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About Countee Cullen’s Life And Career Essay, Research Paper
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
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
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
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.
From The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Copyright ? 1997 by
Oxford University Press.
Clifton H. Johnson
Cullen, Countee (30 May 1903?-9 Jan. 1946), poet and playwright, was the son of
Elizabeth Thomas Lucas. The name of his father is not known. The place of his birth has
been variously cited as Louisville, Kentucky, New York City, and Baltimore, Maryland.
Although in later years Cullen claimed to have been born in New York City, it probably was
Louisville, which he consistently named as his birthplace in his youth and which he wrote
on his registration form for New York University. His mother died in Louisville in 1940.
In 1916 Cullen was enrolled in Public School Number 27 in the Bronx, New York, under
the name of Countee L. Porter, with no accent on the first "e." At that time he
was living with Amanda Porter, who generally is assumed to have been his grandmother.
Shortly after she died in October 1917, Countee went to live with the Reverend Frederick
Asbury Cullen, pastor of Salem Methodist Episcopal Church in Harlem, and his wife, the
former Carolyn Belle Mitchell. Countee was never formally adopted by the Cullens, but he
later claimed them as his natural parents and in 1918 assumed the name Count?e P.
(Porter) Cullen. In 1925 he dropped the middle initial.
Cullen was an outstanding student in every school he attended. He entered the
respected, almost exclusively white, Dewitt Clinton High School for boys in Manhattan in
1918. He became a member of the Arista honor society, and in his senior year he received
the Magpie Cup in recognition of his achievements. He served as vice president of the
senior class and was associate editor of the 1921 Magpie, the school’s literary
magazine, and editor of the Clinton News. He won an oratorical contest sponsored by
the film actor Douglas Fairbanks and served as treasurer of the Inter-High School Poetry
Society and as chairperson of the Senior Publications Committee. His poetry appeared
regularly in school publications and he received wider public recognition in 1921 when his
poem, "I Have a Rendezvous with Life," won first prize in a citywide contest
sponsored by the Empire Federation of Women’s Clubs. At New York University, which Cullen
attended on a New York State Regents scholarship, he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa in his
junior year and received a bachelor’s degree in 1925. His poems were published frequently
in the school magazine, The Arch, of which he eventually became poetry editor. In
1926 he received a master’s degree from Harvard University and won the Crisis
magazine award in poetry.
When Cullen’s first collection of poetry, Color, was published in 1925 during
his senior year at New York University, he had already achieved national fame. His poems
had been published in Bookman, American Mercury, Harper’s, Century,
Nation, Poetry, Crisis, the Messenger, Palms, and Opportunity.
He had won second prize in 1923 in the Witter Bynner Undergraduate Poetry Contest
sponsored by the Poetry Society of America. He placed second in that contest again in 1924
but won first prize in 1925, when he also won the John Reed Memorial Prize awarded by Poetry
Color received universal critical acclaim. Alain Locke wrote in Opportunity
(Jan. 1926): "Ladies and Gentlemen! A genius! Posterity will laugh at us if we do not
proclaim him now. COLOR transcends all of the limiting qualifications that might be
brought forward if it were merely a work of talent." The volume contains epitaphs,
only two of which could be considered racial; love poems; and poems on other traditional
subjects. But the significant theme–as the title implies–was race, and it was the poems
dealing with racial subjects that captured the attention of the critics. Cullen was
praised for portraying the experience of African Americans in the vocabulary and poetic
forms of the classical tradition but with a personal intimacy. His second volume of
poetry, Copper Sun, published in 1927 also by Harper and Brothers (the publisher of
all his books), won first prize in literature from the Harmon Foundation. There are fewer
racial poems in this collection than in Color, however, they express an anger that
was not so pronounced in the earlier volume. The majority of the poems in Copper Sun
deal with life and love and other traditional themes of nineteenth-century poetry.
