Countée Porter Biography


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

ph_0111226219-Cullen.jpg Countée Cullen Published by Salem Press, Inc.

The early life of Countée Cullen is shrouded in mystery. His birthplace was probably Louisville, Kentucky, but New York City and Baltimore have also been suggested. He may have been raised by his paternal grandmother, but at age fifteen, he was adopted by the Reverend and Mrs. F. A Cullen, though the adoption may never have been made official. Reverend Cullen was minister of Salem Methodist Episcopalian Church, a large congregation in Harlem, New York.

Cullen attended DeWitt Clinton High School in New York City, a school famous for its excellence. In 1922, he entered New York University. In 1925, he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, won first prize in the Witter Bynner Poetry Contest, published Color (an impressive volume of poems), and entered Harvard University. In 1926, he completed a Master of Arts degree at Harvard and accepted a position as assistant editor at Opportunity, a magazine for which he wrote a regular poetry column.

Some critics argue that Cullen’s later works did not fulfill the promise of his early writings, but he published widely and regularly: Copper Sun (1927); The Ballad of the Brown Girl: An Old Ballad Retold (1927); Caroling Dusk (1927); The Black Christ, and Other Poems (1929); One Way to Heaven (1932); The Medea, and Some Poems (1935); The Lost Zoo (A Rhyme for the Young, but Not Too Young) (1940); My Lives and How I Lost Them (1942).

In 1934, he accepted a teaching position at Frederick Douglass Junior High School in New York City, where he taught primarily African American children, including James Baldwin, who himself became a well-known writer two decades later.

Like his early life, Cullen’s personal life was mysterious. In 1928, he married Yolande Du Bois, the daughter of distinguished intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois, but soon after the marriage he traveled to France without his wife. The couple divorced in 1930. Some scholars suggest that Cullen may have had a homosexual relationship with fellow writer Harold Jackman, but no substantiation of this observation exists. In 1940, Cullen married Ida Mae Roberson. In 1946, he died of uremic poisoning.


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Countée Cullen was born Countée LeRoy Porter, although scholars remain uncertain as to the place of his birth. He was raised by Elizabeth Porter, who is thought to be his grandmother and who brought him to Harlem. When Porter died in 1918, Cullen was adopted by the Reverend and Mrs. Frederick A. Cullen; the Reverend Cullen was minister of the Salem Methodist Episcopal Church of Harlem. The years spent with the Cullens in the Methodist parsonage made a lasting impression on the young poet; although he experienced periods of intense self-questioning, Cullen appears never to have discarded his belief in Christianity.

During his undergraduate years at New York University, the young poet became heavily involved with figures of the Harlem Renaissance; among these Harlem literati were Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Carl Van Vechten (a white writer who treated black themes), and Wallace Thurman. After the appearance of Color in 1925 and the receipt of his Harvard M.A. in June, 1926, Cullen assumed the position of literary editor of Opportunity. At the end of October, 1926, he wrote one of the most important of his “Dark Tower” essays about the appearance of that great treasure of the Harlem Renaissance, the short-lived but first black literary and art quarterly Fire (issued only once). He contributed one of his best poems, “From the Dark Tower,” to Fire. About the solitary issue, Cullen wrote that it held great...

(The entire section is 517 words.)


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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

Countée Porter Cullen has been called the poet laureate of the Harlem Renaissance. Born in New York City, Cullen was reared in the parsonage of Salem Methodist Episcopal Church in the middle of Harlem, where his father, the Reverend Frederick Cullen, was the pastor and an influential personality in the social, political, and cultural life of New York City. After his graduation from DeWitt Clinton High School in New York, Cullen entered New York University, from which he graduated in 1923 with a bachelor’s degree and a Phi Beta Kappa key. In the fall of that year he entered Harvard University and studied for a master’s degree in English with the renowned educator and author George Lyman Kittredge. For most of the rest of his life, Cullen lived in New York City.

Harlem during the 1920’s was a vital cultural center. Community theater groups, weekly newspapers with a national circulation, and “racial uplift” associations flourished. Journals such as The Crisis, the house organ of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), showcased the work of young writers whose names soon became household words among black, and some white, Americans.

Cullen benefited from the “New Negro” movement and from the preferred position his excellent education gave him. His developing talent as a poet justified the interest in his work. When he was in high school, Cullen had won a citywide poetry contest with his poem “I Have a Rendezvous with Life.” His first poem published in The Crisis also appeared while he was in high school. His first poem to be published in a white publication was “To a Black Boy” in Bookman. By the time he had been awarded his bachelor’s degree, Cullen had published poems in Century, Harper’s Magazine, The American Mercury, The Nation, Poetry Magazine, Vanity Fair, and Palms. In 1925, his senior year at New York University, Cullen was awarded first prize in the Intercollegiate Poetry Contest sponsored by the Poetry Society of America as well as the John Reed Memorial Prize offered by Poetry Magazine. Also that year, Color, Cullen’s first book of poems, was...

(The entire section is 920 words.)