The United States of America is famous for its wide variety of writers and poets who made a substantial contribution into the development and flourishing of the American literature. One of them was Sterling Allen Brown, an African-American professor, literary critic, as well as poet. Brown studied culture of African Americans living in the southern part of the United States. The blues, jazz and work songs greatly influenced his literary works. Moreover, such African-American poets as Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen and Jean Toomer had an everlasting impact on his poems as their literary works also focused on racial issues in America. Southern Road brought Brown recognition from critics.
Life and Career
Sterling Allen Brown was an essayist, poet and professor of the English language. He was born in 1901 in Washington into an African American family of a middle class. His father Sterling Nelson Brown was a divinity schoolteacher. Being the son of a well-known pastor and theologian, Sterling Brown graduated from the famous Dunbar High School. The same year in 1918, he enrolled Williams College (Tidwell, 1997).
In 1922, Sterling Allen Brown entered Harvard University after graduation of which he got an MA degree in the English language. It was a period of his life when he became interested in literature and art. The same year Brown became acquainted with the works of Edwin Robinson, Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost, as well as Vachel Lindsay. In 1927, he married Daisy Turnbull. It is important to note that marriage did not break his relationships with family, as he supported close relationships with his two sisters living next door in Washington.
The 1930s was a literary productive period for the poet. Already in 1932, he published his first book called Southern Road. It was a collection of poetry describing lives of the black and poor. The book also portrayed the importance of a country folk. The illustrator of Southern Road (1932) later wrote about Brown, Harvard only gave you the way to put it down, not how to feel about things (Tidwell, 1997). Besides writing poems, Brown wrote articles for a column in Opportunity magazine, where he reviewed films, plays, biographies, novels, as well as scholarship received by white and black American citizens. In 1937, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship that gave him an opportunity to complete such works as Negro Poetry and Drama and The Negro in American Fiction.
From the 1940s into the 1960s, the poet was not an active writer as his second book called No Hiding Place was rejected from publishing. A decade later, he won recognition. In 1969, the poet retired from his faculty position and devoted his life to poetry. In 1979, until Sterling Allen Brown was put in a health center, in Takoma Park. His two sisters took care of him; however, a few months later he died living to his devoted readers a huge collection of poems (Tidwell, 1997).
An Author Who Depicts the Life of Black People
Sterling Allen Brown as an essayist and poet portrayed hard life of African-Americans, social customs and traditions, as well as origin of their folk. Together with Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen and Jean Toomer, he studied folk art with the purpose of understanding and interpreting life of Black Americans. It was deliberately done in order to give white American citizens an opportunity to look into the real world of black people. Brown attempted to show that their life is not substantially different from the life of the white and point that the black did not deserve discrimination by ethnicity and race (Gabbin, 1994).
Gabbin (1994) in his work under the title Sterling A. Brown: Building the black aesthetic tradition argues that with the help of folk traditions, Brown enriched poetry with folk symbols, traditional themes, as well as narrative techniques. Such aspects helped the authors of poetic works to portray the ethos of Black life fully and deeply. A survey of his poetry will reveal an extensive absorption of the folk tradition, as well as the complex sensibility of a self-conscious artist who has a firm grounding in the American critical realism and other literary traditions (Gabbin, 1994, p. 117).
His skills as a poet are shown by his ability to synthesize the diverse traditions. In his poems, Brown illustrates lives of ordinary people. With the purpose of highlighting its result, he uses a traditional ballad form. In addition, the author uses such techniques as repetition, parallelism, anaphora and well-placed emphasis with the purpose of increasing the effect of a poem on its readers.
It is important to note that Brown represents his view on the life of the black not only in his literary poems but also in his articles. Being an editor of Negro affairs, he understands that social and historical forces affect the conditions of life of African-Americans. For this reason, Gabbin (1994) describes Brown as a Black voice crying in the wilderness of the Depression years (p. 90).
Sterling Brown published Southern Road in 1932. It is a collection of poems portraying a cultural crisis faced by African Americans, which had a profound negative impact on their lives. Brown illustrates a gradual disappearance of rural cultures of African Americans that becomes evident with their appearance in urban, industrialized districts of the North and South. Southern Road also describes loss of autonomous art faced by black people (Anderson, 1998).
The collection of poems included in Southern Road belies the argument claiming that the philosophical and poetic ranges of African-American dialect and speech are limited to humor and pathos. In Southern Road, Brown emphasizes positive relations of protagonists with members of the southern African-American community. In his work, Brown demonstrates the aesthetic feature of speech that belongs to black people. Sterling Brown wrote this collection of poems with the purpose of preserving cultural traditions and art of blacks. He feared the loss of folklore. Brown thought that folklore helped African-Americans to renew their culture and preserve cultural practices and traditions. Moreover, according to beliefs of the author, Southern Road served as a way for devising or communicating new strategies aimed at fighting against racial oppression (Anderson, 1998).
Despite the fact that many scholars and literary critics praise poetry of Brown for its cultural authenticity, realism, as well as portrayal of country folklore, they do not examine a contribution made by Brown to the development of national art and folklore. In addition, scholars and critics do not examine his ideas concerning the role of folklore in social development or role of art in the process of adapting cultural features to social changes. Some researchers discuss his portrayal of such functions of folklore within the black society as maintaining identities, group values, traditions, as well as loyalties. However, they do not examine the author's conception of folklore's important role within that process.
Musical Forms Used Sterling Brown
Besides traditional way of writing poems, Sterling Brown also used different musical forms and genres with the purpose of highlighting the significance of the information conveyed in a poem. In the poems written by Brown in the 1920s, he combined the musical forms of ballads, work songs, as well as the blues. In some of his works, Brown also mastered spirituals, having poetic expression with the aim of preserving the originality of a musical form and achieving the complexity of a poem. With the help of these musical techniques, Sterling Brown focused on the cultural traditions of African-Americans. Such creativity and originality helped him to write poems in a more original manner than the other poets (Lorenzo, 1997).
Lorenzo (1997) argues that poetics document as an attitude toward cultural tradition used by Brown is not very different from the one mastered by the blues singers. Poems written by Sterling Allen Brown do not only address the problem of access and privacy or the proper value of customs and traditions, but also shows how one writer connected different angles of creative arts. Besides investigating the struggle of African-Americans for their rights and freedom, he also studied the blues. While analyzing the works on this musical genre, he became engaged with genres and forms of poetry, offering its own solution to the investigated problems.
Brown argued, the blues has a bitter honesty. This is the way the blues singers and their poets have found life to be. And their audiences agree (Lorenzo, 1997, p. 410). Among the formal techniques and qualities of the blues, the poet drew his attention to dialect and language. His essay under the title The Blues as folk Poetry focuses on these aspects. Sterling Brown claims that the images shown in this dialect form are original and imaginative.
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Sterling Allen Brown as an American poet and essayist has made a valuable contribution into the development of the American literature. His works focused on culture, traditions and customs of African-Americans. Brown struggled in his poems for recognition of black people as equal citizens of the United States of America. The writer not only describes lives of African-Americans, but also uses various musical forms, especially the blues, to highlight the significance of the information conveyed. Poems written by Sterling Brown are popular not only in the United States of America but also in the whole world.