Above: A.R.Orage's The New Age from the online Modernist Journals Project, and Jean Toomer's 'My Language Tree', which includes a 'Gurdjieff' branch can be seen online via Yale Beinecke's digital collection of the Jean Toomer Papers.

Melvin B. Tolson and Oragean Modernism:
  a few notes on
 The Problem of Esoteric Writers in American Literature

Jon Woodson


      A. R. Orage does not figure very much in American literary history. Orage is entirely absent from Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920's, Ann Douglas's "biography" of New York in the 1920s. I have had to supply the cognomen Oragean Modernism to fill the void left by the present framing of American literature. In New York in the 1920s and 1930s Orage directed creative writing seminars that included many important and influential figures of that time and place—in many cases they were figures not associated with Orage or with occultism. What came out of those seminars was a literary movement on a par with the recognized movements of the times—imagism, dada, futurism—a movement that produced a host of literary work of high achievement, some canonical. In the absence of any recognition of the existence of Oragean Modernism many of its texts are poorly understood by literary scholars, for example, Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and Barnes's Nightwood. Other texts that belong to the movement seem the products of isolated and marginal writers who seem eccentric or difficult, such as Dawn Powell, Ralph Ellison, Carl Van Vechten,—and Melvin B. Tolson. Largely because of the theory-driven crises that have enveloped literary studies and turned it away from literature to culture, politics, and "philosophy" for the last sixty years, there has been little opportunity to address texts in ways that make them understood merely as literary works, so that many flawed studies that are crippled by unacknowledged orthodoxies have been presented as being definitive, when in reality they are hallucinations.


     What record do we have of the school of the Oragean Modernists? They kept their existence and their activities to themselves; they were occultists in the most literal sense—hidden, though not as they may have been assumed to conduct their concealment. Now this is interesting: in Europe Gurdjieff and his adherents operated pretty much in the open. The Orageans in New York (and later across the United States as the members dispersed) operated in privacy—their word for it. I attribute this to the difference that the Orageans actually believed that they could be effective in changing the world as they saw fit, while this was not a part of the activities of the schools directly studying with Gurdjieff, where the students were not allowed a high opinion of themselves, where the students were not allowed to write. As Gorham Munson puts it—"[Orage] initiated a movement for supermen" ("Orage in America"), and we must infer that supermen do not do their deeds in the open.

     The Oragean Modernists did not leave behind any manifesto identified publicly as such, and though there is somewhere what I like to think of as the ur-text of Oragean Modernism, I do not know what it is: I suspect it is one of the many novels that Carl Van Vechten wrote, novels that are now overlooked or dismissed by literary scholars. There are many records of Orage's teachings, which are important because they expose the contents of the Oragean Modernists texts: the most authoritative account of the teachings is C. Daly King's:

King, C. Daly The Oragean Version. Privately printed in a limited edition of 100 copies. New York: 1951, 289 p., index.

Convinced that Orage's presentation was an undistorted version of an ancient teaching that would be irretrievably lost after his death, King presents a rigorous and detailed formulation of material he gathered over several years of close study with Orage. Pages 257 to 269 contain 118 aphorisms by Orage. (Driscoll "Bibliography")

But we do have the large body of literary work that was produced out of the Oragean Modernist aesthetic. One of the most important attributes of the textuality of Oragean Modernism is a feature that seems completely absurd: the repetition of names, the chief name being Orage itself. The first twelve lines of Tolson's epic poem, Harlem Gallery, is a good example of the phonetic ciphering of A.R. Orage:
The Harlem Gallery, an Afric pepper bird,
awakes me at a people's dusk of dawn.
The age altars its image, a dog's hind leg,
and hazards the moment of truth in pawn.
The Lord of the House of Flies,
jaundice-eyed, synapses purled,
wires before the tumultuous canvas,
The Second of May--
by Goya:
the dagger of Madrid
the scimitar of Murat.


The same type of writing can be found throughout the texts of the Oragean Modernist group. We simply do not read this way—we look at the words, we do not look and listen inside the words. In the second canto of Harlem Gallery Tolson warns that we are inadequate readers:
"Great minds require of us a reading glass;
great souls, a hearing aid."


