The Chicago School, Imagism, and early poetry of Melvin Tolson

Kathy Lou Schultz at Kelly Writers House, April 2013.
Kathy Lou Schultz at Kelly Writers House, April 2013.

Critical reengagement with Melvin B. Tolson’s writing from the 1930s and ’40s makes clear that his later Afro-Modernist epics, Libretto for the Republic of Liberia (1953) and Harlem Gallery: Book I, The Curator (1965), are neither anomalies out of sync with the developments of modernism, nor distanced from African American schools of writing. Rather, Tolson’s engagement with the contemporary poetic practices of his time results in a traceable trajectory from modern free verse, influenced by Edgar Lee Masters and Carl Sandburg of the Chicago School; to experimental modernist practice in the 1940s, drawing from T. S. Eliot’s and Ezra Pound’s methods; and finally to the development of Afro-Modernist innovation in Libretto and Harlem Gallery, as he realizes his own vision for the Afro-Modernist epic. As he becomes more fluent in his own particular modernist practice, Tolson’s task of decolonizing what Aldon Nielsen describes as “the colonized master text of modernism,”[1] results in a “rearticulation of modernism [that] led him eventually to assert African progenitors in the realm of technique” (247). Tolson’s Afro-Modernism is marked by a diasporic worldview in which multiple lineages, including those from Africa, Europe, and Asia, are incorporated into his work. This diasporic imagination, which is inherently transnational, is present in the Afro-Modernist epics of Langston Hughes and Amiri Baraka as well. Each of these poets turned to the epic form to include large swaths of diasporic history in their retellings of African American genealogies.

In his poems of the thirties, A Gallery of Harlem Portraits, Tolson first utilizes a modern free verse line. It is in the 1940s, however, in Rendezvous with America that we see Tolson moving toward experimental modernist forms. Clearly his work from the forties serves as a bridge to his later Afro-Modernist epics. Although both of his early collections are deserving of close attention, the foundational stages of Tolson’s development as a poet have been obscured for several reasons, including Tolson’s publishing history; periods of scholarly disinterest, neglect, even outright hostility; and little recent attention to Tolson’s work prior to the 1950s. Ironically, when Michael Bérubé published his major work on Tolson, Marginal Forces / Cultural Centers: Tolson, Pynchon, and the Politics of the Canon in 1992, Portraits was the only collection of Tolson’s still in print. In staging the reemergence of Tolson into modern literary criticism, Bérubé’s work focuses on unpacking the complexities of Tolson’s last work Harlem Gallery and its relationship to modernist studies. Bérubé, whose book mentions Portraits almost exclusively in footnotes, seems, in part, to have drawn his assessment of the earlier work, A Gallery of Harlem Portraits, from Tolson himself who claims at one point to have stashed that manuscript in a trunk for twenty years. Bérubé also asserts that Tolson “brackets off” Portraits as “premodernist” in his representation of it in later works.[2] In addition, Raymond Nelson’s important edited volume that helped to create a new generation of Tolson readers, “Harlem Gallery” and Other Poems of Melvin B. Tolson (1999), contains, as Nelson explains, only “the three books [Tolson] published in his lifetime”[3] and does not make mention of Portraits at all.

Tolson spent most of his life in small towns in the Midwest and Southwest far from major urban center. Thus, a significant turning point in his poetics occurred during his stay in New York in 1931–32, where he studied for a master’s degree in comparative literature at Columbia University. During this time, Tolson began composing his Portraits, encouraged by a fellow student at Columbia to write a “Negro epic.” In this early part of his career, Tolson is working through his initial introduction to modern poetry, a process in which he is more an emulator than innovator. A Gallery of Harlem Portraits was modeled after The Spoon River Anthology of Edgar Lee Masters, who in turn had used J. W. Mackail’s Select Epigrams from the Greek Anthology as a model. Masters’s populism appealed to Tolson. As critics have noted of Spoon River: “Here for the first time in America was the whole of a society which people recognized — not only that part of it reflected in writers of the genteel tradition.”[4] Ernest Earnest writes: “Spoon River is a community, a microcosm, not a collection of individuals” (63). Tolson sought to do the same for the community of Harlem. What distinguishes Tolson’s modern free verse from that of Masters, however, is his inclusion of black vernacular forms, including the blues. For example, the first stanza of “Diamond Canady” quotes from a familiar African American boast:

I plays any game
Dat you kin name

For any amount
Dat you kin count.

