James Kelley: On "Heritage"

Locke's antipathy toward decadence and his preference for primitivism are evident in his editing of another hybrid creation: Countee Cullen's poem "Heritage," which appeared in Cullen's first book of poetry, Color, and which Locke republished in a revised form in the March 1925 issue of Survey Graphic, which was devoted to the Harlem Renaissance, and in the anthology The New Negro that grew out of this issue, Locke had praised Color for its culling and mixing of variant strains, including nineteenth-century poetic forms and the "fruit of the Negro inheritance and experience" ("Color—A Review" 14-15). But the version of "Heritage" he included in Survey Graphic and The New Negro differs substantially from the one in Color. Along with the perhaps too revealing dedication to the handsome Harold Jackman, twenty- six of the poem's 128 lines—approximately one-fifth of the total—are missing from the Survey Graphic and New Negro version, and in three places large blocks of text have been rearranged.

It seems probable that Locke rather than Cullen was responsible for these changes. In the posthumously published On These I Stand, a collection of Cullen's poems "selected by himself," "Heritage" appears almost exactly as it had in Color, the only difference is that the space between the last two stanzas has been eliminated, The poem also appears this way in James Weldon Johnson's The Book of American Negro Poetry (221-25). The form the poem takes in these two publications, both of which followed the special issue of Survey Graphic and The New Negro, suggest that Cullen did not approve of the changes made to his poem; indeed, he may not even have know about them beforehand, As Arnold Rampersad points out, "Locke's editing practice and his craftiness infuriated some of his contributors," and at least one author, Claude McKay, was "incensed . . . when Locke timidly, and without permission, changed the title of his poem ‘The White House’ to ‘White Houses’ in order to avoid possible repercussions" (xxi-xxii).

The strongest indication of Locke's involvement in editing "Heritage" is the nature of the changes themselves, which eliminate the poem's most obviously decadent elements and highlight its primitivism. Cullen's debt to his European literary predecessors, particularly Keats, has long been recognized by scholars of his work. Few scholars, however, have noted the decadent strain running through "Heritage." Even Bergman only hints at this link when he writes that "One can hear some of Prufrock and perhaps a bit of 'Sunday Morning' in the celebratory dance, but most of all Cullen has 'caught the tread of dancing feet,' that Oscar Wilde hears in 'The Harlot's House"' (181).

The sections of "Heritage" excised before publication under Locke's editorial guidance reveal an even more substantial decadent strain. The longest of three sections present in Color but absent from both Survey Graphic and The New Negro begins with the lines "Here no leprous flowers rear / Fierce corollas in the air" (Color 37). These flowers, like the "strange" and "sick flowers" of Algernon Charles Swinburne's "Ave Atque Vale"—"Sweet-smelling, pale with poison, sanguine-hearted" (57)—reek of the fin-de-siecle decadence that both Locke and Du Bois identified as the bane of the African American artist. In addition, this section contains clear echoes of the "Ballade des Dames du Temps Perdu" by Francois Villon, whose poetic skill and criminal tendencies had earned him a place of honor among many aesthetes and decadents of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Other, smaller elements of the poem also reveal Cullen's debt to the European decadents, and it appears that Locke altered many of these as well. For example, "Quick and hot" is replaced with "Faint and slow" in the following passage, reducing its emotional charge:

Patience wavers just so much as Mortal grief compels, while touches Quick and hot, of anger, rise To smitten cheek and weary eyes (Color 40)

Such changes suggest that Locke pruned the poem to eliminate its decadent elements and make it conform more fully to his own disciplined and classical aesthetic.

