Melvin B. Tolson | Critical Review by Rita Dove

This literature criticism consists of approximately 11 pages of analysis & critique of Melvin B. Tolson.
This section contains 3,212 words
(approx. 11 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Rita Dove

Critical Review by Rita Dove

SOURCE: "Telling It Like It I-S 'IS': Narrative Techniques in Melvin Tolson's 'Harlem Gallery,'" in New England Review and Bread Loaf Quarterly, Vol. VIII, No. 1, Autumn, 1985, pp. 109-17.

In the following review, Dove traces Tolson's Harlem Gallery and its reception among African-American intellectuals.

When Melvin B. Tolson published part I of his projected epic poem, Harlem Gallery, in 1965, critical response was immediate and controversial. Whereas the mainstream literati (read: white) were enthusiastic, proclaiming Tolson's piece as the lyrical successor of The Waste Land, The Bridge, and Paterson, proponents of the rapidly solidifying Black Aesthetic were less impressed. Part of the controversy was sparked by Karl Shapiro's well-meaning Foreword. "Tolson writes and thinks in Negro," Shapiro pronounced, prompting poet and essayist Sarah Webster Fabio to remark:

Melvin Tolson's language is most certainly not "Negro" to any significant degree. The weight of that vast, bizarre, pseudo-literary diction is to be placed back into the American mainstream where it rightfully and wrongmindedly belongs.

Shapiro describes Gallery as "a narrative work so fantastically stylized that the mind balks at comparisons." Divided into 24 sections corresponding to the letters in the Greek alphabet, Harlem Gallery contains allusions to Vedic Gods, Tintoretto, and Pre-Cambrian pottery, as well as snippets in Latin and French. No wonder some of his black contemporaries thought he was "showing off."

To be sure, the timing was bad for such a complex piece. The Civil Rights movement was at its peak, and Black Consciousness had permeated every aspect of Afro-American life, including its literature. Black writers rejected white literary standards, proclaiming their own Black Aesthetic which extolled literature written for the common people, a literature that was distinctly oral, using the language patterns and vocabulary of the street to arouse feelings of solidarity and pride among Afro-Americans.

Although Shapiro prefaced his precocious linguistic analysis with a righteous outburst against the "liberal" politics of American tokenism, the suspicion had already been raised that M. B. Tolson was the white critics' flunky. "A great poet has been living in our midst for decades and is almost totally unknown …" Shapiro exclaimed; Paul Breman, however, in his contribution to Poetry and Drama, The Black American Writer (vol. II), declared "[Tolson] postured for a white audience, and with a wicked sense of humour gave it just what it wanted: an entertaining darkey using almost comically big words as the best wasp tradition demands of its educated house-niggers."

Who was this Tolson? Could he be the same man appointed Poet Laureate of Liberia and commissioned to write the Libretto for the Republic of Liberia in celebration of Liberia's Centennial? Allen Tate had written a patronizing introduction to this piece; conversely, William Carlos Williams salutes the Libretto in Paterson. Could the "white man's darkie" be the same man who taught at black colleges all his life, the teacher who gleefully watched his debate students defeat the debate team at Oxford? Could he be the same poet who said, "I will visit a place T. S. Eliot never visited"? And is this that most "unNegro-like" voice that Fabio protested:

         but often I hear a dry husk-of-locust blues
         descend the tone ladder of a laughing goose,
                   syncopating between
                 the faggot and the noose:
                "Black Boy, O Black Boy,
              is the port worth the cruise?"

Tolson's virtuoso use of folk talk and street jive was forgotten whenever the readers stumbled across more "literary" allusions like "a mute swan not at Coole." In the controversy over racial loyalties and author's intent, nobody bothered to read Harlem Gallery on its own terms. The poem—and the story it tries to tell—got lost in the crossfire.

Harlem Gallery, Book I: The Curator is the first part of a proposed five-part poem delineating the odyssey of the black man in America…. In Book I: The Curator (the only book Tolson completed before his death in 1966), the role of the black artist is examined on several levels. The narrator, a Mulatto of "afroirishjewish origins" and ex-Professor of Art, is curator of the Harlem Gallery. His gallery allows him ample opportunity to observe the shenanigans of the black bourgeoisie; his dealings with starving artists such as John Laugart, as well as his friendship with other black cultural figures, give him glimpses into all strata of black life. The Curator's alter ego, Dr. Nkomo, is his stronger, more prideful counterpart; taken together, their observations form a dialectic of the position of blacks—and most specifically, the black artist—in white America.

