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

This literature criticism consists of approximately 11 pages of analysis & critique of Melvin B. Tolson.
This section contains 3,440 words
(approx. 12 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Robert M. Farnsworth

SOURCE: "What Can a Poet Do? Langston Hughes and M. B. Tolson," in New Letters, Vol. 48, No. 1, Fall, 1981, pp. 19-29.

In the following essay, Farnsworth traces Tolson's relationship with fellow poet Langston Hughes.

The academic year 1931–1932 was in retrospect probably the most crucial year of Melvin B. Tolson's writing career. He was thirty-four years old. He had a wife and four children. He had been teaching in the English Department of Wiley College since 1923. And he had been writing poetry and fiction at least since the age of fourteen when he published a poem about the wreck of the Titanic in a local newspaper in Oskaloosa, Iowa. The poetry and fiction which can be gleaned from Tolson's high school and college publications and a later story which appeared in a Wiley College yearbook all lend credence to the self-evaluation Tolson wrote late in the 1930's: "In 1932 I was a Negro poet writing Anglo-Saxon sonnets. As a graduate student in an Eastern university, I moved in a world of twilight haunted by the ghosts of a dead classicism."

In 1931–1932 Tolson, with the aid of a Rockefeller fellowship, was able to arrange for his family to live with his parents in Kansas City, while he moved to Harlem to enroll at Columbia University in a Master's program in Comparative Literature. For his M.A. he wrote a thesis on "The Harlem Group of Negro Writers." Living in Harlem, coming into extended personal contact with the writers of Harlem, and studying their work caused Tolson to begin his first ambitious poetic project, A Gallery of Harlem Portraits, a collection of approximately 200 brashly vivid poetic portraits, which by their great variety was meant to give an epic crosssection of the city of Harlem. Tolson began writing A Gallery while he was still writing his M.A. thesis on the Renaissance writers. A first draft of A Gallery probably was not completed until 1935, but the first poem published from this manuscript, "Hamuel Gutterman," appeared in V. F. Calverton's Modern Monthly only in April, 1937.

In his thesis Tolson devotes individual chapters to these writers: Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Walter White, Eric Walrond, Rudolph Fisher, Jessie Fauset, George Schuyler, W. E. B. DuBois, James Weldon Johnson, and Wallace Thurman. He begins his chapter on Langston Hughes by observing: "Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes represent the antipodes of the Harlem Renaissance. The former is a classicist and conservative; the latter, an experimentalist and a radical." While Tolson's thesis strives for academic neutrality, there is never much doubt with which of these two antipodes Tolson's own literary sympathies lie. With a tinge of envy Tolson observes: "With a biography that reads like a page from the Arabian Nights, Langston Hughes, the idealistic wanderer and defender of the proletariat, is the most glamorous figure in Negro literature."

Tolson, well aware of the restraints of his own professional and family responsibilities, envied Hughes' travel opportunities in Mexico and several countries in Europe and Africa, and he admired his staunch and sincere proletarian commitment. To be a Bohemian traveler voicing the concerns of the peoples of the world seemed a marvelous vocation. The quotation Tolson chooses from Hughes' poetry to preface his thesis suggests that in Tolson's imagination Hughes also had preceded him in discovering a more vivid and vivifying world in the streets of Harlem:

     Strange,
     That in this nigger place
     I should meet life face to face;
     When for years, I had been seeking
     Life in places gentler-speaking,
     Until I came to this vile street
     And found life stepping on my feet.

Tolson apparently completed an initial draft of his thesis before he left Harlem to return to his teaching position in Marshall, Texas, in the fall of 1932, but he didn't turn in a final draft until nearly eight years later. Meanwhile another event triggered a revealing literary statement by Tolson. That was the publication late in 1932 of Hughes' poem, "Good-Bye Christ," and the righteous attacks by clergymen and others which it provoked while Hughes was still in Russia.