     In fact to see Orage in the twelve lines quoted above is the opposite of the meaning of reading: but if a text asks us to read it and instead we interpret the text, then we are operating with the wrong set of rules. Though we do not know it, the text that we are interpreting is nonsense to us, and what we say about it is nonsense. Scholar Wilburn Williams, Jr. —who wrote an influential dissertation on Tolson— never progressed beyond the acquisition of Tolson's nonsense, but he was not deterred by the nonsense either, so that he produced the doctoral dissertation, The Desolate Servitude of Language (1979), which maintains that Tolson was inadequate to the demands of high modernism, so he produced a shambling, futile imitation of the work of Pound and Eliot.

     The Williams thesis is derived from the assumption that Tolson set out alone to best the high Modernists, Pound, Eliot, Joyce and the rest: "Tolson had great anxieties about his debt to Eliot and Pound because politically they were anathema to him" (Williams 8). Trapped by his own absurd decision to offer this reductive reading as scholarship, Williams also maintained that Harlem Gallery is a great poem: "Harlem Gallery is one of the great works of our time" (Williams iv). Things have gone so far into a retreat from reading and a wandering in the wasteland of interpretation through theory that in Fettered Genius: the African American bardic poet from slavery to civil rights Keith D. Leonard presents a long analysis of Melvin B. Tolson's major writings supported by the adherents of the nonsense readers of Tolson, Wilburn Williams, Jr., Michael Bérubé, and Aldon Nielsen. Since under the poststructuralist regime there are no meanings, Leonard is liberated from the problem of having to make any sense of Tolson, he can ignore what is on the page and decide that it means anything he would like it to mean: it is literary criticism by way of Humpty Dumpty.

     Leonard has no idea that his reading is yet further nonsense based on nonsense. Here is Cherly Wall's summation of Leonard's treatment of Tolson:

Fettered Genius avers that Melvin Tolson conceives of a comparable journey, but in epic rather than individual terms. It draws on Brent Edwards's The Practice of Diaspora to provide a framework for this analysis. If Brooks honors existential sovereignty in the kitchenettes of Chicago's Southside, Tolson suggests how the "African American diasporic mind" constitutes the greatest resistance to imperial power and its legacy. Employing high modernist poetics, Tolson escapes the fetters of national boundaries in The Libretto for the Republic of Liberia. The dense and difficult music of the African diaspora offers prophetic possibilities. Harlem Gallery meditates on those possibilities within the context of art. The complexity of its subject compels the complexity of its form. (Wall, "Keith Leonard")

     Tolson's mastery is not brought about by resistance and diaspora but by virtue of being an initiate of art as he implies in Harlem Gallery—and though he means alchemy when he says art, he also means Modern poetry. Everyone from Williams to Leonard assumes that Tolson is an outsider, though Tolson has always maintained that he was an insider. And he was an insider. It was Orage who had published Eliot and Pound in his journal New Age: Louise Welch records that "The brilliant editor of the New Age, [was] regarded by T. S. Eliot as London's best literary critic of his time" ("A.R Orage"). And with direct access to and mentorship from Orage and the Oragean group, Tolson was by no means in the relationship to the Modernists that the Williams-Bérubé wing of Tolson scholarship assumes. Tolson belonged to a group of supermen who were planning to create an "objective" work of art that would redirect the history of the entire planet. These plans are described in King's collection of Orage's teaching and in other places. Such goings-on are far beyond what have been assumed to have been the concerns of these figures, but that is why the central tenet of the Orageans is that men are asleep. Tolson's Harlem Gallery is filled with distractions and dead ends. Such a one is the passage on sleep in Harlem Gallery where Tolson parodies Pound's "The age demanded an image" ("Hugh Selwyn Mauberley" 198), but the topic under discussion is neither Time nor modern literature, it is alchemical theory—spiritual alchemy:

The age,
taut as the neck of a man on a gallows tree,
a Friar Bacon who will cast
a head of brass
to clarion, "Time is,
Time was, Time is past,"
before the graven image topples,
breaks in pieces,
while the necromancer snuggles deep
between the breasts
and in the arms
of the courtesan Sleep.


