Melvin B. Tolson Tolson, Melvin B. - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Rendezvous with America (poetry) 1944
Libretto for the Republic of Liberia (poetry) 1953
Harlem Gallery: Book One, The Curator (poetry) 1965
A Gallery of Harlem Portraits (poetry) 1979
Caviar and Cabbage: Selected Columns by Melvin B. Tolson from the Washington Tribune, 1937–1944 (articles) 1982

Roy P. Basler (essay date March 1973)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Heart of Blackness—M. B. Tolson's Poetry," in New Letters, Vol. 39, No. 3, March, 1973, pp. 63-76.

[In the following essay, Basler recommends Tolson's poetry for a general readership as opposed to an exclusively African-American audience.]

What American poet will symbolize and represent our milieu to readers in the future, as Shakespeare represents the Elizabethan, Milton the Puritan, or, to come closer, Whitman the Civil War era? Will it be Eliot? Pound? Sandburg? Frost? William Carlos Williams? Time may tell, perhaps is already telling, that although they spoke to us in a special voice, none knew us in our latitudinal-longitudinal complexity, or used...

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Robert M. Farnsworth (essay date Summer 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Preface to Melvin B. Tolson's Caviar and Cabbage Columns," in New Letters, Summer, 1981, pp. 101-02.

[In the following essay, Farnsworth discusses Tolson's Caviar and Cabbage columns.]

Melvin B. Tolson's last two books of poetry, The Libretto for the Liberian Republic and Harlem Gallery won him deservedly strong critical acclaim. But those who know his work only by these rewarding, but bristlingly demanding, major poems are cut off from the roots of his writing experience.

From November 13, 1937, until June 24, 1944, Tolson wrote a weekly column, Caviar and Cabbage, for the Washington Tribune. These...

(The entire section is 712 words.)

Robert M. Farnsworth (essay date Fall 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "What Can a Poet Do? Langston Hughes and M. B. Tolson," in New Letters, Vol. 48, No. 1, Fall, 1981, pp. 19-29.

[In the following essay, Farnsworth traces Tolson's relationship with fellow poet Langston Hughes.]

The academic year 1931–1932 was in retrospect probably the most crucial year of Melvin B. Tolson's writing career. He was thirty-four years old. He had a wife and four children. He had been teaching in the English Department of Wiley College since 1923. And he had been writing poetry and fiction at least since the age of fourteen when he published a poem about the wreck of the Titanic in a local newspaper in Oskaloosa, Iowa. The poetry and fiction...

(The entire section is 3472 words.)

Patricia R. Schroeder (essay date December 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Point and Counterpoint in Harlem Gallery," in CLA Journal, Vol. XXVII, No. 2, December, 1983, pp. 152-68.

[In the following essay, Schroeder discusses Tolson's Harlem Gallery and asserts that "the character of the Curator and the central dilemma in which he is placed provide a perfect vehicle for an examination of social divisions and conflicting roles."]

Although first published in 1965, Melvin B. Tolson's highly allusive poem Harlem Gallery has yet to attract much critical recognition. With the exception of an unpublished dissertation, a rather general critical biography, a handful of reviews, and some widely scattered articles, the poem...

(The entire section is 4953 words.)

William H. Hansell (essay date Fall 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Three Artists in Melvin B. Tolson's Harlem Gallery," in Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 18, No. 3, Fall, 1984, pp. 122-27.

[In the following essay, Hansell analyzes the roles of the three artists in Tolson's Harlem Gallery.]

The first and final chapters of Melvin B. Tolson's Harlem Gallery, "Alpha" and "Omega," serve many purposes, the most important of which is to introduce or recapitulate aesthetic principles exemplified and developed throughout the poem. My summary here of the crucial chapters is designed to serve as the introduction to a study of three characters, John Laugart, Hideho Heights, and Mister Starks, each of whom is an...

(The entire section is 5148 words.)

