One of the outstanding poets of the twentieth century, Melvin B. Tolson is best known for Rendezvous with America, Libretto for the Republic of Liberia, Harlem Gallery, and A Gallery of Harlem Portraits. Although these works have received critical acclaim, they are not yet widely read.
In this biography of Tolson, Robert M. Farnsworth has gathered much new information on the poet from family papers, from reminiscences of friends, acquaintances, and relatives, and from scholarly analyses of his work to create a clarifying and insightful account of the poet’s life. The events and preoccupations of Tolson’s life in turn provide a useful context for examining Tolson’s major poems. Moreover, Farnsworth has determined the chronology of most of Tolson’s writings, many of which were before either unknown or known only through obscure references.
During his lifetime, however, Tolson the man was well known within the American black community as a speaker and activist who identified economics as the underlying basis of racism. He expressed his opinions freely and forcefully in a column he wrote seven years for the Washington Tribune, “Caviar and Cabbage.” Both in his poetry and in his prose Tolson wrote in a voice blending those of the scholar, the preacher, and the poet. Embracing a modernist aesthetic in his later poetry, he challenged his readers with a demanding task, which has unfortunately proved too formidable for all but a few. Farnsworth’s book will do much to bring Tolson and his works the attention and understanding they so richly deserve.