The Curator muses on the predicament of being black and an artist in America. "O Tempora, / what is man?" he asks in "Beta"; "O Mores, / what manner of man is this?" Spliced into this highly stylized ode are little stories—dramatic monologues, vignettes—which serve to illustrate the philosophical stance of the more discursive parts. These stories exhibit classical narrative techniques, as well as several storytelling "riffs" which are rooted in the Afro-American oral tradition.

The lives of three black artists are limned. The first, the half-blind, destitute painter John Laugart, we first meet in "Zeta." In his search for new work to show, the Curator visits Laugart in his "catacomb Harlem flat." The character sketch of Laugart is as gritty and muscular as anything in Dickens:

                 His sheaf of merino hair
                   an agitated ambush,
          he bottomed upon the hazard of a bed—
                    "The eagle's wings,
                  as well as the wren's,
                 grow weary of flying."
         His vanity was a fast-day soup—thin, cold.

Laugart has just finished his masterpiece, Black Bourgeoisie, a painting the Curator feels is certain to arouse the ire of the patrons of his gallery. Yet Laugart refuses to compromise his art in order to pay the rent. The consequences—related in a dry postscript—"He was robbed and murdered in his flat, / and the only witness was a Hamletian rat."

John Laugart's tragic fate is sandwiched between the shimmering overture of the first five sections and the underworld glimmer of the Harlem of the Thirties. The Curator leaves Laugart to his chill vigil and stops in at Aunt Grindle's Elite Chitterling Shop to shoot the philosophic bull with his ace boon coon, Doctor Obi Nkomo. They are next seen at a Vernissage at the Harlem Gallery, where sublimated versions of black history and its heroes hanging on the wall provide ironic contrast to the ignominious private lives of the prospective buyers, exemplified by Mr. Guy Delaporte III, "the symbol / of Churchianity" to the "Sugar Hill elite."

"Hey man, when you gonna close this dump?" cries Hideho Heights as he bursts into the hushed gallery. Our second black Artist, the "poet laureate of Harlem," is boisterous and irreverent. He stops his good-natured ribbing only long enough to declaim his latest poem, a tribute to "Satchmo" Armstrong. Those sections of Harlem Gallery devoted to Hideho Heights display a virtuoso rendering of narrative layers—a tribute, perhaps, to Heights's own extravagant linguistic paeans. In the section "Mu," the scene at the Zulu Club provides a backdrop to Hideho's recitation of his rather militant version of the John Henry ballad. This story-within-a-story, however, is interrupted by the anecdotes of the "Zulu Club Wits," whose tableside conversation ranges from an anecdote about service in a Jim Crow restaurant to an animal fable reminiscent of Brer Rabbit (which draws its spirit from Africa) about the mistreated minorities in America: Hideho relates the "strange but true" story of the sea-turtle and the shark. Driven by hunger to swallow the sea-turtle whole, the shark is utterly helpless as the "sly reptilian marine" gnaws / … and gnaws … and gnaws … / his way to freedom."

The dialogues in the Zulu Club scenes show how close Tolson's baroque surface mirrors typical black street speech. When Heights pinches a "fox," she whirls around and "signifies" on him:

          "What you smell isn't cooking," she said.
                    Hideho sniffed.
               "Chanel No. 5," he scoffed,
                  "from Sugar Hill."

Hideho Heights's John Henry poem ("The night John Henry is born an ax / of lightning splits the sky, / and a hammer of thunder pounds the earth, / and the eagles and panthers cry!") is right in the tradition of great black ballads, as well as incorporating the bawdiness ("Poor Boy Blue! Poor Boy Blue! / I came to Lenox Avenue, / but I find up here a Bitchville, too!") of a "toast." In her excellent study on black speech patterns, Talkin and Testifyin: The Language of Black America, Geneva Smitherman describes the toast:

Toasts represent a form of black verbal art requiring memory and linguistic fluency from the narrators. Akin to grand epics in the Graeco-Roman style, the movement of the Toast is episodic, lengthy and detailed…. Since the overall narrative structure is loose and episodic, there is both room and necessity for individual rhetorical embellishments and fresh imaginative imagery … the material is simply an extension of black folk narrative in the oral tradition.

In fact, the whole of Harlem Gallery is very much like the Toasts to Shine and Stag-o-lee, those mythic "bad-men" heroes in black oral tradition. In Tolson's case, however, his hero is the archetypal Black Artist.

Many of Tolson's narrative techniques are based on devices exclusively rooted in the Afro-American tradition. "Metaphors and symbols in Spirituals and Blues / have been the Negro's manna in the Great White World," sighs one Zulu Club wit; perhaps the most vivid declaration of this appears in "Iota":

            In the Harlem Gallery, pepper birds
                 clarion in the dusk of dawn
          the flats and sharps of pigment-words—
        quake the walls of Mr Rockefeller's Jericho
            with the new New Order of things,
           as the ambivalence of dark dark laughter
             in Harlem's immemorial winter.