Tolson was conscious of using his poems as written repositories for such oral forms as the boast and spoken African proverbs; his later works utilize vernacular forms as a compositional structure, displaying entire scenes following the protocol of the dozens.

According to Tolson, he discovered Masters along with Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost, and Edward Arlington Robinson in 1932. Tolson writes that his “German American friend” who encouraged him to begin the epic that became A Gallery of Harlem Portraits told him: “You’re like the professors. You think the only good poet is a dead one. Why don’t you read Sandburg, Masters, Frost, Robinson?”[6] These writers were not part of his academic training at Lincoln University and Tolson frequently recounted his disappointment that “his English professor at Lincoln reacted with discouraging disdain when [he] excitedly discovered Sandburg’s ‘Chicago.’”[7] As John Timberman Newcomb points out, Sandburg was one of Harriet Monroe’s “important early discoveries.”[8] She “sought the maximum avant-garde impact by leading off [an] issue [of Poetry] with ‘Chicago Poems,’ placing Sandburg’s rough-edged, soon-to-be-famous portrait of the city, ‘Chicago,’ on the first page, where it became a self-defining editorial statement for this proudly Chicagoan magazine” (15).

Displaying a specific understanding of the place of the Harlem Renaissance within the broader context of modernist literature, Tolson asserts in his master’s thesis that what he calls the Harlem Group of Negro Writers is an active component of “the larger culture of the new literature” represented by Poetry Magazine:

The literature that came out of the Harlem Renaissance, which has been the focal point of this thesis, affected and was affected by the larger culture of the new literature that began with the publication of the first issue of Poetry by Harriet Monroe in 1912. Many thought that the Harlem Renaissance was just a fad. In this they were mistaken. It has been followed by a proletarian literature of Negro life, wider in scope, deeper in significance, and better in stylistic methods.[9]

Tolson’s understanding of the contours of modernism is prescient on a number of levels, including his awareness of the importance of Monroe’s journal. Newcomb writes:

The magnitude of Poetry’s importance to modernism has never been fully appreciated. More than any literary endeavor of its times, Monroe’s magazine challenged the prevailing notion that poetry had no business in urban-industrial modernity, and theorized the continued value of verse at a time when to many, the genre seemed about to end its days as a refuge for spineless dilettantes. (7)

Poetry magazine was an especially important touchstone for Tolson with its “uninhibited inclination for conflict with self-appointed defenders of tradition” (11). Furthermore, Tolson notes that as precursors to proletarian literature, Harlem Renaissance writers laid the groundwork for a literature of Negro life with improved formal methods and a wider range of content, reflecting his appreciation of the formal and thematic possibilities opened up by modernist method. Tolson’s analysis remains an unusual view of American literary history. More often, modernism, the Harlem Renaissance, and proletarian writing are understood as three separate strands, rather than part of the same thread. Moreover, Tolson recognizes the cross-racial affiliations among American modernists in his observation that New Negro writers both affected and were affected by the new literature represented in Poetry Magazine.

Scholars are still defining the historical features of the Chicago Renaissance. For example, according to the Encyclopedia of Chicago:

the term ‘Chicago Renaissance,’ as it is usually used, applies more precisely to the second wave of Chicago writing. It describes a gathering of writers, a flowering of institutions that supported and guided them … between about 1910 and the mid-1920s. Major figures include novelists [Theodore] Dreiser (whose career extended well into this period), Sherwood Anderson, and Floyd Dell; poets Carl Sandburg, Harriet Monroe, Edgar Lee Masters, and Vachel Lindsay; reporters Ben Hecht and Ring Lardner; and editors and critics Monroe, Dell, Margaret Anderson, and Henry Justin Smith. [10]

Other sources such as the Encyclopedia of the Chicago Literary Renaissance date the movement more broadly: from 1900 to 1930.[11]

In addition, a Chicago Renaissance occurred among African American writers and artists, which a Chicago Public Library project dates from 1932 to 1950.

