Tolson, Melvin B(eaunorus) 1898–1966
Melvin B(eaunorus) Tolson 1898–1966
Poet playwright, educator
A teacher and coach, Melvin Beaunorus Tolson became best known as a poet. He started by exploring and commemorating the Harlem Renaissance artists in poetry, and then moved on to a multiplicity of other topics. In 1947 he was chosen to be the poet laureate of Liberia, and the poetry he wrote during that period established a new standard in African-American poetry.
Melvin Beaunorus Tolson was born February 1, 1898, in Moberly, Missouri. Tolson’s father, the Reverend Alonzo Tolson, was the son of a former slave and her white master. Reverend Tolson had only eight years of formal education, which severely limited his rise within the hierarchy of the Methodist Episcopal Church. However, in spite of the limitations of his formal education, Reverend Tolson continued to try and improve his professional life through self-education, taking a succession of correspondence courses in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Little is known about Tolson’s mother, Lera Hurt Tolson, who was forced to move their four children frequently, as the Reverend Tolson was moved from one posting to the next.
Although Tolson was born in Moberly, his father’s frequent moves from parish to parish meant that, as a child, Tolson lived in several small cities throughout Missouri and Iowa. He published his first poem, on the sinking of the Titanic, in a local newspaper in Oskaloosa, Iowa. When Tolson was 16 years old, the family moved to Kansas City, Missouri, in what was to become a more permanent posting. Tolson spent his last two years of high school in Kansas City, where he published stories and poems in his high school year books. In his senior year, Tolson was elected class poet. After high school, Tolson enrolled at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee; however, after he completed his freshman year, he transferred to Lincoln University near Oxford, Pennsylvania. As a sophomore, Tolson attended a fraternity dance where he met Ruth Southall of Charlottesville, Virginia. After a courtship of several months, the couple was married on January 29, 1922. Tolson completed his B.A. degree in 1923, having graduated with honors, and became a father at about the same time. His oldest child, Melvin B. Tolson, Jr., was soon joined by younger siblings, Arthur Lincoln Tolson, Wiley Wilson Tolson, and Ruth Marie Tolson. By 1928, Melvin Tolson’s family was complete.
In 1924 Tolson was hired to teach English and speech at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, a small Methodist Episcopal school on the edge of the oilfields. Although small, Wiley had an excellent academic reputation, and Tolson did well, becoming as his son Melvin Jr. later asserted, “one of the intellectual stars of this environment.” Tolson stood out in several areas outside academics as well. He played competitive tennis and coached the junior-varsity football team, but it was in scholarly pursuits where he primarily excelled. Tolson had been a talented and highly proficient debater while in college, and soon he was asked to organize and coach a debate team. In the 15 years that followed, Tolson’s debate team created a legend, losing only once—a loss attributed to a biased jury. Tolson’s debate
At a Glance…
Born on February 6, 1898, in Moberly, MO; died on August 29,1966; married Ruth Southall January 29, 1922; children: Melvin Jr, Arthur, Wiley, Ruth. Education: Lincoln University, B.A., 1923; Columbia University, M. A, 1940.
Career: Wiley College, professor, 1923-47; Langston University, professor, 1947-65; Washington Tribune, columnist, 1937-44; Langston City, OK, mayor, 1952-60, Poet and playwright: Rendezvous with America, 1944, Libretto for the Republic of Liberia, 1953, Harlem Gallery, Book I, The Curator, 1965, Λ Gallery of Harlem Portraits, 1979.
Awards: American Negro Exposition Poetry Contest, 1939; Poet Laureate of Liberia, 1947; Bess Hokin Prize for Poetry, 1951; Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Permanent Fellow in Poetry and Drama, 1954; Lincoln University, Honorary Doctor of Letter, 1954; District of Columbia’s Citation and Award for Cultural Achievement in the Fine Arts, 1965; Lincoln University, Second Honorary Doctor of Letters, 1965; Avalon Chair in Humanities at Tuskegee Institute, Appointee, 1965; National Institute and American Academy of Arts and Letters,$2500.00 grant, 1965; Rockefeller Foundation Award, 1966.
team transcended the barriers of race and defeated teams from much larger and more prestigious schools, such as the University of Southern California, the University of Kansas, and Oxford University, England. Tolson also directed the college theatre group and helped to found the black intercollegiate Southern Association of Dramatic and Speech Arts, which established festival contests where his students could find competitive outlet for the plays they wrote and directed.