Friar Bacon was an alchemist. The man on the gallows alludes to a Tarot card, The Hanged Man, the 12th Arcana, and one meaning of that card is the Great Work—the perfection of the will of man. Tolson's poem is best understood as an alchemical text, and it alludes to several such texts in its more that 4,000 lines. The rules by which it is to be read are the rules for reading an alchemical text. But in the lines above Tolson specifically addresses the material on pages 227-28 of the Oragean Version where King points out a technical mistake in the teachings of the Ouspenskian Version. I will only quote enough to give the sense that such a disagreement existed and that it was debated on the grounds of alchemy, for the passage continues with a long quotation from Ouspensky:

Now this is an extremely serious point and it ought to be discussed in the light of Ouspensky's own words in regard to it. In his book, In Search of the Miraculous, on page 193 he speaks of the required transformation of that hydrogen in man's body which is here identified as the hydrogen, "mi 12," and of the allusions allegorically made to this transformation by the alchemists. (Oragean Version 227-28)
In the above lines from Harlem Gallery Tolson is at great pains to indicate that it is Ouspensky (the necromancer) who is asleep—and the carefully tuned ear can hear and see the name, Ouspensky, in the lines—"ass pp en c/k ee."


     Williams proclaimed with no lack of authority that "Tolson was both a late-comer and a loner" (Desolate ii). So much for Oragean Modernism—there is no understanding of Tolson as having any affiliations. In Harlem Gallery Tolson places himself solidly in a school:

The school of the artist
the circle of wild horses,
heads centered,
as they present to the wolves
a battery of heels,
in the arctic barrens where
no magic grass of Blaucus
gives immortality.


Wolves is used because of lv—lamed vau, the thirty-six zaddikim. Tolson not only belonged to a school, the Oragean Modernists—his school claimed to be the tzadikim:
The Lamed-Vav Tzaddikim are also called the Nistarim ("concealed ones"). In our folk tales, they emerge from their self-imposed concealment and, by the mystic powers, which they possess, they succeed in averting the threatened disasters of a people persecuted by the enemies that surround them. They return to their anonymity as soon as their task is accomplished, 'concealing' themselves once again in a Jewish community wherein they are relatively unknown. The lamed-vavniks, scattered as they are throughout the Diaspora, have no acquaintance with one another. On very rare occasions, one of them is 'discovered' by accident, in which case the secret of their identity must not be disclosed. The lamed-vavniks do not themselves know that they are ones of the 36. In fact, tradition has it that should a person claim to be one of the 36, that is proof positive that they are certainly not one. Since the 36 are each exemplars of anavah ("humility"), having such a virtue would preclude against one's self-proclamation of being among the special righteous. The 36 are simply too humble to believe that they are one of the 36. (Zwerin "The 36")
And you can hear A.R. Orage all through the lines. Then there is the meaning: wild horses in the arctic? Horses set upon by wolves in the arctic? There is every suggestion that we have before us another lawful inexactitude. Speaking of esoteric writing John Henderson states that "Legominism (esoteric passages) contains lawful inexactitudes, anomalies and absurdities, which serve as flags to mark a place of interest, letting us know that something more than meets the eye is buried nearby" (Hidden 119).

     The esoteric school to which Tolson belonged was more than a literary movement, but it can only be tracked through the literary texts that its writers produced. Many of those texts present capsule views of the school, namely Van Vechten's Firecrackers and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. Tolson is a character in both Zora Neal Hurston's Seraph on the Suwanee and Ellison's Invsible Man. Lawrence Jackson's new history of African American literature in the 1930s puts Tolson and Ellison together in 1931. A photograph of the Festival of Negro Poets in October 1952 in Jackson, Mississippi, shows Tolson standing behind Hurston: also in the photograph is fellow-Gurdjieffian Arna Bontemps (Farnsworth 204). Here is the Hurston text color-coded to show Tolson's name and the name of the college where Tolson taught at the time of Hurston's writing of the novel. Note that the action that takes place in the text recapitulates the content of the words:

Melvin Beaunorus Tolson

Looking over Jim's shoulder through the glass of the

housing, Arvay made out the dim shape of a boat

coming to meet them. The sun was not up yet, and

the boat was a dark mass against the grayness of the

mist. The approaching vessel cut a white pompadour

with its bow as it came ahead. When its bow was

abreast of the bow of the Arvay Henson, the captain, a

chestnut-colored Negro, stepped out of his pilot-

house and stood on deck looking over at the Arvay

Henson. Jim left his wheel at once and stepped on

deck. The two boats were probably fifty feet apart.

