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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

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.

The 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.

An unpublished course thesis entitled “Plays of the Irish Character: A Study in Reinterpretation” (1932), for example, anticipated the critical approach of some of his most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.

The 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 modernist” mode.

The 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.

The 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.”

Expanding 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 (1927)
Strong Men (1931)
Ma Rainey (1932)
Slim in Hell (1932)
Remembering Nat Turner (1939)
Song of Triumph (1980)

Other Works
Southern Road (1932)

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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.

Secondary Sources

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