Friday, July 9, 2010

A Birch, To Katherine

I purchased this copy of Color, by Countee Cullen (Harper & Brothers, NY, 1925) because I liked what little I knew of Cullen's poems and also for the mysterious mementos inside the book.

Cullen was a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, an explosion of black literary and artistic creativity comprising a cultural and social movement within the African-American community.

When I saw this book for sale online, I decided to buy it and get reacquainted with his work. I knew he was a fine wordsmith and I would enjoy new discoveries in his art. But another reason for the purchase was the mention of some items lurking inside the covers waiting to be discovered and explored.

The book's description included a bookplate and a poem handwritten on the front endpaper to "Katherine" from another poet, H. Campbell Scarlett (a literary name if ever there was one!). Mr. Scarlett's obituary was also included. All that sounded like a story, maybe even a mystery, waiting to be unraveled. Certainly, I knew I would explore it and do a little sleuthing.

I have not been disappointed with the content of the book--Cullen's writing--but the artifacts of the original owner, Katherine, have been equally pleasing and interesting.

Her... what... lover, admirer, friend... H. Campbell Scarlett wrote the poem and is described in the obits as a writer and a teacher. That he aspired to write poetry is evident. That he ever ascended to a higher stage than book inscriptions is not. Doesn't mean he didn't--I just can't find any hint of evidence to support it. But he summoned his poetic muse to express his feelings to Katherine and Katherine apparently was moved enough by his feelings, his friendship, or his love to keep it for what I would suspect was the rest of her life. Here is Scarlett's heartfelt attempt to compare Katherine's beauty to that of a birch tree against a deep blue sky:
A Birch
To Katherine

The trunk, cream white picked out in black
The leaves part green, part touched with golden brown
A birch, etched 'gainst the sky's deep azure blue
By this, dear one, shall I remember you.

A birch, all gold and white and black and green,
A birch, caressed and teased by every passing wind
A birch, as lovely as these words would be
By this, dear one, do thou remember me.
On the facing page are two clippings of the poet's obituary. I am intrigued by the bread crumbs of a life or lives left behind in books. Just a trace of something--a poem, an obit, an inscription, a photo--can create an event, a story, or an entire life around that something.

Certainly, more questions than answers exist. Questions that come immediately to mind are: Why this book for a gift? Why the birch tree for a metaphor? And what exactly is the metaphor? And if the two were lovers, why was that love unrequited, as evidenced by the fact that Campbell died unmarried and without children? There is no way to know the answers to these questions, but that's okay--I have my own:
This was a teenage romance. Campbell's obits list his age at death as 55. The date of the obits is May 17, 1965, which means Scarlett was born about 1910. This book by Countee Cullen, Color, was published in 1925. This particular copy is an early reprint, likely within a few years. That makes Campbell somewhere around 16 or 17 when he wrote to Katherine, who was part black, part white... and there's the birch tree metaphor--the black and white skin of the tree. That's also a scandal within the Scarlett family. Campbell was survived by his father, who is listed in the obits as a judge, which, in the 1920s, most assuredly makes him and son Campbell white. The judge's re-election could not withstand an interracial dating scandal in his family and so young Campbell was forbidden to see the biracial girl he was so smitten with. Campbell moved on, but held Katherine so close to his heart that there was never room for another love. And so he died alone and true to his one love. He had the heart of a poet, but the firm hand of the judge overruled his emotions. And Katherine never forgot her young poet and the gift of his feelings inscribed in a book by an exciting young African-American poet. Katherine kept the gift of two poets close to her and when Campbell died alone some 30 years later, she felt moved to leave another scrap of Campbell's life, symbolic closure perhaps, and, in effect, her own feelings toward a young man whose love could not overcome the social conventions and restrictions of the day. A sad ending.
Of course, I could be way off base here and probably am. But however else the story might have unfolded, I'm sure it's not near as interesting and poignant as my version.

No comments:

Post a Comment