Gerald Early: About Countee Cullen's Life and Career

Poet, anthologist, novelist, translator, children's writer, and playwright, Countee Cullen is something of a mysterious figure. He was born 30 March 1903, but it has been difficult for scholars to place exactly where he was born, with whom he spent the very earliest years of his childhood, and where he spent them. New York City and Baltimore have been given as birthplaces. Cullen himself, on his college transcript at New York University, lists Louisville, Kentucky, as his place of birth. A few years later, when he had achieved considerable literary fame during the era known as the New Negro or Harlem Renaissance, he was to assert that his birthplace was New York City, which he continued to claim for the rest of his life. Cullen’s second wife, Ida, and some of his closest friends, including Langston Hughes and Harold Jackman, said that Cullen was born in Louisville. As James Weldon Johnson wrote of Cullen in The Book of American Negro Poetry (rev. ed., 1931): "There is not much to say about these earlier years of Cullen--unless he himself should say it." And Cullen--revealing a temperament that was not exactly secretive but private, less a matter of modesty than a tendency toward being encoded and tactful--never in his life said anything more clarifying.

Sometime before 1918, Cullen was adopted by the Reverend Frederick A. and Carolyn Belle (Mitchell) Cullen. It is impossible to state with certainty how old Cullen was when he was adopted or how long he knew the Cullens before he was adopted. Apparently he went by the name of Countee Porter until 1918. By 1921 he became Countee P. Cullen and eventually just Countee Cullen. According to Harold Jackman, Cullen's adoption was never "official." That is to say it was never consummated through proper state-agency channels. Indeed, it is difficult to know if Cullen was ever legally an orphan at any stage in his childhood.

Frederick Cullen was a pioneer black activist minister. He established his Salem Methodist Episcopal Church in a storefront mission upon his arrival in New York City in 1902, and in 1924 moved the Church to the site of a former white church in Harlem where he could boast of a membership of more than twenty-five hundred. Countee Cullen himself stated in Caroling Dusk (1927) that he was "reared in the conservative atmosphere of a Methodist parsonage," and it is clear that his foster father was a particularly strong influence. The two men were very close, often traveling abroad together. But as Cullen evidences a decided unease in his poetry over his strong and conservative Christian training and the attraction of his pagan inclinations, his feelings about his father may have been somewhat ambivalent. On the one hand, Frederick Cullen was a puritanical Christian patriarch, and Cullen was never remotely that in his life. On the other hand, it has been suggested that Frederick Cullen was also something of an effeminate man. (He was dressed in girl's clothing by his poverty-stricken mother well beyond the acceptable boyhood age for such transvestism.) That Cullen was homosexual or of a decidedly ambiguous sexual nature may also be attributable to his foster father's contrary influence as both fire-breathing Christian and latent homosexual.

Cullen was an outstanding student at DeWitt Clinton High School (1918-1921). He edited the school's newspaper, assisted in editing the literary magazine, Magpie, and began to write poetry that achieved notice. While in high school Cullen won his first contest, a citywide competition, with the poem "I Have a Rendezvous with Life," a nonracial poem inspired by Alan Seeger's "I Have a Rendezvous with Death." At New York University (1921-1925), he wrote most of the poems for his first three volumes: Color (1925), Copper Sun (1927), and The Ballad of the Brown Girl (1927). If any event signaled the coming of the Harlem Renaissance, it was the precocious success of this rather shy black boy who, more than any other black literary figure of his generation, was being touted and bred to become a major crossover literary figure. Here was a black man with considerable academic training who could, in effect, write "white" verse-ballads, sonnets, quatrains, and the like--much in the manner of Keats and the British Romantics, (albeit, on more than one occasion, tinged with racial concerns) with genuine skill and compelling power. He was certainly not the first Negro to attempt to write such verse but he was first to do so with such extensive education and with such a complete understanding of himself as a poet. Only two other black American poets before Cullen could be taken so seriously as self-consciously considered and proficient poets: Phillis Wheatley and Paul Laurence Dunbar. If the aim of the Harlem Renaissance was, in part, the reinvention of the native-born Negro as a being who can be assimilated while decidedly retaining something called "a racial self-consciousness," then Cullen fit the bill. If "I Have a Rendezvous with Life" was the opening salvo in the making of Culln's literary reputation, then the 1924 publication of "Shroud of Color" in H. L. Mencken's American Mercury confirmed the advent of the black boy wonder as one of the most exciting American poets on the scene. After graduating Phi Beta Kappa from NYU, Cullen earned a masters degree in English and French from Harvard (1925-1927). Between high school and his graduation from Harvard, Cullen was the most popular black poet and virtually the most popular black literary figure in America. One of Cullen's poems and his popular column in Opportunity inspired A’Leila Walker--heiress of Madame C. J. Walker's hair-care products fortune and owner of a salon where the black and white literati gathered in the late 1920s--to name her salon "The Dark Tower."