The third Harlem artist is Mister Starks, conductor of the Harlem Symphony orchestra. Mister (his mother gave him the first name "Mister" so that whites would have to address him with respect) appears in sections "Rho," "Sigma," "Tau" and "Upsilon." To relate the circumstances of Starks's mysterious death, Tolson uses all the devices of the criminal drama, right down to the Smoking Gun and the Deep Dark Secret Revealed in the Secret Papers.

"Rho" begins with a phone call from the police station. "O sweet Jesus, / make the bastard leave me alone!" a hysterical Heddy Starks screams. The Curator recalls how Mister Starks met Heddy, then a striptease dancer called "Black Orchid," and how she used "The intelligentsia of Mister's bent" as "steps on the aerial ladder / of the black and tan bourgeosie."

Next comes a flashback to the day of Starks's death. He has sent a copy of his Last Will and Testament to his friend Ma'am Shears, owner of the Angelus Funeral Home. Fearing the worst, she phones to discourage him: "It's not like Black folks to commit suicide," she pleads. Starks's only response is a dry repartee: "Aren't we civilized yet? The Will contains explicit instructions for Starks's funeral, as well as an admonishment to his wife to turn over to the Curator the manuscript she has "possessed / with malice aforethought." Seven pages after Heddy's hysterical phone call, we learn why she is phoning: "arrested at a marijuana party / and haunted in her cell," she has decided to give the manuscript to the Curator and make "her peace with God."

Starks is found with a bullet in his heart; the gun is found in the toilet bowl of a character named Crazy Cain. Now we know "who-dun-it," but we don't know anything about the murderer. For that information we need to read the manuscript, a collection of poetical portraits written by Starks and titled Harlem Vignettes.

The section "Upsilon" is comprised entirely of these vignettes, which begin with a painfully honest self-portrait. Starks is aware that he has compromised his talents, writing boogie-woogie records when he should have been pursuing the excellence of his one triumph, the Black Orchid Suite. The Harlem Vignettes are incisive thumbnail sketches of many of the characters already encountered in Harlem Gallery, including John Laugart, Hideho Heights, and the inscrutable Curator. In Crazy Cain's sketch we learn that Mister Starks had fired him from the Harlem Symphony; he was also the illegitimate son of Black Orchid and Mr. Guy Delaporte III.

Can I get a Witness? Because what Tolson has been doing all along is testifying, which is nothing more than to "tell the truth through story." The Vignettes are important not only as an advancement of the plot, but for their function as narrative history—in designing them, Tolson is a sort of literary counterpart to the African griot, the elder assigned the task of memorizing tribal history.

There are a host of other characteristics typical of black speech which appear in Harlem Gallery—mimicry, exaggerated language, spontaneity, bragadoccio. There is one narrative technique, however, which informs the overall structure of Tolson's piece. Smitherman calls this mode of presentation "narrative sequencing" and observes that many Afro-American stories are actually abstract observations about the larger questions of life rendered into concrete narratives:

The relating of events (real or hypothetical) becomes a black rhetorical strategy to explain a point, to persuade holders of opposing views to one's own point of view…. This meandering away from the "point" takes the listener on episodic journeys and over tributary rhetorical routes, but like the flow of nature's rivers and streams, it all eventually leads back to the source. Though highly applauded by blacks, this narrative linguistic style is exasperating to whites who wish you'd be direct and hurry up and get to the point.

Tolson doesn't stop there, but employs another important technique of black/African storytelling—what Smitherman calls "tonal semantics": using rhythm and inflection to carry the implication of a statement. "Oh yes, it bees that way sometimes," an old blues lyric goes; Tolson syncopates his passages by erratic line lengths strung on a central axis, thus propelling our eye down the page while stopping us up on short lines:

                    The school of the artist
                   the circle of wild horses,
                        heads centered,
                as they present to the wolves
                    a battery of heels …

Harlem Gallery is composed according to Tolson's "S-Trinity of Parnassus"—the melding of sound, sight and sense. Sound refers to the oral nature of the poem—"Just as sound, / not spelling, / is the white magic of rhyming in the poet's feat…." Tolson meant for his lines to be read aloud; the visual impact of the centered lines contributes to the forward thrust that a lively oral recitation would possess. "Sense" refers to both meaning and the sensory aspect of language.

