Melvin B. Tolson | Critical Essay by Robert M. Farnsworth

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Melvin B. Tolson.
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Critical Essay by Robert M. Farnsworth

SOURCE: "Preface to Melvin B. Tolson's Caviar and Cabbage Columns," in New Letters, Summer, 1981, pp. 101-02.

In the following essay, Farnsworth discusses Tolson's Caviar and Cabbage columns.

Melvin B. Tolson's last two books of poetry, The Libretto for the Liberian Republic and Harlem Gallery won him deservedly strong critical acclaim. But those who know his work only by these rewarding, but bristlingly demanding, major poems are cut off from the roots of his writing experience.

From November 13, 1937, until June 24, 1944, Tolson wrote a weekly column, Caviar and Cabbage, for the Washington Tribune. These years included the closing years of the great depression and the United States' entry into World War II. These two events were a major influence on Tolson's writing career, and they also strongly influenced the terms by which black Americans then defined their cultural role in national and international communities. The social ravages of the great depression during the thirties increasingly caused black leaders and intellectuals to stress class rather than race as the determining factor in the plight of black people. The events of World War II made the linkage between racism and colonialism publicly visible. Black Americans increasingly recognized that the drama of their lives was being played on an international, not just a national, stage.

By 1937 Tolson had earned a notable reputation as an outspoken public speaker and an extraordinarily successful debate coach at Wiley College. This was probably the basis for the invitation to write Caviar and Cabbage. That same year his first published poems began to appear. He wrote his column, taught a full load at Wiley, coached the debate team, helped to organize the Southern Association of Dramatic and Speech Arts, directed college dramatic performances, spoke on platforms across the country, and still managed to begin two novels, to continue writing dramas, and to write most of the poems which were to appear in his first book, Rendezvous with America, published in 1944, all concurrently. Obviously Caviar and Cabbage was often written hastily and under considerable pressure. As a consequence, however, these columns frequently reveal Tolson's thought and feelings much more directly and immediately than does his more carefully wrought poetry.

The columns published here make clear Tolson's primary concern with those black people, for whom, "color is a birthmark and poverty a birthright," a concern which never wavered even after Tolson began to win critical acclaim for writing increasingly esoteric poetry. Tolson saw the depression as affording an opportunity for black workers and white workers to recognize their mutual class interest and to organize to achieve them. He saw the racial barrier between these two groups as of less importance than the class barrier between black workers and the black middle class. Paul Robeson's ambition to make a film based on the life of Oliver Law seemed to Tolson to offer possibilities of introducing substantially different proletarian values into film making.

Tolson's father was a Methodist minister, and the poet taught at Wiley College, a Methodist school. He often couched his appeal to "the little Negro" in the caring paternalism of the pulpit: "Tomorrow belongs to the little people. The Big Boys are through. He who is greatest among you, let him be the servant of all. We used to think a big house, a big car, a big salary, a big position—made a big man. Those days are gone forever. A big man now is a big servant of little people." In middle age he often remembered the working experiences of his youth with self-critical irony. Intense social ambition screened his youthful perceptions. Working in the stockyards of Kansas City, he was initiated to the economic conditions which caused workers to bond together, but it was only in retrospect that the message reached him fully and clearly.

In 1945, Langston Hughes described Tolson in the Chicago Defender as "The most famous Negro professor in the Southwest. Students all over that part of the world speak of him, revere him, remember him, and love him,… But Melvin Tolson is no highbrow. Kids from the cottonfields like him. Cowpunchers understand him. He is a great teacher of the kind of which any college might be proud. It is not just English he teaches, but character, and manhood, and womanhood, and love, and courage, and pride."

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This section contains 717 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Robert M. Farnsworth
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