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Melvin B. Tolson (1898–1966)

Forfatter af "Harlem Gallery" and Other Poems of Melvin B. Tolson

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Omfatter også følgende navne: M B Tolson, Melvin B. Tolson, Melvin B. Tolson Jr.

Værker af Melvin B. Tolson

Gallery of Harlem Portraits (2013) 8 eksemplarer
Caviar and cabbage (1982) 4 eksemplarer
Rendezvous with America (1944) 4 eksemplarer
A Gallery of Harlem Portraits (1979) 4 eksemplarer
The Harlem group of Negro writers (2001) 2 eksemplarer
Harlem Gallery (1965) 2 eksemplarer

Associated Works

A Pocket Book of Modern Verse (1954) — Bidragyder, nogle udgaver446 eksemplarer
The Black Poets (1983) — Bidragyder — 360 eksemplarer
African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle and Song (2020) — Bidragyder — 176 eksemplarer
American Religious Poems: An Anthology (2006) — Bidragyder — 163 eksemplarer
The Vintage Book of African American Poetry (2000) — Bidragyder — 148 eksemplarer
Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry (2009) — Bidragyder — 115 eksemplarer
Trouble the Water: 250 Years of African American Poetry (1997) — Bidragyder — 56 eksemplarer

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review of
Melvin B. Tolson's "Harlem Gallery" and Other Poems
by tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE - February 3-9, 2015

For my complete review go here:

My given last name is "Tolson". I've never known anyone w/ the same last name so when I learned of the existence of a writer named Melvin B. Tolson several decades ago I was interested. What complicated matters was that I'm so-called 'white' & that MB Tolson's so-called 'black'. That's fine w/ me except that I'd read somewhere that slaves took their 'owner''s last names. Given that I abhor slavery, I had to wonder whether any of my distant relatives had 'owned' any of MB Tolson's not-so-distant relatives. Not a nice thought.

I was born in BalTimOre, Maryland - one of the 3 states w/ slavery that didn't secede from the Union during the American Civil War. As I understand it (not being very knowledgeable about this history), BalTimOre, at least, was partially kept from seceding by having Union cannons pointed at it from Federal Hill in the Inner Harbor - in other words, under duress. Melvin B. Tolson was born in Moberly, Missouri & spent most of his life in the South. Both of us were born after the abolition of slavery in the US. MB in 1898 & myself in 1953. As such, there's even less likelihood of an interconnectedness due to slavery in our 2 immediate families.

I've never been close to my family. I've never had much interest in its genealogy. When people ask me what my ancestry is I say I'm from BalTimOre. That's good enuf for me. All this obsession over wch countries one's ancestors come from interests me not a whit. My parents were Republican & a sort of missionary streak runs thru my mom & sister. I'm an anarchist & an atheist. My family was not what I wd call "open-minded", I'm what I prefer to think of as a "free thinker".

As an adult, I've often exaggeratedly joked that leaving 'home' was like being a runaway slave. I've joked that if my mother cd've sold me into slavery she wd have. I've sd that being raised by her was like being an adopted Jewish child raised by Nazis. I'd hear about how loved I was while the feeling was dramatically contradictory. [My father once told a German girlfriend of mine that the mistake the US made in WWII was to not back Hitler against Stalin!! - That sd, neither of my parents were actual Nazis, nor were they anti-Semites - my "adopted Jewish child" is meant metaphorically.] I was raised by a matriarchy of my grandmother, my mother, & my sister. They had all the authority, I had none. It wasn't just that I was the youngest, it was that I was a male & that males were servants only. It wasn't that there was a conscious philosophy that men shdn't have any purpose other than servitude for women, it was that it was literally inconceivable for it to be otherwise.

My mother told me recently that her 2nd husband, a pretty nice guy, "knew how to treat a woman because he learned it from his father." His father, I was told, "carried around his wife on a silk cushion." Total servitude.

My mom & stepdad saw a feral cat going thru their suburban backyard. They arduously befriended the cat over a period of perhaps a half yr or so by building it a home & giving it food. When they finally got it to trust them they took it & had it killed. As it was explained to me, it was much better for the cat to be dead than to be wild. That attitude, to me, is a deeply insane & dangerous one. That story explains my "Jewish child raised by Nazis" metaphor well.

