Melvin B. Tolson | Critical Essay by Michael Bérubé

This literature criticism consists of approximately 24 pages of analysis & critique of Melvin B. Tolson.
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Critical Essay by Michael Bérubé

SOURCE: "Masks, Margins, and African American Modernism: Melvin Tolson's Harlem Gallery," in PMLA, Vol. 105, No. 1, January, 1990, pp. 57-69.

In the following essay, Bérubé discusses Tolson's work in relation to African-American modernism.

Harlem Gallery has been alternately celebrated and castigated for its formal difficulty—when, that is, it has been read at all. Yet although the poem is as formidable as any hypertextual text produced by the throes of modernism—saving Finnegans Wake—there seems something amiss in the idea that its difficulty should be a significant issue in itself; surely, by now, allusive, elliptical poetry should not be grounds for controversy. Still, even if the grounds are questionable, they are by no means powerless. Readers have apparently found the poem so generally inaccessible that publishers have followed suit and rendered it literally inaccessible, for even in the midst of the current revolution in African American letters, Harlem Gallery has quietly gone out of print.

More to the point, however, Tolson's poetic technique has been controversial, appropriately or not, insofar as it has been taken as evidence of Tolson's wrongheaded emulation of T. S. Eliot. And on this count, to be sure, some of the confusion can be traced directly to Tolson: he himself spoke repeatedly of Eliot's poetry as if it were somehow historically inevitable, as if its "revolution" were at once totalizing and irreversible. He writes, for example, in a 1955 book review that "when T. S. Eliot published The Waste Land in 1922, it sounded the death knell of Victorianism, Romanticism, and Didacticism. When Eliot was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, the victory of the moderns was complete. The modern idiom is here to stay—like modern physics." The curious terms of Tolson's certainty are worth noting—poetry and physics are construed here as analogously developmental disciplines whose paradigm shifts obliterate all that has gone before—but even more curious is the focus on Eliot's Nobel Prize as the sign of modernism's "victory." It is small wonder, therefore, that Harlem Gallery's more hostile critics read Tolson as if he were simply out of touch, a late modernist writing in the midst of the black aesthetic of the sixties. Only after the Nobel Prize was awarded to Eliot, apparently, did Tolson decide that modernism would leave behind the poets who did not confront and assimilate it. Accordingly, his reaction, self-consciously belated, seems something of an overcompensation: witness his declaration, in a 1948 commencement address at a small black college in Kentucky, that

[n]ow the time has come for a New Negro Poetry for the New Negro. The most difficult thing to do today is to write modern poetry. Why? It is the acme of the intellectual. Longfellow, Whittier, Milton, Tennyson, and Poe are no longer the poets held in high repute. The standard of poetry has changed completely. Negroes must become aware of this. This is the age of T. S. Eliot who has just won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

This speech seems to me at least as striking as his review of seven years later—not only for its commitment to the politics and poetics of assimilation but for the thoroughness of its adoption of modernist polemics; his dismissal of Milton and Tennyson is an especially accurate touch. And sure enough, in his "New Negro Poetry"—"E. & O.E." in 1951 and Libretto for the Republic of Liberia in 1953—he deliberately and pedantically suggests his affiliation with The Waste Land by appending to each poem pages of footnotes, like Eliot's both explanatory and obscure. But despite such testimony, I intend to show that the crux of the work lies not in whether it is an artifact of African American modernism but in what it has to say about modernism's relation to African American literature. And if we read the poem in this way, we find that, for all its vaunted "modernism," its central argument turns on—of all things—a parable. That "argument," as we will see, seeks to demonstrate that resistance to modernism, in the form of a black separatist poetics, is a cultural stance impossible to maintain; and the "parable" is the extempore ballad of the sea turtle and the shark recited by Hideho Heights, the populist "poet laureate of Lenox Avenue" in "Phi," the twenty-first of the poem's twenty-four irregular odes, each entitled a letter of the Greek alphabet.

I

Before I turn to the parable, however, I want to sketch out its position in the poem; for if we are to retrieve the subversive force of Hideho's ballad, we need first to retrieve the dominant discourse and ideology his ballad threatens to subvert. In Harlem Gallery, the predominant voice is that of the Curator, whose romantic/modernist vision of art holds not only that an authentic art must disturb and thereby transform its immediate audience but also that art's value lies in resistance to and concomitant transcendence of history, ideology, and the material base that creates or enables various conditions of reception—including, in one representative passage, the passing parade of PhDs:

                     In Chronos Park
           the Ars-powered ferris wheel revolves
                through golden age and dark
                as historied isms rise and fall
             and the purple of the doctor's robe
      (ephemeral as the flesh color of the fame flower)
             is translated into the coffin's pall.

