Allen, Samuel W. 1917–
Samuel W. Allen 1917–
While many African-American writers have sought to incorporate African elements into their works, few have realized that goal as elegantly and powerfully as Samuel W. Allen. With a poetic voice shaped by a period of residence in France, where he and other black American literary figures first encountered modern African and Caribbean literature, Allen produced a small but highly regarded body of work that, as Roger M. Valade put it in The Essential Black Literature Guide, “has emphasized the importance of African American heritage as a resource from which blacks can draw strength and understanding.” A practicing attorney for much of his life, Allen wrote under the pseudonym of Paul Vesey; for many years he remained better known in Europe than in the United States, but time brought him recognition and renown.
Samuel Washington Allen was born in Columbus, Ohio, on December 9, 1917. His father was a minister, and the cadences of black preaching and worship would become another major influence on his poetry. Education was heavily emphasized throughout his family background. Both of Allen’s parents, and both of his mother’s parents as well, were college-educated, and his maternal grandmother wrote poetry and served for a time as secretary to Booker T. Washington. Allen attended Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, where he majored in sociology but studied writing on the side with the Harlem Renaissance novelist and critic James Weldon Johnson. After graduating with high honors in 1938, Allen was accepted at Harvard Law School and obtained a law degree there in 1941.
Drafted into the U.S. Army the following year, Allen served in the Adjutant General’s Corps until 1946, rising to the rank of first lieutenant. After World War II, Allen took a job at the bottom of the legal ladder in New York City’s government, as deputy assistant district attorney. The G.I. bill (an allotment for postwar veterans’ benefits) provided Allen, as it did for many other military veterans of the day, with the resources to pursue his dreams. He enrolled at New York’s New School for Social Research in 1947, and headed for Paris the following year. He took literature classes at the Alliance Française cultural organization as well as at the distinguished French university, the Sorbonne.
France played an important role in African-American literary culture during the postwar period of the late 1940s, as leading writers such as Richard Wright and James Baldwin sought refuge in Paris from the stifling discrimination they encountered at home. Allen met Wright in 1948 or 1949, and Wright introduced him to another important trend taking shape in Paris: the city had become home to a group of writers from French-speaking West African countries, who were attempting to promote the idea of a distinctive black voice or style of expression in the arts. These writers, who included future Senegalese prime minister Leopold Senghor, put forth many of their ideas and creative efforts in a magazine called Présence africaine (“African Presence”). Wright was a linchpin of the journal’s editorial staff, and he encouraged Allen to become involved with
At a Glance…
Born on December 9, 1917, in Columbus, OH; son of a minister. Education: Fisk University, Nashville, TN, sociology, 1938; graduate studies, New School for Social Research, New York, NY, 1947-48, and at the Sorbonne, Paris, France, 1949-50. Military Service: U.S. Army, 1942-46.
Career: New York City Government, deputy assistant district attorney, 1946-47; traveled to Europe on proceeds of G.I. Bill; U.S. Armed Forces in Europe, civilian attorney, 1951-55; private practice as attorney, 1956-58; Texas Southern University, professor of law, 1958-60; U.S. Information Agency, assistant general counsel, 1961-64; Community Relations Service, Washington, DC, chief counsel, 1965-68; Tuskegee Institute, professor of humanities, 1968-70; Boston University, professor of English, 1971-81; poet, 1956-, works include Elfenbein Zãhne, 1956, Ivory Tusks and Other Poems, 1968, Paul Vesey’s Ledger, 1975, Every Round and Other Poems, 1987, and several articles in Europe and U.S.
Selected memberships: African Studies Association; New York Bar Association; New England Poetry Club.
Selected awards: National Endowment for the Arts literature fellowship, 1979; Wurlitzer Foundation fellowship, 1979; Rockefeller Foundation grant, 1981.
Address: Home —145 Cliff Ave., Winthrop, MA 02152.
the magazine, gradually transferring more and more of his own responsibilities to his younger colleague.
