American Literature Countee Cullen
by
Jane Kuenz
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 August 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0014

Introduction

Countee Cullen was born in 1903, probably in Louisville, Kentucky, though the circumstances are unclear in large part because Cullen gave conflicting accounts of his birth and early childhood. He was adopted at age fifteen by the Reverend Dr. Frederick A. Cullen and Carolyn Belle Cullen of Harlem’s Salem Methodist Episcopal Church and changed his name shortly thereafter from Countee L. Porter to Countee P. Cullen and finally simply Countee Cullen. His prize-winning poem “I Have a Rendezvous with Life” brought him to the attention of black artists and leaders. In 1922 he matriculated with a regents scholarship at New York University, where he studied with Hyder E. Rollins, a John Keats scholar under whose guidance he wrote a thesis on Edna St. Vincent Millay. Cullen completed an MA at Harvard in 1926, and while he was at Harvard his first book, Color, appeared to overwhelming acclaim, making him, at age twenty-two, the most celebrated writer of the Harlem Renaissance. The success of Color helped Cullen secure a regular literary column, “The Dark Tower,” at Opportunity that further confirmed his status as “the New Negro poet laureate.” Three books came out in 1927: The Ballad of the Brown Girl, an updated and racially inflected retelling of an English ballad; Copper Sun, which many readers felt did not live up to the promise of Color; and Caroling Dusk, an edited collection in which Cullen argued that Negro writers should not have to write about race only and had perhaps a greater kinship to the English poetic tradition than to anything inherited from Africa. Cullen would never entirely recover professionally from the critical reaction to this stance. His 1928 marriage in Harlem to Yolande Du Bois, the daughter of W. E. B. Du Bois, the editor of Crisis, dissolved less than two years later amid rumors about Cullen’s homosexuality, later confirmed, and his relationship with his longtime friend Harold Jackman. After 1927 Cullen published more poetry, including The Black Christ, and Other Poems (1929) and The Medea, and Some Poems (1935), the first prose translation of a major Greek drama by a black American writer. His only novel, One Way to Heaven, appeared in 1932. Cullen taught junior high English and French in New York from 1934 until his death in 1946 of high blood pressure and uremic poisoning. During that time he published two children’s books and prepared a manuscript of his selected poems, which was published posthumously in 1947 as On These I Stand.

General Overviews

Still the only monograph devoted to Cullen’s poetry, Shucard 1984 is a good general introduction, though it does not reflect the considerable reimagining of Cullen’s work and career that is tentatively begun by Wagner 1973, signaled definitively by Baker 1988, and developed in new and original ways by the works cited under Gender and Sexuality. Rampersad 1993 situates Cullen’s work in relation to the era and other poets, especially Langston Hughes.

  • Baker, Houston A., Jr. “A Many-Colored Coat of Dreams: The Poetry of Countee Cullen.” In Afro-American Poetics: Revisions of Harlem and the Black Aesthetic. By Houston A. Baker Jr., 45–87. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988.

    E-mail Citation »

    Published originally in 1974 as a “polemical challenge” to orthodoxies about a black aesthetic, Baker’s historical recontextualization of Cullen’s romantic themes, conventional form, and poetic identity marks a significant shift in the criticism by claiming Cullen as part of an authentic black expressive tradition rather than an exile from it.

  • Rampersad, Arnold. “The Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance.” In The Columbia History of American Poetry. Edited by Jay Parini, 452–477. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

    E-mail Citation »

    Situates Cullen in relation to other Harlem Renaissance poets and puts New Negro poetry itself in the context of its immediate forebears—modernist poetry movements of the 1910s and 1920s. The discussion of Cullen covers major themes in the poetry, especially in “Heritage,” “Yet Do I Marvel,” and “The Black Christ.”

  • Shucard, Alan R. Countee Cullen. Twayne’s United States Author Series 470. Boston: Twayne, 1984.

    E-mail Citation »

    Only book-length, comprehensive overview of Cullen’s work. Shucard addresses major themes in the poetry and critical reaction from the 1920s through the 1940s. Readings are often thin and limited further by a lack of attention to sexuality and by staging a familiar conflict between Cullen as aesthete and as racial spokesperson.

  • Smethurst, James. “Lyric Stars: Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes.” In Cambridge Companion to the Harlem Renaissance. Edited by George Hutchinson, 112–125. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL052185699XE-mail Citation »

    Engages but rejects a familiar opposition between Cullen and Hughes by locating both aesthetics in a common experience of Jim Crow segregation and the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar, who was similarly concerned with “questions of political and cultural citizenship” (p. 124).

  • Wagner, Jean. “Countee Cullen.” In Black Poets of the United States: From Paul Laurence Dunbar to Langston Hughes. By Jean Wagner, 283–347. Translated by Kenneth Douglas. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973.

    E-mail Citation »

    Extensive early treatment of Cullen’s poetry. Argues for reading Cullen in terms of the “dictates of the psyche” rather than racial group identification. Cullen does not shift away from racial themes after Color so much as return his focus on the inner spiritual life that was his real interest all along.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.

Article

Up

Down