Countee Cullen in Central Park, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, June 20, 1941

A fast starter and an early finisher: Like many another Wunderkind, Countee Cullen demonstrates how short is the shelf-life of precocity. His poetry first won acclaim while he was in high school; his first book was published upon his graduation from college. From the age of seventeen, Cullen was showered with prizes, culminating with a Guggenheim fellowship when he was twenty-five. “From the beginning Cullen was a poet with a public reputation—a kind of prodigy, whose works were noticed and held up for praise,” Major Jackson writes in an introduction to the Library of America’s handsome edition of Cullen’s collected...


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