keats while typesetting a book of verse. He similarly discovered the work of Wordsworth and Burns and was soon determined to make poetry his life's work. He began reviewing poems for The Boston Journal and The Boston Evening Transcript, as well as composing his own verse, producing his first collection in 1904. His poems and criticism appeared in a wide variety of periodicals, including New Republic, Bookman, Atlantic Monthly, and Scribner's Magazine. In 1903, Braithwaite married Emma Kelly of Virginia; they had seven children, four sons and three daughters. He began publishing literature anthologies and in 1913 produced the first of his annual anthologies of magazine verse. In 1918, he made his first visit to the South—considered an essential pilgrimage for Northern blacks and one that would inevitably intensify racial awareness—to deliver the commencement address at Atlanta University and to receive an honorary degree. That same year he was awarded the Spingarn Medal. In 1922, he established, along with Winifred Virginia Jackson, his own publishing company, B. J. Brimmer Company, which took over the publication of his annual anthologies. The 1929 stock market crash brought an end to both the publishing firm and the anthologies. Braithwaite embarked on a lecture tour of colleges, including Atlanta University, whose president, John Hope, urged Braithwaite to join the university's faculty. Reluctant at first, but with no other means of support and besieged by creditors, he eventually accepted a position teaching English and creative writing. He retired from that post in 1945 and moved to Harlem where he spent the rest of his life. He died on June 8, 1962, after a brief illness.

Major Works

Braithwaite produced three collections of poetry: Lyrics of Life and Love (1904), containing his early work, inspired for the most part by the lyrics of Keats and Shelley; The House of Falling Leaves (1908), in which he revealed an increasing mastery of form, particularly the sonnet; and Selected Poems (1948), containing many of his later works. None of his poetry revealed a trace of his African American racial identity or an awareness of racial issues, for which he was often criticized. He attempted in his verse to convey universal truths that transcended racial divisions, devotion to beauty, and particularly in his later work, an element of mysticism.

Braithwaite's career as a poet was eclipsed by his work as an editor and publisher. He is best known for his annual Anthology of Magazine Verse, published from 1913 to 1929, in which he reprinted the poems of such notable American literary figures as Robert Frost, Edward Arlington Robinson, Amy Lowell, and Wallace Stevens. Through the publication of these volumes, Braithwaite was credited with encouraging the efforts of countless American poets and with revitalizing the rather dismal American literary scene in the early years of the twentieth century. In addition, Braithwaite published several anthologies of British literature, among them The Book of Elizabethan Verse (1908), The Book of Georgian Verse (1909), The Book of Restoration Verse (1910), and The Book of Modern British Verse (1919).

Critical Reception

In his own time, Braithwaite's poetry was often praised for its adherence to the conventions of Romanticism. Benjamin Brawley (1918), among others, suggested that Keats and Shelley had provided the models for the poetry contained in Braithwaite's first collection, Lyrics of Life and Love. As Romanticism gave way to the more innovative poetry associated with Modernism, though, Braithwaite's devotion to earlier forms worked against him. He was considered resistant, even hostile, to the newer work. In addition, his failure to deal with racial issues in his poetry led many of his fellow poets to question his commitment to challenging racism and discrimination in America.

Most critics were less concerned with Braithwaite the poet than with Braithwaite the editor, the promoter of American poetry, and the arbiter of literary taste. His work as a critic won high praise from both W. E. B. DuBois and William Dean Howells. Conrad Aiken (1919), on the other hand, was one of the most outspoken critics of Braithwaite's critical perspective, complaining that he harbored a “somewhat quaint notion of the holiness of poetry,” and preferred the type of verse that was either “sweetly ecstatic or appears to be barely concealing a sob.” For Aiken, poetry should be subjected to rigorous critical analysis rather than the vague and indiscriminate praise he found in Braithwaite's reviews. Craig S. Abbott (1994) considers Braithwaite “pre-modern” and contends that his annual anthologies had by 1920 become “primarily a continuing assertion of the qualities against which Modernism was defining itself.” To the dismay of his fellow African Americans, Braithwaite was also opposed to much of the racially conscious poetry associated with the Harlem Renaissance, believing that poetry should deal with universal concerns, not those confined to a particular group. After 1917, his critics became more and more vocal in their objections to his editorial and critical practices; they questioned “his abundance of praise, his lack of discrimination, his precariously lofty critical pronouncements, and his command of English,” reports Abbott. More recent scholars have been kinder, insisting that Braithwaite single-handedly rescued American poetry from the reading public's almost complete disregard and made it a significant cultural force. Lisa Szefel (2001), acknowledging that his peers considered Braithwaite too enamored of high culture aesthetics and too dismissive of racial issues, maintains nonetheless that “the vehemence with which modernists and Renaissance artists attacked him suggests the degree of Braithwaite's influence.” That influence was, according to most literary scholars, considerable—at least in the early years of his career as a poet and critic.