Thus, in his moments of crisis as the gallery's curator—when he feels torn from his ideally disinterested role by the demands of the gallery's audience or its regents—he consoles himself with a version of Yeats's tragic gaiety; and the weight of his argument falls, specifically, on the work of the French avant-garde of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries:

                    Then O then, O ruins,
                        I remember
                      the alien hobnails
          of that cross-nailing Second of September
             did not crush like a mollusk's shell,
                      in café and studio,
          the élan of Courbet, Cézanne, and Monet,
           nor did the self-deadfall of the Maginot
                 palsy the hand of Chagall,
                          Matisse,
                        and Picasso.

Such is the Curator's cultural position: he is a champion of art, especially experimental art, for the reason that art is a profound affirmation and consolation, a basso continuo in the threnody of human history. It is a theory of art—and of art's relation to history—with which we are, no doubt, thoroughly familiar.

But the Curator is able to maintain this "cultural position," and eventually to use it to critique Hideho Heights, only by refusing to specify his historical position. Of course, given the Curator's commitment to the transhistorical—or ahistorical—element in art, which defines for him the value of the "masterpiece," his refusal to locate himself temporally may be ideologically appropriate. Yet much has been made of Harlem Gallery's stylistic ambiguities; it is odd, then, that no critic has seen fit to question the purpose of the ambiguity of the poem's present tense, its time of narration. The question is not simply critical pedantry; in a poem whose "central" problematic concerns the ultimate place of the "marginal" artist, it is necessarily a central issue.

Does the poem take place, then, in the twenties, the forties, the sixties, or an amalgam of temporal loci scattered over this span? And if the last, what are the ramifications of this temporal "dispersion" for the poem's invocation of great artists? When the Curator alludes to Matisse, for example, is he invoking the turn-of-the-century Fauvist Matisse or the mid-century Matisse of paper cutouts who said he wanted to create art the tired businessman could come home to? And to what end in either case? To put the question another way, if the poem wants to narrate, in its allusive subtext, the story of how the impressionists of Paris garrets became the impressionists we see in coffee-table tomes, then is the poem celebrating the process by which revolutions in aesthetics eventually make their way into the cultural lingua franca, or is it alerting us to the historical process by which the avant-garde is transmuted into kitsch and thus calling us to carry on the revolutions of the avant-garde?

We cannot answer these questions—not because we do not have enough textual evidence but because the textual evidence itself will not allow the questions to be answered. In the matter of narrative time, indeterminacy is inscribed in the poem at every turn; it is as if the poem, like the electron in Heisenberg's principle, cannot say where it is—its position can be specified only in terms of probability and range. And Tolson has apparently been careful to cover his tracks: in "Beta" the Curator writes of "Young Men labeled by their decades / The Lost, The Bright, The Angry, The Beat"; but in "Eta" we hear that Rommel has just died. In the Zulu Club, despite the reference Hideho Heights makes to improvisatory jazz poetry, we find him sneaking alcohol under the table as if Prohibition were in effect; and at one point, the Curator's good friend, the Bantu expatriate Dr. Nkomo, brings the poem into the sixties, as he urges

                        the artists
            of the Market Place Gallery in Harlem:
                       "Remember
                  the Venerable Yankee Poet
           on the unfamiliar red carpet of the Capitol
        as he visaed the gospel of the Founding Fathers
                 … Novus Ordo Seclorum
                  spieled by every dollar bill."

Indeed, we may find this temporal ambiguity even in the poem's opening quatrain:

        The Harlem Gallery, an Afric pepper bird,
         Awakes me at a people's dusk of dawn.
        The age altars its image, a dog's hind leg,
        And hazards the moment of truth in pawn.

For even given the oblique allusion, in line 2, to W. E. B. Du Bois's 1940 Dusk of Dawn, it is unclear when this dusk of dawn takes place. It may be, for example, as one critic has it, that "Harlem Gallery" refers metonymically "to the artists who contribute to the gallery; in which case, this may also be a topical allusion to a cultural revolution brought about by the Harlem Renaissance"; it may as well be, on a similar principle, that the "people's dusk of dawn" occurs not in the 1920s but in the early 1940s, during the first of the wartime Harlem riots, or, for that matter, during the dawn of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Lines 3 and 4 compound the uncertainty. The objects of "altars" in line 3—"image" and "dog's hind leg"—parallel the appositive noun phrases in line 1, and line 4 closes the quatrain on a rhyme. Pattern is evoked by repetition and completion, and yet the metrical pattern of the first line's symmetrical trochees and dactyls ("Harlem Gallery," "Afric pepper bird") is broken, in line 3, on "altars," just as the fourth line, constructed of two anapests flanked by iambs, disrupts the iambic pentameter of the second. Indeed, if we try to read line 4 against the second line's norm, we find that the most heavily accented words turn out to be "hazards," "moment," and "truth"; in reading the second pair of lines, therefore, we are forced to stress "altars," "hazards," "moment," "truth." Altars, a consecration; hazards, a gamble; truth, eternal; moment, ephemeral: the collision of noumena with phenomena extends the tension of the dusk of dawn, and the pun on altars suggests the extraordinary lability of the moment of consecration, a lability the poem will continue to exploit. The opening quatrain employs the present tense even as it undoes the present tense: it does not signify a present, it throws a present tens-ion over a tenseless moment of flux.

