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Melvin Tolson – Harlem Renaissance Writer Who Reaches Out to Liberia
Melvin Bonorus Tolson is an African American modernist poet, educator, columnist, and playwright whose work focuses on the African American experience and includes several poetic stories. He lived during the Harlem Renaissance, and although he was not a participant, his work reflects its influence.
Tolson’s year at Columbia University from 1931 to 1932 on a Rockefeller Foundation scholarship placed him in Harlem at the end of the Harlem Renaissance, where he befriended many of the writers associated with it, especially Langston Hughes, and was inspired to develop his poetics. talent.
Thus, in many of his poems, Tolson returned to the Harlem atmosphere of the 1930s. Inspired by the achievements of people like Hughes who were around him, Tolson decided to contribute to the proud legacy that black writers were creating.
His early collection Rendezvous and Gallery reflects the early influence of Walt Whitman, Edgar Lee Masters, and Langston Hughes, thus emphasizing Tolson’s proletarian beliefs and optimistic spirit. This was later evident in his interest in themes of black dignity, as well as in his elaboration of multiracial diversity in America… This apparently led to the West African Republic of Liberia naming him its Poet Laureate in 1947.
Born in 1900 in Moberly, Missouri, Melvin Tolson was the son of a Methodist minister and an Afro-Greek mother who worked as a seamstress. Thus, he was brought up in a Methodist Episcopal family with his father, a reverend who himself studied classical languages. He and his parents moved around small midwestern towns between different churches in the Missouri and Iowa area until finally settling in the Kansas City area. He lived in a house of contradictions. His father, who had an eighth-grade education, was skeptical of the value of a college education, but nevertheless instilled in his son a strong desire for knowledge.
As a child, he loved to paint, but was forced to give it up because of his mother’s disapproval of a bohemian artist who wanted to take him with him to Paris. So, turning to poetry, he found a suitable outlet for his creativity. At age 14, he published his first poem, The Wreck of the Titanic, in a local newspaper in Oskaloosa, Iowa. Then in Kansas City in 1911 he was chosen poet of the senior class.
He graduated from Lincoln High School in Kansas City in 1919 and entered Fisk University, but transferred to Lincoln University that year for financial reasons. There he met Ruth Southall and married her on January 29, 1922. Tolson graduated with honors in 1924 and then moved to Marshall, Texas to teach language and English at Wiley College.
While at Wiley, Tolson created a number of landmark extracurricular activities, such as coaching the junior varsity football team, directing the drama club, co-founding the black intercollegiate Southern Association for Dramatic and Public Speaking, and organizing the Wiley Forensic Society, an award-winning debate club that gained national recognition , crossing the color bar across the country and achieving unprecedented success, such as when, on their 1935 tour, they competed against the University of Southern California, which Oprah Winfrey – made into a film Great debaters, founded, released on December 25, 2007 (although in the film they discuss Harvard, not USC). The film was directed by Denzel Washington.
Tolson mentored many students at Wiley, encouraging them not only to be well-rounded, but to always stand up for themselves, even though this was quite a controversial position in the early and mid-20th century American South.
Since 1930, Tolson began to write poems. He took a leave of absence to earn a master’s degree in comparative literature at Columbia University in 1930-31, but did not complete it until 1940, writing a thesis on the Harlem Renaissance and writing his first book of poems Harlem Portrait Gallery, poems from which arose in Arts Quarterly, Modern Quarterly and Modern monthly.
In 1941 Dark symphonyoften considered his best work, winning first place in the 1939 National Poetry Contest, was published in Atlantic Monthly. Dark symphony compares and contrasts African American and European American history.
In 1944, Tolson published his first poetry collection. Rendezvous with Americawhich includes Dark symphony made by order of the editors Atlantic Monthly after moving to Dodd Mead. The book quickly went through three editions starting in 1944.
The Washington Tribune hired Tolson to write a weekly column, Cabbage and caviarin which he attacked the class pretensions and lack of racial pride of the black middle class after he left his teaching position at Wiley in the late 1940s.
Tolson began teaching at Langston University in Langston, Oklahoma in 1947. He also worked there as a playwright and director of the Dust Bowl Theater. One of his students, Nathan Hare, a pioneer in black studies, later became the founder of the publisher Black scientist
Another of his great works is Libretto for the Republic of Liberia (1953). Written in the form of an epic poem, this is perhaps the poet’s most ambitious work. It was commissioned that year and completed in 1953 for Liberia’s centenary in 1956.
Eight-section Libretto for the Republic of Liberia marks the intersection of several disparate trends – modernist stylistics superimposed on an English Pindarian ode to an African political moment by an African-American artist. Although it has a Negro theme, it can be said that this poem is also about the human world. And this theme is not simply asserted, it is embodied in rich and complex language and realized in poetic imagination. This provides an initial clue to its meaning through allusive indirection. But it marks Tolson’s growing poetic ambitions for being so long, complex and allusive in places and full of surreal daydreams in others. However, this remains an unread poem of the Negro
That year, Liberia announced Tolson as its Poet Laureate, who was later inducted into the Liberian Knighthood of the Order of the Star of Africa. The 1950s and 1990s brought him more and more success. He received poetry prizes and honorary doctorates. He then received a chair at the Tuskegee Institute. He was awarded the Arts and Letters Award in Literature from the American Academy and the Institute of Arts and Letters. He also entered local politics and was elected mayor of Langston for four consecutive terms from 1954 to 1960.
In 1965, Tolson’s last posthumous work appeared — a long poem Harlem Gallery, was published. This last poem consists of several chapters, each beginning with a letter of the Greek alphabet, and explores the lives of African Americans. In general, this is a sharp departure from his first works.
In 1965, Tolson was appointed to a two-year term at Tuskegee Institute, where he was the Avalon Poet Laureate. But he did not live to the end here. After all, he died in the middle of his assignment after undergoing cancer surgery in Dallas, Texas, on August 29, 1966. He was buried in Guthrie, Oklahoma.
The poems he wrote in New York were published posthumously in 1979 as Gallery of Harlem portraits in a mixture of different styles, as well as free verse. Racially diverse and culturally rich community represented in Gallery of Harlem portraits may be based in or refer to Marshall, Texas. His poems are characterized by an allusive, complex, modernist style and long poetic sequences.
A man of astonishing intelligence, Tolson produced poetry that was “funny, witty, humorous, sly, crude, brutal, bitter and hilarious,” as Carl Shapiro said of the Harlem Gallery. Langston Hughes described him as “not high-brow. Students respect and love him. Children from the cotton fields like him. He understands him… He speaks perfectly.” In New York, Tolson became acquainted with such important figures as the literary critic and editor W. F. Calverton, who described him as “A bright vivid writer who achieves his best effects by understatement rather than exaggeration, and who captures in line or stanza what , which most of his contemporaries failed to record on pages or volumes.”
Tolson’s fearless attitude to controversy and his vigorous defense of his religious and social views drew not only fire, but invitations to be published in Pittsburgh Courier.
Lift Every Voice and Sing (1899)
God’s Trombones: Seven (1927)
Selected poems (1936)
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