Dodson, Owen (Vincent) 1924–1983
Owen (Vincent) Dodson 1924–1983
Poet, writer, educator
Owen Dodson, an extraordinarily talented director of drama, was considered one of the most influential directors to ever work within black academic theater. Dodson, however, was enamored by the written word as well, producing several volumes of poetry, novels, plays, and operas. In his time he was best known as a professor of drama at Howard University, where he made a name for himself both locally and nationally. Yet his writing never received the acclaim many felt it deserved, partly due to his emergence into the black literary scene just after the heyday of the Harlem Renaissance and before the Black Arts Movement in the 1960s. Dodson’s later life became further complicated due to alcoholism, which eventually cost him his job at Howard, and by his battle with homosexuality in a non-accepting society. Recently, Dodson’s writings have been reexamined by critics and scholars alike, and many are taking an interest in his rise to subdued fame in the drama world. The Library Journal encapsulated Dodson’s journey in a single sentence during a review of James V. Hatch’s The Life of Owen Dodson, “(he) lived among the stars of poetry and drama and (was) shaped by the forces of humanism, racism, and homophobia.”
Dodson was born in Brooklyn, New York, on November 28, 1914, and grew up in Flatbush, an ethnically diverse neighborhood. He was the ninth, and last, child born to Nathaniel Dodson, Sr. and Sarah Elizabeth Good Dodson. Nathaniel, who was also referred to as “Reverend” Dodson because of his demeanor and his choice to wear clothes that were always clean and starched, worked as an elevator operator, a journalist, and Sunday school teacher at a Baptist church. Even though the family lived in poverty, the atmosphere in the Dodson home was one that fostered imagination, creativity, and education. Bible reading was a daily event, as well as regular church services and meetings. Of the nine Dodson children, only five survived to reach adulthood. The oldest brother was somewhat of a “ne’er-do-well,” a fact that motivated Nathaniel to make special efforts to prevent such behavior in the younger children. Perhaps in an attempt to influence his two youngest sons, Owen and Kenneth, Nathaniel called them his “Chesterfields” after Lord Chesterfield who was the epitome of a gentleman.
When Dodson was young, his mother suffered a series of strokes that left her partially paralyzed and soon after he turned eleven, she died. The following year, Dodson found his young world shook yet again as his father passed away. The Dodson children were then raised by the oldest daughter, Lillian, who was thirty at the time of Mr. Dodson’s death. Dodson was particularly close to his brother, Kenneth, and his sister, Edith, with whom he shared an exceptionally close relationship throughout his adulthood. Dodson’s childhood was deeply affected by the profound sadness that occurs with multiple family deaths and this is reflected in many of his poems and novels, where death and funerals are common themes. Yet long before death influenced Dodson’s love of writing and education, he was drawn
At a Glance…
Born Owen Vincent Dodson on November 28, 1914, in Brooklyn, NY; died June 21, 1983 in New York City, NY; son of Nathaniel and Sarah Elizabeth Good Dodson. Education: Bates College, B.A., 1936; Yale University, M.F.A., 1939. Military Service: United States Navy, 1940-1942. Religion: Baptist.
Career: Poet and playwright, 1938-83; Spelman College, Atlanta, GA, director of drama, 1938-41; Atlanta University, director of drama, 1938-42; Hampton Institute, Hampton, VA, director of drama, 1942-43; Howard University, Washington, D.C., professor of drama, 1947-69.
Memberships: American Film Center; American Negro Theater; Phi Beta Kappa.
Awards: Rosenwald Fellowship, 1940; Guggenheim Fellowship, 1953; Rockefeller Grant, 1969.
in by his father Nathaniel. As a journalist, Nathaniel worked for the American Press Association and, for a while, served as chairman of the National Negro Press Association. He also served as press agent for Booker T. Washington and Dr. James Sheppard. Hence, in addition to providing Dodson with a strong religious background, Nathaniel exposed his son to the thoughts of many prominent black intellectuals such as Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. DuBois, and James Weldon Johnson. It was these exposures that first shaped Dodson’s thoughts on what it meant to be a black man in America.
