Tolson, Melvin Beaunorus

Tolson, Melvin Beaunorus (b. February 6, 1898, Moberly, Mo.; d. August 29, 1966, Guthrie, Okla.), American poet, chronicler of Harlem cultural scene.

Melvin Tolson attended Fisk University before transferring to Lincoln University, where he received his bachelor's degree in 1922. He took positions teaching English literature and coaching the debate team at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, but was inspired to develop his talent for poetry after attending Columbia University on a Rockefeller Foundation scholarship from 1931 to 1932. Tolson's year at Columbia put him in Harlem at the end of the Harlem Renaissance, and he became friendly with many writers associated with it, most notably Langston Hughes. In several poems over the next two decades, Tolson would revisit the atmosphere of 1930s Harlem.

Tolson's first major work, Rendezvous with America, was published in 1944. Throughout the 1940s, his poems, characterized by their allusive, complex, modernist style and their long poetic sequences, were published in such magazines and journals as the Atlantic Monthly, the Modern Quarterly, the Arts Quarterly, and Poetry. In 1947, the government of Liberia named Tolson its poet laureate and commissioned him to write a piece for the country's centennial; the result was Libretto for the Republic of Liberia (1953). Tolson's best known piece, the poetic sequence Harlem Gallery, was published in 1965. In 1966, he won the Arts and Letters Award in literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. A Gallery of Harlem Portraits, an extended work Tolson had begun with a single sonnet in 1932, was published posthumously in 1979.


Contributed By:
Lisa Clayton Robinson