In 1931 Tolson took a short leave from Wiley College. He moved his family to his parent’s home in Kansas City, Missouri, and with the aid of a fellowship, Tolson enrolled in a Master of Arts program at Columbia University. As a student of comparative literature, Tolson began to study the writers of the Harlem Renaissance, eventually writing his thesis on “The Harlem Group of Negro Writers.” Tolson was awarded his Master of Arts by Columbia University in 1940. In World Literature Today, Tolson’s son, Melvin Jr., related that while his father was at Columbia, he showed a roommate a sonnet that he had written about Harlem. “The roommate … ridiculed the idea of fitting Harlem into a sonnet.” As a result of this episode, Tolson began to think about poetry and Harlem in much larger terms. By the time he had completed this crucial period of study, Tolson had begun to work on his first book of poetry, A Gallery of Harlem Portraits (1979). The framework for this book was a series of 340 poems that offered “portraits” of the artists and writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Tolson made several attempts to find a publisher, but with little success. Finally, according to Melvin Jr., Tolson abandoned his attempts to have the work published and instead put the manuscript away in a trunk. During the decade that followed, the poems from this book began appearing in such publications as Arts Quarterly, Modern Monthly, and Modern Quarterly. However, in spite of the publication of some of the poems from this first book, the compilation of poems, A Gallery of Harlem Portraits, would not be published during Tolson’s lifetime.
Upon completing his degree at Columbia, Tolson returned to Wiley to teach, but he did not leave his writing behind. In addition to his poetry, Tolson also wrote prose and drama. By 1937 he had written two plays. One of the plays, The Moses of Beale Street, was a musical comedy-drama, written in collaboration with Edward Boater. Unfortunately, the manuscript was later lost. Tolson’s success at debating and his own love of argument also led him to embrace controversy. One of the earliest examples of Tolson’s willingness to defend his principles was evident in his defense of poet and playwright, Langston Hughes, published in the Pittsburgh Courier, 1933, in which Tolson defended Hughes’ controversial use of religion in one of his poems. From 1937 to 1944, Tolson wrote a weekly column for the African-American newspaper, the Washington Tribune. The column was called “Caviar and Cabbage,” and it provided Tolson with a vehicle to expound upon his views concerning the treatment of black people during America’s period of depression and world war. A 1939 Tolson poem, “Dark Symphony,” won the national poetry contest sponsored by the American Negro Exposition in Chicago. This poem first began as a novel, also called Dark Symphony, but it remained unfinished as a novel until Tolson finally converted the work into poetry. When “Dark Symphony” was later published in Atlantic Monthly in September of 1941, its publication drew the attention of an editor at Dodd Mead Publishers who paved the way for the publication of Tolson’s first book of poems, Rendezvous with America (1944). Tolson’s poems celebrated black achievements and reminded the public of the racial diversity of America, which the poet suggested, lent his country her strength. The poems in this, his first published book of poetry, also reminded Tolson’s readers of the many contributions that black Americans had made to the growth and strength of the United States. Rendezvous with America ended on an optimistic note with the poem, “Tapestries of Time,” a poem meant to portend the promise of a better world for black people that Tolson hoped would emerge from the destruction of World War II.
In 1947 Tolson left Wiley College to join the faculty of Langston University in Oklahoma. He had spent 24 years at Wiley College and this move represented a significant academic career change. Tolson spent the next 17 years at Langston University, eventually devoting a total of 41 years of his life to teaching. But poetry always remained equally important to him as evidenced by the fact that in 1947 Tolson was selected to be poet laureate of Liberia. As the new poet laureate, Tolson was commissioned to write a poem to celebrate Liberia’s forthcoming centennial, which would occur in 1956. Tolson’s first published book, Rendezvous with America, served as a model for Tolson’s newest assignment as poet laureate. Libretto for the Republic of Liberia repeats many of the themes present in his earlier published book. But while Tolson strove for the same optimistic voice as in his earlier work, his libretto made clear that, for the poet, a Utopian ideal would be difficult to achieve. Tolson posited Liberia as the new America, an attempt to establish a new nation, and he acknowledged that the bitter history of mankind leant a sense of urgency to the need for equality for all men. Tolson’s work met with generally favorable reviews, although there were a few mixed reactions. Most reviewers, however, recognized that Tolson had established a new standard for African-American poetry. According to Modern American Poetry Online, in an Introductory Overview for a 1999 edition of Tolson’s work, Rita Dove wrote that in Tolson’s Libretto for the Republic of Liberia, the author “did not shy away from the contradictions therein to look for single-minded issues or simple solutions.” Tolson could optimistically focus on the melting pot of American life that gave America her strength, but he never forgot that black Americans were not benefiting equally. He always understood the complexity of change.
