A Gallery of Harlem Portraits, wr. 1932, pb. 1979
Rendezvous with America, 1944
Libretto for the Republic of Liberia, 1953
Harlem Gallery: Book I, The Curator, 1965
“Harlem Gallery,” and Other Poems of Melvin B. Tolson, 1999
A Fire in the Flint, pr. 1952 (adaptation of Walter White’s novel).
Caviar and Cabbage: Selected Columns by Melvin B. Tolson from the “Washington Tribune,” 1937-1944, 1982
The Harlem Group of Negro Writers, 2001
Melvin Beaunorus Tolson was a paradox; he was both a populist and an academic, a folk poet and a modernist. He was heavily influenced by the poets of the Harlem Renaissance, but he filtered its influence through a conscious adoption and adaptation of modernist techniques. The resulting poetry has become a Rorschach test for generations of literary critics.
Tolson grew up in small towns in Missouri and Iowa, the son of a “circuit riding” Methodist minister. He graduated from high school in Kansas City, Missouri, and in 1918 entered Fisk University in Nashville. After his first year at Fisk, he transferred to Lincoln University (another traditionally black college) near Philadelphia. In 1922, while still attending Lincoln, he married Ruth Southall. They had four children by 1928.
Tolson graduated from Lincoln in 1923. The next year he accepted an appointment as instructor in English and speech at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas. He would spend the rest of his life as a full-time teacher at small black colleges: first at Wiley, then, from 1947 to his retirement in 1965, at Langston University in Langston, Oklahoma, with an appointment in English and drama. By all accounts he was a gifted and well-respected teacher and administrator. He coached the Wiley College debating team to national prominence. Between 1937 and 1944 he wrote an opinion column for the Washington Tribune. He produced, directed, and wrote plays, and he directed theater companies in both Marshall and Langston. Tolson also ran for mayor of Langston and was elected to several terms. He had a full, engaged life in the black community. At the same time, as an artist, he lived in isolation. He was never part of an artists’ community, and his writing time had to be stolen from his full-time work as a teacher and administrator.
That artistic isolation was relieved briefly in the 1931-1932 academic year, when he lived in New York City in order to attend Columbia University. As part of his work toward a master’s degree in English, he interviewed writers of the Harlem Renaissance. That brief contact inspired his first major work, A Gallery of Harlem Portraits. Various poems from that poem sequence, or “book,” were published during the 1930’s, but the entire work was never published during his lifetime. Harlem, however, became his Mecca and his muse. His first major published poem, “Dark Symphony,” was an affirmation of black pride and progress, in the declamatory, populist manner of some of Langston Hughes’s work. The poem consists of six sections, each with a musical tempo or performance notation. “Black Symphony” received first prize in a 1939 contest sponsored by the American Negro Exposition. The judges of that contest were Harlem Renaissance writers Hughes, Arna Bontemps, and Frank Marshall Davis. “Dark Symphony” was published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1941 and became Tolson’s best-known poem. His next book of poetry, Rendezvous with America, published in 1944, included “Dark Symphony.”
Tolson was to publish just two more books of poetry before his death in 1966: Libretto for the Republic of Liberia and Harlem Gallery: Book I, The Curator. President William S. V. Tubman named Tolson poet laureate of Liberia in 1947 and commissioned a poem celebrating Liberia’s upcoming centennial. The poem Tolson wrote was Libretto for the Republic of Liberia, a twenty-nine-page work (followed by sixteen pages of notes) organized into eight sections, each named for one of the notes in the musical scale. Harlem Gallery consists of 155 pages organized into twenty-four cantos, one for each letter of the Greek alphabet.
In Libretto for the Republic of Liberia and in Harlem Gallery, Tolson used the techniques of allusion and startling juxtaposition associated with Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot. Libretto for the Republic of Liberia and Harlem Gallery were, consequently, less direct and more difficult than Rendezvous with America. Tolson’s serious (though not solemn) use of modernist techniques made him unusual among black poets. Allen Tate, a modernist poet and member of a group of southern writers called the Fugitives, wrote an introduction to Libretto for the Republic of Liberia praising Tolson for being a modernist and praising the poem as an important work of art. Tate also suggested that no other black poets were working along lines fruitful for creating important work. Some critics have disagreed vigorously with Tate’s general assessment of black poetry, and some have disagreed with his specific assessment of Melvin Tolson. Some have believed that Tolson erred in trying to please white critics (he solicited Tate’s introduction), while others have said that he was not pleasing white critics but choosing the most useful working methods for his talents. Scholars agree, however, that in all of Tolson’s work he is a satirist, a master of black English as well as academic English, and an irrepressible humorist.