In 1979, Chicago Renaissance artist Eldzier Cortor recalled that among those whose “burgeoning talents shaped a kind of Thirties/Forties Renaissance in Chicago were the dancers Katherine Dunham and Talley Beatty; writers Richard Wright and Frank Yerby, Margaret Walker, Willard Motley and John H. Johnson (now publisher of Ebony); sociologist writers St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton (who later coauthored Black Metropolis); entertainers Nat King Cole, Ray Nance and Oscar Brown, Jr.; photographer Gordon Parks; poet Gwendolyn Brooks, and the artists Elizabeth Catlett and Hughie Lee Smith.”[12]

The African American Renaissance in Chicago contributed significantly to Tolson’s career as a poet. At the American Negro Exposition held in Chicago in 1940, he won the national poetry contest for his poem “Dark Symphony,” which was subsequently published in Atlantic Monthly in September 1941. Tolson biographer Robert Farnsworth finds that the critical and popular success of Tolson’s collection, Rendezvous With America, published in 1944, which includes the award-winning poem “Dark Symphony,” played a major role in Tolson being named Poet Laureate of Liberia. Following on the serial poems “Dark Symphony” and the title poem of the collection “Rendezvous With America,” Tolson writes his first major Afro-Modernist epic at the bequest of the Liberian Centennial Commission: Libretto for the Republic of Liberia.

Tolson’s chosen poetic affiliations throughout his career have been a puzzle to some critics; however, his interest in Masters, Sandburg, and Monroe of the Chicago Renaissance in his early career as a poet is not unusual among African American writers. Moreover, recognition of the Chicago writers illustrates the need to understand the “New Negro Renaissance” more broadly — instead of relying only on Harlem-centric accounts. Notably, among the many influences on Harlem Renaissance writers George Hutchinson lists in The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White is the “Chicago Renaissance authors’ experiments in vernacular poetry and regionalist fiction.”[13] In fact, for Midwesterners Hughes and Tolson, the Chicago Renaissance was of special interest. More specifically, “[a]ccording to [Langston] Hughes’s biographer, Faith Berry, Hughes’s high school English teacher (at Central High in Cleveland), ‘introduced her class to the Chicago school of poets: Vachel Lindsay, Edgar Lee Masters, and — the poet Hughes admired most, and eventually his greatest influence in the matter of form — Carl Sandburg.’”[14]

In the 1930s Tolson had yet to extol the genius of T. S. Eliot. He is writing more out of a Chicago Renaissance influence: a Whitman-inspired, free verse poetics. By Tolson’s later account, his introduction to modern free verse served as a springboard toward his eventual discovery of formally experimental modernism. Tolson links the emphasis on vernacular, or “common speech,” in free verse to the Imagists: “The first finished manuscript of the Harlem Gallery [A Gallery of Harlem Portraits] was written in free verse. That was the fashion introduced by the imagists.”[15] Though Tolson’s accounting of the connections between free verse and imagism is historically inexact, this quote is particularly interesting in that Tolson seems to be attempting retrospectively to mark his first manuscript as exhibiting modernist influences, which may be an attempt to recoup it for history. (At other points he seemingly disavows the manuscript of A Gallery of Harlem Portraits.) In the later work Harlem Gallery, which Tolson casts here as a rewriting of the earlier Portraits, we see Tolson’s move from modern free verse to the aesthetics of experimental modernism.

