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Melba Joyce Boyd. Wrestling with the Muse: Dudley Randall and the Broadside Press.

Melba Joyce Boyd. Wrestling with the Muse: Dudley Randall and the Broadside Press. New York: Columbia UP, 2003. 385 pp. $29.50.

Wrestling with the Muse is meant to be a close examination of poet and publisher Dudley Randall, while considering the significance of his creation: The Broadside Press. Melba Joyce Boyd, the book's author and a former colleague of Randall, is professor of Africana Studies at Wayne State University and adjunct professor at the Center for Afro-American and African Studies at the University of Michigan. Randall asked her, personally, to write his biography, and publish it only after his death. Dudley Randall died on August 5, 2000.

Randall's life was one of pain and suffering, hope and accomplishment, and very often disillusionment. He was born in Washington, DC, on January 14, 1914, one of five children born to Arthur and Ada Randall. Both of his parents were schoolteachers, which may have led to his passion for books and words, but young Dudley Randall was very different from his outspoken father. He grew up quiet and shy in Detroit, Michigan, during a population explosion. Southern hostility and the rise of Jim Crow lawlessness created a black exodus of sorts, and many African American families fled to the North seeking better job opportunities, better pay, better living conditions. Northern life, however, was also proscribed by the color line, and Randall's life was greatly influenced by this racial divide.

Broadside Press was created out of Dudley Randall's desire to publish poetry written by blacks, and his penchant for working with new artists made his fledgling publishing company a huge success ... in the beginning. However, his expertise with the written word did not extend to accounting, and while he placed his total being into the company, it ultimately fell into financial ruin. The Broadside Press still exists, but it is no longer the company that Randall started.

His own poetry, put simply, can't be defined with words. In effect, Dudley Randall used his poetry to write his own biography. Almost every one of his early works relates to a specific incident in his life, and therefore offers a glimpse into the man that might ordinarily be lost. In chapter four, titled "War at Home and Abroad," Dudley discusses the time that he spent in the military. One particular incident--a black drape used to separate whites and blacks sitting in the dining car of a train--is beautifully described in his poem, "The Southern Road":</p> <pre> There the black river, boundary to hell. And here on the iron bridge, the ancient car, And grim conductor, who with surly yell Forbids white soldiers where Black ones are. And I re-live the enforced avatar Of desperate journey to a dark abode Made by my sires before another war; And I set forth upon the southern road. </pre> <p>This first stanza relates extraordinarily well what this racial slight must have felt like to a young "colored" soldier, serving his country while his country refuses to serve him, at least in the presence of white citizens. The rest of the poem is just as compelling--which relates to my primary complaint against this biography.

Dudley Randall was a great poet, but his storytelling leaves much to be desired. His tone is very matter-of-fact without any of the passion, imagery, or spirituality of his poetry. The author, a very close, personal friend of Randall's, describes him as an "introverted personality," a man who "kept his unformed thoughts in the primacy of his inner workings." At times, when Randall speaks directly, his thoughts seem almost to intrude on the pacing of his own biography. That is the main flaw in Boyd's attempt to recreate and reintroduce the man. There are others.

At the very beginning of the text, in chapter one, Boyd gives personal information about herself that doesn't connect well to Randall's story. An intimate recounting of her brother's death, while poignant and tragic, reveals little about Randall. Randall does comment on the matter, but, if the purpose of the biography is a closer look at this great poet, the account of Boyd's brother's death doesn't provide it. Ultimately, it is plain that Boyd was working at the newly-opened Broadside Press office, and Randall was her boss: that is their only connection.

Another failing of this work is the varying voices Boyd orchestrates to speak as one. Her recollections of incidents in Randall's life evoke interest, while Randall's words do not. This great poet had no flair for the dramatic when it came to his own experiences, and the specifics of events pale in comparison to the images created by his poetry. In fact, his poetry tells the story of his life much better, and with more passion, than his spoken words, or the words of Boyd's biography.

In an attempt to describe events of Randall's life, this book tries to offer too much, and leaves the reader wanting more. Randall's marriages are often mentioned and described as troubled, difficult, but no great detail about them is given. If his personal life had any impact at all on his professional life, then it is worth the effort to bring out more details. The Broadside Press produced an impressive number of books, more than many mainstream publishers, yet it fell into financial ruin. One wonders still what exactly happened to the profits made from all those books. Since Randall's bout with depression and his failed attempt at suicide clearly stem from his company's downfall, his biography begs the reason for the company's downfall. Last, but certainly not least, there is the question of voice. The reader hears three competing--wrestling?--voices in Wrestling with the Muse: Dudley's own factual accounting of his life, his poetry, and Boyd's words. In the end, the pacing of this biography suffers. It is a good book, but not a great one, and leaves the reader unsatisfied as to the inner workings of Dudley Randall.

Thomas Bryant

King College
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Author:Bryant, Thomas
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2005
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