Tolson chose to reply to an attack on both Hughes and his poem made by the Reverend Mr. J. Raymond Henderson in the Pittsburgh Courier. Tolson's reply, his first significant literary statement to be published, appeared in two parts in the January 26 and February 2, 1933, issues of the Courier. Tolson initially defends the poet against the clergyman's charge that the poem was not worthy of serious consideration, that it was a cheaply sensational means of attracting public attention: "Langston Hughes is a Catholic, a rebel, and a proletarian in his personal life and in his poetry and criticism. These he has always been…. Nobody who knows Langston Hughes intimately can doubt his sincerity. He has always stood for the man lowest down and has sought to show his essential fineness of soul to those who were too high up—by the accident of fortune—to understand." Then Tolson insists that Hughes' poem is not the real issue. The real issue is the challenge that it makes to present-day Christianity:

The world is in a terrible condition today, and, if Christianity does not do something to solve the problems of humanity, it will have hurled at it repeatedly such challenges as "Good-Bye Christ"…. The disciples of Karl Marx carry his teachings forward with a verve and a courage that are admirable; the followers of Christ, on the other hand, enter into bootless denunciations. The leaders of Communism starve for hunger and die to put over the teachings of Marx; the leaders of Christianity live in comfortable homes and ride around in big cars and collect the pennies of washer-women. Magnificent edifices are erected, while people go hungry and naked and shelterless. Preachers uphold or see not the ravages of "big business." "Good-Bye Christ" is the outgrowth of tragic modern conditions.

Some paragraphs later Tolson concludes:

The point is: Men are concerned with present-day Christianity. Christianity must come down from the pulpit and solve the problems of today. Men will no longer listen to the echo of that beautiful, but illogical, spiritual of long ago:

             You may have all this world,
                     Give me Jesus.

In fact, Jesus Christ would not have sung a song like that. He was a radical, a Socialist, if you will. His guns were turned on Big Business and religionists. He heralded the dawn of a new economic, social, and political order. That is the challenge to all.

Tolson actively organized both white and black sharecroppers in the thirties in Southeast Texas. His proletarian commitment probably preceded his residence in Harlem. Similarly since his father was a Methodist minister and a strong model in Tolson's life, his Christian views were certainly shaped before he met and knew Hughes. But the deep similarity in their positions provided the means for Tolson to empathize strongly with Hughes. Both believed in a revolutionary Christ who represents the poor and the powerless. To both writers during the Great Depression the teachings of Marx seemed to follow within this Christian prophetic tradition. For both Tolson and Hughes, Marx was far closer to the authentic Christ than the "mouth-Christians" who failed to address the cruel economic injustices of the thirties.

Many years later in a weekly column, Caviar and Cabbage, which Tolson was to write for the Washington Tribune, he remembered an incident with Hughes which also marked in his mind the year 1932, although the incident probably actually occurred in 1931. The scene is set in "an elegant parlor on Sugar Hill." Hughes and the hostess are discussing his proposed tour through the South. Suddenly Hughes remembers a rally to collect money for the Scottsboro boys. His hostess tries to persuade him that it is raining too hard:

There is a tenseness, an agony in the Poet's face. It seems that his life depends on getting to that meeting in time. We hasten downstairs and catch a taxicab. The rain is now torrential. The Poet leans forward, tells the driver to put on speed. The Poet talks passionately about the Scottsboro boys. They are innocent. They must go free. It'll take money.

The car stops. It skids. Before us looms the great, aristocratic church. It is dark. In front of the church is a milling multitude. We learn that the church would not let the rally be held in the House of God. People said it was just Communist propaganda. The Poet asks me to come with him. I tell him I have a previous engagement.

Langston Hughes looks at me with a sad half-smile. He says goodnight. I see him pushing through the crowd in the rain. His face looks tired and old and pain-ridden. I start to get out. Then I tell the driver to step on the gas. But I am to feel a hundred times that I doublecrossed the Scottsboro boys!

(June 29, 1940)

In the conclusion to his M.A. thesis, Tolson credits the Harlem Renaissance with making Negro America "conscious of the inflowing of a powerful verve…. The Harlem Renaissance was not a fad," but it "has been followed by a proletarian literature of Negro life, wider in scope, deeper in significance, and better in stylistic methods." It is clear, however, that Tolson saw Hughes, more than any other writer of the Renaissance, as anticipating the later deeper proletarian concerns of Black writing which were to characterize the thirties.

The particular characteristic of Hughes' poetry which most effectively demonstrated his profound social commitment, and which later inspirited Tolson's own poetic ambition, was the power of the Blues. According to Tolson, Hughes "catches the undercurrent of philosophy that pulses through the soul of the Blues singer and brings the Blues rhythms into American versification." After quoting from "Po' Boy Blues," Tolson comments:

If one has that sympathetic imagination which Mr. Mencken likes to talk about, one can, through identification of feeling, experience the utter physical and mental fatigue of the Negro after the cruel sleeplessness of the night-hours, facing the desolate flatness of another day. Langston Hughes understands that tragedy of the dark masses whose laughter is a dark laughter.