In the March 1913 number of Poetry, F. S. Flint’s article “Imagisme” lists the three “rules” of “Imagisme” as follows:

1. Direct treatment of the “thing,” whether subjective or objective.
2. To use absolutely no word that did not contribute to the presentation.
3. As regarding rhythm: to compose in sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.[16]

In the “Preface” to Some Imagist Poets (1915) there are six rules, sometimes referred to as the Imagist “Manifesto.”[17] One of the basic tenets is “To use the language of common speech, but to employ always the exact word, not the nearly-exact, nor the merely decorative word.”[18] The list also emphasizes “absolute freedom in the choice of subject” (vii) and the “individuality of a poet,” (vi) concepts that for Tolson may have also brought to mind the democratizing influence of the Whitmanian free verse line. Drawing evidence from the Tolson papers housed at the Library of Congress, Nielsen shows that: “What Tolson came to attempt was a decolonizing of American letters, a task which he saw as linking him to Whitman” (244). “I had deserted the great Romantics and Victorians,” Tolson states in an interview in 1965, “Walt Whitman’s exuberance was in the marrow of my bones.”[19] Pound’s view, however, is much less democratic than that of Whitman. In “A Few Don’ts By An Imagiste” which followed Flint’s article in the same issue of Poetry, Pound writes: “To begin with, consider the three rules recorded by Mr. Flint, not as dogma — never consider anything as dogma — but as the result of long contemplation, which, even if it is some one else’s contemplation, may be worth consideration.”[20] It is difficult to imagine, however, anything more dogmatic than an article assailing one with “Don’ts.”

Significantly, Chicago was an important ground on which the battle for the kind of free verse that would reign in American modernism was fought. The two sides that emerged were Midwesterners placed in the lineage of Whitman and the Imagist group made up of writers recognizable now as members of what used to be called the “high modernist” canon. The battles took place in the pages of Poetry and The Little Review. As Mark Morrisson explains, “These two trends in the contents of the Little Review reveal two competing visions of an American modern poetry canon developing during the pre–First World War period. The first was epitomized by Lindsay, Masters, and to some extent Sandburg, and it represents a continuation of the Whitman-inspired canon.”[21] Both Poetry and the Little Review published works from this group. “Yet even as many contributors and readers of the Little Review sang the praises of Lindsay and Masters and Whitmanian poetics,” Morrisson describes, “another American poetry quickly rivaled this aesthetic Imagism” (22). The Little Review eventually becomes an advocate of Imagism, awarding its 1917 “Vers Libre Prize” to Imagist writers (23). Ultimately, “[t]he free verse revolution in American poetry had come, in the pages of The Little Review, to be an Imagist revolution (23).

Morrisson describes Imagism as “a canonization strategy, designed to give a coherent focus to the otherwise disparate work of poets ranging from Pound, H.D., and Aldington to D. H. Lawrence and James Joyce” (22). Current examination of the modernist canon reveals this strategy to have been a successful one, and though we know — as Tolson certainly must have known — that Whitman introduced the American revolution in free verse in the century before Pound, Tolson’s move late in his life to associate himself with Imagism may have been one of his own canonization strategies. Certainly the two types of free verse discussed here are very formally dissimilar. The influence of free verse by Illinois poets Sandburg and Masters is dominant in Tolson’s work from the thirties, exhibiting phrasally-based enjambment based on prose rhythms as opposed to the sculptural exactness called for by Imagism.

Tolson’s poems from this period suffer from the same pitfalls as other free verse works of the thirties, such as Sandburg’s Marxist-influenced The People, Yes (1936) that Brian M. Reed links to the aesthetics of the Popular Front. Of the 107 parts of The People, Yes, Reeds writes: “There is little or no rhyme, meter, or other organized patterning of sound. The poetry depends instead on syntactical parallelism — especially in the form of lists, catalogs, and repeated phrases — to give his verse coherence and force.”[22] Tolson’s method is similar to Sandburg’s in several respects. For example, Reed describes rather arbitrarily lineated prose quotations throughout Sandburg’s work and “patches of the book that consist of nothing but reams of what Sandburg calls ‘proverbs’” (195). So, too, does Tolson’s early work display these traits. Tolson’s Portraits rely almost entirely on narrative techniques, lacking the crisp images and pared down lines associated with Imagism. Tolson’s narratives about violence and tragic deaths such as “Diamond Canady,” also mirror the content of Spoon River Anthology:

