Tolson, Melvin B.

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Tolson, Melvin B.

February 6, 1898
August 29, 1966

The poet and educator Melvin Beaunorus Tolson was born in Howard County, Missouri, to Alonzo Tolson, a Methodist minister, and Lera Tolson. He attended Lincoln High School in Kansas City, Missouri, spent a year (1918) at Fisk University in Nashville, and then transferred to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, where he received his B.A. With his wife, Ruth, whom he married in 1922, he would raise several highly successful children. In 1923, Tolson secured a post at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, where he taught English literature and coached one of the country's most successful debating teams.

As early as 1917, Tolson had begun to write poems and short tales that reveal and foreshadow the intensity of his intellectual life and his preoccupation with esoteric knowledge. His poetic interests took off, however, while he was attending Columbia University on a Rockefeller Foundation scholarship during 1931 and 1932, the dimming of the so-called Harlem Renaissance. His M.A. thesis presents a somewhat brief but accurate portrait of some of the leading figures of the Renaissance, including Langston Hughes (19021967), whom he knew fairly well. The fervor and ferment of the Harlem community inspired Tolson in 1932 to write a sonnet about Harlem's denizens. This sonnet was the germ of an extended poetic work, which was published posthumously as A Gallery of Harlem Portraits (1979). Lyrics from the blues and spirituals freely intermix with conventional poetic language to create stylized "portraits" of Harlemites of the 1930s and 1940s. Several years after his return to Wiley College, Tolson's enormous success as a debating coach prompted the Washington Tribune in 1938 to request that he write a guest column, which for almost seven years flourished as a regular feature titled "Caviar and Cabbages."

With the publication of "Dark Symphony" in the Atlantic Monthly (1941), Tolson demonstrates his earliest preoccupation with, and mastery of, the poetic sequence. Constructed around the personalities of major historical black figures, the poem won first prize at the American Negro Exposition in Chicago in 1940. The award assisted Tolson in getting Rendezvous with America (1944)his first major poetic compositionpublished.

In his early phase Tolson's poems, which appeared in magazines such as the Atlantic Monthly and Prairie Schooner, were fairly accessible and transparent. But the poems of his second phase became more esoteric and highly allusive. His work then began appearing in magazines such as the Modern Quarterly, the Arts Quarterly, and Poetry. In the intervening years, Tolson was elected four times as mayor of Langston, Oklahoma. In 1947 the government of Liberia commissioned him to write a work to be read at the International Exposition in Liberia, commemorating the country's centennial, and simultaneously made him their poet laureate. To celebrate the ideals upon which Liberia was founded, Tolson wrote Libretto for the Republic of Liberia (1953), a difficult and enormously complex work about intellectual freedom and international brotherhooda virtual constant in his writings. The primary work upon which Tolson's fame rests, however, is Harlem Gallery (1965), a lengthy poetic sequence of portraits or odes devoted as much to the modern Anglo-American poetic tradition as to African-American culture. Harlem Gallery is primarily concerned, for example, with the integrity of the black artist and his cultural allegiances.

Although Tolson is often grouped with the major poetic figures of the 1950s and early 1960s, such as Gwendolyn Brooks and Robert Hayden, his reputation remains far behind those of his peers, and readers and scholars alike are kept at bay by the erudition and monumentality of his work.

See also Harlem Renaissance; Hughes, Langston; Poetry, U.S.


Farnsworth, Robert M. Melvin B. Tolson, 1898-1966, Plain Talk and Poetic Prophecy. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1984.

Flasch, Joy. Melvin B. Tolson. New York: Twayne, 1972.

Russell, Mariann. Melvin B. Tolson's "Harlem Gallery": A Literary Analysis. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1980.

Thompson, Gordon, E. Charles W. Chesnutt, Zora Neale Hurston, Melvin B. Tolson: Folk and Non-Folk Representation of the Fantastic. Ph.D. diss. Yale University, 1987.

gordon thompson (1996)