Melvin B. Tolson Analysis

Other literary forms

(Poets and Poetry in America)

Melvin B. Tolson wrote three unpublished novels, “Beyond the Zaretto” (written in late 1920’s), “The Lion and the Jackal” (written in late 1930’s), and “All Aboard” (written in 1950’s). In addition, he composed a number of full-length and one-act plays, including “The Moses of Beale Street,” “Southern Front,” “Bivouac on the Santa Fe,” and “The House by the Side of the Tracks,” all of which were unpublished. From 1937 to 1944, Tolson wrote a column titled “Caviar and Cabbage” for the Washington Tribune.


(Poets and Poetry in America)

While Melvin B. Tolson earned little critical attention throughout most of his life, his work was not without recognition. In 1939, he won first place in the National Poetry Contest award sponsored by the American Negro Exposition in Chicago for “Dark Symphony.” In 1945, he won the Omega Psi Phi Award for creative writing, and in 1951, he earned Poetry magazine’s Bess Hokin Prize for “E. & O. E.” He served as poet laureate of Liberia, Africa, in 1947, and was appointed permanent Bread Loaf Fellow in Poetry and Drama, 1954. The 1960’s brought two additional distinctions, the District of Columbia Citation and Award for Cultural Achievement in Fine Arts in 1965 and the National Institute and American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature in 1966. Tolson also earned fellowships from the Rockefeller Foundation and Omega Psi Phi and served as mayor of Langston, Oklahoma, from 1952 to 1958. Posthumously, Tolson won the Ralph Ellison Award from the Oklahoma Center for the Book in 1998.


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Bérubé, Michael. “Masks, Margins, and African American Modernism: Melvin Tolson’s Harlem Gallery.” Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 105, no. 1 (January, 1990): 57-69. This article argues that Hideho Heights’s infamous parable of the “sea-turtle and shark” in the “Phi” section of Harlem Gallery offers insight into Tolson’s views on the African American artist’s relationship to modernism in particular and African American culture’s relationship to Anglo-American culture in general. Just as the sea-turtle, swallowed by a shark, can chew its way out safely through the stomach (as opposed to trying to escape through the mouth and risk being bitten), so too African Americans must “exit” Anglo-American culture from “within.”

Bloom, Harold, ed. African-American Poets: Phillis Wheatley Through Melvin B. Tolson. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2003. Essays in this work examine the style of poetry in Tolson’s work as well as his sonnets.

Farnsworth, Robert M. Melvin B. Tolson, 1898-1966: Plain Talk and Poetic Prophecy. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1984. A complete biography.

Flasch, Joy. Melvin B. Tolson. New York: Twayne, 1972. This is the first extended consideration of Tolson’s life and works, produced by the company that...

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