William Stanley Braithwaite Biography
Discovered English Romantic Poetry, Edited Numerous Anthologies, Taught for a Decade, Selected writings
Though in his lifetime William Stanley Braithwaite was termed the "Boston Dictator" for his formidable authority as an arbiter of taste in the world of American poetry, his influence later waned, and literary history seems to have forgotten him after his 1962 passing. An editor, anthologist, critic, and published poet himself, Braithwaite was a key figure in the revival of American poetry in the early decades of the twentieth century. From 1913 to 1929 he published the Anthology of Magazine Verse, an important annual collection that showcased the work of emerging poets on the American scene.
Braithwaite, because of the prominence he attained, was sometimes accused of ignoring issues of race to the point where detractors claimed that as a critic and poet he seemed ashamed of his own skin color. Later analysts have assessed his philosophy with a more balanced view, however, and his achievements were recognized by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) when he was honored with its prestigious Spingarn Medal in 1918. "At a critical moment in our nation's literature, it was his voice which issued a clarion call for the support of American poetry," asserted Kenny J. Williams in the Dictionary of Literary Biography volume, Afro-American Writers Before the Harlem Renaissance. "At the same time, he was one of the first to explore the role of the Negro in literature and to champion the cause of the Afro-American writer in places where he could be heard."
Braithwaite was born in Boston on December 6, 1878. His parents, William Smith and Emma DeWolfe Braithwaite, were both of mixed-race heritage; his father's family was from the West Indies, while his maternal grandmother had been a North Carolina slave, and Braithwaite's mother likely the progeny of the property owner. In his own family, Braithwaite was the second of five children, all of which were home-schooled by their father, who was a stern disciplinarian with a British-colonial-bred sense of propriety. When his father died in 1886, Braithwaite and his siblings attended Boston public schools for a time, but by the time he was twelve Braithwaite had exchanged schoolwork for a job in order to help support the family.
Discovered English Romantic Poetry
Braithwaite was fortunate to land an apprenticeship at a Boston publishing house, Ginn and Company, where he learned typesetting. It was in this line of work that the 15-year-old fell under the spell of poetry—prompted, he later recalled, by John Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn." He began to read avidly, spending hours at the Boston Public Library, where he discovered that "the deeper I read, the more, and often discouragingly, I realized the difficulties confronting me," the Dictionary of Literary Biography essay quoted him as writing. He became particularly fond of the works of the English Romantic poets, among them Percy Bysshe Shelley and William Wordsworth, a penchant that would later filter into his own attempts at the form.
Around 1900, Braithwaite went to New York City and looked for a job in journalism there. Coming from Boston, a more egalitarian-minded city that had been the center of the abolitionist movement in the nineteenth century, Braithwaite encountered a harsher reality. "I had a taste …of what the difficulties and injustices were for one of color who wanted to be accepted at his worth," he wrote later, according to a profile on his life and work in Notable Black American Men. Returning to Boston, he found a job with Colored American Magazine, and he wrote verse in his free time. Some of his earliest poems were published in Voice of the Negro, out of Atlanta, and Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP.
The first volume of Braithwaite's poetry, Lyrics of Life and Love, appeared in 1904. Like other novice writers, he was forced to seek out financial patronage to help pay for the cost of printing his book. The verse in it, mostly Romantic in style with some homages to Keats, was not very well reviewed, however. "Braithwaite's poetry does not generally support in-depth analysis; rather it has a sort of surface fragility as it attempts to transmit something of the mystery of life and the awe of death," noted Williams in the Dictionary of Literary Biography essay. Moreover, the critics on both sides of the color bar wondered why there was so little mention of the black experience from his pen. A second collection, The House of Falling Leaves, appeared in 1908. Only in this volume does Braithwaite touch briefly on the issue of race in America, with one poem in commemoration of poet and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier. Yet here Braithwaite commends Whittier for abandoning poetry for the abolitionist cause, which seemed to reflect Braithwaite's belief that art and politics were, in the end, incompatible issues.
Edited Numerous Anthologies
Though Braithwaite would not publish another volume of his verse for 40 years, his influence on others was a profound one. His emergence as a poet came at a crucial moment: around 1905 there arose a sudden interest in poetry, a revival from an earlier generation which served to elevate it once more into a respected literary form in America. Poets of the previous century, among them Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, had enjoyed great prominence, but as a literary form American poetry had declined into mere magazine filler after that. In the first years of the twentieth century, however, a renaissance occurred, and a new generation of poets began to flourish. Several new literary forums sprang up that focused entirely on poetry, and there was a corresponding renewal of interest among the public as well.
In 1905, Braithwaite became the literary editor and columnist at the Boston Evening Transcript, an influential arts-focused paper in the city. His columns championed the work of new writers, and he interviewed such figures as Robert Frost for its pages. After abandoning his own attempts at writing verse, Braithwaite began to edit anthologies. Among these were The Book of Elizabethan Verse, which appeared in 1906, and The Book of Restoration Verse in 1910. These earned positive reviews from critics, and helped introduce American readers to the work of writers of previous eras who were nevertheless an influence on an emerging generation of contemporary poets.
