The Poetry of Tolson

by Melvin B. Tolson

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Harlem After the Renaissance

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Melvin Beaunorus Tolson never contrived to be a secret passion for the students and writers who idealized him. His ambitions were singularly public. Indeed, he cast himself in the mold of his own idols, the slightly older icons of the Harlem Renaissance. Publishing just past the Harlem heyday, he became a poet lauded but seldom anthologized by a largely segregated literary establishment that Karl Shapiro called a “closed corporation.”

Harlem was the subject of Tolson’s most prolific poetic output. Harlem was the site of his poetic mythos, his religion, his metropolis and mecca. In this literary geography, he made a compassionate body of work now curiously underread, shining between literary booms. As a writer, he blossomed independently: a postrenaissance Harlem bard and a premovement advocate for civil rights.

Tolson’s reputation reveals itself from back to front; it was not a career of celebrated cub to proud lion. His star shone brightest with the publication of his last book, Harlem Gallery: Book 1, The Curator. Harlem Gallery appeared just a year before the poet’s death. The late book is a polished tour de force of modernist technique superimposed on racial insight and whimsy. The book evolved from Tolson’s early sketches and was planned as the first in a five-part epic history of the African American in America.

Those early sketches, published as A Gallery of Harlem Portraits, effectively illuminate Tolson’s process as an artist. While he found his subjects early, he developed his approach with care, across a career that embraced a far wider cut of society than the literary world alone.

Tolson’s public persona reflected that embracing vision. Testimonies from his students at Wiley College, Tuskegee Institute, and Langston University are filled with adulation for his informal, caring style and immersion in his students’ intellectual growth. A skillful, demonstrative actor, he declaimed in the classroom, sometimes from atop his desk. The most frequent issue upon which he held forth was the power of a wide, active vocabulary—clarity, for Tolson, was paramount.

The search for clarity demanded more than one mode of presentation. Interest in oratory committed him to coaching debate at Wiley, and he composed a number of full-length plays on racial situations. Further, he adapted novels to the stage, including George Schuyler’s Black No More (1931) and Walter White’s The Fire in the Flint (1924). More than five thousand people were in attendance at a performance of the adaptation of White’s book in 1952 in Oklahoma City as part of a convention for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

At Langston, he directed the Dust Bowl Theatre. A restless creator and active participant both at the college and in the community, he found his most productive writing time in the middle of the night, after napping in the early evening hours. While he worked on novels and short stories early in his writing career, it was poetry that gave him truest voice.

From Missouri to New York

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Born in Moberly, Missouri, Melvin Beaunorus Tolson was the eldest of four children. Melvin’s parents encouraged his interests in music, painting, and reading. In high school, he distinguished himself in public speaking with dramatic recitations of the work of Paul Laurence Dunbar and with performances both in theater and on the football team.

In 1920, he entered Lincoln University, near Philadelphia, where he met Ruth Southall, a Virginian visiting Pennsylvania relatives. They married after his graduation and settled in Marshall, Texas, where they reared three sons and one daughter.

Tolson met Harlem, his steady muse, as the community met economic bleakness. Beginning work on a master’s degree at...

(This entire section contains 808 words.)

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Columbia University in 1930, he found a community he loved, but one that was inexorably being ravaged by the Depression. The president of the Harlem Savings Bank inA Gallery of Harlem Portraits is a hypocritical figure who boasts of his sacrifice while abandoning those whose sacrifice made him rich. The banker figure reflects that moment’s reality. While Connie’s and The Cotton Club still swelled with the rich forgetting the troubles of Wall Street, median income in the community was falling fast.

Tolson’s thesis, “The Harlem Group of Negro Writers,” attempted to interpret the artistic and literary development of the artists in whose company he set out to establish himself. The boom of 1920’s creativity was undiminished, and he celebrated his contemporaries whom the world of literature had embraced: Wallace Thurman, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, Sterling Brown, Langston Hughes, Countée Cullen. Curiously, Tolson grew closer to Harlem through the economic pinch. He considered himself a Marxist; his poetic testimonies of economic pain are unflinching. He was a regular follower of the leftist periodical The New Masses, and as an instructor at Wiley College he developed a close friendship with the economist Oliver Cromwell Cox, who recorded his indebtedness to Tolson in Class, Caste, and Race: A Study in Social Dynamics (1970).

The enthusiasm of The Modern Quarterly’s editor, V. F. Calverton, ensured Tolson’s introduction to Harlem literary society, and Tolson repaid the kindness by bringing Calverton to lecture at Wiley. It was during and following the work on his thesis that Tolson composed A Gallery of Harlem Portraits. Calverton encouraged him in 1939 to send the manuscript to editors Bennett Cerf and Maxwell Perkins. Tolson took their rejection hard; for a period he stopped writing and stored the manuscript in a trunk.

