Melvin B. Tolson was born in Moberly, Missouri, the son of a Methodist Episcopalian minister. The family moved occasionally, as the father was assigned to new congregations. Tolson wrote poems as a child, publishing one about the sinking of the Titanic at age fourteen in an Iowa newspaper, but it was not until after graduating from Lincoln University and teaching at Wiley College in Texas for most of the 1920s that he became a serious poet. While at Columbia University in 1931-32 earning a graduate degree, he began to write poems that he published in some of the notable journals of the period. "Dark Symphony" won a prize in 1939.
Tolson's greatest achievement, however, may be Libretto for the Republic of Liberia (1953), a late and still neglected triumph of literary modernism written when Tolson was teaching at Langston University in Oklahoma. In 1947, Tolson had been named poet laureate of Liberia. Liberia had been founded in 1822 as part of a long-running and controversial debate about whether to establish an African homeland for former slaves. By the time Tolson came to write his poem, however, the question he faced was rather different. What symbolic and cultural meaning did Liberia's founding now have for blacks here and across the world? In seeking an answer, reflecting on the history of slavery and writing while the memory of World War II and of the evil of European fascism was still fresh, Tolson came to major conclusions about the shape of Western civilization. The dense, allusive poem was the result. At the suggestion of poet Allen Tate, Tolson also provided a detailed set of notes to accompany the poem, but in the tradition of Spenser's Shepheardes Calendar (1579) and Eliot's The Waste Land (1922), the notes leave many references unidentified and constitute in part additions to the poem or directions for further study that raise further problems of interpretation. Since Tolson wrote sections of Libretto in the form of parallel phrases, it is possible to miss some allusions and still recognize the poem's overall structure and argument. But the poem is full of intricately worded and very specific cultural and political judgments, many of which are at once strongly felt and wittily inventive. Without knowing Tolson's literary and historical sources, much of this is simply unavailable to the reader.