Harlem Renaissance Re-Examined

By Victor A. Kramer; Robert A. Russ | Go to book overview

COUNTEE CULLEN: A KEY TO THE PUZZLE

MICHAEL L. LOMAX

The early poems are as good as one remembers them, the later ones inferior. The puzzle is why Cullen did not merely stop growing but was thrown back.

Helen Wolfert, PM, March 16, 1947

"Ladies and gentlemen!" black critic Alain Locke announced in 1926, a peak year of the Harlem Renaissance, "A genius! Posterity will laugh at us if we do not proclaim him now." 1 Much of Locke's time and energy, guidance and concern had been focused on the New Negro artists of the era, and now his efforts in their behalf were being rewarded amply with what he considered the unquestionably high literary standard achieved in Color, a first volume by the young black poet Countee Cullen. With this volume, the New Negro had taken a significant step forward, according to Locke, and, as if to prove that point, his hosannas were picked up only a little less enthusiastically by other critics not so personally involved in Cullen's career.

White reviewers were impressed and willingly admitted that Cullen's volume heralded a new and higher epoch in black American literature. "With Countee Cullen Color," wrote Clement Wood in the Yale Review, "we have the first volume of the most promising of the younger Negro poets. There is no point in measuring him merely beside Dunbar . . . and other Negro poets of the past and present: he must stand or fall beside Shakespeare and Keats and Masefield, Whitman and Poe and Robinson."2 Most other white reviewers were not quite so unqualified as Wood and did not presume to place Cullen among such an auspicious group of English and American poets. While they did invoke Cullen's obvious and admitted literary influences, they still compared the young black

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