The manuscript can be seen as a watershed for the published work that was to come. Formally, the book is modeled on Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology (1915): a collection of free-verse monologues wherein the speakers reveal their inner lives. These monologues reveal the cross-cultural energy of Harlem life with a fascination for the ethnic mix there. It is fair to speculate that Tolson’s own African-Irish-French-Indian lineage finds reflection in the book’s testimonies. Even more stunning is the range of topics covered by these voices. Class and cultural concerns fuse in these vignettes, small powerful dramas using a playwright’s declamatory gift. Masters’s subjects offered a model of narrative, and these poems add the element of music. The characters sing italicized stanzas almost as frequently as they speak, and the blues is their language.

In addition to the color of everyday life, the poems embrace the heroism of working people, and the book closes with “The Underdog,” a furious proletarian jeremiad. This poem thematically expresses Tolson’s work organizing sharecroppers in Texas—a theme he returned to in Rendezvous with America in “Ballad of the Rattlesnake.” At 340 pages, the manuscript was enormous.

The year 1944 brought Tolson’s first published book, Rendezvous with America, including his most popular poem, “Dark Symphony.” “Dark Symphony” combines the aesthetic theme of “The New Negro,” Tolson’s thesis subject, with the celebration of the common man. The poem, later set to music by Earl Robinson, continues Tolson’s formal interest in the structure of music. In six “movements,” “Dark Symphony” works a sequence of contrasts in African and white American history. Beginning with the Revolutionary War, the poem records mythic and actual slave history from points further past. It follows slave ships to the new continent and picks up a faster, more rhythmic energy as it enters a paean to the accomplishments of the proud “New Negro.”

A Gallery of Harlem Portraits presented the culture of the African American struggling upward, in fits and starts, toward cultural expression and dignity. In Rendezvous with America, the less individualized and more mythic form emerges triumphant. The last sections of the poem document a political manifesto. Part 5 documents the shortcomings in race relations of white Americans; in part 6, the New Negro comes forward as an equal in human and national recognition:

Out of dead-ends of Poverty,Through wildernesses of Superstition,Across barricades of Jim Crowism . . .We advance!

Liberian Laureate

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The book brought Tolson favorable recognition, and the critical emphasis was on the writer’s breadth of intellect. It also brought a highly unusual appointment some three years later. One of his students at Wiley introduced Tolson to the daughter of a consul at the Liberian embassy. This was the only connection Tolson had to that country when, in 1947, he was appointed poet laureate of Liberia and commissioned to work on a poem to celebrate the centennial of the founding of the republic. Libretto for the Republic of Liberia was completed within a year. The libretto was an extended ode that posed the question “Liberia?” to be answered in eight sections, each one named for a note of an ascending diatonic scale. The poetic model borrowed from Tolson’s reading of the modernists; he cited Hart Crane’s “The Bridge” as the contemporary ode he most respected.

Libretto for the Republic of Liberia received widely varying reviews upon publication. The harshest critics associated the book with the strongest excesses of modernism. The manuscript was attacked as too scholarly, as unmusical, as too deliberately academic and referential. The favorable criticism praised Tolson’s seriousness as much as his craft. When lauded, the poem was praised as a complex work worth many rereadings for the torrent of language and magnificence of subject.

The sound and the fury of critical debate focused on style more than substance. The book is a very serious ode and works methodically at once to elevate and to understand its subject. Tolson’s Liberia, the “quicksilver sparrow that slips/ The eagle’s claw,” is a trickster, a Promethean plotter that slips the coils of a long European colonial parade. Included are not only political and tribal histories but also tributes to African contributions across scientific and literary knowledge. In addition to the European connection, Tolson directly addresses America’s colonial association: the American Colonization Society’s plan to send freed slaves to Africa.

Here is Tolson at his most sly. The “Mi” section of the ode runs historical hypocrisy against itself. While the Colonization Society’s goal was to promote a “civilized” Africa, its proposition fit readily the aspirations of antebellum holdovers who would happily have drained the slaveholding states of free African Americans. The irony Tolson focuses is that the would-be colonists and white sponsors did not envision the need for these freed slaves in winning a war. For Liberia had in recent memory provided the Allies with rubber and the airfields from which Erwin Rommell’s Afrika Korps was savaged:

The rubber from Liberia shall armFree peoples and her airport hinterlandsLet loose the winging grapes of wrath uponThe Desert Fox’s cocained nietzcheansA goosestep from the Gateway of the East!

Ranging between prophecy and proverb, the poem ends with an internationalist and Blakean political vision: an Africa of more than thirty free and independent nations.

Harlem Revisited

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For a time, Tolson felt that he had exhausted his work as a poet. Thirteen more years were to pass before the publication of Harlem Gallery. He had learned lessons of craft while extending the poetry of common people’s struggle in his published books. Now he returned to the expansive Harlem of his epic, synthetic early work. In addition, the intervening years brought new demands: four terms as mayor of Langston, Oklahoma, and numerous honors, including a permanent fellowship in poetry and drama at Bread Loaf and the Order of the Star of Africa, conferred by the ambassador of Liberia. The kudos illustrated Tolson’s peculiar position in the literary community: acclaimed but rarely anthologized, honored but infrequently published.