This systematic temporal confusion enables the poem to dodge its most important cultural questions—namely, if the dissemination of high culture to the masses is an end devoutly to be wished, how can dissemination avoid trivialization, dissolution, and "kitschification"? If the Tolsonian avant-garde is driven by the desire to create the taste by which it is to be enjoyed, how (to borrow a phrase from Lillian Robinson) do we know when we've won, and how do we go about "winning"? What, in other words, is the cultural position of the avant-garde artist who finally has transformed the masses or been transformed by them?

It is, of course, in the face of serious cultural questions such as these that ideology does its most useful work; and Tolson was fortunate to have as a professional friend and supporter John Ciardi, for it was Ciardi's conception of high culture that provided Tolson with a palliative answer. In 1958, Ciardi wrote a piece for the Saturday Review entitled "Dialogue with the Audience," in which a Citizen asks a Poet, "Who are you modern poets for? Is there no such thing as an audience?" Ciardi's Poet responds by distinguishing between two kinds of audience, "horizontal" and "vertical." I quote the column at some length, not only because Tolson himself quoted it so often but also because neither Tolson nor, curiously, his critics found it at all remarkable—that is, worthy of scrutiny:

"The horizontal audience consists of everybody who is alive at this moment. The vertical audience consists of everyone, vertically through time, who will ever read a given poem…."

"The point is that the horizontal audience always outnumbers the vertical at any one moment, but that the vertical audience for good poetry always out-numbers the horizontal in time-enough. And not only for the greatest poets. Andrew Marvell is certainly a minor poet, but given time enough, more people certainly will have read 'To His Coy Mistress' than will ever have subscribed to Time, Life, and Fortune. Compared to what a good poem can do, Luce is a piker at getting circulation."

"Impressive, if true," says the Citizen, "but how does any given poet get his divine sense of the vertical audience?"

"By his own ideal projection of his own best sense of himself. It's as simple as that," says the Poet. "He may be wrong, but he has nothing else to go by. And there is one thing more—all good poets are difficult when their work is new. And their work always becomes less difficult as their total shape becomes more and more visible. As that shape impresses itself upon time, one begins to know how to relate the parts to their total." (my emphasis)

Notable here are at least three features: the useful confusion as to who outnumbers whom; the implicit claim that "vertical" audiences always form and that worthy marginal poets therefore always eventually become central; and, not least among these, the deft elimination of specificity and agency in the last two sentences, which leave us ultimately with the incomprehensible image of a "shape" that "impresses itself upon time."

That such an argument would have great appeal for Tolson should be obvious. But despite Ciardi's confident implication that the avant-garde always eventually becomes the cultural center, Tolson's poem, by confining itself to the image of an avant-garde already nearly a century old, has (perhaps unwittingly) left ambiguous that avant-garde's contemporary cultural position. And this ambiguity, like the deliberate confusion of times, is woven into the poem's very fabric: Nkomo's citation of Robert Frost at Kennedy's inauguration, for example, is immediately followed by his extraordinary reference to Cézanne as a "Toussaint L'Ouverture of Esthetics" acclaimed only by his fellow artists:

             "… Remember, yes, remember …
       Zola, Renoir, Degas, Gauguin, Van Gogh, and
                          Rodin
                     hailed Cézanne;
             but vox populi and red-tapedom
         remained as silent as spectators in a court
        when the crier repeats three times, 'Oyez!'"

What, then, is the relation of the two allusions—oppositional or appositional? If the former, then Frost is an example of the popular recognition and acclaim Cézanne never achieved; if the latter, Frost becomes an image of how the state can defuse the power of a Toussaint L'Ouverture by falsely embracing him, by giving him an "official" role. The Curator actually does entertain the latter possibility—not in "Pi" but in "Omega":

                 Now and then a State,
               when iron fists and hobnails
            explode alarms at the citadel's gate,
           dons the ill-fitting robes of the Medici
                and initiates Project CX,
     to propagandize a rubber-stamped Pyramid of Art
           and to glorify the Cheops at the apex.

