At Its Most Genial, Humane And Entertaining: New Collection
Brings Together Harlem Gallery And Other Work Of Melvin
Sept. 24, 1999 -- The poet Melvin B. Tolson,
who died in 1966, was once recognized as one of black Americas
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 decades
and essentially left out of the literary canon.
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 Tolsons
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
glance at nearly any passage will confirm that one is in the presence
of a brilliantly eclectic mind," Dove said. "Tolson contained
multitudes" and didnt shy away from contradictions or
look for simple solutions.
who was born into a preachers 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 masters thesis on
contemporary figures in the Harlem Renaissance in African American
arts, he was never identified with any particular movement.
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
Tolsons neglect, said Nelson, an American literature scholar
and former U.Va. Arts and Sciences dean who has had a longstanding
interest in Tolsons work.
reading of such works as his "Harlem Gallery," Tolsons
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 Tolsons lifelong
observations of African American life.
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, said Nelson. "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.
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."
review copies of "Harlem Gallery and Other Poems of Melvin
B. Tolson," please contact Mary Kathryn Hassett at the University
Press of Virginia at (804) 924-6064. Raymond Nelson may be reached
at (804) 924-6642 or 924-7105.
winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks will join Tolsons son, Melvin
Tolson Jr., and other guests for a special evening of African American
poetry and jazz on Oct. 28 at Old Cabell Hall at the University
of Virginia to mark the new publication of "Harlem Gallery
and Other Poems of Melvin B. Tolson" and "The Furious
Flowering of African American Poetry," edited by Joanne V.
Gabbin, both published by the University Press of Virginia. Complete
details about the event will be announced soon.]
Bob Brickhouse, (804) 924-6856