Countee Cullen (1903-1946)
Contributing Editor: Walter C. Daniel
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Students who read Cullen need to develop a clear understanding of the temper of the Harlem Renaissance period in U.S. literary development. In addition, they may need help with the classical allusions in "Yet Do I Marvel" and in "Simon the Cyrenian Speaks." Also, students should come to understand the reference to Scottsboro as the poet's criticism of his fellow poets' neglect of what he considers a significant matter (obviously, this requires knowing about the Scottsboro incident in 1931 and following).
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Countee Cullen is an important figure of the African-American arts movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. Born in Louisville, Kentucky, Cullen was reared in New York City by his paternal grandmother until 1918, when he was adopted by the Reverend Frederick Asbury Cullen. This was a turning point in his life, for he was now introduced into the very center of black activism and achievement. Cullen displayed his talent early; already in high school he was writing poetry, and in his sophomore year at NYU he was awarded second prize in the nationwide Witter Bynner Poetry Contest for "The Ballad of the Brown Girl." Encompassing themes that would remain salient for the remainder of his career, Cullen's first major poem also revealed his unabashed reverence for the works of John Keats. Cullen was firmly convinced that traditional verse forms could not be bettered by more modern paradigms. It was, therefore, the task of any aspiring writer, he felt, to become conversant with and part of a received literary tradition simply because such a tradition has the virtue of longevity and universal sanction.
Cullen's first volume Color established him as a writer with an acute spiritual vision. Especially noteworthy in this respect is "Simon the Cyrenian Speaks," a work that eloquently makes use of Matthew 27:32 in order to suggest an analogue between blacks and Simon, the man who was compelled to bear the cross of Christ on his back. Sublimity was not Cullen's only strong point. In "Incident," the reader is brusquely catapulted into the all-too-realistic world of an impressionable eight-year-old as he experiences overt racism for the first time on a heretofore memorable ride through the history-filled streets of Baltimore.
In 1927, Cullen edited a significant anthology of black poetry, Caroling Dusk, and published two collections of his own, The Ballad of the Brown Girl and Copper Sun. Representative of Cullen's philosophical development in this period is the multifaceted "Heritage," a poem that summarizes his ambivalent relationship with Christian and pagan cultural constructs.
The 1930s and 1940s saw a change of direction in Cullen's work. His poetry output almost totally ceased as he turned his attention to the novel, theater, translation, teaching, and children's literature. The 1932 novel One Way to Heaven was Cullen's response to Carl Van Vechten's 1926 Nigger Heaven, a controversial and notorious work exploring the seamy underbelly of Harlem.
Cullen's best work was his poetry; he apparently knew this when he compiled his anthology, with the self-explanatory title On These I Stand, shortly before his death.
The Harlem Renaissance period between the two world wars saw the rise and definition of the "New Negro" in social, political, and literature activities of the nation.
Cullen, along with other formally educated black poets, established a new aesthetic for racial statement.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Cullen's contemporaries (the best-known ones among the writers) were Gwendolyn Bennett, Langston Hughes, and Claude McKay; contrast the poetic method of social protest by studying poems written by each of these poets.
Cullen has been criticized for taking an elitist attitude toward racial matters and of ignoring social protest. Is this criticism fair to Cullen in light of your reading of some poems written by him and, for instance, Claude McKay?
His first volume of poetry Color (1925) revealed an indebtedness to traditional verse forms and an abiding interest in the tenets of romanticism, characteristics markedly absent from the blues-based folk rhythms of the poetry of Langston Hughes. Cullen looked beyond his own rich heritage for authorial models and chose John Keats, firmly convinced that "To make a poet black, and bid him sing" was a "curious thing" that God had done. So curious, indeed, that the voice of the black poet had to be assimilated to and harmonized with the bearers of an alien literary tradition. In "To John Keats, Poet. At Springtime," Cullen's adulation of the nineteenth-century lyricist is most pronounced: "I know, in spite of all men say/Of Beauty, you have felt her most."
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
1. Identify non-black authors of the 1920s and determine their common themes in contrast with those of black writers.
2. Cullen grew up in a Methodist parsonage as the adopted son of a prominent Harlem pastor. Might the use of paradox about Christian religion and its practices in some of his poetry reflect his home experience? Which works and in which references?
3. Indications of Cullen's fascination with and influence by the English romantic poets, especially John Keats.
4. Effectiveness of the metaphor of Simon, the Cyrenian to black American life at the time; whether the allusion suggests some theological implications, such as non-redemptive suffering.
5. In the poem "Yet Do I Marvel," Cullen makes an implicit comparison between black poets and the mythical figures of Tantalus and Sisyphus. Explain how this comparison functions within the world of the poem.
6. Lying behind Cullen's title choice for "From the Dark Tower" is the phrase "ivory tower." How does this fact help explain the poem as well as its dedication to Charles S. Johnson?
7. As background to discussion of "Scottsboro, Too, Is Worth Its Song," comment on the historical importance of the Scottsboro Nine case and the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti. Why are these two events paired in Cullen's poem? What was the prevailing poetic current that prevented contemporary concerns from being broached in verse? In answering this last question, compare, for instance, some of the poems written by Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams during this period with the poetry of Cullen. Why did Cullen not follow the modernist precepts announced by writers such as T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Amy Lowell? How does Cullen's allusion to Whitman's lines "I . . . sing myself" and "I sing the body electric" function in the context of this poem?
8. Cullen chooses to set his poem "Incident" in old Baltimore. Why?
9. With reference to "Pagan Prayer," comment on the manner in which African-Americans have used Christian religion as a repository for radical egalitarian hopes. How is Cullen's conception of the religion of the white man different from that of a contemporary Nigerian writer, such as Chinua Achebe in his novels Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God?
10. How does Cullen accommodate traditions of English poetry to themes of problems of living black in the United States?
11. How active is the poet (Cullen) in taking the position of racial spokesman in the poems? Effective?
Baker, Houston. Black Literature in America. New York: McGraw Hill, 1971, 114-58.
Bontemps, Arna. The Harlem Renaissance Remembered. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1972.
Daniel, Walter C. "Countee Cullen as Literary Critic." College Language Association Journal XIV (March 1972): 281-90.
Davis, Arthur. From the Dark Tower: African-American Writers 1900-1960. Howard University Press, 1974.
Wagner, Jean. Black Poets of the United States. Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1973. Part II.
Critical discussion of Cullen's poetry was inaugurated by J. Saunders Redding in To Make a Poet Black, 1939. More detailed attention was given to his oeuvre in a sympathetic and forthright monograph by Houston A. Baker, Jr., A Many-colored Coat of Dreams: The Poetry of Countee Cullen, 1974. Alan R. Shucard in Countee Cullen, 1984, provides a complete overview and assessment of Cullen's life and literary endeavors.
Perceptive comments about his novel are contained in Bernard W. Bell's The African-American Novel and Its Tradition, 1987.
An invaluable general background of the Harlem Renaissance that also includes comments about Cullen is Nathan Irvin Huggins's Harlem Renaissance, 1971. Equally indispensable is Margaret Perry's A Bio-Bibliography of Countee P. Cullen 1903-1946, 1971.
Noteworthy articles touching upon particular aspects of Cullen's poetry are:
Davis, Arthur P. "The Alien-and-Exile Theme in Countee Cullen's Racial Poems." Phylon 14 (1953): 390-400.
Dorsey, David F. "Countee Cullen's Use of Greek Mythology." College Language Association Journal 13 (1970): 68-77.
Webster, Harvey Curtis. "A Difficult Career." Poetry 70 (1947): 224-25.