Melvin Tolson's Harlem
Gallery and other works gathered in new collection
poet Melvin B. Tolson, who died in 1966, was once recognized as
one of black America's most important modern voices. Playful,
difficult and intellectually sophisticated, his poems won significant
praise and stirred lively debate during his lifetime but have
been out of print for ecades and essentially left out of the literary
an annotated publication this month of the first complete collection
of his work by the University
Press of Virginia, Tolson can be studied and enjoyed by a
new generation of readers and freshly assessed for his place in
American poetry, literary scholars say.
volume, edited with detailed notes by U.Va. English
professor Raymond Nelson, and with an introduction by former U.S.
poet laureate Rita Dove, also a U.Va. English professor, brings
together Tolson's three books of poetry, Rendezvous with America
(1944), Libretto for the Republic of Liberia (1953), and his masterpiece,
Harlem Gallery (1965), as well as important uncollected poems.
glance at nearly any passage will confirm that one is in the presence
of a brilliantly eclectic mind," Dove said. "Tolson
contained multitudes" and didn't shy away from contradictions
or look for simple solutions.
who was born into a preacher's family in Missouri in 1898, and
was educated at Fisk and Lincoln universities, spent most of his
life in the Midwest and Southwest. Except for a year of graduate
study at Columbia in New York, after 1923 he earned his living
almost exclusively from teaching at small black colleges, Wiley
and Langston, in Texas and Oklahoma. Though he wrote a master's
thesis on contemporary figures in the Harlem Renaissance in African-American
arts, he was never identified with any particular movement.
Tolson was widely published in major literary publications, won
numerous poetry awards and was named poet laureate of Liberia
in 1947. His work was at times the subject of debate, especially
in the turbulent 1960s, because he often chose historical, intellectual
subject matter and focused little on politics or ideology.
in literary fashions to more informal poetic styles have added
to Tolson's neglect, said Nelson, an American literature scholar
and former U.Va. Arts
& Sciences dean who has had a longstanding interest in Tolson's
work. A close reading of such works as his Harlem Gallery, Tolson's
complex masterpiece in 24 wide-ranging cantos, reveals an urgent
meditation on the plight of the black artist in a white society
and shows a deep concern with social injustice, Nelson said.
tragic and comic, full of strange, moving, and powerful moments,
Harlem Gallery is by any standard remarkable,² he said, adding
that it draws powerfully on Tolson's lifelong observations of
works of other modernist poets such as T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound,
Harlem Gallery can at times be hard to grasp fully without explanatory
notes, Nelson said. "Many modern poets have that problem.
The need for an annotated edition was obvious."
Gallery, Nelson wrote in a recent essay in the Virginia
Quarterly Review about the poem, "is a work of genuine
wisdom and learning" and "a monument of poetry at its
most genial, humane and entertaining.
"We should read it for the often difficult things it has
to say about the theory, history, and nourishment of art Š for
its embattled meditations about the curse of choice in a world
of unacceptable alternatives. We should certainly read it as a
controversial treatise about race in the United States and for
its robust anatomy of the roles, responsibilities, and enigmas
of the African-American artist. These are important issues of
both the moment and the long haul. Not only did Tolson think them
through; he lived them through."