Between 1912 and 1914, Braithwaite published several issues of The Poetic Journal out of Boston. It was one of several literary-focused financial ventures he attempted which failed to thrive, but he continued to be an increasingly important force in American poetry from behind the scenes. His rival, Chicago's Harriet Monroe, who had launched Poetry: A Magazine of Verse around the same time as his Journal, liked to call him the "Boston Dictator" and "Sir Oracle" because of his highly regarded authority and ability to launch a young poet's career. That influence was at its peak in his sole publishing venture to attain a modicum of financial success: the Anthology of Magazine Verse, which first appeared in 1913. To compile the annual, he combed through scores of journals, selecting poems from new and established writers. The measured assessments featured in his introductions to each volume introduced readers to new and emerging poets, and discussed the directions taken by more established poets in their current work. Contributors invited to participate included Frost, e. e. cummings, and Wallace Stevens, but he also included the work of African-American poets emerging in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. This made his Anthology one of the first works of literary merit to feature the work of both black and white poets alongside one another.
Taught for a Decade
In the 1920s, Braithwaite launched a publishing house with poet Winifred Virginia Jackson. He served as its editor, and the company would issue the debut novel from future Pulitzer-Prize winner James Gould Cozzens, Confusion, in 1924. Yet the business venture did not earn much of a profit, and in 1927 Braithwaite was forced to file bankruptcy papers for it. The setback caused some financial hardship, for by then he was a husband and father of seven. In 1935, he took a post as a professor of creative literature at Atlanta University, a job that he would hold for a decade. The academic position was all the more remarkable given his lack of formal education credentials, but he became known as an excellent teacher and enthusiastic mentor to his students.
After retiring from academia in 1945, Braithwaite settled in the Harlem area of New York City. He lived in its Sugar Hill section, in an Edgecombe Avenue apartment building perched on a bluff overlooking the Bronx. That address survived to become an official New York City landmark, for it was home to a long roster of African-American luminaries, among them W.E.B. DuBois and Duke Ellington. From there Braithwaite continued to write about poetry, and his criticism appeared in many notable journalism forums, among them the Atlantic Monthly, New Republic, and New York Times. In 1958, he attempted to revive his Anthology of Magazine Verse, without success. Nevertheless, its earlier incarnation was a tremendous influence, asserted Williams in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. "The subsequent popularity," Williams noted, "of such anthologies and yearbooks as Edward J. O'Brien's annual collection of 'best' short stories and Burns Mantle's 'best' plays is due largely to Braithwaite having created an audience for that type of book."
The third and final book of Braithwaite's own verse was Selected Poems, which appeared in 1948. He died on June 8, 1962. His role in American literature spanned the era from Paul Laurence Dunbar, the first African American poet to achieve literary prominence, to Gwendolyn Brooks. Between that was a rich span of black-themed verse from writers such as Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and James Weldon Johnson, all of whom emerged out of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. In his own verse and criticism, Braithwaite never addressed such topics as race or the social injustices faced by blacks in America—while in this pre-civil rights era others deemed it near-compulsory for African Americans of any prominence to raise awareness of such issues. He did, however, critique black writers with the same set of standards he applied to reviewing works by any poet. As Williams explained, Braithwaite's "insistence upon being part of the American scene was not predicated upon a view that race could or should be denied; rather, he felt race was simply a characteristic which did not have to be a motivating factor for one's life," the Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor asserted. "Ultimately, appreciating Braithwaite means accepting not only the diversity of Afro-American literature but also assuming that blackness and whiteness are not in themselves determining artistic or evaluative criteria."
The Book of Elizabethan Verse, introduction by Thomas Wentworth Higginson, H. B. Turner, 1906, reprinted, FolcroftNorwood, 1980.
The Book of Georgian Verse, Brentano's, 1909, reprinted, Books for Libraries Press, two volumes, 1969.
The Book of Restoration Verse, Brentano's, 1910.
Anthology of Magazine Verse and Yearbook of American Poetry, seventeen volumes, G. Sully, 1913-29, reprinted, Books for Libraries Press, 1972.
(With Henry Thomas Schnittkind) Representative American Poetry, R. G. Badger, 1916.
The Poetic Year for 1916: A Critical Anthology, Small, Maynard, 1917.
The Golden Treasury of Magazine Verse, Small, Maynard, 1918.
The Book of Modern British Verse, Small, Maynard, 1919.
Victory! Celebrated by Thirty-Eight American Poets, introduction by Theodore Roosevelt, Small, Maynard, 1919.
Our Lady's Choir: A Contemporary Anthology of Verse by Catholic Sisters, foreword by Hugh Francis Blunt, introduction by Ralph Adams Cram, B. Humphries, 1931.
Lyrics of Life and Love, H. B. Turner, 1904, reprinted, University Microfilms, 1971.
The House of Falling Leaves, J. W. Luce, 1908, reprinted, Mnemosyne Publishing, 1969.
Selected Poems, Coward-McCann, 1948.
The Canadian (novel), Small, Maynard, 1901.
The Story of the Great War (juvenile; essays), F. A. Stokes, 1919.
Going Over Tindal: A Fragment Wrenched From the Life of Titus Jabson (novel), B. J. Brimmer, 1924.
John Myers O'Hara and the Grecian Influence, Smith and Sale, 1926.
The Bewitched Parsonage: The Story of the Brontes, Coward-McCann, 1950.
The William Stanley Braithwaite Reader, edited by Philip Butcher, University of Michigan Press, 1972.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 50: Afro-American Writers Before the Harlem Renaissance, edited by Trudier Harris, Gale, 1986.
Notable Black American Men, Gale, 1998.
"William Stanley (Beaumont) Braithwaite," Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (February 28, 2005).
"William Stanley (Beaumont) Braithwaite," DISCovering Authors, http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (February 28, 2005).