Cullen edited the October 1926 special issue of Palms devoted to
African-American poets, and he collected and edited Caroling Dusk in 1927, an
anthology of poetry by African Americans. Cullen was by this time generally recognized by
critics and the public as the leading literary figure of the Harlem Renaissance. Gerald
Early in My Soul’s High Song (1991), Cullen’s collected writings, said, "He
was, indeed, a boy wonder, a young handsome black Ariel ascending, a boyish, brown-skinned
titan who, in the early and mid-twenties, embodied many of the hopes, aspirations, and
maturing expressive possibilities of his people."
Cullen said that he wanted to be known as a poet, not a "Negro poet." This
did not affect his popularity, although some Harlem Renaissance writers, including
Langston Hughes, interpreted this to mean that he wanted to deny his race, an
interpretation endorsed by some later scholars. A reading of his poetry reveals this view
to be unfounded. In fact his major poems, and most of those still being printed in
anthologies, have racial themes. Cullen expounded his view in the Brooklyn Eagle
(10 Feb. 1924):
If I am going to be a poet at all, I am going to be POET and not NEGRO POET. This is
what has hindered the development of artists among us. Their one note has been the concern
with their race. That is all very well, none of us can get away from it. I cannot at
times. You will see it in my verse. The consciousness of this is too poignant at times. I
cannot escape it. But what I mean is this: I shall not write of negro subjects for the
purpose of propaganda. That is not what a poet is concerned with. Of course, when the
emotion rising out of the fact that I am a negro is strong, I express it. But that is
From 1926 to 1928, Cullen was assistant editor to Charles S. Johnson of Opportunity
(subtitled "A Journal of Negro Life") for which he also wrote a feature column,
"The Dark Tower." On the one hand, in his reviews and commentaries, he called
upon African-American writers to create a representative and respectable race literature,
and on the other insisted that the African-American artist should not be bound by race or
restricted to racial themes.
The year 1928 was a watershed for Cullen. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship to study
in Paris, the third volume of his poetry, The Ballad of a Brown Girl, was
published, and, after a long courtship, he married Nina Yolande Du Bois. Her father,
W. E. B. Du Bois, the exponent of the "Talented Tenth" concept,
rejoiced at bringing the young genius into his family. The wedding, performed by Cullen’s
foster father, was the social event of the decade in Harlem. After a brief honeymoon in
Philadelphia, Cullen left for Paris and was soon joined by his bride. The couple
experienced difficulties from the beginning. Finally, after informing her father that
Cullen had confessed that he was sexually attracted to men, Nina Yolande sued for divorce,
which was obtained in Paris in 1930.
Cullen continued to write and publish after 1928, but his works were no longer
universally acclaimed. The Black Christ and Other Poems, completed under the
Guggenheim Fellowship, was published in 1929 while he was abroad. His only novel, One
Way to Heaven, was published in 1932, and The Medea and Some Poems in 1935. He
wrote two books for juveniles, The Lost Zoo (1940) and My Lives and How I Lost
Them (1942). His stage adaptation of One Way to Heaven was produced by several
amateur and professional theater groups but remained one of his several unpublished plays.
Critics gave these works mixed reviews at best.
Cullen’s reputation as a writer rests on his poetry. His novel is not an important
work, and it received little attention from the critics. He rejected so-called jazz and
free-style as inappropriate forms of poetic expression. He was a romantic lyric poet and a
great admirer of John Keats and Edna St. Vincent Millay. While his arch traditionalism and
lack of originality in style had been seen in Color as minor flaws, they came to be
viewed as major deficiencies in his later works.
