| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Sterling A. Brown
After graduating with a Harvard M.A. in 1923,
Sterling A. Brown went south, as he said, to learn something of his people.
There a whole new world of black experience opened up to his acute and
sensitive artistic vision, causing in him not just a geographical realignment
from north to south but the profound shaping of a folk-based aesthetic. At
Virginia Seminary and College in Lynchburg (1923–26), where the precocious
twenty-three-year-old instructor played “red-ink” man in English classes, the
teacher by day became student at night as seminarians introduced him to Calvin
“Big Boy” Davis, itinerate guitar player, and Mrs. Bibby, “illiterate, and
somehow very wise”—two of the many individuals whose lives, language, and lore
Brown would celebrate in memorable literary portraits.
genteel circumstances of Brown’s birth would seemingly have mitigated against
so complete an absorption of black folk life. He was born into the rather
“high-brow” gentility of Washington, D.C.’s, black middle class, to Adelaide
Allen and Sterling Nelson Brown, a famous pastor, theologian, and social
activist who numbered John Mercer Langston and Blanche K. Bruce among his
friends. Graduating valedictorian from the prestigious Dunbar High School in
1918 earned Brown a scholarship to Williams College, where an essay in 1922,
“The Comic Spirit in Shakespeare and Molière,” and election to Phi Beta Kappa
won him a Clark Fellowship to Harvard for graduate work (1922–23). By the time
Brown began a second period of study at Harvard (1931–32), a marvelous synthesis
of formal and folk training had coalesced into an early maturing scholarship
and a deeply sensitive creative writing.
unpublished course thesis entitled “Plays of the Irish Character: A Study in
Reinterpretation” (1932), for example, anticipated the critical approach of
some of his most important scholarship of the 1930s: “Negro Character as Seen
by White Authors” (1933), Negro Poetry and Drama (1938), and The Negro in
American Fiction (1938). It is in this vein that, as editor on Negro Affairs
for the Federal Writers’ Project (1938–40) and as researcher for the
Carnegie-Myrdal Study (1939–40), Brown was a custodian guarding against the
proliferation of stereotypes of blacks in the American Guidebooks series as
well as in Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma (1944). Against the tiresome
argument that blacks had contributed little to American cultural history, Brown
set forth The Negro Caravan (1941), an anthology of black writing co-edited with Arthur P. Davis and Ulysses Lee. By
making “comprehensiveness” an editorial aim, the Caravan effectively expanded
the canons of black and Euro-American literatures by historicizing
nineteenth-century black formal and folk literatures, bringing previously
unacknowledged writers into prominence, and advocating a single standard of
literary criticism. A 1942 Rosenwald Foundation grant supported his work on “A
Negro Looks at the South,” a proposed book-length travelogue.
context established by Brown’s scholarship and teaching is a window through which
to view his poetry. After his early experiments with conventional Victorian
verse forms, two seemingly unrelated traditions coalesced in Brown’s poetry:
the democratic impulse of the New American Poetry and the richly textured
aesthetic forms and experiences of black folk life. Carl Sandburg, Robert
Frost, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Edgar Lee Masters, and Vachel Lindsay resonate
throughout Brown’s writing. In their startling experiments with free verse,
bold use of idiom and regional vernaculars, and mining of “ordinary” life for
its extraordinary meaning, these poets established an American poetry which
diverged both from artificial nineteenth-century conventions and from the
concern for myth, symbol, and image voiced by Pound, Eliot, and others of the “high
other tradition animating Brown’s poetry, the untapped world of black folk
experience, suffered from a priori assumptions of blacks as contented slaves,
exotic primitives, and other literary stereotypes. By situating his sensibility
in the American literary trend called “critical realism,” Brown the scholar
refuted such representations. But his poetry became an affirmation of black
life while insisting upon a recognition of black humanity. Under his influence,
the blues, Negro spirituals, humor, folktales, aphorisms, and work songs became
more than cultural artifacts: they became crucibles of experience that when
transformed became the stuff of good art.
blues presented more than a music of pain, suffering, and lost love. Its culturally
specific verse form and its highly metaphoric language were raw materials
awaiting the craftsman’s hand. In the Negro spirituals, Brown detected a tonic
shrewdness, or what a critic later described as a “distilled metaphysic.” Lines
such as “Ben down so long, / Down don’t bother me” and “I don’t know why my
mother wants to stay here for / This world ain’t been no friend to her” reveal
his desire to get at certain qualities in the language of black people, “a
flavor, a color, a pungency of speech.” Later, he continues, “I came to
something more important—I wanted to get an understanding of people, to acquire
an accuracy in the portrayal of their lives.”
black language into a philosophical vehicle conveying the character of a
people—a way of life, in effect—revises the conventional idea that black
language is inherently limited and racially demeaning. In much the same way,
Brown’s adaptation of black folk humor revises the shopworn notion of blacks
“laughing to keep from crying,” by exploiting the familiar purposes of satire
to instruct and delight and to instruct through delighting. And black life,
largely misunderstood and poorly represented, enjoys one of its most articulate
and enthusiastic celebrants.
John Edgar Tidwell|
University of Kansas
In the Heath Anthology
When de Saints Go Marching Home
Slim in Hell
Remembering Nat Turner
Song of Triumph
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Let Us Suppose
In the Opportunity Journal of Negro Life.
Modern American Poetry
Biography, criticism on some of his works, historical resources, and links.
The Ann Arbor Poetry Forum
A biography and an audio webcast of Brown reading Slim in Hell.
The Black Collegian Online
A biographical sketch and scanned portrait.
Callaloo 14 & 15 (5), 1982
Joanne V. Gabbin, Sterling A. Brown: Building the Black Aesthetic Tradition, 1985
Henry Louis Gates, "Songs of a Racial Self: On Sterling A. Brown," in his Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the "Racial" Self, 1987
John Edgar Tidwell, "The Art of Tall Tale in the Slim Greer Poems," Cottonwood 38/39, Summer/Fall 1986: 170-76
John Edgar Tidwell, "Recasting Negro Life History: Sterling A. Brown and the Federal Writers' Project," The Langston Hughes Review 13, no. 2 (1995): 77-82
John Edgar Tidwell, "The Summer of '46: Sterling A. Brown Among the Minnesotans," Black Heartland 1, no. 1 (1996): 26-40