Is this the light in which to read the Frost tableau, as a modern version of the hostile silence of vox populi and redtapedom with which Cézanne was supposedly received—a version wherein "hostile silence" has now become Marcuse's "repressive tolerance"? The question should trouble much of the rest of the poem as well: for we may not be sure, after all, what the Curator means by writing, in "Delta," that the "world-self of the make- / believe becomes the swimming pool of a class, / a balsam apple / of the soul." Does "swimming pool" here potentiate or subvert the image of art as a "balsam apple / of the soul"? Is this swimming pool, in other words, a comfort and refreshment for the sweltering multitudes, or has the work of art been made into a mere commodity, a suburban status symbol?

Even some of the poem's allusions, which seem on the surface unproblematic, recapitulate this ambiguity. Take, for example, this fairly straight-forward stanza from "Epsilon":

                             Again
     by the waters of Babylon we sit down and weep,
                 for the pomp and power
                  of the bulls of Bashan
    serve Belshazzarian tables to artists and poets who
                     serve the hour,
               torn between two masters,
                    God and Caesar—
                  this (for Conscience)
             the Chomolungma of disasters.

Clearly enough, this passage laments the power of large-scale market forces, cast here as Psalm 22's bulls of Bashan, to lure artists into lucrative positions that compromise or adulterate artistic commitments. But then the Curator's allusion to "Belshazzarian tables" is troubling, for Belshazzar's feast in Daniel 5.1-4 is immediately followed by the appearance of the writing on the wall in 5.5. We may be weeping because the bulls of Bashan have bought off the artists, or we may be weeping because we are as yet unaware that a Daniel is about to arrive, to signify on the oppressors. But perhaps (to carry the ambiguity further yet) there is no Daniel here at all. Will, then, the prophet in exile arrive, to refuse riches and rewards, speak the truth, overthrow the king, and usher in the new, benevolent administration of Darius the Mede? Or are the artists and poets, their mouths stuffed full of Belshazzar's food, unable to speak?

I suggest the poem deliberately invites and ignores such questions, chiefly to keep alive and plausible its primary cultural myth: the myth of an avant-garde that, despite the opposition of critics, capitalists, and philistines, has survived to become part of "the heritage of Art," which, as "Omicron" has it, "nurtures everywhere / the winged and wingless man" and which allows the Curator to write, near poem's end, "I envision the Harlem Gallery of my people." To this end, the poem maintains its cultural contradictions as sedulously as it refrains from any reference to post-Depression marginal artists, and both strategies, mutually supporting, serve to help the poem avoid confronting directly its relation to the audience, and the avant-garde, of its own time.

For where, in a poem that refers so often to jazz greats like King Oliver, are Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane? Where, in a poem whose temporal range extends to the Kennedy administration, are Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning? The youngest artist in the poem, William Gropper, was born in 1897; Louis Armstrong, its youngest musician, in 1900. Thus, of all the figures in the Curator's anthology, only Satchmo is younger than Tolson. On one level, the omission of more recent experimental artists may be a part of Tolson's reaction to his own self-conscious belatedness, an attempt to conjure the image of the avant-garde as it appeared in the heyday of the Harlem Renaissance; but more significantly, it points also to Harlem Gallery's profound refusal to contemplate its own conflicted and ambiguous position—not only in relation to the mass audience that it seeks to disturb and instruct but also in relation to its fellow travelers on the margins of cultural production.

And this is where Hideho's parable comes in.

Ii

We are in the Zulu Club, in section "Phi," and we have just heard a telling exchange between Dr. Nkomo and Shadrach Martial Kilroy, president of Afroamerican Freedom, Inc.; Kilroy has claimed that "a specter haunts the Great White World— / the specter of Homo Aethiopicus, the pigmented Banquo's ghost." Nkomo's response is at once cynical and definitive; casting the African American's polyglot heritage as a handicap, Nkomo gets the last word on Kilroy: "you / are a people in whose veins / poly-breeds / and / plural strains / mingle and run— / an Albert Ryder of many schools, and none." More than this: he creates the space for Heights's incipient performance, as Hideho nods the Curator to the bar and confides to him that the "bunkum session on the Negro / … has sparked an inspiration."

The Curator, interestingly, is more antagonistic to Heights here than at any other point in the poem:

            "You poets come too soon or too late,
                     Hideho Heights,
                      with too little,
                to save the Old Ship of State.
                   Remember to remember
                      a tribal anthem
           is the yankee-doodle-diddle of a tittle."