Allen paid the bills during this period with a position as a civilian attorney for the U.S. Army in France, but he became more and more involved with his literary activities. One of his poems was published in Présence africaine in 1949, and in 1951 he translated into English an essay on African writing by the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Allen also translated a major anthology of French-language African poetry that Senghor edited. All these influences left their mark on Allen’s own poems, which began to appear occasionally in various French journals. Finally, in 1956, Allen’s first book of poetry was published.
Even outside of France, Allen had made a strong impact on the European literary scene. His book was published in Germany in a bilingual German-and-English edition titled Elfenbein Zähne, or “Ivory Tusks.” Some poems in the book drew sharp contrasts between the aggression of modern European-rooted cultures and the traditional, ancestor-shadowed African world. Nor did Allen flinch from the horrors of the African-American experience. “They Have Anointed Him” depicted a lynching in words that were both economical and graphic: “Their sacrificial rites begin/They have anointed him [with tar and gasoline]/but first the gouging knife to take the fingers/eyes, the tongue/The twitching mass is ready for the last flowing expiation/and so it is done.”
In the United States, meanwhile, Allen remained almost completely unknown as a poet. He had earlier coined the pen name of Paul Vesey in order to keep his legal and literary careers separate, and in response to a request from the German editor of Elfenbein Zàhne he continued to use that name for many years. Allen practiced law in New York City from 1956 to 1958, taught law at Texas Southern University for three years, and then took a position as assistant general counsel for the U.S. Information Agency under the administration of President John F. Kennedy. From 1965 to 1968 he was chief counsel to the Community Relations Service of the Justice Department, another government agency in Washington. In the mid-1960s came the first stirrings of U.S. recognition as Allen’s poems were included in influential anthologies compiled by the celebrated literary figures Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps.
Allen’s second career, in the academic world, began in 1968 with an appointment to the humanities department at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. The comparative freedom of academic life offered Allen more time to work on his writing. He published several more books over a 13-year career that included a professorship at Boston University, prestigious visiting professorships and writer residencies at other schools, and a stint as a volunteer writing instructor in a Massachusetts prison. His first U.S. publication was Ivory Tusks and Other Poems in 1968. Although its title was similar, it contained only four poems from Allen’s earlier book, and even those four were heavily revised. Allen, his own severest critic, has been known to tinker constantly with his poems, even after publication. Among the new poems in the book was “To Satch,” a widely reprinted poetic portrait of baseball pitcher Satchel Paige.
Ivory Tusks and Other Poems was followed by Paul Vesey’s Ledger, a book that traced in poetry the history of U.S. racial oppression and depicted the lasting influence of martyred figures such as slave rebel Nat Turner: “From the obscurity of the past, we saw/the dark now flaming face of a giant Nathaniel/call whosoever will let him come.” Allen also wrote an introduction to Enemy of the Sun, an anthology of Palestinian resistance poetry, edited Poems from Africa, an anthology in which he also contributed several translations of African works, and penned numerous scholarly articles.
After his retirement from teaching in 1981, Allen remained active as a writer and lecturer. His fourth book of poetry, Every Round and Other Poems, combined reworked older poems with new material. By the century’s end his poems had been reprinted in more than 100 anthologies and had become essential components of the canon of African-American literature.
Elfenbein Zãhne (“Ivory Tusks”), Wolfgang Rothe, 1956 (bilingual ed.).
Ivory Tusks and Other Poems, Poets Press, 1968.
Paul Vesey’s Ledger, Broadside Press, 1975.
Every Round and Other Poems, Lotus Press, 1987.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 41: Afro-American Poets Since 1955, Gale, 1985.
Hatch, Shari Dorantes, and Michael R. Strickland, eds., African-American Writers: A Dictionary, ABC-Clio, 2000.
Valade, Roger M., III, The Essential Black Literature Guide, Visible Ink, 1996.
Contemporary Authors Online, http://www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC
West Virginia University, http://www.wvu.edu/~lawfac/jelkins/lp-2001/allen.html
—James M. Manheim
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