Dodson attended public schools and graduated from Jefferson High School where he discovered his love of verse due to the principal of the school who encouraged the recitation of poetry—a technique used to help immigrant children learn English pronunciation. After graduating from high school, Dodson took a job washing glassware and silverware at an inn on Long Island to save money to go to City College but thanks to the generosity of a friend’s family, Dodson was given a scholarship and decided to attend Bates College—founded by Free Will Baptists—in Lewiston, Maine, where he immersed himself in literature. While at Bates, Dodson received favorable attention for his writing, so much so that it helped him to gain admission to the Yale School of Drama. It was here that he first produced his plays: Divine Comedy, a play about a Depression era con-artist and Garden of Time, a re-telling of the Greek tragedy, Medea, that takes place in the antebellum South. Dodson graduated from Yale in 1939 and accepted a teaching position at Spelman College in Atlanta, a city where segregation was fiercely upheld and where Dodson would meet many black intellectuals and literati.
Even though Dodson was a pacifist, he wanted to join in the efforts of protecting the country during World War II. So in 1940, he left his teaching position at Spelman and joined the Navy. He remained in the Navy for two years during which time he convinced his superior officers to allow him to produce and direct plays. During his enlisted time, Dodson also kept writing poetry. Two of his poems were included in the 1941 edition of The Negro Caravan, which was, at that time, the largest and most representative anthology of black writing. The editors of the anthology noted that Dodson was among the ranks of newcomer poets that were socially aware. Within a short time, Dodson’s dramas became very popular. Of course, it did not hurt that Dodson’s plays were performed by the likes of Frank Silvera and Charles Sebree. In 1944 he wrote and staged his play, New World A-Coming, at Madison Square Garden. The play, which was attended by a large integrated audience was a huge success for Dodson and was praised by Mayor Fiorella H. La-Guardia.
After the production of New World A-Coming, Dodson was offered the position of executive secretary on the Committee for Negro Mass Education. He was given a salary and travel expenses, and headed for Hollywood. His primary role was to raise money for films that would portray minorities in a more realistic way. Dodson found himself on a mission to change the “Coon” and “Mammy” images. He changed the name of the group to the Committee for Mass Education in Race Relations (CMERR), and set about trying to influence the most prominent people in Hollywood, approaching several producers and actors who were sympathetic to Dodson’s cause. Dodson managed to find funding and even produced a script—which was rewritten by two white leftists and then given back to Dodson for a re-write, but due to the misappropriation of funds, and the prevailing attitudes and political atmosphere, very little was accomplished. Owen told his biographer James V. Hatch, “Child, I went to Hollywood and met them all, the top writers. But, they didn’t pick up our cause because there were so many things going on in the government—Joseph McCarthy—and they were afraid. In my time I was a very eloquent and good looking young man. I should have had rays to pull them into our cause. But the commercial world had sucked them in, and they would not let their careers go away with a black cause even though they believed in the whole damn thing.”
Even though he had his hands full with educational politics, Dodson still found time to write. In 1946 he published Powerful Long Ladder his first collection of poetry to reach the reading public. Poetry by African Americans fell into two camps during this time period, influenced either by Langston Hughes, who was still America’s favorite black poet, or by Gwendolyn Brooks who was receiving massive praise for her A Street in Bronzeville, a volume of poetry for which she received a Pulitzer Prize in 1950. Dodson’s poetry, however seemed to be a step in a different direction from both of these poets, using his voice as an African American to illustrate the strength and the hardships faced by people on a much more base level, that of pure emotion. Shortly after Powerful Long Ladder was published, Jessica Nelson North, a reviewer for Poetry commented on his style, saying, “every good Negro poet has a double allegiance…. He belongs to the great spiritual brotherhood of sensitive intellectuals and is more closely akin to them than to the downtrodden sharecroppers of the south; but he can not and should not forget that he is a Negro … he is privileged and articulate, he must speak for those who are not. Owen Dodson celebrates the wrongs of his special minority, not with bitterness but with sorrow.”
