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...

(The entire section is 492 words.)