But his antagonism is entirely self-defeating: "To Hideho Heights, / … I was a half-white egghead with maggots on the brain. / I ate my crow / … My clichés at the bar / were bones in the maw of the tomb." Given that the Curator will reveal himself, in the poem's penultimate section, to be an octoroon, "half-white egghead" is severe language indeed. But it may be language appropriate to his racial anxieties at this point, for the Curator has, of course, been implicated in Nkomo's critique of the African American. Surely, whatever the basis for the Curator's resistance to Heights, the problematics of "race" are in the forefront here, as they have not been elsewhere in the poem; and it is into this powerfully charged field of racial politics that Hideho casts his version of a beast fable. Challenging the Curator to "[f]ollow the spoor of the symbols—if you have the wit," he tells the "strange but true" tale of the shark and sea turtle, in which black America, imaged as the sea turtle, is first the shark's dinner and then the image of a triumphant resistance to assimilation:

                   "the sea-turtle gnaws
             … and gnaws … and gnaws …
              his way in a way that appalls—
                   his way to freedom,
                beyond the vomiting dark,
                 beyond the stomach walls
                      of the shark."

Lest we (or the Curator) miss the point, the Zulu Club's bartender, a Jamaican veteran of World War II, delivers himself of a profoundly emotional response:

           "God knows, Hideho, you got the low-down
             on the black turtle and the white shark
                      in the Deep South."
                             Then,
                  describing a pectoral girdle,
                     his lower lip curled,
                and he blurted—like an orgasm:
        "And perhaps in many a South of the Great White
                          World!"
         He fumed, he sweated, he paced behind the bar.
 
                           ...
 
        "I was in the bomb-hell at Dunkirk. I was a British
                              tar.
         In Parliament, white Churchill quoted one day,
          'If we must die, let us not die like hogs …'
          The words of a poet, my compatriot—black
                           Claude
                          McKay."

Colonialism as a labor resource in world war: the British swallow the bartender. Quotation and radical recontextualization: Churchill swallows—and fails to acknowledge—McKay's sonnet on the race riots of 1919. Hideho's tale is brought to climax ("blurted—like an orgasm") by the bartender's foregrounding of racial strife against the backdrop of two world wars; and in the revelation vouchsafed by the climax lies a vision in which the spectacle of Claude McKay's words in Churchill's mouth carries with it none of the ambiguous hope or promise of the spectacle of Robert Frost on the steps of the Capitol. For this is a discourse in which "the instinctive drive of the weak to survive" speaks to the politics of separatism in the language of the parable; it is a discourse in which all amalgamation and assimilation is de facto repressive tolerance and therefore cultural genocide. Hideho Heights and the Jamaican bartender, between them, have dared to suggest an answer to the question Harlem Gallery has sought so scrupulously to avoid, and though that answer be couched in a parable, the suggestion is clear: in the melting pot we will be eaten.

Unless, that is, we eat our way out, and "in a way that appalls." Perhaps it appalls even Tolson: for it is surely no accident that Harlem Gallery follows this scene with the Curator's memory of the night when, having dragged home a dead-drunk Heights, he found in Heights's apartment "in the modern idiom; / a poem called E. & O.E." Of all things, Tolson's own poem. Outflanked on the issue of "race," the Curator changes the joke and slips the yoke, unmasking Hideho as a kind of modernist "wannabe," a former Parisian "bistro habitué, / an expatriate poet of the Black Venus / in the Age of Whoopee." Hideho's pose, on the streets and in the Zulu Club, may be convincing to the masses, but the Curator alone is privy to the bard's internal contradictions:

                      He didn't know
                           I knew
                   about the split identity
                   of the People's Poet—
              the bifacial nature of his poetry:
           the racial ballad in the public domain
         and the private poem in the modern vein.

Thence follows the Curator's long epilogic lament on Heights, a moving vatic cry addressed alternately to White Boy and Black Boy and confronting what seem by now twin issues, "race" and culture. The epilogue contains Harlem Gallery's most often cited passages; and among these, one stanza in particular has been taken as the poem's summation. It is nestled in the opening of section "Chi," just before the Curator relates his discovery of E. & O.E.:

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

There is no mistaking the Curator's tone: however antagonistic he may be to Heights's "bifacial nature," he is genuinely saddened at the ambiguous and conflicted position of the black poet who aspires to little magazines and contemporary anthologies, to an ultimately academic context of reception. But though this stanza may be the Curator's conclusion on Heights's tenuous cultural position, and though the stanza may even be "moving," I want to suggest also that there is something fundamentally wrong with such a conclusion—that this ending may be thoroughly elegiac and yet thoroughly false.

