Oct. 1-7, 1999
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Melvin Tolson's Harlem Gallery and other works gathered in new collection
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In Memoriam

Melvin B. Tolson
Melvin B. Tolson

Melvin Tolson's Harlem Gallery and other works gathered in new collection

By Robert Brickhouse

The 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 canon.

With 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.

The 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.

"A 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.

Tolson, 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.

Shifts 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.

"Both tragic and comic, full of strange, moving, and powerful moments, Harlem Gallery is by any standard remarkable, he said, adding that it draws powerfully on Tolson's lifelong observations of African-American life.

Like 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."

Harlem 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 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."


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