Cullen won more major literary prizes than any other black writer of the 1920s: first prize in the Witter Bynner Poetry contest in 1925, Poetry magazine's John Reed Memorial Prize, the Amy Spingarn Award of the Crisis magazine, second prize in Opportunity magazine's first poetry contest, and second prize in the poetry contest of Palms. In addition, he was the second black to win a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Cullen was also at the center of one of the major social events of the Harlem Renaissance: On 9 April 1928 he married Yolande Du Bois, only child of W E. B. Du Bois, in one of the most lavish weddings in black New York history. This wedding was to symbolize the union of the grand black intellectual patriarch and the new breed of younger Negroes who were responsible for much of the excitement of the Renaissance. It was an apt meshing of personalities as Cullen and Du Bois were both conservative by nature and ardent traditionalists. That the marriage turned out so disastrously and ended so quickly (they divorced in 1930) probably adversely affected Cullen, who remarried in 1940. In 1929, Cullen published The Black Christ and Other Poems to less than his accustomed glowing reviews. He was bitterly disappointed that The Black Christ, his longest and in many respects most complicated poem, was considered by most critics and reviewers to be his weakest and least distinguished.

From the 1930s until his death, Cullen wrote a great deal less, partly hampered by his job as a French teacher at Frederick Douglass Junior High. (His most famous student was James Baldwin.) But he wrote noteworthy, even significant work in a number of genres. His novel One Way to Heaven, published in 1934, rates as one of the better black satires and is one of the three important fictional retrospectives of the Harlem Renaissance, the others being Wallace Thurman's Infants of the Spring and George S. Schuyler's Black No More. Cullen's The Medea is the first major translation of a classical work by a twentieth-century black American writer. Cullen's contributions to children's literature, The Lost Zoo and *Christopher Cat, are among the more clever and engaging books of children's verse, written at a time when there was not much published in this area by black writers. He also completed perhaps some of his best, certainly some of his more darkly complex, sonnets. He was also working on a musical with Arna Bontemps called St. Louis Woman (based on Bontemps's novel God Sends Sunday) at the time of his death from high blood pressure and uremic poisoning on 9 January 1946.

For many years after his death, Cullen's reputation was eclipsed by that of other Harlem Renaissance writers, particularly Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, and his work had gone out of print. In the last few years, however, there has been a resurgence of interest in Cullen's life and work and his writings are being reissued.

See: Blanche E. Ferguson, Countee Cullen and the Negor Renaissance, 1966. Margaret Perry, A Bio-Bibliography of Countee P. Cullen, 1903-1946, 1966. Arna Bontemps, ed., The Harlem Renaissance Remembered, 1972. Arthur P. Davis, From the Dark Tower: Afro-American Writers, 1900 to 1960, 1974. Alan R. Shucard, Countee Cullen, 1984. Gerald Early, ed., My Soul’s High Song: The Collected Writings of Countee Cullen, Voice of the Harlem Renaissance, 1991.

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Title Gerald Early: About Countee Cullen's Life and Career Type of Content Biographical
Criticism Author Gerald Early Criticism Target Countee Cullen
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 10 Jul 2021
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication The Oxford Companion to African American Literature
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