Melvin B. Tolson Biography


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Melvin Beaunorus Tolson was born on February 6, 1898, to the Reverend Alonzo Tolson and Lera Tolson. Tolson’s father was, as his grandfather had been, a minister in the Methodist Episcopal Church. His father, who was fond of discussing Western philosophy during fishing trips, expected Tolson to follow him into the ministry and was disappointed when his son chose a different vocation. Tolson’s mother was part Cherokee Indian by heritage and her father had been killed for resisting enslavement. Thanks to a family friend, Mrs. George Markwell, a white woman who made her library available to the precocious youth, Tolson had the early benefit of knowledge and learning in his immediate surroundings. The family moved from Missouri to Oklahoma, and then to Iowa, but wherever he went, Tolson was a popular classmate. In high school, he captained the football team, participated in debating contests, and directed plays for the school’s theater.

In 1919, Tolson entered Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. He later transferred to Lincoln University, the nation’s oldest historically black college, in Oxford, Pennsylvania. In 1923, his senior year, he met the woman he would marry, Ruth Southall. After his graduation, they wed and moved to Marshall, Texas, where Tolson had secured his first teaching post, at Wiley College.

Although he continued writing plays, fiction, and poetry at Wiley, it was as the debating team coach that Tolson’s name...

(The entire section is 520 words.)


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Melvin Beaunorus Tolson was a paradox; he was both a populist and an academic, a folk poet and a modernist. He was heavily influenced by the poets of the Harlem Renaissance, but he filtered its influence through a conscious adoption and adaptation of modernist techniques. The resulting poetry has become a Rorschach test for generations of literary critics.

Tolson grew up in small towns in Missouri and Iowa, the son of a “circuit riding” Methodist minister. He graduated from high school in Kansas City, Missouri, and in 1918 entered Fisk University in Nashville. After his first year at Fisk, he transferred to Lincoln University (another traditionally black college) near Philadelphia. In 1922, while still attending Lincoln, he married Ruth Southall. They had four children by 1928.

Tolson graduated from Lincoln in 1923. The next year he accepted an appointment as instructor in English and speech at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas. He would spend the rest of his life as a full-time teacher at small black colleges: first at Wiley, then, from 1947 to his retirement in 1965, at Langston University in Langston, Oklahoma, with an appointment in English and drama. By all accounts he was a gifted and well-respected teacher and administrator. He coached the Wiley College debating team to national prominence. Between 1937 and 1944 he wrote an opinion column for the Washington Tribune. He produced, directed, and wrote plays, and he directed theater companies in both Marshall and Langston. Tolson also ran for mayor of Langston and was elected to several terms. He had a full, engaged life in the black community. At the same time, as an artist, he lived in isolation. He was never part of an artists’ community, and his writing time had to be stolen from his full-time work as a teacher and administrator.

That artistic isolation was relieved briefly in the 1931-1932 academic year, when he lived in New York...

(The entire section is 792 words.)