MELVIN B. TOLSON wrote some of the most powerful poems published in the English language during this century. For over three decades, he displayed great poetic range and versatility which brought widespread acclaim from critics. Critical interpretations have often differed, however, concerning the literary tradition Tolson belongs to as an Afro-American poet. Robert M. Farnsworth's biography of Tolson now sheds new light on the poet's life and legacy.
Tolson emerges in Farnsworth's book as an enduring figure -- a devoted family man as much committed to his wife and four children as to his career, a poet whose interests were global but whose experiences were deeply rooted in America. He was a native son, born and raised in the Midwest, educated in the South and East, and he spent most of his adult life teaching in small black colleges in rural Texas and Oklahoma. He was the skilled and energetic coach of a college debate team which broke the color line in several states. He served four consecutive terms as mayor of Langston, Oklahoma. The Harlem of his poetry was his home only during his year as a graduate student at Columbia University. His creative works included such settings as Liberia and Paris, but he never saw those places until he was nearly 60 years old.
His first published volume of poems, Rendezvous With America, appeared in 1944, when he was 46. Its themes of brotherhood and democracy and the vital role America must play in worldwide democratic aspirations struck a resounding chord and established him as a new presence in American letters.
Although he was known through occasional articles, reviews and poems in various publications, his reputation as a poet rests largely on the only two other poetry volumes published during his lifetime: Libretto for the Republic of Liberia in 1953 and Harlem Gallery: Book I, The Curator in 1965. The latter was planned as the first of four volumes. He succumbed to cancer before he could complete them.
Some of Tolson's experimental techniques have been compared with those of Pound and Eliot, though he in no way shared the social conservatism of those poets or the New Critics who embraced them as literary models. His poetry was in the service of a different cultural ethos, and he had his own perceptions about style and substance. An intellectual indifferent to academic degrees, critical of the black bourgeoisie and scornful of capitalism, he believed his most appreciative audience lay in the distant future.
His reputation has grown since his death. More has been written and published about him during the past decade than during his lifetime. Nevertheless, he has never been as widely read as he deserves. At the end of his book Farnsworth acknowledges that "Tolson is not well known, let alone broadly emulated, among young black writers. Yet his own poetic achievement is real and substantial . . . "
It is a paradox that he is not better known among young black writers, for few authors have been so forceful in defense of Third World aspirations. Farnsworth's book does Tolson justice as a militant poet of vision and integrity, an artist who believed that true art cannot be divided from the concerns of the common man. A committed spokesman for radical social change, he envisioned a world based on egalitarian principles, and he consistently argued that "in order for a Negro to interpret the race problem in America, he must know the history of the world, yesterday and today." In Farnsworth's words, "He did not see the plight of black people as determined solely by race. Race was a part of economic exploitation."
Tolson spent much of his career interpreting history and race through his prose and poetry, some of it from a Marxist perspective. According to Farnsworth, "Tolson saw Marxist ideals and ambitions through the lens of radical Christianity." All of that may explain why the first manuscript Tolson wrote, A Gallery of Harlem Portraits (not to be confused with the later Harlem Gallery), brought rejection slips from commercial publishers: it called for the oppressed of the world to unite and interpolated blues and spirituals into poetic portraits. Credit is due Farnsworth for editing the first published version of A Gallery of Harlem Portraits, which appeared in 1979.
Farnsworth's biographical study concentrates more on Tolson's literary canon than on the story of his life. Nevertheless, there is much new and illuminating information, despite some repetitiousness in the material. A chapter on "Novels and Plays" is especially useful for an understanding of Tolson's unpublished fiction and drama.
Those who have not read Caviar and Cabbage: Selected Columns by Melvin B. Tolson from the Washington Tribune, 1937-1944 may be inspired to do so after reading the biography. Farnsworth edited the pieces in 1982, and the excerpts he reproduces in here reveal not only Tolson's mind and spirit but his brilliant prose style.
In outlook Tolson was a citizen of the world whose hopes for universal brotherhood were reflected in his life and work. He believed that art ultimately is the endeavor that could unite us all, and he dedicated his own art to that quest. Farnsworth's book is a worthy tribute which echoes the words of another writer, Roy P. Basler, who said a decade ago: "Tolson is perhaps the poet of our era who best represents, or comes nearest to representing, in his comprehensive humanity, the broadest expanse of the American character, phrased in the richest poetic idiom of our time."