You get the idea. Some people like to believe that at least one of their parents was from a different planet than Earth. I don't believe that but if I did it might help explain my dad's indifference to his family if my mom had actually been impregnated by an abducting UFO passenger instead of by him. I'm just glad that I had the strength of character to develop in accordance w/ my own intuitive nature - otherwise I'd be a square watermelon grown in a box. W/ all this background, I've never had any desire to associate w/ a 'family' of any kind. I'm much more comfortable as a lone wolf. I don't want forced associations based on blood lineages. I prefer to associate w/ people that I actually have things in common w/.

THEN, I finally read this bk by Melvin B. Tolson & for the 1st time in my life I actually deeply identified w/ the intelligence of someone who shared my given last name. I decided to finally investigate the name a little. 1st, I wanted to learn whether the story of slaves taking 'master''s names is historically accurate. That took me here:

"The myth of the 'master's name'":

"It is commonly believed that most slaves took their masters' surnames upon emancipation. In fact, many African-American genealogy classes inform their students that this should be the first place to look when trying to identify their ancestors' owners. Students are told to look for white families nearby bearing the same surname.

"The truth of this belief, however, does not stand up to scrutiny."


"Among the 6,319 legible names of slaves recorded in the Slave Statistics of Prince George's County, Maryland, the originals of which are held at the Maryland State Archives in Annapolis, only twenty-six (26) freedmen and women maintained the same surname as their most recent owner. This amounts to just 0.41% of the slaves held at the time of their final emancipation." -

Now, I don't necessarily trust sources unless I'm deeply aware of their history & find it to have integrity. I know nothing about the source of the above quote. For all I know, they're trying to whitewash their own history. But, provisionally, I'll accept it as accurate & move on. Then I looked at "Tolson" specifically. 1st, there's a Tolson Facebook page w/ close to no activity:

"Tolson is not a very common last name and there is not much genealogy information about the Tolson surname, so we created as a way to help find other Tolson Family members." -

Then there's a genealogy site that provides this:

"Contemporary Notables of the name Tolson

* Clyde Anderson Tolson (1900-1975), American associate director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation
* Joe Pat Tolson, American Democratic member of the North Carolina General Assembly
* Melvin Beaunorus Tolson, American Modernist poet, educator, columnist, and politician
* Randall Tolson, American memorial clockmaker who lived in Cold Spring Harbor, New York
* Edgar Tolson (1904-1984), American woodcarver and well-known folk artist
* Max Tolson (b. 1945), Australian former footballer
* Dickon Tolson, British actor" -

What interests me about that entry is that both Clyde Tolson, J. Edgar Hoover's partner, & MB are in among the "notables" & there's no race distinction made. I'm glad of the absence of race distinction but it seems so out-of-character in this race-obsessed society.

In 1983, when I was arrested for my "Poop & Pee Dog Copyright Violation Ceremony" John Waters told me that people reading the newspaper stories about it wd think I was black - so, apparently, he, at least, thought of "Tolson" as a name more common among blacks - or maybe he meant that 'white' readers wd just think that such outrageous conduct was something that 'only a 'black' person wd do'.

Here's a little more basic bio about Melvin B. Tolson:

"Melvin B. Tolson was born in Moberly, Missouri, on February 6, 1898, and he died at the age of 67 on August 29, 1966, in Dallas, Texas, a few days after undergoing surgery for cancer. In 1922 he married Ruth Southall, and in 1924 he graduated with honors from Lincoln University. From 1924 until 1947 he taught at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, taking a year's leave in 1930-31 to pursue work in a Master's degree from Columbia University. His project for a thesis centered on interviewing members of the Harlem Renaissance. From 1947 onward he taught at Langston University in Langston, Oklahoma (where he also served three terms, from 1954 to 1960, as Mayor)." - Department of English, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's MAPS (Modern American Poetry Site) website ( ) ( )

There are, obviously, many ideas about what poetry 'shd' do. One of these ideas is that poetry 'shd', or maybe just typically does, condense content in a highly allusive way. Tolson fits this bill. The work is SO DENSE w/ meaning -as if Tolson's trying to cram every powerful archetype he's ever encountered into a small space that then still becomes epic anyway. I love it.