Harlem Gallery transforms the work of the early thesis and manuscript into a complex work of art. It is at once a playful illumination of colorful Harlemites and a serious discourse on the situation of art in African American culture. The character of the curator is an octaroon who is drawn to the darker culture; around him revolve the varied and curious gallery patrons. These figures, eccentric and humorous, are the wry foils for social and aesthetic analysis throughout. Tolson’s death in 1966 interrupted the composition of the successive books that this was to introduce; still, it stands as a major work in its own right.

More than any of Tolson’s previous work, the comic dialogue mediated by the appreciative curator combines dramatic and poetic elements. The work is self-described as referential and intertwined, as are the lives of the book’s characters:

Sometimes a work of art is bitter crystalline alkaloidto be doled outat intervals, between the laugh and floutof an Admirable Doctor; but, if taken too muchat a time, it delivers the cocainizing punchof a Jack Dempsey nonesuch.

As the curator summarizes, the book is thick, splendid, and powerful. The give-and-take of gallery characters builds a narrative among three-dimensional personalities: Bantu expatriate Doctor Nkomo, half-blind artist John Laugert, Boa Boa Enterprises president Guy Delaport III, his striptease mistress Bamboo Kraal, beatnik poet Hideho Heights, and a wide assortment of Harlem society from the 1920’s on.

Tolson’s colleague Joy Flasch called him a “universalist,” a term that applies to style as well as content. Harlem Gallery brought Tolson more international attention and fame than any of his previous work. In it, he asserts the humanity encapsulated in his beloved Harlem’s music and figures. Formally, too, it is a universalist’s book, combining jokes with philosophical dialogue and blues with history.

Tolson’s work best succeeded in giving dramatic life and identity to high idealism. This idealism took Tolson through a variety of incarnations: as a rural civil rights organizer in the face of racist attack, as a debating coach and lecturer, as an actor and dramatist, and as a poet. The poetry, as a published legacy, is a difficult one. It bridges styles and schools, functioning as a record of an intellectual fabric rather than as the product of any given school. The evaluation remains incomplete, and Tolson’s unique contribution continues to unfold.


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Bérubé, Michael. “Avant-Gardes and De-Author-izations: Harlem Gallery and the Cultural Contradictions of Modernism.” Callaloo 12 (Winter, 1989): 192. Bérubé studies Tolson’s Harlem Gallery as a measure of the conflict between the sources of modernist poetry of the oral and the written traditions. The figures of the beatnik poet Hideho Heights and the Curator serve as respective totems for these forces.

Bérubé, Michael. Marginal Forces/Cultural Centers: Tolson, Pynchon, and the Politics of the Canon. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1992. An analysis of the literary and cultural politics surrounding canonization. The author pairs Tolson, the “marginal figure who wanted nothing more than to be central,” with Thomas Pynchon, the “newly central figure who wanted nothing better than marginality.” The chapter on “Tolson’s Neglect” clarifies the politics of race in the modernist movement.

Farnsworth, Robert M. Melvin B. Tolson, 1898-1966: Plain Talk and Poetic Prophecy. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1984. A thorough literary biography that reviews Tolson’s many facets. Comprehensive; discusses Tolson’s range as poet, essayist, and journalist.

Flasch, Joy. Melvin B. Tolson. New York: Twayne, 1972. A sensitive early survey of the work and the educator, written by one of Tolson’s faculty colleagues. Flasch evaluates the poet as a major modernist figure and covers all of his poetry then in print.

Leonard, Keith D. Fettered Genius: The African American Bardic Poet from Slavery to Civil Rights. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006. Concludes with a chapter on Tolson’s poetry as expressive of an epic imagination.

Russell, Mariann. Melvin B. Tolson’s Harlem Gallery: A Literary Analysis. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1980. A critique that emphasizes Tolson’s conception of the social role of the poet. The book contains a sound analysis of Tolson’s reinterpretations of mass culture and history. Contains extensive notes and bibliography.

Tolson, Melvin B. “Melvin B. Tolson, an Interview.” Interview by M. W. King. In Anger, and Beyond: The Negro Writer in the United States, edited by Herbert Hill. New York: Harper & Row, 1966. Subtitled “A Poet’s Odyssey,” the interview allows Tolson to express his sense of his place in the range of world writers. The springboard for the discussion is Tolson’s “The Poet” from the book Rendezvous with America.

Tolson, Melvin B., Jr. “The Poetry of Melvin B. Tolson (1898-1966).” World Literature Today 64 (Summer, 1990): 395-400. The writer’s son evaluates his father’s legacy in a lecture prepared for a Black History Month presentation. This survey emphasizes both Tolson’s poetics and the publication history of his major works.