For in what sense has Hideho Heights been caught in a "white and not-white dichotomy"? What, after all, is "the dialectic of / to be or not to be / a Negro"? If the Curator suggests, as he intends to, that Hideho shrinks from the task of transforming audiences, succumbing instead to the polarized horizons of expectation in two different literary worlds, then the Curator is also suggesting that modernist poetry is the realm of white folks and that "the Great White World / and the Black Bourgeoisie" demand African American poets who are sufficiently primitive and technically incompetent—in a word, folk poets only. The dichotomy here, recall, is based on "the racial ballad in the public domain / and the private poem in the modern vein": the Curator's pejorative key words are not merely ballad and public but also racial; and they are as closely associated, and as heavily ideologically weighted, as are their counterparts, poem, private, and modern. This much is clear. But then the Curator's characterization of the conflict as the dilemma of "to be or not to be / a Negro" must intend "Negro" in the most bitter, cynical tone imaginable—a tone that implies that poets who choose to be "Negroes first" are simply conforming to a stereotypical "racial" role, precisely the role expected of them by their worst audiences. Indeed, we would do well to remember here that Hideho is no mere panderer to his black audience: as we hear in Harlem Vignettes, Harlem Gallery's lengthy metapoem, "To the Black Bourgeoisie, / Hideho was a crab louse / in the public region of Afroamerica." In Harlem Gallery's terms, that is, Hideho is politically correct; the question the Curator poses, therefore, has nothing to do with whether "racial ballads" can have the oppositional force of an avant-garde and everything to do with whether a contemporary audience, white or black, elitist or populist, will allow an African American poet to be a modernist.

This is why, I think, the parable is the pivot point that swings us into Harlem Gallery's climactic unmasking of Hideho Heights; likewise, this is why, in reading over E. & O.E., the Curator juxtaposes the hesitancy and diffidence of Heights's private poem to the militant confidence of Heights's public stand:

                       Yet,
              depressed like ondoyant glass,
                     Hideho Heights,
          the Coeur de Lion of the Negro mass,
                in E. & O.E. rationalized:
                "Why place an empty pail
                        before a well
                        of dry bones?
                   Why go to Nineveh to tell
                   the ailing that they ail?"

And as if this "preface" to Heights's work weren't enough, the Curator then recalls, in a metamemory, one of Heights's triumphant returns to the Zulu Club—this one after a jail term for an obscure assault on the "Uncle Tom" leader of the "Ethiopian Tabernacle":

             "A man's conscience is home-bred.
               To see an artist or a leader do
                Uncle Tom's asinine splits
               is an ask-your-mama shame!"
      The Jamaican bartender had staked off his claim:
       "The drinks are on the house, Poet Defender!"
            A sportsman with ruffled grouse
      on the wing over dogs, the poet had continued:
                "Integrity is an underpin—
               the marble lions that support
                 the alabaster fountain in
                     the Alhambra."

In construing Heights's modernist poem as a contradiction of his celebration of racial "integrity," then, the Curator is able not only to suggest the historical inevitability of modernism but to argue as well that the poetics of the sea turtle, the stance of black separatism, will divide an artist between two masters, two polarized discourses, each of which claims a territory unto itself and authority over its inhabitants. And the implication here is, obviously, that such self-division is self-destruction.

The choice with which the poem leaves us is thus a deliberately false one: in Harlem Gallery, the African American dilemma is not over whether to be a Negro; it is not even over whether to be a black separatist—for, as we find, even a good separatist-balladeer like Hideho Heights, when he gets into the privacy of his apartment, becomes a modernist despite himself. But although I want to make clear the ground on which the poem leaves us with a false dilemma, I want also to recall here that the poem contains within it a real dilemma—one that, as I argue in the context of the poem's narrative and historical "time," it remains unwilling or unable to acknowledge. This "real" dilemma is, unsurprisingly, a function of the poem's real conflict: whether the African American artist should attempt to create his or her own audience or play to the audiences that already exist. This is the conflict "resolved" by Harlem Gallery, both through Heights's fall and (equally) through the poem's refusal to contemplate the cultural question consequent on its adoption of the ideology of assimilation—the question of the avant-garde's position when it is no longer (for whatever reason) avant of the garde. We may also see the poem's conclusion as a symptom of this refusal, insofar as the Curator's epilogue in "Psi" follows Heights's unmasking in "Chi," not with a discussion of what it means for a member of a truly marginal group (such as an African American poet) to adopt the aesthetics and ideologies of an already institutionalized modernist "avant-garde," but instead with an eleven-page discussion of "race" that declares "race" a fiction perpetrated by whites for the oppression of nonwhites. The Curator's answer in "Psi" ("Just as the Chinese lack / an ideogram for 'to be,' / our lexicon has no definition / for an ethnic amalgam like Black Boy and me") may be a good answer—but only because the Curator has deliberately asked the wrong question.