This edition is published by the University Press of Virginia. I'm impressed, I'm IMPRESSED!! The scholarship here is profound. Are all editions of his work this good?! That seems unlikely. This is academia at its best, an academia that seems all-too-often to be a hollow sham is here a rock-solid fundament for deep learning. The end-notes that provide explication for "Harlem Gallery" are so damned informative that for someone like me it's practically paradise. & they're not even credited. I presume they're provided by the editor, Raymond Nelson as culled by his own research into the annotations of others. In his Editorial Statement he concludes w/:

"Harlem Gallery is another kettle of fish. Our decision to provide extensive apparatus for it reflects not only a judgment that a reader would welcome such assistance but a judgment as well about its priority among Tolson's works. Of all the achievements of a distinguished career, Harlem Gallery seems the one most likely to find a place in humanity's great anthology. The need for an annotated edition of it was among the first motives that led to the collection presented here.

"One of the lessons Harlem Gallery teaches is about the responsibility of curators, critics, scholars, and other subalterns of art to facilitate and clarify. An editor should recognize an opening when he sees one." - p XXVIII

In fact, my 1st note to myself as to what to refer to in this bk is to the introductory notes to Harlem Gallery: "Michael Berube's Marginal Forces/Cultural Centers (1992), which considers Tolson in tandem with Thomas Pynchon, is the most sophisticated literary discussion of Tolson that has yet appeared." (p 368) "Tolson in tandem with Thomas Pynchon"?! Another one of my favorite writers?! That I've got to read!! In fact, to put my money where my mouth is, I just ordered it thru Amazon - hardcover w/ shipping for $5.98! It must be good or it wdn't be selling that cheap. A recurrent theme in my life is that almost anything that I find truly interesting is of almost no value at all to most other people.

From Rita Dove's Introduction:

""I will visit a land unvisited by Mr. Eliot." With this self-confident boast, Melvin B. Tolson throws down his glove before the pantheon of Modern Poetry. Like many of his public utterances, this sentence scribbled in a notebook bristles with half-tones and quarter-tones. Is Tolson merely staking out his particular poetic territory and in effect confirming the southern poet-critic Allen Tate's smug pronouncement that "the distinguishing Negro quality is not in language but in the subject-matter, which is usually the plight of the Negro segregated in a White culture" in other words, stick to your side of the tracks and we'll stick to ours? Or is he challenging T. S. Eliot, claiming a larger vision than that of the Disgruntled Modernists; could he find a way of reclaiming the wasteland of postwar disillusionment without turning to religion or to other heavily structured systems of thought as Eliot, Pound, Yeats and some of their lesser Anglo-Saxon contemporaries did? And what of the exquisitely formal address: is "Mr. Eliot" an expression of respect, distance, or irony?

"With Tolson one can safely say: all of the above. A glance at nearly any passage from the poems reprinted here will confirm that one is in the presence of a brilliantly eclectic mind determined not to hide its light under a bushel. In an interview the year before his death in 1966, Tolson stated; "I, as a black poet, have absorbed the Great Ideas of the Great White World, and interpreted them in the melting-pot idiom of my people. My roots are in Africa, Europe, and America." - pp XI-XII

& deep are those roots. As my friend the Reverend Ivan Stang might say: "Don't just eat that burger, eat the HELL OUT OF IT!!" I cdn't say it better. Tolson has taken nourishment from the melting pot of his roots into the human encyclopedia of the melting pot of his being - & he's done a damned good job of it. "In 1947 Tolson was appointed Poet Laureate of Liberia" (p xvi). Just. imagine. that.

Who's the current United States Poet Laureate?
"The Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress commonly referred to as the United States Poet Laureate serves as the nation's official poet. During his or her term, the Poet Laureate seeks to raise the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry." [..] "Currently, the laureate receives a $35,000 annual stipend" [That's got to make it one of the lowest pd honors in this country] ( ) Anyway, the current USPL is a man named Charles Wright. I don't think I've ever read his work.

On the official government website for such things it's written that "For almost 50 years his poems have reckoned with what he calls language, landscape, and the idea of God." ( ) Right, God. Anybody remember the separation of Church & State? If this were an Islamic country the Poet Laureate (if there were one) wd have to be a mouthpiece for Allah. Why are the Christians & Moslems perpetually at war? After all, they're practically identical in some ways. B/c it helps their respective ruling elites keep their own peoples at bay. Strangely?, the author of this bk's introduction, Rita Dove, has also been one of the US Poet Laureates.

