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Pagan Poet The Story of Countee Cullen


Pagan Poet The Story of Countee Cullen
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. Cullenís 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."
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.

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This product was added to our catalog on Sunday 29 August, 2010.

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