In other words, to uphold the cultural ideal of cultural amalgamation (in Nkomo's phrase, the "homogenized milk of multiculture") embodied in the person and function of the Curator, Harlem Gallery needs not only to avoid confronting explicitly its own contemporary cultural position, and its own possible present or future audience, but also to delegitimize the separatist cultural position of Hideho Heights. But beyond its will to assimilation, into a postmodern conception either of the irreducibility of "marginality" or of the political conditions for an acceptable embrace of pluralism, the poem cannot and will not go, trusting instead, in the terms of John Ciardi at his vaguest, that its ideal projection of itself will become a shape that impresses itself upon time.

Iii

This, then, is where our task begins: in retrieving the discourse of Hideho Heights. For if Harlem Gallery implies that Hideho's ballads are somehow culturally and historically inappropriate, then Heights is being cast as a kind of Paul Laurence Dunbar, and the Curator's unmasking of him in "Chi" is a call to African American poets to throw off Dunbar's mask. But it is possible, after all, to see the poem's argument not as an unmasking but as a remasking, an exchange of masks—Dunbar's for Tolson's. If, in other words, we see the poem's conflict not synchronically but diachronically, as part of an explicitly historical problematic, then the conflict's resolution suggests that underneath one mask there is only another mask—the mask of high modernism.

And Tolson warrants such a re-vision; indeed, he himself initiated it, in his astonishing revisionary account of how he enticed Allen Tate to write the preface to Libretto. The year before he died, he told the story to Dudley Randall, and it was nearly twenty years before Robert Farnsworth's research proved the tale untrue. Here is how it originally appeared in Negro Digest:

Tolson related that after completing Libretto for the Republic of Liberia he asked Tate to write a preface for it, and Tate replied that he wasn't interested in the propaganda of Negro poets. Tolson spent a year studying modern poetic techniques and rewriting the poem so that it said the same things in a different way and then sent it to Tate. Tate wrote a preface in which he said, "For the first time, it seems to me, a Negro poet has assimilated the full poetic language of his time…." (my emphasis)

Some critics have been embarrassed by this anecdote, and all the more embarrassed at the thought that it might be true; for on one reading, it presents Tolson (or presents Tolson presenting himself) as a toady in blackface, "Yes-massa"ing the Great White Critic. But to my mind the story is rather appetizing—a modern (modernist) Brer Rabbit story if true, and even more provocative as a tall tale. For it suggests that, even if only retrospectively, Tolson saw his adoption of modernist technique as a guerilla strategy, a means of letting revolutionary discourse sound in the ears of conservative whites by masking that discourse in a no longer revolutionary poetics. Tolson seeks to emerge therefore neither as Tate's subaltern nor as Eliot's but as an African American literary version of the maroon, the escaped slave living on the frontier, imperialism's margin, raiding the nearest plantation periodically for supplies and planning the long-term offensive in the meantime. And in the image of Tolson as maroon, we find it altogether appropriate that he has been marooned in turn: unread, or, if read at all, read not as maroon but as another form of "primitive"—the marooned colonial duped into conversion by the missionaries of modernism.

And surely Tolson himself did not imagine that a dissolution of his social and racial politics, would follow necessarily upon his attempt to "modernize" himself. For him there is no contradiction, because technique, apparently, is mask: "My work is certainly difficult in metaphors, symbols and juxtaposed ideas," he wrote in a 1961 letter; but "there the similarity between me and Eliot separates. That is only technique, and any artist must use the technique of his time…. However, when you look at my ideas and Eliot's, we're as far apart as hell and heaven." Tolson's formulation is not theoretically sophisticated: in casting himself against Eliot, Tolson winds up asserting a necessary historical homocentricity of "technique" and strictly opposing it to a content of "ideas." But surely the point here is not to convict Tolson of theoretical missteps; rather, the point is that, in his conception of his role, technique is only technique, form is only form—and all forms, by implication, are masks.

What seems most intriguing about his position, in this maroon light, is that Tolson appears less as a belated modernist than as an unacknowledged precursor: for in the work of the preeminent black critics of the present, we find the argument that black criticism and theory must grapple with the problematics of poststructuralism in order to do justice to the signifyin(g) difference of the black text. Specifically, we find in the work of Henry Louis Gates and Houston Baker a recognizably Tolsonian position: and to charges that they are unduly influenced by Derrida and Foucault, they respond, justifiably and sometimes persuasively, that their appropriations of theories are necessarily transformations of theory—and that, besides, their critical method is only technique, and any artist must use the technique of his (or her) time.