Tolson notes that the colored bourgeoisie criticize Hughes' poems for being "just like the nigger blues," but then he adds ironically that they are "unmindful that this is the highest tribute they can pay to these artistic creations."

The impact of Hughes' achievement on Tolson's imagination is made clear in the introductory poem of A Gallery of Harlem Portraits, where he uses a variety of Blues lyrics to introduce the poetic portraits which are to follow. He prefaces these lyrics, however, with a comment which suggests a distinction between his own and Hughes' experience which will become of increasing importance as Tolson's own poetic career ripens and flourishes. Tolson's writing is much more rooted in the academic world, in the world of esoteric scholarship, and speculative theorizing about the nature of the world and of mankind. Thus he writes:

     Dusky Bards,
     Heirs of eons of Comedy and Tragedy,
     Pass along the streets and alleys of Harlem
     Singing ballads of the Dark World:

He follows that, however, with a series of Blues beginning with the classic lament of a woman:

     When a man has lost his taste fer you,
       Jest leave dat man alone.
     Says I … a dawg won't eat a bone
       If he don't want de bone.

Tolson follows that with a verse which implies the contemporary relevance of the Blues, the Blues as a continuing adaptive tradition:

     Happy days are here again
     Dat's sho' one great big lie.
     Ain't had a beefsteak in so long
     My belly wants to cry.

He continues then to alternate classic Blues with more pointed contemporary social comment:

     Preacher called to bless my home
     An keep it free from strife.
     Preacher called to bless my home
     An keep it free from strife.
     Now I's got a peaceful home
     An' de preacher's got my wife.
 
     Rather be a hobo, Lawd,
     Wid a stinkin' breath
     Dan live in de Big House
     Workin' folks to death.

A Gallery of Harlem Portraits shows evidence of multiple literary influences, yet Tolson's first book of poems is remarkable as a very personal poetic celebration, the celebration of his discovery of Harlem as a community that made the dreams and dilemmas of black Americans vivid, and the celebration of his discovery of a literary heritage which enabled him to link his strongly felt personal and social experiences to direct, yet subtle, and imaginative, literary expression. In this process the example of Langston Hughes was one of the more vivid presences which helped Tolson to exorcise "the ghosts of a dead classicism" from his imagination.

The story of the relation between Tolson and Hughes from this point on is held together by a thread of biographical anecdotes. Tolson could not find a publisher for A Gallery of Harlem Portraits. Eventually he wrote an article telling the story of how his first book came to be written and the difficulties he had in finding a publisher. He called it "The Odyssey of a Manuscript." But he had no more success finding a publisher for his article than he had for his book. In the article, however, he tells of trying to enlist the support of several prominent literary figures, including Langston Hughes, in his effort to get his manuscript published. He showed Hughes his poems in Los Angeles in 1935. Tolson was there in two roles, as a representative of the state of Texas to the San Diego International Exposition and as coach of a crack Wiley debate team which challenged and defeated the team of the University of Southern California, who were then national champions.

If Hughes was too preoccupied with his personal problems on this occasion to be of much help to Tolson, he was soon to be involved in other key moments of Tolson's developing writing career. In 1939 Hughes, along with Arna Bontemps and Horace Cayton, named Tolson's "Dark Symphony" the prize poem for the American Negro Exposition held in Chicago. The later publication of "Dark Symphony" in Atlantic Monthly proved to be the key factor in Tolson's first successful book publication, Rendezvous with America. On December 15, 1945, in "Here to Yonder" in the Chicago Defender, Hughes paid tribute to both Tolson and his new book:

That Texas is some State! I was down there once or twice myself. And I have found some very amazing things—including Melvin Tolson.

Melvin Tolson is 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. He is a character. He once turned out a debate team that beat Oxford, England. He is a great talker himself. He teaches English at Wiley College, Marshall, Texas, but he is known far and wide. He is a poet of no mean ability, and his book of poems, Rendezvous with America, is a recent fine contribution to American literature. The title poem appeared in that most literate of literary of publications, the Atlantic Monthly.

But Melvin Tolson is no highbrow. Kids from the cottonfields like him. Cowpunchers understand him. He is a great teacher of the kind any college might be proud. It is not just English he teaches, but character, and manhood, and womanhood, and love, and courage, and pride. And the likes of him is found no where else but in the great State of Texas—because there is only one Tolson!

