Joseph Seamon Cotter, Jr.


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(1895–1919), poet, journalist, and forerunner of the African American cultural renaissance of the 1920s.

Born in Louisville, Kentucky, son of the poet Joseph Seamon Cotter, Sr., Joseph Seamon Cotter, Jr., in his brief life established himself as an accomplished and innovative voice amid the lively post-World War I American poetry scene. Avoiding the dialect poetic style of his father and of the family friend Paul Laurence Dunbar, the younger Cotter experimented widely with modern free verse and traditional forms before his untimely death from tuberculosis at age twenty-three. Cotter's best-known work is his collection The Band of Gideon (1918), which was followed by the sonnet series “Out of the Shadows” (1920) and “Poems” (1921), the latter two published posthumously in the A.M.E. Zion Quarterly Review.

After graduation from Louisville Central High School in 1911, Cotter enrolled at Fisk University, where he worked on the Fisk Herald, a monthly published by the university literary societies. Apart from his precociously early reading in the family library, the work on the Fisk Herald represents the earliest documented sign of Cotter's literary predilections. During his second year at Fisk, Cotter had to return home to Louisville due to the onset of tuberculosis.

Upon his return home, Cotter accepted a position as an editor and writer for the Louisville newspaper the Leader, and he began to establish his brief yet brilliant career as poet. Grief over his sister's death inspired the early tribute “To Florence”; it remains one of his most moving poems. Precluded from military service in World War I because of his deteriorating physical condition but stimulated by his own interest and by the war service of a close friend, Cotter produced a number of poems, including “Sonnet to Negro Soldiers” and “O, Little David, Play on Your Harp”, which place him among the best Great War poets.

Other notable poems of the Gideon collection include the title poem, which recalls the style of the traditional southern black preacher and seems to encode protest regarding the treatment of black World War I veterans. Among the best modernist free verse pieces are “The Mulatto to His Critics” and the provocative “Is It Because I Am Black”, which dramatically interrogates those who would dismiss or patronize the African American narrator.

Outstanding among the poems appearing in the final A.M.E. Zion series is “Rain Music”, which anticipates the rhythm, theme, and style of works of Langston Hughes and other Harlem Renaissance poetic innovators. Also first published in the Zion Quarterly and, until recently, overlooked is Cotter's impressive nineteen-sonnet sequence “Out of the Shadows”, which concludes with a moving evocation of a child dreamt of to fulfill the love celebrated in the sonnets. Cotter's posthumous publications also include the one-act World War I play “On the Fields of France”, which appeared in the Crisis in 1920. With his lively experimentation in free verse and traditional forms, his use of natural idiom, and his sense of the brilliant potential of African American verbal expression, Joseph Seamon Cotter, Jr., clearly prefigures the 1920s African American cultural renaissance.


Subjects: Literature.

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