Where once Tolson had committed himself to the proposition that the black oppositional poet must take up and take on modernism, Baker and Gates argue that black oppositional critics cannot do without poststructuralism. And yet, as though Melvin Tolson's posthumous career has not yet been sufficiently tangled, Tolson has proved "marginal" to every critical schema articulated to date, even that of so iconoclastic a critic as Houston Baker himself. In fact, in Baker's Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance, Tolson appears only in the first introductory paragraph, his name invoked by one of Baker's former interlocutors (xiii). For Baker wants to enact a wholesale change of terms for the discussion of African American modernism, and if he succeeds he effectively pulls the rug out from under what Tolson conceived African American modernism to be. Of course, it may turn out to be possible nonetheless to speak of Tolson in Baker's vocabulary—in the language of the "mastery of form" and "deformation of mastery"—but at present it is undeniable that Baker seeks to disengage African American modernism from precisely the "modernism" with which Tolson was engaged:

I would suggest that judgments on Afro-American "modernity" and the "Harlem Renaissance" that begin with notions of British, Anglo-American, and Irish "modernism" as "successful" objects, projects, and processes to be emulated by Afro-Americans are misguided…. Further, it seems to me that the very histories that are assumed in the chronologies of British, Anglo-American, and Irish modernisms are radically opposed to any adequate and accurate account of the history of Afro-American modernism, especially the discursive history of such modernism.

Baker's, we might say, is a modernism against Modernism, a modernism that disallows the category of "crossover artists": in his formulation, Anglo-American and African American modernisms are "radically opposed." However, if Baker's vocabulary does succeed in transforming our understanding of African American modernism, then his relation to Tolson becomes still more tangled and ironic, for it is Baker who once declared that Tolson's "game is not worth the candle," and it is Baker, more so than Gates, who would object strenuously to the notion that he is a postmodern variation of Tolson. Yet just as Gates and Baker seek both to translate and transform poststructuralism, so too did Tolson once transform the terms of modernist poetics—with, as Gates would say, a signifyin(g) black difference. Moreover, just as any account of American poststructuralism would be incomplete without reference to Gates and Baker, so too, I think, would any account of the fate of African American modernism be inadequate without a thorough reading of Tolson—whether in Baker's terms or anyone else's. And the port, as the Curator would say, is eminently "worth the cruise." Both a rope-a-dope and an allaesthetic mask, Harlem Gallery is a cultural performance that manages finally to speak even beyond its own Curator, signifyin(g) ultimately not only on Eliot but also—and more significantly—on the critics who would take Tolson as nothing more than Eliot's epigone.

Such a claim may be revisionary indeed; but this is part of my point. For what is finally at issue in Tolson's career, and in his attempt to negotiate possible Anglo-American and African American modernisms, is the relation of his ideological "commitments" to the historical and discursive conditions of revisionism. How we see Tolson's engagement with modernism, that is, depends on how we can reimagine his commitments, resee him, revise him. Here too the parallel with Baker is instructive. For although Baker has shown that he can be (at times) as uncritically immersed in poststructuralism's self-representations as Tolson was (at times) in modernism's, still, neither Baker nor Tolson closes off the possibility of a critical reassessment of the ideologies he inhabits—whether this reassessment be ours or theirs. Both writers challenge us with questions about marginality, modernism, and the roles and responsibilities of academic criticism; the only salient difference between them is that we have not, so far, asked ourselves to confront these questions in the way Tolson presents them. My confrontation, at its furthest reach, produces an apparent paradox: the grounds on which Tolson avoids engaging postmodernity must provide for us the means by which he engages postmodernity—which is to say that his commitment to modernism must provoke our commitment to revisionism.

I suggest therefore that Harlem Gallery is best read not as an example of Tolson's uncritical absorption in modernism's self-representations but as a scrupulous, self-critical defense of Tolson's attempt to imagine an African American modernism. What we must remember in such a reading, however, is that no thoroughgoing, insightful negotiation of modernism from within modernism is without its self-limitations and blinding commitments—and Harlem Gallery is no exception. (Hence the relative freedom from self-contradiction, by contrast, of Baker's revision of African American modernism, which is enabled by the various postmodern vocabularies that allow Baker to fashion a new African American literary history as something like a "discursive formation.") But, in a final paradox, I want to argue that it is the very depth of Tolson's commitments, the extent of his immersion in the idea of the avant-garde, that makes available for us the critical and self-critical interventions that constitute productive revisionism. Tolson's importance, in this framework, depends on his susceptibility to revision; but what my framework allows us to see—and what thereby becomes perhaps most remarkable about Tolson's trajectory—is that through the ballad of Hideho Heights and through his impromptu folktale to Dudley Randall, Tolson began that process of productive revision himself. It is the task to which he continues to call us.

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