The recently published collection of letters between Arna Bontemps and Langston Hughes have several references to Tolson in them, frequently referring to both writers' hopes that Tolson will be of help in arranging for a performance of one of their plays or in the arranging of an appearance at Wiley College. But two other incidents are particularly notable. Hughes, on June 22, 1949, tells Bontemps of the progress he is making in editing a special issue of Voices featuring black writers. It "is coming along fine, lots of poets have responded with good stuff, Tolson with his BEST poem yet." The "best" poem of Tolson's is "African China," still one of Tolson's most frequently anthologized poems. "African China" is a slightly rewritten amalgam of two poems originally part of A Gallery of Harlem Portraits. At the time Hughes wrote these remarks Tolson was also hard at work on the revisions for Libretto for the Republic of Liberia, a poem Hughes could admire only with distant irony. Thus the poem Hughes admires is predictably enough the poem which is rooted in that part of Tolson's career when Hughes himself was such a vivid presence.

In this same letter Hughes asks Bontemps: "Do you know any nice gentle old Negro who could play the lead in Cry the Beloved Country which I've been trying to help Max-well Anderson and Kurt Weill to cast?" Bontemps replies on June 26:

A person you should have Mamoulian-Anderson-Weill consider for Cry the Beloved Country is none other than M. B. Tolson. His hair is gray, he has the gentleness, etc., and moreover he has been a director of little theatres and debating teams for years. He is at home on a stage. I think he would love it, that he could easily get a leave from Langston U. for this purpose, and that he would be a stomping success. And he is very much the Roland type! Tell Reuben I send this nomination with my warm regards and best wishes for the success of his new production.

Hughes makes the suggestion. Weill asks him to phone Tolson. Tolson is enthusiastic about the project. There is a question about Tolson's singing voice. Then for some reason not clear in the letters someone else gets the part.

In the spring of 1965 Hughes introduced Tolson at a poetry reading for AMSAC in New York City. In his introduction Hughes recounts a funny but pointed adventure that he and Tolson had when they were in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1952, as part of an impressive gathering of black writers celebrating Jackson State College's 75th Diamond Jubilee. Hughes had heard that the crack Panama Limited which stopped at Jackson on its way from Chicago to New Orleans was very reluctant "to haul coal." Even Charles S. Johnson of the Urban League complained he was unable to get a ticket on this train in Chicago. Since Tolson was wiser in the ways of the South, he took the initiative. The two bought tickets for New Orleans days in advance, arrived at the depot an hour ahead of schedule, but boarded only at the last minute. The conductor then held up the train while he called down the line of cars searching for an empty drawing room to avoid seating them with the white passengers, and they finally ended up riding in the most elegant drawing room on the train, although after the rigors of the conference and considering the early hour in the morning, they both slept most of the way to New Orleans.

In the late 40's and early 50's Tolson developed a poetic style which he hoped would enable him to project the needs and interests of black people into the imaginations of a still developing audience of the future. He based his experiment on the self-conscious modernism of such poets as Pound, Eliot, Williams and Stevens. Tolson's stylistic experiment, particularly in Libretto for the Republic of Liberia, took him, at least ostensibly, further and further away from Hughes as a poetic model or mentor. I say ostensibly because Tolson was delighted when Stanley Edgar Hyman noted that although Tolson's technique of juxtaposition could easily be identified with Eliot's Waste Land and Pound's Cantos, its kinship to the associative organization of the blues is also obvious. And while Tolson may have borrowed many poetic techniques from T. S. Eliot, the radical, international, democratic revolution he prophetically visions in Libretto is a world in which Langston Hughes and William Carlos Williams would be far more comfortable than would T. S. Eliot.

And certainly in Tolson's final book, Harlem Gallery, he comes full circle. Even though this final book is placed in the consciousness of the Curator who thinks of himself as an artist manqué and who reportedly speculates on the nature of art and of man, there are still many of the same vivid characteristics of the earlier Harlem which meant so much to both Hughes and Tolson. The Curator ironically acknowledges at the outset that while ready to deliver "a full / rich Indies' cargo," he often hears "a dry husk-of-locust blues / descend the tone ladder of a laughing goose, / syncopating between / the faggot and the noose." John Laugart's painterly attack on the Black Bourgeoisie, Hideho Heights' entertaining the Zulu Club wits, and Mister Starks' penetrating poetic portraits all intensely imply a Harlem which still represents the dreams of a people whose dreams have been too long deferred.

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