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Owen Dodson


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(1914–1983), poet, novelist, and playwright.

For the major portion of his life, fate favored Owen Vincent Dodson. Born the ninth child of a poor Brooklyn family, he attended excellent schools: Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, for his BA (1932–1936) and the Yale School of Drama, where he earned his MFA in playwriting (1936–1939). He taught theater and literature in the best African American universities—Atlanta, Hampton, and Howard—and won major writing grants: General Education Board (1937); Rosenwald Fellowship (1943); Guggenheim Fellowship (1953); Rockefeller (1968). In recognition of his contribution to the theater, President Lyndon Johnson invited Dodson to the White House for celebration of Shakespeare's quadricentennial birthday.

In August of 1946, he saw the publication of his first volume of poetry, Powerful Long Ladder, which established his national reputation. M. L. Rosenthal wrote in the New York Herald Tribune Weekly Book Review, “The positive achievements of Powerful Long Ladder are its vividness, its solid strength in picturing pain and disgust without losing the joy of life which marks the best artist….” Several poems in the volume have become standards. Dodson's use of metaphor and conceit, which sometimes jarred readers, nonetheless added “to our stock of available reality.”

Poetry remained the seminal source for his first full-length drama, Divine Comedy (1938), a tale concerning the charismatic preacher Father Divine. Recipient of the Maxwell Anderson Verse Award (1942), the play became the first quality verse drama by an African American. His second verse play, Garden of Time (1939), reinterpreted the Medea story. Twenty-seven of his thirty-seven plays and operas have been produced—two at the Kennedy Center.

In February 1951 Farrar, Straus and Giroux released Boy at the Window, Dodson's first and best novel. The Washington Post critic caught the novel's essence, “Eloquent Writing: Child's Eye View of the Adult World.” The autobiographical story concerned a sensitive nine-year-old growing up in a working-class neighborhood of Brooklyn in the 1920s. The heart of the novel is the death of his beloved mother, a death the boy feels he should have been able to prevent by his religious conversion. The prose, rich in imagery and metaphor, captures the intimate thoughts and voice of a child: the language is clearly the style of a poet.

In 1952 Dodson received a Guggenheim Fellowship to write a sequel, Come Home Early, Child, which did not find a publisher until 1977. Breaking into two sections, the latter half surrealistic, the novel may be seen as a harbinger of later surreal scenes in the novels of Ishmael Reed, Clarence Major, and Toni Morrison.

It was not until his retirement from the theater department at Howard University that he was able to return to poetry, publishing in The Harlem Book of the Dead (1978). Camille Billops, a visual artist, had contracted the Harlem photographer James Van Der Zee to issue a series of his funeral photographs. Dodson agreed to write poems as captions for the photos.

He considered The Confession Stone: Song Cycle (1970) a series of monologues spoken by the Holy Family concerning the life of Jesus, to be his masterpiece. The simplicity of the language portrays the humanity of the Holy Family. His final collection of poems, “Life on the Streets,” has never been published; however, in May of 1982 the New York Public Theatre staged the work as poetry in performance.


Subjects: Literature

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