Tolson's extravagant verbiage pays homage to the essence of "style"—he mixes colloquial and literary references as well as diction; irony and pathos, slapstick and pontification sit side-by-side. And if we look closely at Harlem Gallery's dazzling array of allusions—one component of what Sarah Webster Fabio calls Tolson's "vast, bizarre, pseudo-literary diction,"—we find no favoritism for any social or cultural group…. If anything, Tolson is deliberately complicating our pre-conceived notions of cultural—and, by further implication, existential—order.

Even the title of Tolson's poem can be taken a thousand different ways. Its primary meaning—the art gallery in Harlem which the Curator runs—is embellished by a host of secondary connotations: 1) the peanut gallery (cheaper balcony seats in a movie theater, where blacks were relegated in segregated establishments); 2) the art gallery as symbol, suggesting a reading of the poem as a series of portraits (an earlier Tolson work, A Gallery of Harlem Portraits, is similar to Mister Starks's Harlem Vignettes in that it is more a collection of portraits than a tale); 3) the sense of gallery as a promenade; Tolson's characters certainly "exhibit" themselves, and Tolson makes a case for the hero as stylist; for Hideho Heights, Mister Starks, the Curator and Doctor Nkomo, style is being. This importance of "style" finds its more popular counterparts in the lyrics of James Brown and the hot "cool" image of Prince; you make do with what you got, you take an inch and run with it. As Ronald Walcott says in his essay "Ellison, Gordone and Tolson: Some Notes on the Blues, Style and Space":

For Melvin Tolson, the victories attainable through style are not only real, considerable and worthy of record, but they are indicative as well of his people's invincible sense of the possible …; style, if one takes it seriously as an expression of vision, is substance, insofar as it reflects and determines one's experience, assessment and response being what experience, after all, is about.

Harlem Gallery is not merely a showcase for Tolson's linguistic and lyrical virtuosity; neither is it a hodge-podge of anecdotes and small lives set like cameos in the heavy silver of philosophical discourse. It is to be viewed not as the superficial "Sugar Hill elite" inspect the art works hanging at the exhibition in the Curator's gallery. Rather, the lives of John Laugart, Hideho Heights and Mister Starks should be seen as illustrations of the three possibilities/alternatives for the black artist. One can embrace the Bitch-Goddess Success (personified by Hedda Stark/"Black Orchid"), as did Mister Starks: "My talent was an Uptown whore," he says of himself, "my wit a Downtown pimp." One can, like Laugart, remain uncompromising and be spurned by one's own. Or one can lead a double life, producing crowd-pleasers (which don't necessarily have to lack aesthetic principles) while creating in secrecy the works one hopes will last. The Curator discovers Hideho's double life one night when he takes the poet home, dead-drunk in a taxi; on the table the Curator discovers a poem "in the modern idiom" called E. and O.E.—which happens to be the title of a psychological poem for which Tolson received Poetry magazine's Bess Hokin award in 1952.

Where does Tolson place himself in this "trinity that stinks the ermine robes"? Certainly not with Mister Starks, although he is sympathetic to Starks's weakness. And, similarities notwithstanding, he does not identify himself with the Poet Laureate of Harlem. Although he admires Hideho's flair and to a great extent believes in Heights's aesthetic manifesto ("A work of art is a two-way street, / not a dead end, / where an artist and a hipster meet. / The form and content in a picture or a song / should blend like the vowels in a diphthong …") Tolson certainly didn't hide his "difficult" poems from the public.

Tolson's meditation on the plight of the black American artist emerges most vividly in "Psi." The Curator sees his place in America quite clearly. "Black Boy," he begins, "let me get up from the white man's Table of Fifty Sounds / in the kitchen; let me gather the crumbs and cracklings / of this autobio-fragment / before the curtain with the skull and bones descends." The kitchen is the place for servants, but it is also the place where scraps of song and gossip blend to become a marvellous "kitchen talk."

Paradoxically it is John Laugart, the artist given least space in Harlem Gallery, who most exemplifies Tolson's own sense of artistic responsibility. And though Tolson didn't die destitute and anonymous—in fact, he received the annual poetry award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters a few months before his death in 1966—he was misunderstood by many of those he loved most, by those to whom he dedicated his energies in the creation of his last work—the black intellectuals. No one understood this predicament better than Tolson himself. As he has the Curator say near the end of Harlem Gallery:

                      Poor Boy Blue,
                  the Great White World
                and the Black Bourgeoisie
             have shoved the Negro Artist into
            the white and non-white dichotomy,
          the Afroamerican dilemma in the Arts—
                      the dialectic of
                    to be or not to be
                            a Negro.

(read more)

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