Cullen’s fall from grace with the critics had little effect on his popularity. He
remained much in demand for lectures and readings by both white and black groups. In 1931
alone he read his poetry and lectured in various institutions in seventeen states and
Canada. Some of his poems were set to music by Charles Marsh, Virgil Thomson, William
Schuman, William Lawrence, Margaret Bonds, Clarence Cameron White, Emerson Whithorne, and
Noel DaCosta. However, even though he continued to live with his foster father, royalties
and lecture fees were insufficient income for subsistence. He searched for academic
positions and was offered professorships at Sam Huston College (named for an Iowa farmer,
not the Texas senator), Dillard University, Fisk University, Tougaloo College, and West
Virginia State College. There is no clear explanation of why he did not accept any of the
positions. In 1932 he became a substitute teacher in New York public schools and became a
full-time teacher of English and French at Frederick Douglass Junior High School in 1934,
a position he held until his death (caused by complications of high blood pressure) in New
York City, and where he taught and inspired the future novelist and essayist James
Cullen married Ida Mae Roberson in 1940, and they apparently enjoyed a happy married
life. Cullen’s chief creative interest during the last year of his life was in writing the
script for St. Louis Woman, a musical based on Arna Bontemps’s novel God Sends
Sunday. With music by Harold Arlen and lyrics by Johnny Mercer, St. Louis Woman
opened on Broadway on 30 March 1946. Although the production was opposed by Walter White
of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and some other civil
rights activists as an unfavorable representation of African Americans, it ran for four
months and was revived several times by amateurs and one professional group between 1959
On These I Stand, a collection of poems that Cullen had selected as his best,
was published posthumously in 1947. The 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library
was named for Cullen in 1951, and a public school in New York City and one in Chicago also
bear his name. For a few brief years Cullen was the most celebrated African-American
writer in the nation and by many accounts is considered one of the major voices of the
Count?e Cullen’s personal papers (1921-1969, c. 4,400 manuscripts and photographs and
thirty-nine volumes) are in the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University; microfilm
copies of that collection are in other repositories. The James Weldon Johnson Collection
in Beinecke Library at Yale University contains more than 900 letters written by and to
Cullen and other writings by and about him. One of the best biographies is Michael L.
Lomax, "Countee Cullen: From the Dark Tower" (Ph.D. diss., Emory Univ., 1984).
Also valuable is the biographical introduction to My Soul’s High Song: The Collected
Writings of Countee Cullen, Voice of the Harlem Renaissance, ed. Gerald Early (1991).
This volume contains reprints of all Cullen’s published books except Caroling Dusk,
The Lost Zoo, My Lives and How I Lost Them, and On These I Stand; it
also contains some of Cullen’s uncollected poems, speeches, and essays. See also Blanche
E. Ferguson, Countee Cullen and the Negro Renaissance (1966); Margaret Perry, A
Bio-Bibliography of Count?e P. Cullen, 1903-1946 (1971); and Alan R. Shucard, Countee
Cullen (1984), for biographical studies. For critical studies of Cullen’s poetry, see
Houston A. Baker, Jr., "A Many-Colored Coat of Dreams: The Poetry of Countee
Cullen," in his Afro-American Poetics: Revisions of Harlem and the Black Aesthetic
(1988), pp. 45-87; Isaac William Brumfield, "Race Consciousness in the Poetry and
Fiction of Countee Cullen" (Ph.D. diss., Univ. of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana,
1977); Nicholas Canaday, Jr., "Major Themes in the Poetry of Countee Cullen," in
The Harlem Renaissance Remembered, ed. Arna Bontemps (1972), pp. 103-25; Eugenia W.
Collier, "I Do Not Marvel, Countee Cullen," in Modern Black Poets, ed.
Donald B. Gibson (1973), pp. 69-83; Arthur P. Davis, "The Alien-and-Exile Theme in
Countee Cullen’s Racial Poems," Phylon 14 (Fourth Quarter 1953): 390-400;
Robert E. Fennell, "The Death Figure in Countee Cullen’s Poetry" (M.A. thesis,
Howard Univ., 1970); and David Kirby, "Countee Cullen’s Heritage: A Black Waste
Land," South Atlantic Bulletin 4 (1971): 14-20. Of value also is James
Baldwin, "Rendezvous with Life: An Interview with Countee Cullen," Magpie
26 (Winter 1942): 19-21. For an extensive discussion of Cullen’s impact on Baldwin, see
David Leeming, Baldwin (1994). Obituaries and related articles are in the New
York Herald Tribune, 10 Jan. 1946; the New York Times, 10 and 12 Jan. 1946, and
the Negro History Bulletin 14 (Feb. 1946): 98.
American National Biography Online Feb. 2000. Access Date: Wed Mar 21 11:27:39 2001
Copyright (c) 2000 American Council of Learned Societies. Published by Oxford University
Press. All rights reserved.
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