My Soul’s High Song: The Collected Writings of Countee Cullen, Voice of the Harlem Renaissance
edited by Gerald Early
Anchor Books, 618 pp., $14.95 (paper)
Countee Cullen was the Edna St. Vincent Millay of the Harlem Renaissance. Virtually every poem of this romanticized writer was read by blacks as well as whites as a gesture, or even a “monument to the New Negro movement.” Before the publication of his first collection, Color, in 1925, when he was twenty-two, Cullen was already being celebrated, partly perhaps because he demonstrated that a black could turn out high-minded heroic couplets. Dead at forty-two, he has also come down to us in numerous anthologies of American poetry as something of a boy wonder who was silenced before his time, like the Romantic poets who were his models.
Cullen lacks an adequate biography, and this may account for the very general picture we have of him. He is never overlooked in books about the Harlem Renaissance, and yet among its major personalities he is the most recessive, harder to comprehend even than Langston Hughes. He is a figure of “sheer inscrutability,” as Gerald Early puts it in his lengthy introduction to My Soul’s High Song. Nothing, Early warns us, can be known with any certainty about Cullen’s formative years. Apparently no detail was too small to be ashamed of. Before he was famous, Cullen gave his birthplace as Louisville, Kentucky, but then switched it to New York City. Early tells us that there are even conflicting documents concerning Cullen’s height; he got taller as an adult, growing from five foot two inches to five foot ten inches as time went by.
The liveliest biographical sketch of Cullen is in David Levering Lewis’s When Harlem Was in Vogue, according to which he was born Countee Leroy Porter in Louisville in 1903. After his father “disappeared,” his mother took him to Baltimore to live with his paternal grandmother, who later moved with him to New York, where she ran a home for abandoned children. When she died, he went to live with the childless Reverend and Mrs. Frederick Cullen of the Salem Methodist Episcopal Church in Harlem, though it is unclear exactly when that was—perhaps 1918—and whether the Cullens ever formally adopted him.
“Countee’s gratitude to his foster parents never ceased to be a part of his adult personality,” Arna Bontemps observes in his memoir of the Harlem Renaissance. “His poetry reflected it, even when he became mildly critical of the elder Cullen’s fundamentalism. Not even sad or tragic themes deprived his lyrics of thankful overtones.” Although Reverend Cullen’s concentration on the prodigy in his care caused some resentment among his relations—Lewis passes on the gossip of the day that described Reverend Cullen, an NAACP activist, as a “menace” to choir boys and “oddly fond” of his wife’s cosmetics—Cullen more than repaid his adoptive father’s emotional investment, accompanying the Reverend Cullen on holidays abroad in the years between 1926 and 1938, while Mrs. Cullen stayed home. He was a model student and never got over the …