“Love ’em and leave ’em.”
Said Diamond Canady …
But when he got ready to cast Little Eva Winn aside
She left him in bed one morning
With a thin knife sticking in his heart. (7)

Without the introduction to Sandburg and Masters, however, Tolson’s later experimentally modernist epics would not have been put into motion. Moreover, the examples of their content and scope influenced the development of Tolson’s later populist Afro-Modernist aesthetic. By considering the entire scope of Tolson’s poetry and prose (as well as that of Langston Hughes) a more complex picture of the so-called schools of the Harlem Renaissance, the Chicago Renaissance, modernism, and proletarian literature emerges. What may be most useful is a reconsideration of the works labeled as “Harlem Renaissance” and a reassessment of the common timeline of twentieth century African American literature that highlights the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement, but little else. Recent work on the Chicago School and the Chicago Renaissance among African Americans may help to fill in this history.



1. Aldon L. Nielsen, “Melvin B. Tolson and the Deterritorialization of Modernism,” African American Review 26, no. 2 (1992): 241.

2. Michael Bérubé, Marginal Forces/Cultural Centers: Tolson, Pynchon, and the Politics of the Canon (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992), 109.

3. Raymond Nelson, “Editorial Statement,” in “Harlem Gallery” and Other Poems of Melvin B. Tolson (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999), xxvii.

4. Ernest Earnest, “Spoon River Revisited,” Western Humanities Review 21 (1967): 63.

5. Melvin B. Tolson, A Gallery of Harlem Portraits, ed. Robert M. Farnsworth (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1979), 7.

6. Tolson, “The Odyssey of a Manuscript,” New Letters 48, no. 1 (1981): 8–9.

7. Robert M. Farnsworth, Melvin B. Tolson, 1898–1966: Plain Talk and Poetic Prophecy (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1984), 24.

8. John Timberman Newcomb, “Poetry’s Opening Door: Harriet Monroe and American Modernism,” American Periodicals: A Journal of History, Criticism, and Bibliography 15, no. 1 (2005): 15.

9. Edward J. Mullen, ed., The Harlem Group of Negro Writers (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001), 135.

10. Carlo Rotella, “Chicago Literary Renaissance” Encyclopedia of Chicago, ed. Janice L. Reiff, Ann Durkin Keating, and James R. Grossman (Chicago History Museum, The Newberry Library, and Northwestern University, 2005).

11. Jan Pinkerton and Randolph H. Hudson, Encyclopedia of the Chicago Literary Renaissance (New York: Facts on File, 2004).

12. Michael Flug, introduction to Chicago Renaissance 1932–1950: A Flowering of Afro-American Culture, Images and Documents from the Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection (Chicago Public Library).

13. George Hutchinson, The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1995), 30.

14. Yusef Komunyakaa, “Langston Hughes + Poetry = the Blues,” Callaloo 25, no. 4 (2002): 1143.

15. Tolson, “Interview with M. W. King: A Poet’s Odyssey,” in Anger and Beyond: The Negro Writer in the United States, ed. Herbert Hill (New York: Harper and Row, 1966), 194.

16. F. S. Flint, “Imagisme,” Poetry 1, no. 6 (1913): 199.

17. Later, in Tendencies in Modern American Poetry (1917), Amy Lowell lists the six rules as part of a larger essay.

18. Preface to Some Imagist Poets: An Anthology (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1915), vi.

19. Tolson, “Interview with M. W. King,” 195.

20. “A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste,” Poetry 1, no. 6 (1913): 201.

21. Mark Morrisson, “Nationalism and the Modern American Canon” in The Cambridge Companion to American Modernism, ed. Walter Kalaidjian (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 21.

22. Brian M. Reed. “Carl Sandburg’s The People, Yes, Thirties Modernism, and the Problem of Bad Political Poetry,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 46, no. 2 (2004): 191.