Jim made some mysterious motions with his hands,

and the captain of the other boat doubled his two

black fists, and struck one on top of the other rapidly

several times. They smiled and waved at each other,

and both went back to their wheels.


Jim left his wheel at once and stepped on deck. The

two boats were probably fifty feet apart. Jim made

some mysterious motions with his hands, and the

captain of the other boat doubled his two black fists,

and struck one on top of the other rapidly several

times. They smiled and waved at each other, and both

went back to their wheels.

     In Invisible Man Tolson is the Vet who talks to the protagonist in the Golden Day whore house. The passage contains numerous clues that point to Tolson, though there is one anomaly. Invisible Man is a roman a cléf, and most of the characters are described so accurately that they can be easily identified once the reader has caught on to what Ellison is doing. But Tolson is described as being fat, and he was not a fat man, so this portrait is another "lawful inexactitude: "fat man" points to the mi-fa interval, which is a technical point in the Work that has to do with how control is exercised by esoteric adepts; at a certain stage in any process an outside force is required for the continuation of the process, and the adept not only knows this doctrine but knows how to apply it to any process—particularly to human development. In his Libretto Tolson refers to this doctrine in the "Fa" canto as "the interlude of peace." Since the Vet [Tolson] realizes that Mr. Norton has received "a shock" Ellison has incorporated Gurdjiefian terminology into that episode: presumably Ellison is telling us that it was Tolson's particular assignment to provide shocks, though beyond his role in the classroom, we have to idea what that might have been. As David Gold demonstrates, Tolson was very direct in his use of the term shock in connection with education:

David Gold. "Nothing Educates Us Like a Shock": The Integrated Rhetoric of Melvin B. Tolson.

Gold, David. "'Nothing Educates Us Like a Shock': The Integrated Rhetoric of Melvin B. Tolson." CCC. 55.2 (2003): 226-253.


This essay examines the pedagogical practices of the poet, civil rights activist, and teacher Melvin B. Tolson who taught at Wiley College from 1923 to 1947. Tolson's complex classroom style, which mixed elements of classical, African American, and current-traditional rhetoric, produced a pedagogy that was at once conservative, progressive, and radical, inspiring his students to academic achievement and social action. Tolson demonstrates that it is possible to instruct students in the norms of the academy without sacrificing their home voices or identities.

     Alan Nadel gives this summary of the action in the Golden Day episode in Invisible Man: "The fat vet, who had been a surgeon, helps the invisible man to bring Norton upstairs and explains that Norton has had a mild shock" (100). Nevertheless, Ellison makes it clear that he is presenting Tolson, because he renders Tolson's name in such a way that there can be little doubt: the protagonist asks the Vet why he returned after the war, and the Vet answers—"Nostalgia" (92). Now we are dealing with cabala here, the phonetic code of the alchemists that asks us to read in a different way than is normal—but there are rules. We work in both directions, and we work phonetically, so just as in the Hurston example above us is also ouse, ass, ess, and es, we can read tal as tol—and obviously nos is son in reverse. Tolson confirms this way of reading all through Harlem Gallery:

Dipping in every direction like a quaquaversal,
the M. C. guffaws: "Hideho, that swig would make
a squirrel spit in the eye of a bulldog!"

               ("Xi" 82, lns. 1695-97)

contrived the helmet-like head of the Cape
buffalo with its diablerie
curved outward, downward, and backward--
then, forward, upward, and inward:

               ("Omega" 168, lns. 4040-43)

     (Harlem Gallery does not give up its meaning until the patterns in the poem have been established. Since Tolson's critics refuse to spend the time to see what the patterns are, they cannot read the poem.) So, we see that Tolson was by no means a late-comer and a loner; he was a member of an invisible esoteric school—he was an invisible man—and it is the critics who are on the outs. I will mention in passing that we now have to take account of an alternative connotation for the title of Ellison's novel, for now it recapitulates the idea of an "invisible college" as mentioned in German Rosicrucian pamphlets in the early 17th century. Throughout his novel Ellison refers to the Gurdjieffians as a school, or should I say that when Ellison uses the word school, he is referring to the Gurdjieffians.