Most critics, however, felt that in his attempts to transmit the emotions of poetry, Dodson played too heavily on the color of his skin for inspiration. M.L. Rosenthal, wrote in the New York Herald Tribune Weekly Book Review, “… Dodson, however, aside from his persistent and frequently successful attempt to speak realistically and angrily for the American Negro, is still young enough to be looking for just the right vocabulary and viewpoint to suit his special abilities.” A much harsher critic, Alain Locke wrote of Dodson, “What puzzles me most is how racial is it or isn’t it? I know the blurbists have to have raciality for public bait, but then that is only a passing phase of our culture. Though few believe it, I have never advocated that all Negroes who write poetry be Negro poets.” This sentiment, that African-American poetry should be more generic, and not as blatant about racism and the powerlessness of the African-American community, was the ultimate downfall of Dodson’s poetry and accounted for his poor sales and unknown reputation as a poet to the general populace.
In 1947 Dodson gave up his bohemian life style for that of a salaried professional after being offered an associate professorship in English at Howard University. Many biographers and friends say that this move was an attempt to escape from an unaccepting world to one where he could set the rules. Later Dodson became part of Anne Cooke’s newly formed drama department which would eventually perform several of Dodson’s plays. Dodson taught at Howard for twenty five years during which time many prominent performers learned from and were inspired by Dodson such as, Amiri Baraka, Earle Hyman, Roxie Roker, Debbie Allen, and Ossie Davis. Perhaps one of Dodson’s greatest contributions was that he organized the first European tour by a black theater company that was sponsored by the State Department. In fact, it was the first European tour taken by an American college group. In 1949 Dodson led the Howard University Players to Sweden where they stayed for ten weeks, performing Ibsen’s The Wild Duck and an American play, Mamba’s Daughters. This tour essentially enabled the State Department to obtain legislation to allow the United States Information Service to bring American performances, film, music, and art to other countries.
After 1949 Dodson’s life took a turn for the worse in many different respects. It was a semi-well known fact that the long time bachelor Dodson was a homosexual and for many people, including students, faculty, and critics, was reason enough to ignore the contributions he was making in the world of black academic theater. Dodson also continually faced homophobia in the journalistic community, which many biographers of Dodson feel is one of the reasons he was not more popular as a poet in the 1950s and why his work was forgotten for so many years afterwards. Added onto the sexual bigotry was Dodson’s growing drinking problem that slowly affected his work during this time period. There is no guarantee that his drinking was a direct result of his inability to grasp the attention and fame he desired from his poetry and stage productions, but many of his later writings seem to blame his eventual fall into alcoholism on a tumultuous childhood and an unfulfilled adult career.
Dodson was forced to retire from Howard in 1967. He had taken a sabbatical to deal with his alcoholism, but upon his return, Dodson’s debilitating arthritis prevented him from working. He made himself available for lectures, readings, and directing, and published more of his work, yet found it hard to find work based on his past, as well as his time away from the job. Many employers in academia did not feel that he was cutting edge any longer and had moved to other more recent poets and dramatists. His last years were difficult and lonely. Finally, shortly after the death of his beloved sister Edith, with whom he had his last strong adult relationship, Dodson passed away on June 21, 1983, in New York City of heart failure.
Dodson’s work was given new life in the early 1990s as scholars began to focus on groundbreaking work of African Americans of the 1940s and 1950s. One such scholar, Joanne Gabbin, writing for Modern American Poetry, glorified the work of Dodson and other poets like him, saying they, “… cultivated their individual voices by synthesizing elements from the western literary tradition and their own vernacular tradition…. These poets, in keeping with the continuing development of the radical/political strain in African American poetry, also pursued a brand of social justice that emphasize integrationalism and a sensitivity to international connection and socialistic movements.”
