Harlem After the Renaissance

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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...

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From Missouri to New York

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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 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 in A 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...

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Liberian Laureate

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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...

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Harlem Revisited

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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...

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 420 words.)