Countee Cullen

Jane Kuenz

in American Literature

ISBN: 9780199827251
Published online August 2012 | | DOI:
Countee Cullen


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.

Article.  5772 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (American)

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