Powerful Long Ladder, Farrar, Straus, 1946, 1970.
The Confession Stone, 1970.
(With James Van Der Zee and Camille Billops) The Harlem Book of the Dead, Morgan & Morgan, 1978.
Divine Comedy, 1938.
Garden of Time, 1939.
Doomsday Tale, 1941.
Gonna Tear Them Pillars Down, 1942.
New World A-Coming, 1944.
Bayou Legend, 1946.
(With Countee Cullen) Medea in Africa, 1963.
The Story of Soul, 1978.
Freedom, the Banner, 1984.
Boy at the Window, Farrar, Straus, 1951.
Come Home Early, Child, Popular Library, 1977.
Hatch, James V. Sorrow I the Only Faithful One, University of Illinois Press, 1993.
American Theater, December 1993.
Modern American Poetry, www.english.uiuc.edu
Owen Dodson, www.english.howard.edu
—Christine Miner Minderovic and Ralph Zerbonia
November 28, 1914
June 2, 1983
Born in Brooklyn, New York, Owen Vincent Dodson, an educator and writer, received his B.A. from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, in 1936 and an M.F.A. from Yale University in 1939. He began his career in education as drama director at Spelman College, where he worked from 1938 until 1941. In this early phase of his career he also served as an instructor and director of drama at Atlanta University (1938–1942) and at the Hampton Institute in Virginia (1941–1942). His teaching career was briefly interrupted by his enlistment in the navy (1942–1943). In 1947 Dodson joined the faculty at Howard University. In 1949 he led the Howard University Players on what was both the first State Department–sponsored European tour by a black theater company and the first European tour of any American college theater group; their success influenced Congress to establish a nationally funded cultural exchange program. Dodson directed, produced, and taught drama at Howard for the next twenty-three years, eventually becoming chair of its drama department (1960–1969). He also lectured at Vassar and Kenyon Colleges and at Cornell University and served as poet-in-residence at the University of Arizona from 1969 to 1970. After his retirement, he returned to New York City, where he died of a heart attack at age sixty-eight.
Dodson was a versatile and prolific writer whose works reflect his acute concern for the problems of racism and injustice while at the same time evincing a belief in the basic goodness of humanity and in the redemptive power of love. His poetry, in which he characteristically adapts traditional European forms such as the sonnet to the rhythms of black street language, was published in three volumes: Powerful Long Ladder (1946), The Confession Stone (1968; revised as The Confession Stone: Song Cycles, 1970) and The Harlem Book of the Dead (1978, with James VanDerZee and Camille Billops). He contributed verse, short stories, and nonfiction to numerous anthologies and periodicals. He also wrote novels, including the semi-autobiographical Boy at the Window (1951; published in paperback as When Trees Were Green, 1967) and its sequel, Come Home Early, Child (1977). Together with composer Mark Fax he wrote two operas, A Christmas Miracle (1955) and Till Victory Is Won (1967).
Dodson also wrote many plays, including the popular Divine Comedy (1938), a portrait of religious chicanery first produced at Yale University, and New World AComing: An Original Pageant of Hope (1944), a work celebrating the black American contribution to the war effort, first produced at Madison Square Garden. His other plays include The Shining Town (1937), The Garden of Time (1939), Bayou Legend (1946), and The Third Fourth of July (1946, with Countee Cullen).
Dodson's work brought him a number of awards, including a General Education Board fellowship (1937), a Rosenwald fellowship (1945), a Guggenheim fellowship (1953), a Paris Review prize for his short story "The Summer Fire" (1956), an honorary doctorate from Bates College (1967), and a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship (1968).
Metzger, Linda, ed. Black Writers: A Selection of Sketches from Contemporary Authors. Detroit, Mich.: Gale, 1989.
alexis walker (1996)