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Melvin B. Tolson: Biographical Note

Melvin B. Tolson was born in Moberly, Missouri, on February 6, 1898, and he died at the age of 67 on August 29, 1966, in Dallas, Texas, a few days after undergoing surgery for cancer. In 1922 he married Ruth Southall, and in 1924 he graduated with honors from Lincoln University. From 1924 until 1947 he taught at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, taking a year’s leave in 1930-31 to pursue work in a Master’s degree from Columbia University. His project for a thesis centered on interviewing members of the Harlem Renaissance. From 1947 onward he taught at Langston University in Langston, Oklahoma (where he also served three terms, from 1954 to 1960, as Mayor).

From his year in New York emerged his first poetry, a group of short narratives, loosely allied with the free verse of Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology. A few of the poems from that manuscript were published from 1937 to 1939, but the whole work would await printing until the late 1970s when Robert M. Farnsworth presented it as A Gallery of Harlem Portraits.

Some elements, a few character-types, and the urban setting in these early poems all reappear in Tolson’s final published work, Harlem Gallery (1965), a long poem in several sections (each with the letter of the Greek alphabet), subtitled The Curator, and the first of a projected series of long poems on African American life. But the distance Tolson traveled in his own career can be dramatically measured between these two texts. A Gallery of Harlem Portraits reads as versified prose: "The big-bellied man limped / Toward the door of The Zachary Eat Shop," is the way that the poem entitled "Dave Zachary" opens: "Breathing a sigh of relief, he entered his domain. / ‘Hello, Zachary,’ came a din of voices." Tolson’s interest, in the 1930s, lies in accurately capturing aspects of a black vernacular – excerpts from songs, usually in a black dialect, appear scattered through the texts – but also in presenting black experience with a normalized face. In this poetry, Harlem is a viable community, held together by individuals both good and bad, both self-destructive and willing to help others. In Harlem Gallery, by contrast, Tolson writes within the artificial and highly intellectualized discourse that he began to develop in the postwar years. Now his lines, to use a phrase from 1930s jazz, "jump" as if galvanized: they are a heady mix of colorful slang and intellectual allusions, with an uptown / downtown overlap that is just barely held together by the ravishing sound of the words and a syntax that rips along at breathtaking speed:

It was I who taught Black Diamond
his first lesson in the Art of Picasso’s Benin,
at Waycross, Georgia –
aeons before Africa uncorked an uppercut:
many a tour de force of his
executed in Harlem dives and dead ends
has greened the wide-awake eyes
of such masters as
Giglio and Gentile,
Bufalino and Profaci.
O schoolmasters,
living and half-alive and dead,
the Zulu Club
is not the fittest place to recall,
by fits and starts,
Seneca’s young Nero
… and …
Aristotle’s youthful Alexander!

"Black Diamond," now a powerful underworld leader, was once a student of the Curator, in this passage set within the Zulu Club. It is characteristic of Tolson’s late work to allude to this pupil-student relationship in cultural terms that integrate local black experience with well-known historical referents by recalling Seneca and Nero, Aristotle and Alexander. It is no less characteristic to find lines moving swiftly, pushed by elegant alliteration and strikingly odd slang-like metaphors ("aeons before Africa uncorked an uppercut"). If immense pleasure is to be taken in the voluptuous sound of Tolson’s lines, there is just as much to admire in an intellectual presentation that is designed to be impressive. The identity, for example, of "Giglio and Gentile / Bufalino and Profaci" was tracked down by Robert Huot, in his 1971 University of Utah PhD thesis that annotates many (though by no means all) of the references – one of the first, but certainly not the last, of literary scholars who have paid their homage to Tolson’s work through scrupulously annotating it.

Tolson’s 1944 collection, Rendezvous with America (his first published book), revealed a poet in need of annotation, a poet who would take exceptional interest in matters of history but with special attention paid to that history which had fallen into obscurity. Names and events that have been forgotten often become, for Tolson, an index to just where a ruling ideology has successfully exerted its pressure. But little in the fairly straightforward stanzas in Rendezvous with America prepares for the quantum leap that Tolson took in 1947 when, invited to compose a centennial ode for the African republic of Liberia, he embarked upon a symphonic epic as detailed, as organized, and as rhapsodic as any of the major experimental long poems of the twentieth century. Self-consciously deciding that the African American poet had to become a "modernist," that the idioms practiced by Sterling A. Brown (and that Tolson had imitated in his own Gallery of Harlem Portraits) had to be set aside for an experimental discourse that invited a dense blending of various voices, he completed an eight-part sequence that, by any standard, must count among the most successful achievements of modern poetry.

Libretto not only sketches with admirable intensity and vividness a history of the founding of Liberia, but it restores the narrative of a significant African civilization (the Songhai empire). What is more, it positions itself carefully at a distinctive moment in world culture, at the close of a second major war, as a preparation for looking ahead prophetically to a genuinely transformed future. It accomplishes this through a range of distinctive writing styles, often displaying a staggering erudition. In a set of nearly two hundred footnotes, Tolson not only further justifies his work on explicit intellectual and historical grounds but he extends the thematics of his text even further, undertaking brief guerrilla forays where he unearths forgotten events and overlooked narratives and where he creatively and subversively associates texts and movements and historical facts.

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