Melvin B. Tolson 1898–1966
(Full name Melvin Beaunorus Tolson) American poet, journalist, and dramatist.
The following entry presents an overview of Tolson's career.
Tolson's highly allusive poetry celebrates the African-American spirit. Although his work eventually received scholarly study and praise, Tolson spent much of his career in a no-man's-land between the world of the white literati and that of African-American audiences. Much of his work is devoted to the unusual position of the African-American artist and his attempt to make his work relevant to a diverse audience.
Tolson was born in Moberly, Missouri, in 1898. His father was a Methodist minister; the influence of the oral history of preaching is evident in Tolson's later poetry. Tolson's family moved from parish to parish in Missouri and Iowa during his childhood. Tolson demonstrated an early interest in poetry, publishing his first poem, "The Wreck of the Titanic," in an Iowa newspaper in 1912, and continued to write poetry throughout high school. He attended Lincoln University and graduated in 1923, then moved to Marshall, Texas, where he taught English at Wiley College. While at Wiley, Tolson directed a number of dramatic productions, coached the school's debate team to an impressive success record, and became known as a gifted raconteur and orator. Tolson received a Rockefeller fellowship which allowed him to pursue a master's degree in comparative literature at Columbia University in the early 1930s. During this time he lived in Harlem and mixed closely with the writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Tolson composed A Gallery of Harlem Portraits based on his time in Harlem, but was unable to find a publisher for the work; it was published post-humously in 1979, almost forty years later. After returning to Wiley, Tolson began writing a column for the Washington Tribune in addition to his teaching and extracurricular activities. The column was called Caviar and Cabbage, and in it he discussed a variety of social issues. The columns, which ran from 1937 to 1944, were collected and published as a book of the same title in 1982. In 1940 Tolson wrote "Dark Symphony" for a poetry contest sponsored by the American Negro Exposition in Chicago. He won first prize, and after the poem appeared in Atlantic Monthly, a publisher approached Tolson about putting together a collection which he titled Rendezvous with America (1944). In 1947 Tolson left Wiley for Langston University, where he worked as professor of creative literature. Tolson was named Poet Laureate of the Republic of Liberia, for which he wrote Libretto for the Republic of Liberia (1953). At this time he also served four terms as mayor of Langston, Oklahoma. In the 1960s, Tolson retired from Langston University and occupied a chair in humanities at Tuskegee Institute, teaching only one class. Tolson won the National Institute of Arts and Letters Award in 1966. He was working on the second volume of his projected five-volume work, Harlem Gallery (1965), when he died in 1966.
Tolson's A Gallery of Harlem Portraits represents a cross-section of Harlem life in all of its diversity. The poems in Gallery also address the class divisions created by economic disparity. Tolson believed that class was more of an issue than race in the problem of inequality, but his work retains the hope that racial equality is a possibility when economic equality is addressed. He often uses the rhythm and language of blues music in his poetry. In Gallery, Tolson uses blues lyrics to introduce his poetic portraits. In Rendezvous with America, Tolson continues to celebrate diversity, but expands his setting from Harlem to include the entire country. In it he uses a variety of poetic forms, including sonnets and free verse. Tolson wrote Libretto for the Republic of Liberia to commemorate that nation's centennial, taking as his topic the whole of African history. Harlem Gallery: Book I, The Curator studies the dichotomies that exist in man's social roles. The central character, the Curator, has trouble fitting into any accepted notion of identity. He is neither black nor white, poor nor rich. He inhabits two different worlds, trying to bring the art of "high" culture to the poverty-stricken streets of Harlem. Although the action is filtered through the consciousness of the Curator, it revolves around three artists: the painter, John Laugart; the composer, Mister Starks; and the poet, Hideho Heights. Each of these artists struggles with his inner self as expressed through his art and public reaction to it. Two of the artists die and the third's death seems imminent. The Curator is left shaken about the way art affects the African-American artist, but the work ends with a recognition that dichotomies are a part of life.
Tolson's work, especially his early work, has not received much critical attention. Tolson himself insisted that he began as a mediocre poet and that he learned and developed a better technique through the years. Dolphin G. Thompson asserts that "in addition to mastering poetical techniques, he has initiated a style of dramatically lifting the Negro experience to classical grace." Tolson's poetry is highly allusive, and can be difficult to comprehend for the average reader. Many critics point to the difficulty of Tolson's poetry as the reason his work has been critically neglected. Reviewers often cite Walt Whitman as one of Tolson's influences. The most striking example is Tolson's own "Song of Myself," from his Rendezvous with America, but reviewers also point to Whitmanesque qualities in Libretto for the Republic of Liberia. Dan McCall notes, "In the Libretto Whitman continues to be abundantly influential … in the enormous catalogues, the wry asides, the self-conscious displays of learning, and the prose-paragraphs of the final section." Reviewers also mention the influence of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, some complaining that Tolson's work was overly imitative. Some reviewers faulted Libretto for its traditional structure, asserting that it should have been written in Negro dialect. Tolson addressed this issue in Harlem Gallery: Book I, The Curator, adding African-American dialect to the traditional style of his earlier poetry. Tolson's intentions as a writer reached beyond his life's experiences: As Robert M. Farnsworth remarked, "Tolson developed a poetic style which he hoped would enable him to project the needs and interests of black people into the imaginations of a still developing audience of the future."