     Robert Farnsworth states that [Woodson's] "statements about Tolson's beliefs are contradicted by much biographical evidence…. To see him as a student of the esoteric Christianity of Gurdjieff, à la Jean Toomer does not fit the known facts of his life. As late as 1961, writing to the former student Benjamin Bell and his wife,…he whimsically lamented, "I guess I'm the only Marxist poet Here and Now…. In my view Woodson's interpretation is oversubtle and makes it appear more cynical and pessimistic than in fact he was" (175). According to Farnsworth, Tolson "believed that man was working his way toward a universal culture in which we would be freer than ever before to realize his human potential" (175). Farnsworth's dismissal of my 330 page study of Tolson (A Critical analysis of the Poetry of Melvin B. Tolson [1978]) doesn't seem to me to offer any "biographical evidence" to refute my arguments about the sources of Tolson's ideas and poetry. He offers one "whimsical" comment from a personal letter. But what does Tolson say in this letter? He says that he is in 1961 the only Marxist poet. At that time fully one half of the human race was living under the various Communist governments of the Soviet Union, Peoples Republic of China, East Germany, Tanzania, Egypt, South Yemen, Syria, Iraq, North Vietnam, Cuban, North Korean, etc.—and I can't think of a more absurd statement that anyone could take as evidence of anything. Where was Tolson's solidarity with the poets of the East German Academy of Arts for instance? —Wolf Biermann, Volker Braun, Bernd Jentzsch, Sarah Kirsch, and Karl Mickel—poets of folksy language. How can anyone imagine that Tolson actually was the only Marxist poet? Did Tolson seriously think this? If he did, he was so wrong that we ought not to be listening to anything he says, we should hope he can get some psychological help. And how does anything admitted to be whimsy serve as evidence? What part is the whimsy—the part about being a Marxist? But more telling, is that there are Marxist-Communist aesthetics (social/socialist realism) and they differ immensely from Tolson's Libretto for the Republic of Liberia, the poem that Farnsworth brings in as one of Tolson's Marxist poems—though Farnsworth never does actually show how the Libretto is specifically Marxist. The thousands of Marxist poets writing in 1961 never produced anything like Tolson's Libretto, because you can't write with that level of allusive and linguistic complexity and call yourself a Marxist: and if you did that wouldn't anyone object?

     Recently, my dissertation on Tolson has served as the core of a study of the use of classical literature by Tolson. In African American Writers and Classical Tradition (2010), William W. Cook and James Tatum present a thorough, balanced, and informed view of Tolson; here is part of Cook and Tatum's discussion of the concluding section of Tolson's Libretto.


And what a conclusion it is. At first reading, the first of the three sections of this ode seems gibberish. It is by far the most deliberately difficult part of the Libretto, as we have seen a polyglot collage of references and quotations of arcane information from all kinds of sources jammed together into eleven long-lined sestets that not even Tolson's most assiduous critics can yet fully explain. As Woodson observes, however, this excessive difficulty is itself neither unconscious nor without design; the first part of the final ode (lines 489-554) is difficult precisely because Tolson wants to deflect all but the most dedicated readers. He follows the same strategy as the equally obscure verses of "The Man from Halicarnassus." What does it mean then to become an initiate in this final ode?

     In the interest of brevity for this short run, the ultimate answer may lurk in the tarot and our decoding of it, as Woodson suggests. But Tolson's whole aim is to lose the reader in a maze of allusions and references, not least in the notes that purport to explain or otherwise answer questions we might have. What predominates above all else in the eleven strophes is the imagery and even the sounds of Dante's Inferno. The concluding ode that will lead the Libretto's audiences as well as the Republic of Liberia onto the highest ground begins at the lowest point imaginable in Western and particularly Christian imagination, the infernal landscape of the bottom of hell, where every orifice but the mouth becomes the main instrument of communication, the vagina as well as the anus. The language comes from drought-stricken Brazil and a Japanese officer's diary in Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead.