Rita Dove (review date Autumn 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Telling It Like It I-S 'IS': Narrative Techniques in Melvin Tolson's 'Harlem Gallery,'" in New England Review and Bread Loaf Quarterly, Vol. VIII, No. 1, Autumn, 1985, pp. 109-17.

[In the following review, Dove traces Tolson's Harlem Gallery and its reception among African-American intellectuals.]

When Melvin B. Tolson published part I of his projected epic poem, Harlem Gallery, in 1965, critical response was immediate and controversial. Whereas the mainstream literati (read: white) were enthusiastic, proclaiming Tolson's piece as the lyrical successor of The Waste Land, The Bridge, and Paterson, proponents of the rapidly...

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Mariann B. Russell (essay date 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Evolution of Style in the Poetry of Melvin B. Tolson," in Black American Poets Between Worlds, 1940–1960, edited by R. Baxter Miller, University of Tennessee Press, 1986, pp. 1-18.

[In the following essay, Russell analyzes the progression of Tolson's thought and style throughout his career.]

The consideration of Melvin Tolson's evolving style concerns the maturation of his thought. Here I concentrate on his epic form and his developing perspective. I shall first generalize about his worldview and then trace the development of the hero figure, for both processes set into relief the stylistic growth. The examination includes less the discussion of metrics and...

(The entire section is 5446 words.)

Michael Bérubé (essay date January 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Masks, Margins, and African American Modernism: Melvin Tolson's Harlem Gallery," in PMLA, Vol. 105, No. 1, January, 1990, pp. 57-69.

[In the following essay, Bérubé discusses Tolson's work in relation to African-American modernism.]

Harlem Gallery has been alternately celebrated and castigated for its formal difficulty—when, that is, it has been read at all. Yet although the poem is as formidable as any hypertextual text produced by the throes of modernism—saving Finnegans Wake—there seems something amiss in the idea that its difficulty should be a significant issue in itself; surely, by now, allusive, elliptical poetry should not...

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Melvin B. Tolson Jr. (essay date Summer 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Poetry of Melvin B. Tolson (1898–1966)," in World Literature Today, Vol. 64, No. 3, Summer, 1990, pp. 395-400.

[In the following essay, Tolson discusses his father's career and major works.]

"Black Crispus Attucks taught / Us how to die / Before white Patrick Henry's bugle breath / Uttered the vertical / Transmitting cry: / 'Yea give me liberty or give me death.'" These words still reverberate in this sixty-sixth year of the celebration by African Americans of "Black History Month." They express the importance that the struggle against socioeconomic and cultural racism held for Melvin B. Tolson in his lifetime and in the work he left to what he called...

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Aldon L. Nielsen (essay date Summer 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Melvin B. Tolson and the Deterritorialization of Modernism," in African American Review, Vol. 26, No. 2, Summer, 1992, pp. 241-55.

[In the following essay, Nielsen states that Tolson's works "are an assault upon Anglo-American modernism's territorial designs, but they have been little read."]

"In 1932 I was a Negro poet writing Anglo-Saxon sonnets as a graduate student in an Eastern University"—these are the words that Melvin B. Tolson chose to describe himself as he had been at the outset of his odyssey as an artist, a description which, while recalling the formal beginnings of other modernist poets such as William Carlos Williams, resonates yet more...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Bérubé, Michael. "Avant-Gardes and De-Author-izations: Harlem Gallery and the Cultural Contradictions of Modernism." Callaloo No. 38 12, No. 1 (Winter 1989): 192-215.

Discusses Tolson's Harlem Gallery and its relationship to modernism.

Farnsworth, Robert M. "Tribute to Tolson." New Letters 46, No. 3 (Spring 1980): 125-27.

Reviews Dan McCall's The Man Says Yes and explains how the novel is loosely based on Tolson's life.

Fussiner, Howard R. "A Mature Voice Speaks." Phylon XV, No. 1 (1954): 96-7....

(The entire section is 356 words.)