"As a book, Libretto for the Republic of Liberia finally appeared in 1953 under the imprint of Twayne Publishers. In his foreword Allen Tate accurately describes the conundrum of Tolson's achievement: "Here is something marvellous indeed. A small African republic founded by liberated slaves celebrates its centenary by getting an American negro poet to write what, in the end, is an English Pindaric ode in a style derived from but by no means imitative of one of the most difficult modern poets."" - p XVII

"When Tolson published part 1 of his projected epic poem, Harlem Gallery, in 1965, critical response was immediate and controversial. Whereas many mainstream literati were enthusiastic, proclaiming Tolson's piece as the lyrical successor to The Waste Land, The Bridge, and Paterson, proponents of the rapidly solidifying Black Aethetic were less than impressed to say the least. Part of the controversy was sparked by Karl Shapiro's well-meaning foreword. "Tolson writes and thinks in Negro," Shapiro announced, prompting poet and essayist Sarah Webster Fabio to remark: "Melvin Tolson's language is most certainly not 'Negro' to any significant degree. The weight of that vast, bizarre, pseudo-literary diction is to be placed back into the American mainstream where it rightfully and wrong-mindedly belongs."" - p XVIII

"pseudo-literary diction" belonging in "the American mainstream"?! Them's fightin' words!! Now the above criticism is specifically re Harlem Gallery so maybe it's not fair to quote from - Rendezvous with America in Tolson's defense but how cd anyone attack Tolson thusly after he'd written this?!:

"They tell us to forget
Democracy is spurned.
They tell us to forget
The Bill of Rights is burned.
Three hundred years we slaved,
We slave and suffer yet;
Thought flesh and bone rebel,
They tell us to forget!" - Rendezvous with America - pp 38-39


"The New Negro strides upon the continent
in seven-league boots . . .
The New Negro
Who sprang from the vigor-stout loins
Of Nat Turner, gallows-martyr for Freedom,
Of Joseph Cinquez, Black Moses of the Amistad Mutiny,
Of Frederick Douglass, oracle of the Catholic Man,
Of Sojourner Truth, eye and ear of Lincoln's legions,
Of Harriet Tubman, Saint Bernard of the Underground Railroad." - Rendezvous with America - p 39


"Black Crispus Attucks taught
Us how to die
Before white Patrick Henry's bugle breath
Uttered the vertical
Transmitting cry:
"Yea, give me liberty or give me death."" - Rendezvous with America - p 37

"Shapiro describes Gallery as "a narrative work so fantastically stylized that the mind balks at comparisons." Divided into twenty-four sections corresponding to the letters of the Greek alphabet, Harlem Gallery contains allusions to Vedic gods, Tintoretto and Minyan pottery, as well as snippets in Latin and French. No wonder many of his black contemporaries thought he was "showing off."" - p XVIII

& why shdn't he have such broad
?! Tolson's not "showing off", he's being an anti-racist internationalist, something that's pretty obvious in most of the work presented in this bk. He has too broad a mind to willingly cage it in the myopia of other people's agendas.

"To be sure, the timing was bad for such a complex piece. The Civil Rights movement was at its peak, and black consciousness had permeated every aspect of Afro-American life, including its literature. Black writers rejected white literary standards, proclaiming a black aesthetic that was distinctly oral, where poems and fiction used the language patterns and vocabulary of the street to arouse feelings of solidarity and pride among Afro-Americans." - p XVIII

& that's all well & good - BUT the written word is not the same as the oral one so why shd it simulate it? That's like driving a car as if it were a bicycle - by pumping the gas & letting up on it - all you get is a jerky ride w/o any of the qualities of either mode of transport. Back to Nelson's Editorial Statement:

"This edition of the poetry of Melvin B. Tolson collects the three books he published in his lifetime, Rendezvous with America (1944), Libretto for the Republic of Liberia (1953), and Harlem Gallery (1965), and five fugitive poems, "African China," "A Long Head to a Round Head," "The Man from Halicarnassus," "E. & O. E.," and "Abraham Lincoln of Rock Spring Farm," which were for the most part written and published during the interim between Rendezvous and Libretto. We have not attempted to collect fugitive poems written or published prior to 1944, on the principle that Tolson himself made the decision to exclude them from Rendezvous, so that our edition consists of the early poetry gathered in that volume and all subsequent poetry that Tolson saw through publication. Our purpose has been rather to make Tolson's important work available than to be exhaustive or definitive." - p XXVII
… (mere)
tENTATIVELY | Apr 3, 2022 |



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