Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

How do rhyme, meter, and stanzaic patterns reinforce the themes of Countée Cullen?

In “Heritage,” what problems does Cullen face as he tries to reconcile African heritage with African American identity?

What arguments exist for and against the claim that Cullen is a literary hero for African Americans?

In “Yet Do I Marvel,” how does Cullen present racial injustice as part of God’s orderly creation?

Why does John Keats earn the admiration of Cullen?

Why are some things about Cullen easy to explain, while other things remain a mystery?

Other literary forms

(Poets and Poetry in America)

ph_0111207625-Cullen.jpg Countée Cullen in Central Park, New York. Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Countée Cullen (KUH-lehn) wrote nearly as much prose as he did poetry. While serving from 1926 through most of 1928 as literary editor of Opportunity, a magazine vehicle for the National Urban League, Cullen wrote several articles, including book reviews, and a series of topical essays for a column called “The Dark Tower” about figures and events involved in the Harlem Renaissance. He also wrote many stories for children, most of which are collected in My Lives and How I Lost Them (1942), the “autobiography” of Cullen’s own pet, Christopher Cat, who had allegedly reached his ninth life. Earlier, in 1932, the poet had tried his hand at a novel, publishing it as One Way to Heaven (1932). In addition to articles, reviews, stories, and a novel, the poet translated or collaborated in the writing of four plays, one of them being a musical. In 1935, Cullen translated Euripides’ Medea for the volume by the same name; in 1942, Virgil Thomson set to music the seven verse choruses from Cullen’s translation. With Owen Dodson, Cullen wrote the one-act play The Third Fourth of July, which appeared posthumously in 1946. The musical was produced at the Martin Beck Theater on Broadway, where it ran for 113 performances; this production also introduced Pearl Bailey as the character Butterfly.


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Countée Cullen’s literary accomplishments were many. While he was a student at DeWitt Clinton High School, New York City, he published his first poems and made numerous and regular contributions to the high school literary magazine. From DeWitt, whose other distinguished graduates include Lionel Trilling and James Baldwin, Cullen went to New York University. There he distinguished himself by becoming a member of Phi Beta Kappa and in the same year, 1925, by publishing Color, his first collection of poems. In June, 1926, the poet took his second degree, an M.A. in English literature from Harvard University. In December, 1926, Color was awarded the first Harmon Gold Award for literature, which carried with it a cash award of five hundred dollars. Just before publication in 1927 of his second book, Copper Sun, Cullen received a Guggenheim Fellowship for a year’s study and writing in France. While in France, he worked on improving his French conversation by engaging a private tutor and his knowledge of French literature by enrolling in courses at the Sorbonne. Out of this experience came The Black Christ, and Other Poems. In 1944, the poet was offered the chair of creative literature at Nashville’s Fisk University, but he refused in order to continue his teaching at the Frederick Douglass Junior High in New York City.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Baker, Houston A., Jr. A Many-Colored Coat of Dreams: The Poetry of Countée Cullen. Detroit: Broadside Press, 1974. This brief and somewhat difficult volume examines Cullen’s poetry in the context of a black American literature that is published and criticized largely by a white literary establishment. Presents a new view of Cullen’s poetry by holding it up to the light of black literary standards.

Bronz, Stephen H. “Countée Cullen.” In Roots of Negro Racial Consciousness: The 1920’s, Three Harlem Renaissance Writers. New York: Libra, 1964. After a brief summary of Cullen’s early life, Bronz examines Cullen’s writings in chronological order. He is most interested in the poetry and in whether Cullen succeeds in creating characters who are interesting individuals rather than vague representatives of their race. His conclusion is that Cullen fails.

Ferguson, Blanche E. Countée Cullen and the Negro Renaissance. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1966. The only book-length study of Countée Cullen for many years, this volume is a highly fictionalized biography. In a pleasant and simple style, Ferguson walks readers through major events in Cullen’s life. Includes eight photographs, a brief bibliography, and an index.

Onyeberechi, Sydney. Critical Essays: Achebe, Baldwin, Cullen, Ngugi, and Tutuola. Hyattsville, Md.: Rising Star, 1999. A collection of Onyeberechi’s criticism and interpretation of the work of several African American authors. Includes bibliographic references.

Perry, Margaret. A Bio-Bibliography of Countée Cullen. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1971. After a brief biographical sketch, Perry offers a valuable bibliography of Cullen’s works and a sensitive reading of the poetry.

Schwarz, A. B. Christa. Gay Voices of the Harlem Renaissance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003. Schwarz examines the work of four leading writers from the Harlem Renaissance—Countée Cullen, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and Richard Bruce Nugent—and their sexually nonconformist or gay literary voices.

Tuttleton, James W. “Countée Cullen at ‘The Heights.’” In The Harlem Renaissance: Revaluations, edited by Amritjit Singh, William S. Shiver, and Stanley Brodwin. New York: Garland, 1989. Examines Cullen’s years at New York University and analyzes his senior honors thesis on Edna St. Vincent Millay. Tuttleton argues that this period was very important to Cullen’s emergence as a poet.