Principal Works

Lyrics of Life and Love (poetry) 1904

The House of Falling Leaves (poetry) 1908

Selected Poems (poetry) 1948

The Book of Elizabethan Verse [editor] (poetry) 1908

The Book of Georgian Verse [editor] (poetry) 1909

The Book of Restoration Verse [editor] (poetry) 1910

Anthology of Magazine Verse [editor] (poetry) 1913-1929

The Poetic Year for 1916: A Critical Anthology [editor] (poetry) 1917

The Golden Treasury of Magazine Verse [editor] (poetry) 1918

The Book of Modern British Verse [editor] (poetry) 1919

An Anthology of Massachusetts Poets [editor] (poetry) 1922

Our Lady's Choir: A Contemporary Anthology of Verse by Catholic Sisters [editor] (poetry) 1931


Benjamin Brawley (essay date 1918)

SOURCE: Brawley, Benjamin. “William Stanley Braithwaite.” In The Negro in Literature and Art in the United States, pp. 89-96. New York: Duffield & Company, 1930.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1918, Brawley praises Braithwaite's two collections of verse, Lyrics of Life and Love and The House of Falling Leaves.]

Prominent for some years, first as poet and then as critic, has been William Stanley Braithwaite, of Boston. The work of this author belongs not so much to Negro literature as to American literature in the large, and he has encouraged and inspired a host of other writers. With singleness of purpose he has given himself to books...

(The entire section is 1345 words.)

Conrad Aiken (essay date 1919)

SOURCE: Aiken, Conrad. “Poetry as Supernaturalism: William Stanley Braithwaite.” In Scepticisms: Notes on Contemporary Poetry, pp. 126-32. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1919.

[In the following essay, Aiken contends that Braithwaite's approach to poetry criticism is based on emotional considerations rather than analysis.]

The energy of Mr. Braithwaite is unflagging. Not content with bringing out annually the Anthology of Magazine Verse, he has lately entered upon another and even huger enterprise—“A Critical Anthology,” he calls it; and this, too, threatens to become a hardy perennial. In these four hundred pages, which for the greater part consist of his...

(The entire section is 1230 words.)

Philip Butcher (essay date spring 1971)

SOURCE: Butcher, Philip. “William Stanley Braithwaite's Southern Exposure: Rescue and Revelation.” The Southern Literary Journal 3, no. 2 (spring 1971): 49-61.

[In the following essay, Butcher discusses the Boston-born poet's experiences as lecturer and teacher in Atlanta and how those experiences influenced his work.]

Harlem's Countee Cullen, with three volumes of poetry and an anthology to his credit, could be sure the readers of his literary page shared the sentiments he expressed after a trip to what he regarded as a hostile region.

We journeyed late last month for the first time to the far South, passing with some slight...

(The entire section is 4652 words.)

Craig S. Abbott (essay date summer 1994)

SOURCE: Abbott, Craig S. “Magazine Verse and Modernism: Braithwaite's Anthologies.” Journal of Modern Literature 19, no. 1 (summer 1994): 151-9.

[In the following essay, Abbott examines Braithwaite's annual poetry anthologies, maintaining that Braithwaite's critical perspective made him unsympathetic to many of the poets of High Modernism and of the Harlem Renaissance.]

William Stanley Braithwaite (1878-1962) has been credited with “bullying and cajoling American readers into accepting modern and unconventional writings,” largely through the annual collections of magazine verse which he edited from 1913 through 1929.1 Yet that was neither his...

(The entire section is 5097 words.)

Lisa Szefel (essay date March 2001)

SOURCE: Szefel, Lisa. “Encouraging Verse: William S. Braithwaite and the Poetics of Race.” The New England Quarterly 74, no. 1 (March 2001): 32-61.

[In the following essay, Szefel discusses Braithwaite's role in revitalizing American poetry in the early years of the twentieth century.]

By the first years of the twentieth century, America boasted international leadership in industry, finance, and corporate organization. The country could not, however, brag about its literary prowess. In the decades following the Civil War, no poet arose to rival Whitman, nor did any endowments, prizes, or professional forums exist to promote verse. Magazines sometimes printed poems...

(The entire section is 10288 words.)

Further Reading


Barton, Rebecca Chalmers. “Introduction to a fragment of The House under Arcturus by William Stanley Braithwaite.” In Witnesses for Freedom: Negro Americans in Autobiography, edited by Rebecca Chalmers Barton, pp. 93-100. Oakdale, N.Y.: Dowling College Press, 1976.

Discusses Braithwaite's autobiography covering his first twenty-one years of life.

Butcher, Philip. “William Stanley Braithwaite and the College Language Association.” CLA Journal 15, no. 2 (December 1971): 117-25.

Discusses Braithwaite's refusal in 1938 to join the organization that would later become the College Language...

(The entire section is 351 words.)