a pelaygeya in as seccas the old she-fox today
eyes dead letters mouth a hole in a privy
     tascbunt a corpse's in a mud-walled troy of jaguncos
(naze naze desu ha servant de dakar) (el grito dc yara)
     cackles among the garbage cans of mummy truths
     o frontier saints bring out your dead.
The old she-fox's language is language stretched to the breaking point, as Williams observes, and her infernal language is itself inspired by that of Plutus in Dante's Inferno. She echoes both the famous gateway to hell ("per me si va nella citti dolente," 500) as well as Plutus's meaningless cry "aleppe" (554), and throughout her section Tolson drops all punctuation and capitalization. The appearance of gibberish is, as Williams also observes, actually an elegant illusion that Tolson creates to beguile the incurious, the lazy, or anyone else who is not willing to invest the labor in rising to his poem's challenge. The appearance of lack of control is simply that, an appearance. What Tolson creates is an infernalization à la Dante of the attempt to communicate final coherence and meaning. This apocalyptic ending awaits anyone who would bestow something like Pindar's version of immortality on his patrons and their victorious athletes, and it will always recur just like the infernal language of Dante's hell. Unlike Dante, or for that matter Eliot, Tolson has no salvation to offer that would lift either humanity or Liberia out of this endlessly recurring cycle. (Cook 246-47; emphasis added)

     Tolson's Libretto is about something: it is as Cook and Tatum state, about the cycles of history and it shows how the superman must rise above the fluctuations of historical cycles to survive. This cannot be obliterated by deciding that Tolson is a cheerful person, a yea-sayer and that he is so daft as to look to a golden age when he can see across 5,000 years of human history and draw his own conclusions: what Marxist bases his poem on Oswald Spengler, for that matter?


     I mentioned the crisis that allowed for the abandonment of reading literature as literature. And I am trying to show that Ellison and Tolson were esotericists. If there is any wonder at why this has not previously been established, all that is needed is to wonder instead at this excerpt from a description of Alan Nadel's book on Ellison from the University of Iowa Press website:

Modeling his argument on Foucault's analysis of the asylum, Nadel analyzes the institution of the South to show how it moved blacks from "enslavement" to "slavery" to "invisibility"—all in the interest of maintaining an organization of power based on racial caste. He then demonstrates the ways Ellison wrote in the modernist/surreal tradition to trace symbolically the history of blacks in America as they moved not only from the nineteenth century to the twentieth, and from the rural South to the urban North, but as they moved (sometimes unnoticed) through American fiction.

Cook, William W. & Tatum, James, African American Writers and Classical Tradition Chicago, IL: U P
               Chicago, 2010.

Driscoll, J. Walter. A. R. Orage: An Introduction & Bibliography.

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York City: Random House Inc., 1995.

Farnsworth, Robert M. Melvin B.Tolson, 1898-1966: Plain Talk and Poetic Prophecy. U of Missouri P, 1984.

Gold, David. "'Nothing Educates Us Like a Shock': The Integrated Rhetoric of Melvin B. Tolson." CCC. 55.2
               (2003): 226-253.

Jackson, Lawrence Patrick. The Indignant Generation: A Narrative History of African American Writers and
               Critics, 1934-1960
. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2011.

Munson, Gorham. "Orage in America."

Nadel, Alan. Invisible Criticism: Ralph Ellison and the American Canon. Iowa city, IA: University of Iowa Press,

Pound, Ezra. Personae: The Shorter Poems. "Hugh Selwyn Mauberly." Rev. edn, ed. Lea Baechler and A Walton
               Litz. New York: New Directions, 1990.183-225.

Tolson, Melvin B. Harlem Gallery. With an introd. by Karl Shapiro. NY: Twayne [1965- ]

Wall, Cherly. African American Review / Fall-Winter, 2008.

Welch, Louise. "A.R. Orage."

Williams, Wilburn, Jr. The Desolate Servitude of Language : A Reading of the Poetry of Melvin B. Tolson.
               PhD diss. Yale University, 1979.

Zwerin, Rabbi Raymond A. (September 15, 2002 / 5763). "THE 36 - WHO ARE THEY?". Temple Sinai, Denver:
               americanet.com. Archived from the original on Jan 18, 2003.
               Retrieved 3 August 2010. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tzadikim_Nistarim#cite_note-Zwerin_YKKN02-0