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  • Vehicles of Periodization:Melvin B. Tolson, Allen Tate, and the New Critical Police
  • Andy Hines (bio)

Melvin B. Tolson frequently came into direct contact with the academic New Criticism, especially with Allen Tate. Such contact was atypical for most African American poets, though not for Tolson and a handful of others. In February 1949, Tolson wrote to Tate, whom he considered the "toughest of the New School of criticism," to ask Tate to write a preface for Libretto for the Republic of Liberia, Tolson's epic poem commissioned by Liberian President William Tubman.1 An early misunderstanding about the conditions of Tate's agreement to write the preface and Tolson's compliance with those conditions has impacted much of the critical work on Tolson and his Libretto. Dudley Randall was the first to account for the character of the Tolson-Tate relationship in 1966, even though early reviewers, including J. Saunders Redding, commented on the content of Tate's preface and the nature of Tolson's verse separately. From a version of the story told by Tolson, Randall described Tolson, initially rejected by Tate, "studying modern poetic techniques and rewriting the poem so that it said the same things in a different way," to gain Tate's approval.2 That narrative, one in which Tolson intentionally takes up the high modernist stylistics valued by the New Criticism to appease Tate, was repeated until 1984 when Robert Farnsworth looked at archival evidence that made it clear Tate never refused to write a preface for Libretto, and therefore Tolson didn't recast the poem in modernist form at Tate's behest.3 In 1992, Michael Bérubé took the approximately twenty-year persistence of this assimilative myth narrated by Randall as cause for Tolson's marginalized reception by black and white critics alike. Despite reading Tolson's Libretto as a "guerilla strategy, a means of letting revolutionary discourse sound in the ears of conservative white Americans by masking that discourse in a no-longer revolutionary poetics," Bérubé's account demotes Tolson to a "marginal force."4 This is because his poetics [End Page 417] presents "something of a periodization problem: . . . he emerged in the interstitial period between the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts movement."5 Even with an uptick in studies on Tolson,6 not to mention a revival of discussion of the periodization of African American letters, in 2011 Matthew Hart reiterated Bérubé's claim in passing, "Tolson belongs fully to no literary movement."7 While Bérubé, Hart, and other recent critics of Tolson have not been shy about claiming that his poetry (or at least his poetry's reputation) has been changed due to its critical reception, there has not yet been work on how that initial encounter with Tate and the New Criticism has placed Tolson and his African American poet contemporaries into repeated temporal liminality. Contrary to current understandings of the Tolson-Tate encounter, this essay shows that Tolson's goal, in fact, was to create with his poem and Tate's preface "an atom bomb dropped on two worlds," a reenvisioning of the possibilities of critical practice in the mid-century and an overhaul of its organization for black and white critics alike.8

This essay reads Tolson's proposal for a revision of critical practice, which, of course, was never realized. Tolson approached Tate as a means to illuminate the hypocrisy of the New Critical practice of classifying works as either literature or propaganda. This classification carried direct ties to the organization of English departments in the mid-century, a structure largely in place today. The fount of Tolson's critique finds its source in periodization practice, especially as that practice relates to African American literature. Periodization then and now is weighted by a New Critical legacy that both dates a work and judges that work's quality as literature primarily on its style. Simply put, those works that did not engage the privileged style became propaganda. Tolson's poetry, but especially his correspondence and his unpublished essay about his relationship with Tate, provide a trenchant account of how this practice affected politically and stylistically complex works like Libretto. First, reading Tolson...


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