William Braithwaite Critical Essays

Introduction

William Braithwaite 1878-1962

American poet, critic, and editor.

The following entry presents criticism from 1918 to 2001 on Braithwaite's life and works.

A minor African American poet who believed poetry should express universal concerns rather than race-based experience, Braithwaite is known less for his own verse than for his tireless promotion of American poetry in his annual Anthology of Magazine Verse, which he edited from 1913 through 1929.

Biographical Information

Braithwaite, the second of five children, was born in Boston on December 6, 1878, to William Smith Braithwaite, whose ancestors included a French nobleman and a British diplomat, and Emma de Wolfe, descended from American slaves. The elder Braithwaite was born in Demerara, Georgetown, British Guiana, where he attended Queen's College and went on to study medicine in London. He left before completing his studies and emigrated to Boston. Although the family was prosperous, the death of Braithwaite's father left the family heavily in debt, eventually forcing Braithwaite to leave school at the age of twelve. He found work as an apprentice typesetter in order to help support his family and according to his autobiography, discovered the poetry of Keats while typesetting a book of verse. He similarly discovered the work of Wordsworth and Burns and was soon determined to make poetry his life's work. He began reviewing poems for The Boston Journal and The Boston Evening Transcript, as well as composing his own verse, producing his first collection in 1904. His poems and criticism appeared in a wide variety of periodicals, including New Republic, Bookman, Atlantic Monthly, and Scribner's Magazine. In 1903, Braithwaite married Emma Kelly of Virginia; they had seven children, four sons and three daughters. He began publishing literature anthologies and in 1913 produced the first of his annual anthologies of magazine verse. In 1918, he made his first visit to the South—considered an essential pilgrimage for Northern blacks and one that would inevitably intensify racial awareness—to deliver the commencement address at Atlanta University and to receive an honorary degree. That same year he was awarded the Spingarn Medal. In 1922, he established, along with Winifred Virginia Jackson, his own publishing company, B. J. Brimmer Company, which took over the publication of his annual anthologies. The 1929 stock market crash brought an end to both the publishing firm and the anthologies. Braithwaite embarked on a lecture tour of colleges, including Atlanta University, whose president, John Hope, urged Braithwaite to join the university's faculty. Reluctant at first, but with no other means of support and besieged by creditors, he eventually accepted a position teaching English and creative writing. He retired from that post in 1945 and moved to Harlem where he spent the rest of his life. He died on June 8, 1962, after a brief illness.

Major Works

Braithwaite produced three collections of poetry: Lyrics of Life and Love (1904), containing his early work, inspired for the most part by the lyrics of Keats and Shelley; The House of Falling Leaves (1908), in which he revealed an increasing mastery of form, particularly the sonnet; and Selected Poems (1948), containing many of his later works. None of his poetry revealed a trace of his African American racial identity or an awareness of racial issues, for which he was often criticized. He attempted in his verse to convey universal truths that transcended racial divisions, devotion to beauty, and particularly in his later work, an element of mysticism.

Braithwaite's career as a poet was eclipsed by his work as an editor and publisher. He is best known for his annual Anthology of Magazine Verse, published from 1913 to 1929, in which he reprinted the poems of such notable American literary figures as Robert Frost, Edward Arlington Robinson, Amy Lowell, and Wallace Stevens. Through the publication of these volumes, Braithwaite was credited with encouraging the efforts of countless American poets and with revitalizing the rather dismal American literary scene in the early years of the twentieth century. In addition, Braithwaite published several anthologies of British literature, among them The Book of Elizabethan Verse (1908), The Book of Georgian Verse (1909), The Book of Restoration Verse (1910), and The Book of Modern British Verse (1919).

Critical Reception

In his own time, Braithwaite's poetry was often praised for its adherence to the conventions of Romanticism. Benjamin Brawley (1918), among others, suggested that Keats and Shelley had provided the models for the poetry contained in Braithwaite's first collection, Lyrics of Life and Love. As Romanticism gave way to the more innovative poetry associated with Modernism, though, Braithwaite's devotion to earlier forms worked against him. He was considered resistant, even hostile, to the newer work. In addition, his failure to deal with racial issues in his poetry led many of his fellow poets to question his commitment to challenging racism and discrimination in America.

Most critics were less concerned with Braithwaite the poet than with Braithwaite the editor, the promoter of American poetry, and the arbiter of literary taste. His work as a critic won high praise from both W. E. B. DuBois and William Dean Howells. Conrad Aiken (1919), on the other hand, was one of the most outspoken critics of Braithwaite's critical perspective, complaining that he harbored a “somewhat quaint notion of the holiness of poetry,” and preferred the type of verse that was either “sweetly ecstatic or appears to be barely concealing a sob.” For Aiken, poetry should be subjected to rigorous critical analysis rather than the vague and indiscriminate praise he found in Braithwaite's reviews. Craig S. Abbott (1994) considers Braithwaite “pre-modern” and contends that his annual anthologies had by 1920 become “primarily a continuing assertion of the qualities against which Modernism was defining itself.” To the dismay of his fellow African Americans, Braithwaite was also opposed to much of the racially conscious poetry associated with the Harlem Renaissance, believing that poetry should deal with universal concerns, not those confined to a particular group. After 1917, his critics became more and more vocal in their objections to his editorial and critical practices; they questioned “his abundance of praise, his lack of discrimination, his precariously lofty critical pronouncements, and his command of English,” reports Abbott. More recent scholars have been kinder, insisting that Braithwaite single-handedly rescued American poetry from the reading public's almost complete disregard and made it a significant cultural force. Lisa Szefel (2001), acknowledging that his peers considered Braithwaite too enamored of high culture aesthetics and too dismissive of racial issues, maintains nonetheless that “the vehemence with which modernists and Renaissance artists attacked him suggests the degree of Braithwaite's influence.” That influence was, according to most literary scholars, considerable—at least in the early years of his career as a poet and critic.