"The Singing Man Who Must Be Reckoned With": Private Desire and Public Responsibility in the Poetry of Countee Cullen

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His lyric gift was incontestable and, indeed, exceptional. But his poetry has none of McKay's fiery virility, and the treasures it encloses are, rather, those of a soul that at times indulged in an excess of sensibility and preferred to express itself in the half-tones and nuances of a high scrupulousness. (Wagner 283)

Cullen's creative work is often effetely comfortable and self-consciously vulnerable. (Hill et al. 909)

No other Negro writer of the 1920s was more anxious to use primitive and atavistic motifs than the poet Countee Cullen. It is a bit ironic, because none of the Harlem writers was more formally schooled, none more genteel in inclination and taste, none indeed more prissy than Cullen. (Huggins 161)

In working up to writing about Countee Cullen, I found it difficult to read very far into the scholarship without noticing a drumbeat of sotto voce criticisms, often eloquently stated but revealing themselves as variants of the schoolyard taunts directed toward boys who never quite manage to throw a spiral, who make the mistake of squealing or giggling too often, or whose step across the blacktop may mince a bit too much. [1] "MY GOD!" the critics seem to agree, "HE WRITES LIKE A GIRL!" Most often this dismissal of the poetry coincides with a dismissal of the man. For Jean Wagner, Cullen lacks McKay's virility, and for the editors of the Riverside Anthology of the African American Literary Tradition, he has exhausted whatever virility he may have had and is simply effete--perhaps a more politically palatable term than "effeminate." For Darwin Turner he is "childishly petulant" and given to "self-pitying despair" (74). Nathan Huggins thinks he's prissy. For David Levering Lewis, the combination of Cullen's su spect masculinity and his overwhelming popularity among Talented Tenth Harlemites signifies the general fallings of the Renaissance as a whole. He grants literary Harlem some manly discernment by hoping speculatively that "Cullen must have set even Harlem's teeth on edge with Crisis throwaways lisping of a 'daisy-decked' Spring with her 'flute and silver lute'" (77). But Lewis's general dismay at the failures of the black bourgeoisie comes quickly to the fore as he notes, "Harlem loved Langston Hughes, Cullen's only serious rival..., but it revered Countee Cullen. With his high-pitched voice, nervous courtliness, and large Phi Beta Kappa key gleaming on the chain across a vested, roly-poly middle, he was the proper poet with proper credentials" (77).

Alas, poor Cullen! Fat, high-pitched and lisping, childish writer of effete verses. Not a candidate, according to the critics, for man of the year.

To some degree these gendered interpretations echo the masculine anxieties of an Ezra Pound or a T. S. Eliot decrying the effeminate line of the Amygists. It's not my purpose here to defend Cullen from the manly modernist critical tradition by suggesting that Cullen's poetry really is virile after all. What that could mean, I'm not entirely sure. Rather, it seems to me that the critical attention given to Cullen's supposedly flaccid masculinity is responding to a crisis over the nature of black masculinity that Cullen's poetry everywhere embodies. This crisis turns fundamentally on the unresolved tensions it displays over the relationship among blackness, homoeroticism, and Christian ethics, especially given that Cullen is living in a predominantly white, heterosexual, and increasingly secularized cultural milieu. Given the popularity of Cullen's work at the time, it seems possible to hypothesize that Cullen's work was not only popular because of his Phi Beta Kappa key but also because the tensions and contra dictions that drive his work embody the tensions and contradictions of his cultural context, particularly as they revolve around the definitions of masculinity, race, and religion.

During the period that gave birth to the Harlem Renaissance, masculine anxiety coursed like a fever through the veins of Americans both black and white. …