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Melvin Tolson – Harlem Renaissance Writer Who Reaches Out to Liberia
Melvin Beaunorus Tolson is an African American modernist poet, educator, columnist, and playwright whose work has focused on the African American experience and includes several poetic histories. He lived during the Harlem Renaissance and although he was not a participant, his work reflects its influences.
Tolson’s year at Columbia University from 1931 to 1932 on a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship brought him to 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.
Therefore, in many of his poems, Tolson revisited the atmosphere of Harlem in the 1930s. Inspired by the achievements of people like Hughes who were around him, Tolson decided to contribute to the proud legacy of black writers they were establishing.
His earlier collection Rendezvous and gallery it reflects the early influence of Walt Whitman, Edgar Lee Masters, and Langston Hughes, emphasizing Tolson’s proletarian convictions and optimistic spirit. This later manifested itself in his interest in themes of black dignity, as well as in his treatment of multiracial diversity in America…This must have led to him being named Poet Laureate in 1947 by the West African Republic of Liberia.
Melvin Tolson was born in 1900 in Moberly, Missouri, the son of a Methodist minister and an Afro-Greek mother who was a seamstress. So he was brought up in a Methodist Episcopal household with his father, a reverend who taught himself the classical languages. He moved around the circuit of small Midwestern towns with his parents between various churches in the Missouri and Iowa area, finally settling in the Kansas City area. He lived in a house of opposites. His father, who had an eighth-grade education, was skeptical of the value of a college education, but still instilled in his son a strong desire for knowledge.
As a boy he liked to paint, but because of his mother’s disapproval of a bohemian artist who wanted to take him with her to Paris, he was forced to give it up. So he turned to poetry and 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. Another in Kansas City in 1911, he was elected Poet Laureate.
He graduated from Lincoln High School in Kansas City in 1919 and enrolled at 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, then moved to Marshall, Texas to teach speech and English at Wiley College.
At Wiley, Tolson developed a series of groundbreaking extracurricular activities, such as coaching the junior varsity football team, directing the drama club, co-founding the black intercollegiate Southern Association of Dramatic and Speech Arts, as well as organizing the Wiley Forensic Society, an award-winning debate club that earned a national reputation for , that he broke the color bar across the country and met with unprecedented success, such as when they competed against the University of Southern California during their 1935 tour, on which Oprah Winfrey – a film made Great debater, published 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 their rights, even though this was quite controversial in the early and mid-20th century US South.
From 1930, Tolson began writing poetry. 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. Gallery of Harlem Portraits, poems of which appeared in Arts Quarterly, Modern Quarterly and Modern monthly magazine.
In 1941 A dark symphonyoften considered his greatest work, which won first place in a national poetry contest in 1939, was published in Atlantic Monthly. A dark symphony compares and contrasts African-American and European-American history.
In 1944, Tolson published his first poetry collection, Meeting Americawhich includes A dark symphony produced at the request of the editors Atlantic Monthly after moving to Dodd Mead. The book quickly went through three editions from 1944.
Washington Tribune hired Tolson to write a weekly column, Caviar and cabbagein which he attacked the class pretensions and lack of racial pride of the black middle class after leaving his teaching position at Wiley in the late 1940s.
Tolson began teaching at Langston University in Langston, Oklahoma in 1947. He also served as a playwright and director of the Dust Bowl Theater there. One of his students, Nathan Hare, a pioneer in black studies, later became the founding publisher Black scholar
His next great work is Libretto for the Republic of Liberia (1953). Written in the form of an epic poem, it is perhaps the poet’s most ambitious work. It was commissioned that year and completed in 1953 for Liberia’s centenary in 1956.
Eight-piece Libretto for the Republic of Liberia it represents the intersection of several disparate elements – modernist stylistics overlaying an English Pindaric ode by an African-American artist about an African political moment. Although it has a black theme, this poem could also be said to be about a man’s world. And this theme is not only asserted, it is embodied in rich and complex language and realized in terms of poetic imagination. It gives an initial clue to its meaning by implied indirectness. But it is marked by Tolson’s growing poetic ambition through such a long, complex and suggestive in some places and filled with surrealistic dream visions in others. However, it remains an underread poem by the black man
That year, Liberia proclaimed Tolson Poet Laureate, who was subsequently inducted into the Liberian Knighthood of the Order of the Star of Africa. The 1950s and 1990s brought him more and more success. He has won poetry prizes and honorary doctorates. He then won a chair at the Tuskegee Institute. He received the Arts and Letters Award for Literature from the American Academy and 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 work appeared during his lifetime, a long poem Harlem Gallery, was published. This last poem consists of several sections, each beginning with a letter of the Greek alphabet, and centered on an exploration of African American life. It is, as a whole, a drastic departure from his earlier works.
In 1965, Tolson was appointed to a two-year term at Tuskegee Institute, where he was the Avalon Poet. But he did not live long enough to complete his term here. He died in the middle of his appointment 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 and free verse. The racially diverse and culturally rich community presented in Gallery of Harlem Portraits may be established or intended to be Marshall, Texas. His poems are characterized by their allusive, complex, modernist style and long poetic sequences.
A man of impressive intellect, Tolson produced poetry that was “funny, witty, humorous, grotesque, gross, cruel, bitter, and hilarious,” as Karl Shapiro said of the Harlem gallery. Langston Hughes described him as “no offense. The students worship him and love him. The kids in the cotton fields like him. The cow-punchers understand him. . . . He’s a great speaker.” In New York, Tolson met notables such as the literary critic and editor VFCalverton, who described him as “a sharp and lively writer, who achieves his best effects by understatement rather than exaggeration, and who captures in line or stanza what most of his contemporaries she failed. capture in pages or volumes.”
Tolson’s fearless attitude toward controversy and his spirited defense of his religious and social views sparked not only a firestorm but also a call for publication in Pittsburgh Courier.
Lift Every Voice and Sing (1899)
God’s Trumpets: Seven (1927)
Selected Poems (1936)
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