Even more significant, however, were the changes made in the poem's final stanzas, which highlight its primitivism. What had been the last stanza in Color was moved in Survey Graphic and The New Negro to a position much earlier in the poem, and what then became the last two stanzas were altered as well. The penultimate stanza underwent an internal reversal of the first and second quatrains so that it begins with the speaker's conversion and repudiation of the "Heathen gods" and ends with a sympathetic description of those gods. In Color, the stanza reads:

Quaint, outlandish heathen gods Black men fashion out of rods, Clay, and brittle bits of stone, In a likeness like their own, My conversion came high-priced; I belong to Jesus Christ, Preacher of humility; Heathen gods are naught to me. (39)

But in Survey Graphic and The New Negro, it reads:

My conversion came I belong to Jesus Christ, Preacher of humility: Heathen gods are naught to me--

Quaint, outlandish heathen gods Black men fashion out of rods, Clay and brittle bits of stone, In a likeness like their own.         (Survey Graphic 675; The New Negro 252)

The Survey Graphic and New Negro version then ends with the eighth of the nine sections in Color, with the last rhyming couplet set apart for emphasis: "Lord, forgive me if my need / Sometimes shapes a human creed."

These revisions effect a subtle shift of emphasis in the poem. In its original form, "Heritage" dramatizes the agony of being torn between a Christian present and a renounced pagan past. But in Survey Graphic and The New Negro it conveys a sense of reconciliation in the recovery of an African artistic legacy.

A comparison of the illustrations accompanying the different versions of Cullen's poem reveals the same conflict of influences and literary sources, the same tension between the primitive and the decadent. Color is illustrated with drawings that are almost certainly the work of Charles Cullen, a white male artist who is credited with similar designs in Countee Cullen's two subsequent volumes of poetry, which appeared in 1927. The shared surname is accidental but implicitly transgressive in its suggestion of kinship and relations between men across racial boundaries, and the drawings in Color present nude men, white as well as black, sometimes muscled but more often androgynous, alongside burning candles and dripping lilies that seem to draw their inspiration from art nouveau, if not more directly from the late nineteenth-century decadent works of Aubrey Beardsley (see Figures 1 and 2 for examples). In Survey Graphic, on the other hand, "Heritage" is illustrated by photographs of two African statutes (one of which can be seen in Figure 3) and two African masks, which reappeared in The New Negro as illustrations to Locke's essay "The Legacy of Ancestral Arts." These images clearly reflect Locke's African classicism, and their flat, self-contained, and highly conventionalized features contrast starkly with the sensuous curves and implicitly erotic imagery in Charles Cullen's drawings, which Countee Cullen himself had chosen to accompany his work.

Bergman notes correctly that "’Heritage’ introduces Locke’s essay on ‘The Legacy of the Ancestral Arts’ in the anthology The New Negro and forms—since Locke was the editor of the anthology—a gloss on Locke’s position" (180). But the poem can be read this way only because it was altered in ways that eliminated its decadent elements and reinforced its primitivism. Yet it is Cullen’s hybrid version—bereft of its illustrations but nonetheless exhibiting its mixture of paganism and Christianity, primitivism and decadence—which persists, ripe with potential, in subsequent anthologies and discussions of the poem.

Ripe with utopian potential, one is tempted to add. The earliest OED listings pair the term hybrid with adjectives such as monstrous and grotesque, a connection that may originate in the hybrid's violation of the Levitical codes against mixing. Further OED entries show that the word hybrid was scarcely in use until the nineteenth century, a period that witnessed the emergence of categorizations and classifications on an unprecedented scale, particularly in descriptions of plant and animal species, human races and cultures, and sexual orientations (523). In its transgression of such boundaries—whether national, racial, or sexual—the hybrid promises to resist, challenge, and undo these categories. Cullen's poetry engages in such acts of undoing even as it constructs a hybridized and eroticized artistic lineage that permits the poet to voice forbidden desires in original and experimental ways. The changes that Locke appears to have made in the Survey Graphic and The New Negro, black-on-white illustrations that accompanied the poem in Color, have no doubt perpetuated a distorted view of Cullen's work, but they cannot completely erase its racially as well as sexually transgressive power.

See Cullen, Countee. Color. New York: Harper, 1925; Cullen, Countee. "Heritage." Survey Graphic 53.11 (March 1, 1925): 674-75; and Locke, Alain. "Color -- A Review." Opportunity 4 (January 1926): 14-15.

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Title James Kelley: On "Heritage" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author James Kelley Criticism Target Countee Cullen
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 11 Jul 2021
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Blossoming in Strange New Forms: Male Homosexuality and the Harlem Renaissance
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