In 1951 Tolson was awarded Poetry magazine’s Bess Hokin Prize for his poem, “E.&O.E.” The following year Tolson was elected Mayor of Langston City, Oklahoma, an all-black community. He was reelected again in 1954, 1956, and 1958. Only his family’s intervention, which forced him to focus on his final book, prevented Tolson from running for a fifth term in office. Even while mayor, Tolson was still teaching, writing, and speaking. He wrote and then directed a dramatic version of Walter S. White’s novel of segregation and intolerance in the American South, Fire in the Flint (1924), which was performed at the national convention of the NAACP in Oklahoma City on June 28, 1952. Tolson was also admitted to the Liberian Knighthood of the Order of the Star of Africa in 1954. Also in 1954, Tolson was awarded an honorary doctor of letters degree from Lincoln University, where he had completed his undergraduate college education more than 30 years earlier. Still another honor was awarded in 1954, when Tolson was appointed permanent fellow in poetry and drama at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont. This award led to a life-long friendship with the poet Robert Frost.
Although the period of the 1950s was an especially busy one for Tolson, the blueprint for his next book of poetry was already being formed, even as he wrote his libretto and fulfilled his obligations as mayor. In his time at Colombia, Tolson had become inspired by the Harlem Renaissance, and the influences of that period had imbued his work in the years since. The Harlem Renaissance had been a crucial influence on that first manuscript, A Gallery of Harlem Portraits, which had never been published. However, for his final book, Tolson was not interested in rewriting his first book. Instead of capturing the artists of the Harlem Renaissance, Tolson’s final book, Harlem Gallery: Book I, The Curator (1965), attempted to expand the idea of his first book into the entire history of African Americans. The plan was for five volumes, but Tolson’s deteriorating health made volumes two through five impossible.
In 1964 Tolson had undergone two surgeries for abdominal cancer, and he was clearly very ill. The following year Tolson had several honors conferred upon him in recognition of all that he had accomplished. He was awarded a second honorary degree from Lincoln University, his alma mater. That same year he was elected to the New York Herald Tribune book-review board, and the District of Columbia presented him with a citation and Award for Cultural Achievement in the Fine Arts. Upon his retirement from Langston University, Tolson became the first appointee to the Avalon Chair in Humanities at Tuske-gee Institute from 1965 to 1966. In the final few months of his life, Tolson was awarded a grant from the National Institute and American Academy of Arts and Letters. He was also honored with a Rockefeller Foundation Award, but Tolson died on August 29, 1966, before he could accept the latest of these awards. In an autobiographical essay that he wrote about his father’s work and life, Tolson’s son, Melvin Jr., recounted how effectively his father could tell stories about his life. He was able to bring to life the famous, the ordinary, and the infamous people who had filled his life. These accounts were capable of mesmerizing his audiences, and yet few recorded interviews or readings exist. Melvin Jr. stated in World Literature Today that his father “would not allow his sons to record the oral history which he recounted so enthusiastically and entertainingly.”
What is left of Tolson are the memories of his students, many of whom have stepped forward to recount his influence on their lives, the recognition of his colleagues, and of course, his books. According to Modern American Poetry Online, in his 1953 Preface to the Libretto for the Republic of Liberia, Allen Tate suggested that “for the first time, it seems to me, a Negro poet has assimilated completely the full poetic language of this time and, by implication, the language of the Anglo-American poetic tradition.” It is clear that by the end of his life, many in the publishing and academic community had found the truth in Tate’s words.
Rendezvous With America, Dodd, Mead, 1944.
“E.& O.E.” Poetry 78:330-42, pp. 369-72.
Libretto for the Republic of Liberia, Twayne, 1953.
Harlem Gallery, Book I, The Curator, Twayne, 1965.
A Gallery of Harlem Portraits, University of Missouri Press, 1979.
African American Writers, Volume 2, Second Edition, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2001, pp. 711-25.
World Literature Today, Summer 1990, pp. 395-400.
Modern American Poetry Online, www.english.uiuc.edi/maps/poets/s_ztolson/tolson.htm
—Sheri Elaine Metzger
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